54 Let Me Tell You a Story
For my dad, who taught me how to tell stories by sharing his on our nightly drives around the suburbs of Minneapolis.
Keywords: Storytelling, Education, Narrative
When I was younger, I loved asking why. A fact couldn’t exist in my mind without the context of how this fact came to be, what it impacts, and why it’s important. When my dad told me about a painting of squares that had sold at auction for a million dollars, I asked why. He told me that the artist had sold other pieces for similar amounts already. If you’re not interested in art or economics theory, then this answer may have been enough for you. It wasn’t for me, so I asked how the artist could charge that much for a canvas full of squares. This line of questioning continued and led to the story of the artist’s career, a brief debate on how value is determined, the history of auction houses, a discussion on the relevance of objective versus subjective opinions and concluded with a lesson on how one can establish pricing based on scarcity and demand. We had this conversation when I was ten years old, and I still refer to knowledge gleaned from that conversation at twenty-one. Not only did the story surrounding this painting suck me in and keep me interested, but it also led to questions and discussions about other topics that sparked my thoughts and opinions. I still hold opinions today that began to form during that conversation ten years ago. I am fortunate enough to have a storyteller for a dad.
I was fortunate throughout elementary school to have wonderful teachers who I would also consider storytellers. Now that I think about it, I could say that about almost everyone I know. It makes sense that I know many storytellers as it is the basis for all human communication. Complex human communication started 27,000 years ago when early humans painted symbols on caves to portray stories that served to pass knowledge on to future generations. Once we developed languages, early civilizations created stories and lore to pass on knowledge and tradition. As time went on, we found new ways to share stores like books, newspapers, radio, film, television, blogs, and social media; these advances have allowed our world to become so oversaturated with stories and information that appreciation for storytelling has waned. However, those wonderful, story-telling teachers that I mentioned earlier found relevant and valuable ways to infuse narrative in their lessons that made a lasting impact on me.
In first grade, Mrs. Wagner taught me empathy by making me write a story about my friend Danny through his eyes. In second grade, Mrs. Jensen taught me double-digit subtraction and did so through whacky story problems. Though it made no sense for Maria to have twenty-three pizzas and then give eleven of them away to friends, I was able to conceptualize subtraction thanks to Maria and the story of her pizzas. In third grade, Mr. Ratcliff taught me how a body internally fights off a virus by showing a video where each white blood cell was dressed as a soldier going to battle against aliens that went by the same name as the virus. In fourth grade, Mrs. Bartow taught us about hate speech by telling the story of the American Revolution. She explained how Brattain considered our revered founding fathers to be “terrorists” at the time–so we should think twice about why a group may acquire that label and who is the one doing the labeling. Though some of the lessons were classic examples of what most think of when they consider storytelling in a classroom, others were more innovative ways of combining narrative with the curriculum.
Then I got to middle school and started taking standardized tests and having classes that were more about remembering facts than understanding ideas. Ultimately, I had to prioritize learning how to keep up rather than learning the material. There was still narrative in everything I was taught, but there was little intention in the stories they told. So, I got good at “playing the game.” I knew that Mr. Jones would take all his quiz questions from the end of the chapter summary in our textbook, so that’s all I’d study. I knew that Ms. Thornberry was obsessed with identifying and examining themes in the books she assigned, so I’d check SparkNotes before class discussions, and I came in ready to answer the theme-related questions. I also knew Ms. Iverson would only be assessing us on questions that came directly from the study guides she posted, so I didn’t learn a thing about 20th-century history that wasn’t on those study guides. I learned a lot in middle school, but my threshold for what I could remember after I took an assessment was limited. This type of learning, which I was being rewarded for with good grades, had me fatigued and uninterested in learning.
Once I got to high school, I’d trained myself that success in school was based only on a numerical score and that the only way to get there was through the tricks I’d learned to identify testing material. Most high school classes were like my middle school experience, where teachers would give us facts and share narratives, but there was no embrace of storytelling. But then I had Mr. Rosenfield, who had taught my dad in the 80s and was not only still teaching the same class at the same school but remained everyone’s favorite teacher for thirty years and counting. He taught history, which provides a natural opportunity for storytelling, and he took advantage of it. Our textbook was a storybook of ancient civilizations up until the Roman Empire that he wrote himself. Every day in class, he’d encourage us to “sit back while he told us stories as our ancestors did.” His stories not only recounted the history but included relevant anecdotes from his own life and interesting ways that modern society reflected ancient history. When we learned about Greek mythology and the Trojan War, he taught us that the Judgement of Paris was just like ABC’s The Bachelor. Except Aphrodite went on the show and promised Paris that he’d have Meghan Fox if he chose her, which he did. This made Meghan Fox’s boyfriend, Shai LeBeouf, angry. LeBeouf then mobilized all film actors and waged war against the TV celebrities–and thus, the Trojan War. It’s a hilarious connection, especially when accompanied by him pretending to be Meghan Fox with a long brown wig, which is why I remember this Greek myth so well to this day. He also included us in the storytelling. One day, three of my classmates and I were chosen to act out the story he told the class. At certain points, he would leave a cliffhanger and left it up to us four to guess what happened next. As we tried to figure it out (and act it out simultaneously), he’d tell us if we were getting warmer or colder until we either got close enough or were utterly lost.
I was constantly laughing in Mr. Rosenfield’s class which I recently learned releases endorphins. When endorphins are in your system, you become more focused, creative, and relaxed. Another valuable hormone that can be released in your brain if you’re listening to a story–particularly a suspenseful one–is dopamine. Increased dopamine levels make you more motivated, more attentive, and you store memories better. Whether or not Mr. Rosenfield knew the science behind what he was doing, he fostered the most wonderful learning environment for me. Additionally, he used in-class essays as means of assessment–the topic of which could be chosen from a list of questions he’d write that followed the story of the civilization we’d just been taught. We could select at what point we wanted to enter the story to answer the accompanying question. These tests threw me for a loop at first because there wasn’t an easy way to circumvent knowing all the material, as I had been able to do in previous classes. These essays encouraged us to recall the stories we were told, make connections and inferences of our own, and simply share them with him. Even in the assessment phase of teaching, Mr. Rosenfield was able to incorporate narrative to encourage deeper contemplation from us. Success in the class was measured by how involved you were with the material–not if you could memorize dates and names.
Though it’s easy to see how storytelling can be implemented in a history class, there are just as many ways to implement narrative-based learning in other subjects. My favorite Chinese teacher would read stories in Chinese that used the vocabulary and grammar from that unit. The stories would keep us involved and attentive while still learning. Once she finished the story, the class then had to retell the story–it didn’t have to be word for word, in fact, we were encouraged to find out own way of saying things. My precalculus teacher helped me understand the shape of graphs by giving me real-life scenarios that would create data in the shape of the graph. My biology teacher described cell division in terms of a lifecycle that included dialogue between the two centrioles in accents that may have been slightly offensive but certainly memorable.
Though my education has had its ups and downs, I’ve been lucky enough to learn from truly incredible storytellers, and I believe everybody should get that opportunity.
Elementary schools already embrace the power of narratives in education for younger children, but some educators start teaching us different ways to learn as we grow up. Our learning capacity is then split between the actual material and how to learn it. Stories naturally give order and purpose to facts. Not only that, but they keep you interested. Education through narratives is how we learn before we’re taught alternative ways to learn. As students age, there is less emphasis on narrative because students can still succeed–which to many only means good grades–in school without the extra effort it may take to provide them a narrative-based curriculum. In the story I’ve just told of my education, the high points were made possible by narrative, while the low points happened when there was a lack of storytelling in my education. My experiences–my narrative–have led me to firmly believe that rather than mold the student to the curriculum, educators should mold the curriculum to students through embracing narrative.