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Communication Skills

Strengthening Student Relationships Through Oral Storytelling

Storytelling, an age-old practice, offers a window into students’ personal experiences and an opportunity to connect more deeply as a class. 

April 9, 2021
Students have discussion in circle in school
SDI Productions / iStock

In our educator workshops, one administrator, Mary Ann, shared her online teaching experience with a sixth-grade newcomer student who had spoken solely in Portuguese until a storytelling activity in class motivated him to use English to connect with peers. Using the video message board Flipgrid and a storytelling template, Mary Ann was excited to see her student open up about his love of soccer and its importance for physical health. The class was immediately engaged, not only through the topic but because they were genuinely rooting for him to share his story.

“He realized that his peers would make an effort to understand him, so he felt comfortable crossing communication barriers,” she said. “When students have the space and opportunity to tell their stories, they feel recognized as human beings with experiences worth listening to.”

Amid all the challenges this past year, students have continued to find ways to learn and pursue their interests during the pandemic. Yet they don’t always have a way to express their ideas, especially at times when the online classroom doesn’t feel like the safest place in which to share or barriers to access limit their engagement.

As public speaking educators at the California Bay Area nonprofit the Practice Space, we have been working with teachers and youth for the last four years to integrate public speaking practices into online, hybrid, and in-person classrooms to advance equitable youth voice and increase participation. Storytelling, one of the oldest forms of public speaking, offers a window into students’ personal experiences, even if they are just sharing something simple, like what they did over the weekend.

Relationships matter, especially now. Stories help personalize the school experience, helping students connect with their peers, teachers, and even the academic material to stay more engaged in school. When used as a routine practice in the classroom, oral storytelling can also advance equity over time, opening opportunities to bring in student lives and backgrounds during morning meetings, advisories and opening routines, or when preparing college essays and setting up class podcasts. Each time a student tells a story, they reveal their values and identities, inner thoughts, and rationales behind decisions, strengthening relationships, even from afar.

Set the Right Conditions

We can’t expect students to share intimate details about their lives right away. Stories are not typically thought of as a way to learn or present ideas, and students often fear that their story will be unimportant or boring, especially in middle or high school.

Setting the conditions for storytelling in the classroom involves explicitly stating its purpose to strengthen relationships. Asking students to go on a listening tour of their day or week, where they write down when and where they hear stories, helps students notice how stories are a constant presence in their lives. When students tell their own stories, teachers should show genuine interest, encouraging them to share as much detail as possible (including what they were thinking at the time).

It is even more essential, however, that students know that their peers will see value in their stories too. Encourage students to actively listen to their classmates with respect, and coach them to respond with prompts such as, “What resonated with you?” or “What did you learn about the person?” Sentence starters like “I had a similar experience when…” or “The story made me think about…” are validating for the speaker and reinforce connection, rather than judgment or critique.

Boost Their Confidence

We have personally found that even when students can immediately identify the elements of a story, it is easy for them to get stuck coming up with a topic if they struggle to recall personal memories or feel their story won’t be “right.”

In our programs, we encountered one soft-spoken 9-year-old student, Kai, who rarely spoke in the in-person classroom setting and appeared to be painfully shy. Yet, in our online programs during the pandemic, Kai actively messaged the instructor, sending multiple ideas and asking, “Is this OK?” Once he received the go-ahead with his ideas, Kai was the first student to volunteer to share his story on multiple occasions.

Whatever context we teach in, there are always students like Kai who need extra reassurance and nonpublic ways to gather ideas before they open up to the class. Short storytelling prompts, templates, and sentence starters go a long way when helping students build their confidence in storytelling. Prompts such as “Tell me about a time when…” or “Turn something boring and ordinary into something extraordinary” help students focus on a specific moment, so they don’t try to cover too much.

Activities with concrete sources of inspiration are also helpful, like giving students three words to choose from (e.g., bravery, fear, or speaking up) or having them tell “joyful stories” by showing pictures of objects of a single color and prompting them to tell a story about why one of those objects brings them joy. Asking students to keep a memory bank of potential story ideas can also help with recall. To build confidence, students can first interview one another about what stories they want to hear from their peers and then submit prerecorded stories to an online folder or as part of a class podcast.

Pique Their Interest

Student-generated topics where students come up with themes related to something they are curious to know about others, such as “New Experiences,” “Moving,” or “Procrastination,” are often more engaging for students. We have seen better success when there is a three-minute time limit for stories, with themes that are open to interpretation or prompts that don’t sound like essay questions, that focus on specific moments, and that ask about true events.

When stories are true, they provide a window into student experiences; however, some students may need the option to tell a story about someone else they know or one based on a true story, to feel less in the spotlight. Listening to storytelling models such as Peabody Award–winning podcast and story library The Moth or other narrative-based podcasts send the message that true stories are valued. (See more storytelling tips, templates, and activities in our Storytelling Guide.)

In summary, stories help students feel seen. They are inherently inclusive by revealing innate human connections that go beyond external labels. In an online and hybrid world, stories are powerful vehicles for connecting with people of diverse backgrounds, creating relationships beyond the screen, and recapturing a sense of humanity.

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