This post is part of a series that explores the Basics of Educational Storytelling. Largely taken from my master”™s thesis, The Value and Principles of Educational Storytelling (which can be read here), this I will lay the foundation for an educational storytelling model regardless of setting and medium. We look at the basic elements of storytelling, five guiding principles and educational stories, and practical tips.

Check out the rest of the series.

Joy of a Tale Well Told

Stories hold power. They captivate our imaginations, transport us to places unseen, and let us explore parts of ourselves otherwise hidden. They are great fun. But can story be more? Can stories teach? Do they show us how to act, what not to say, and how to be us? Are some narratives examples to live by, and pictures of what to avoid. Can stories effectively be used to teach, heal and transform lives?

Stories are part of humanity, and have been ever since, and probably before, humankind took to speech. John Niles (2010) even went as far as to call humankind Homo Narrans, “storytelling man.” And as long as people have been telling stories, others have been analyzing, dissecting, and using stories for very intentional reasons: to affect the behavior and identities of individuals or entire populations. Cultures have developed myths, legends, and works of fiction core to identity, history, and moral behavior, and the transmission of knowledge. This is not a past society phenomenon. Narrative still shapes our daily lives, be it intentional or unintentional. It seems that stories can be a great deal more than fun.

Stories, Language, and Identity

Stories can be used in formal educational settings. One such use is to introduce foreign cultures to local students in captivating ways. The modern classroom is diverse, many students know little of their heritage or the heritage of their peers. According to Campano (2007) “one of the most powerful interventions that teachers can make for immigrant students is to celebrate the human and academic value of their stories” (p. 48).

Stories can help students get in touch with themselves. “[Stories] have an obvious interpersonal value because they enable students to weave their unique histories into the fabric of the classroom community. Nevertheless, for the most part, teachers still think of stories as a lower-grade cognitive phenomenon not necessarily conducive to higher-level thinking and, at best, as a starting place for more serious academic work.” (Campano 2007)

Fables are specifically useful in character education and the passing along of traditions, mores, and cultural ethics. What is a fable, exactly? In The Development of the Comprehension and Appreciation of Fables, Jose (2005) says “A fable … relates a fictitious event in the past for the obvious purpose of illustrating an ethical truth.” (p. 6) Fables are so effective at this because the audience can relate to the situations. In the case of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the hare is overconfident, falls asleep, and loses the race to the steadily plodding tortoise. This narrative would seem to impart the moral message that, in the domain of human actions, perseverance will be rewarded but not sloth and overconfidence.” (Jose, 2007 p. 6) We can relate to this because we’ve all been caught in that crossroads.

In the modern world, globalization and technology have brought storytelling new means of growth. The internet allows many students (properly supervised) to share stories with cultures they would otherwise never have had a chance to encounter. Blogging has brought Crosby’s  class “in touch with students in such wide-ranging locations as Thailand, Canada, and Florida, and this year the technology was used for a collaborative storytelling project with a fifth grade class in Long Island, NY.” Pairs of Crosby’s students joined with pairs of kids in the Long Island class to write a story based on one of the 14 drawings in the picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

“Digital storytelling is a modern take on an oral and written tradition that traces back to early human history as a way of passing down institutional knowledge and beliefs from generation to generation.” says Crosby. There is no better gateway into a culture
than through its stories which relay the hopes, fears, dreams, and imagination of a society.

Gretchen Westman (2008) uses storytelling in her classroom, guiding students to create stories, read them aloud, and even enact them. She found that it helped to encompass many different goals under one activity.

“In language arts, students are expected to: read aloud with fluency,  comprehension and expression, and consider the ways language and visuals bring characters to life. In theatre arts, the connections are even closer: using voice, gestures and movements to demonstrate ideas and emotions, participating in dramatic activities that deal with conflict and emotions, defining the significance of the beginning, middle and end of a story.” (Westman, 2008 p. 61)

In Anthropological circles, we study the use of narrative (stories) to shape identity. A large part of shaping of identity is transmitting (teaching) behavior, beliefs, and knowledge. Narrative, then, acts as a “sense-making structure” or the “bones” of for what is being taught. Charlotte Linde, James Wertsch, and Malinowski  all found that stories are “social charters” that give individuals a “play book” for different ways of being. More on this may be read in my thesis: The Triad of Narrative Identity.

Stories and Math

Finally, stories are not just effective in teaching social-oriented principles. Process-oriented principles like math, the scientific method, problem solving, and even computer programming can all benefit from storytelling. Rina Zazkis and Peter Liljedahl use tell stories about math, mathematicians, and (most importantly) about math concepts. They use stories that “introduce, explain, ask questions of, and tell jokes about” mathematics. Folktales teach cause and effect, prediction, problem solving, and reasoning according to Math Catcher uses aboriginal storytelling to show algebraic concepts. Even “A Robot Story” teaches young children to count in binary through story. The repetitive nature of many oral stories can be helpful in teaching things like multiplication tables and the scientific method.

What’s Next?

These are just a few examples of how storytelling, both in and out of the classroom, can be a powerful force in education. Before we can dive into the “how” of educational stories, we must understand the elements of stories themselves. The next three posts will be a mini-series of sorts introducing plot, character, and setting briefly.

Please comment below. Any other examples of educational stories?

Next: Elements of Story – Character

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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