Teaching through Stories

In high school I had calculus class with my brother, which was not fun and didn’t make me feel very smart (he’s two years younger than I am). Our teacher, Mr. Blank, was a tall, stocky man with a pinched face and a big smile. He often would get visibly excited about the mathematical concepts he was teaching us and his face would go red with excitement. We really respected Mr. Blank’s enthusiasm for the subject matter (even while we groaned about going up to the board to prove our own understanding), but what we really liked were the stories that Mr. Blank told. I don’t know how you remember high school, but for me it was one attempt not to fall asleep after another with some pimples and dumb hairstyle choices thrown in. When Mr. Blank told a story, though, it woke us up. It got our attention and held us – fixed. It compelled us to stop chipping away at the desk or starting the homework for next week. Mr. Blank’s animated face, his hands gesturing, and the humor, joy, and fascination that oozed out of his stories are things I’ll never forget. And, believe it or not, it didn’t just entertain me–it helped me learn calculus.

Mr. Blank is just one of many teachers I’ve had over the years who used storytelling to help me learn, and I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. It turns out there are a lot of ways that teachers can use storytelling, beyond just as a tool for entertainment. I recently read a really interesting book by prolific scholar Jennifer Moon called Using Story in Higher Education and Professional Development. According to Moon, storytelling in higher education can help teachers communicate, teach students how to learn, shape social behavior, construct new knowledge, simplify a complex concept or situation, give students an outlet for learning after an experience, strengthen memory, or transmit cultural knowledge, among other things.

The benefits and versatility of storytelling are easy to observe. However, it can be challenging to actually implement storytelling successfully in the classroom. One example of using storytelling for instruction that Moon provides is the graduated scenarios activity. In this activity, students are presented with 3-5 scenarios which demonstrate a progression – perhaps from poor practice to high quality practice, or from superficial writing to deep, complex writing or ideas. Students can be asked to describe what is different between the scenarios and which scenario they find most effective. To take it further, students could then be asked to write their own scenarios, or to mirror the best or worst of the scenarios you have presented. This activity encourages critical thinking (comparing, evaluating, creating) and it brings the students into the story you’ve created, motivating them and capturing their attention.

I could see this activity being used for library instruction when teaching students about information ethics, search strategies, or evaluating sources. Taking a story and presenting it in the various ways it might be portrayed by different source types (in a blog, in a newspaper, in an academic article, etc.) could help students see how one topic can be treated a number a ways depending on the source’s creation process. It would then be interesting to ask students to read the original story as experienced by the people in the story and compare it to the interpretations by various authorities.

Another method Moon describes is called patchwork texts. While this teaching method does not necessarily need to involve a distinct story, it requires the use of a variety of creative pieces about a topic to tell a broad story about that topic. For example, students might be asked to create a dialogue, write a poem, write a review, and create a visual piece of art to tell the story of a specific topic. This activity allows students to both build a deeper understanding of their topic, and also to find a creative voice in expressing their understanding.

In library instruction, this activity would, clearly, take more than a single one-shot session to complete. However, given a full semester with students, librarian instructors could ask students to choose a number of ways of expressing their research journey and compile them in a portfolio. Students could be asked to research a topic and, upon encountering new sources, find creative ways to express the new perspective. Video and audio artifacts could also be included in this activity.

Stories can be used to serve a wide variety of other purposes, as described in Moon’s book. From showing multiple perspectives, to demonstrating the ethical dilemmas in everyday decisions, stories can help students more readily and successfully grasp taught concepts. Even throwing in examples from life into library instruction can humanize the librarian instructor and increase the motivation of students to listen.

Moon warns, however, against allowing ourselves and our students to tell stories too easily. Fitting reality into a story is often tempting and comforting. A responsibility of instructors is, often, to disrupt our tendencies to fit lived experiences and encountered facts into the familiar outline of a story, complete with symmetry, distinct good/bad outcomes and characters, and a clear ending which results in justice. Reality is, sadly, often at odds with these elements of stories. The evaluative, critical thinking skills that instruction librarians teach can help students both create stories and productively question the stories they encounter.

Moon. J. (2010). Using story: In higher education and professional development. New York: Routledge.

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