Critical Thinking

How Storytelling About Learning Empowers Students

Turning learning moments like mistakes into stories can help elementary students develop a sense of efficacy.

June 6, 2023
Johner Images / Alamy

Storytelling is a powerful way to develop community, to teach, and to empower. When teachers tell their students stories in which characters overcome challenges, we empower students. When classes gather and listen to stories, they develop a sense of belonging. 

In Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, Peter H. Johnston, professor emeritus of literacy teaching and learning at the University at Albany, SUNY, writes that for students to have agency, they have to “believe that things are changeable” and that they can influence the change. The stories we tell students become the stories they tell themselves and can be powerful teaching tools to develop a sense of efficacy.

Stories of Mistakes

We all make mistakes, and by talking about mistakes, mindset, and strategies, we normalize an openness to change. By telling stories, we take the judgment away from making mistakes and help students see the common experience of making mistakes and reflect on growth.

Here are some short examples:

1. The teacher made a mistake while reading and shares it with students during reading class. “Readers, I want to share a story with you about a mistake I made when I was reading yesterday. Do you remember this book? I was finishing it after school and came to the part where it says, ‘Sam put on his coat and went home.’ But I read it as, ‘Sam put on his cot and went home.’ I knew that wasn’t correct—it didn’t look right and certainly didn’t make sense.

Then I remembered vowel teams and tried the oa sound to make coat. When I reread the sentence, it made much more sense. Remember that we all make mistakes and come to hard words when reading, and when we stop to solve the problem, we grow as readers. If all the words are easy, we won’t grow.”

2. A student used resources to problem-solve during writing, and the teacher shares this with the class. “Problem solvers, I have an important story to share with you. As you were writing, Ava noticed a mistake in her writing. She was getting her lab report ready to share with our second-grade audience and realized she forgot to include her conclusion. She wanted to come to me for suggestions on how to get started, but she noticed I was busy, so she went to Sam, her writing partner. Sam gave Ava some tips, and they read the mentor texts on the wall. Ava was a problem solver by noticing, getting resources, and fixing.”

These stories intentionally address students as readers and problem solvers to help them understand their learner identities. Either the teacher or student can tell the story, but always seek permission before using a student’s name.

Stories of Cause and Effect

To help students believe that they have the ability to solve problems, teachers can offer questions or prompts to encourage them to tell the story of their success and to recognize a cause and effect (how their action led to a change). Some prompts that teachers or classmates can use, from Opening Minds (text in brackets is my own):

  • “How did you do that?”  
  • “How did you know that?”
  • “How could we figure that out?” [Has anyone else solved a problem like this? How?]
  • “Ask your partner how he [she/they] did it.”
  • “What are you thinking?”
  • “You did this, so this happened.” [What can we/you learn from the experience?]

In addition to prompting and questioning, we can share stories and affirm strategies:

1. A student tried a math strategy and then adjusted to try something new. The teacher shares this as an example of how a mathematician might solve a problem. “Mathematicians, this is a story about how Kyrah revised his strategy today. He was trying to add two large numbers, and it was hard to keep all the numbers in his head, so he wrote them down and broke one of the numbers into chunks. He tried a new strategy, which will be helpful today and in years to come.”

2. A science teacher noticed that something wasn’t right about their directions and models switching gears by sharing this with students during class: “Hold on, scientists. Did you notice that my directions were not clear? I want to apologize and have a redo and try to be clearer. Here are the steps again. I’ll list them on the board so that you can refer to them as you go through the activity.... Does that make the directions easier to follow?  [Pause for feedback.] Did you see how I stopped to be more clear? I hope that led to a deeper understanding.”

3. Partners made a change to develop the relationship and consider the other’s perspective. The teacher shares this example of collaboration flexibility with the class. “Partners, I want to share a short story of how a change helped two of you show growth. Jay and Ally were bummed at first to work with each other because they had an argument at recess today. When they took out their books to read to each other, they were having a hard time getting started and didn’t want to work together. Then Jay said, ‘I know we had a hard time at recess, but let’s try to let that go and focus on our reading.’ Ally nodded her head, and the two got right to work. They showed how we can connect in new ways to work better together.”

While the above stories were shared orally, stories and reflection can also be expressed through writing, drawing, and other modalities.

Our reflection and cognition happen largely through the stories we tell to ourselves and to others. The more we articulate stories, the stronger our strategies become. This makes strategies more accessible to us in the future and builds confidence and agency.

Story has the power to increase students’ strategies, efficacy, and agency. I look forward to continuing to explore stories with my students and by learning from colleagues.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Teaching Strategies
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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