Everyone loves a good story. So as a teacher and curriculum designer, when I think about student engagement, I try to relate my content-area lessons to storytelling. I’m not just talking about students listening to a story; I’m thinking more about them crafting and living through curriculum-based narratives.
That’s one of the reasons I often use project-based learning. PBL really attracts students because it generally hits on meaningful, real-world-based lessons and because in PBL, students are the protagonists of a learning story—a narrative where the conflict is the concept and the setting is the classroom.
Thinking of Your Curriculum Like an Author
Let’s look at some of the elements of storytelling and how they might relate to your content area. I hope that when this idea is deconstructed, you might find that it isn’t just a metaphorical comparison, but one that can help guide you in your classroom.
Maybe you’re in a school site that permits teachers to tap into their own expertise and creativity and design their own lessons. Maybe you’re in a school site that allows you to supplement content to enhance a purchased curriculum. Maybe you’re in a school site that grants you some say in the order of the lessons or units you might have to teach. Maybe you’re in a school site that gives teachers input in the next curriculum adoption.
Regardless, think a bit on how students might engage in lessons as they would a great story.
Character: Meaningful learning happens when students imagine themselves as different characters, professions, facilitators, and experts.
Setting: This could involve something concrete, like the decisions you make about the classroom environment. This could also be the mental environment you set up for the students, the tone of the class, and the functionality of the community of learners.
Conflict: While this can be the guided issue that needs to be solved over the course of the unit, you can also look at conflict in a metacognitive way specific to each student—the goals they set for themselves based on the challenges they each reflect on as learners. They can ask themselves, “What are the conflicts that might get in the way of my learning?”
Hook: This could also be the broader problem that needs to be solved or the questions that students develop that have to be answered on their journey through the story. Perhaps the teacher provides an open-ended question that needs to be solved or the students develop their own question. The questions should help drive student research, writing, and presentations. The hook can also be the opening activity you use, or a YouTube video or iMovie presentation that launches the role-play. It’s the opening of the curtain before the show, the prologue, and the setting of the scene.
Suspense: How can you build the suspense of learning? Do you mete out clues in the form of facts about the concept? Do you show students hints of where your topic exists in the world beyond school? How can you get students to wonder in a way that motivates them to find the answer to the question “What are we going to learn?”
Research topics using time in class: It’s crucial to have some of this be classwork so students have access to the head researcher in the room—you. Remember, the teacher doesn’t do the work for them but guides them by modeling internet literacy and methods of researching reliable sources. Introduce them to Google Advanced Search (to search more efficiently), Easybib (to teach students how to cite their sources and give credit where credit is due), and Newsela (to help them avoid fake news sites). Experts can be brought into the classroom for students to interview. Have students synthesize their findings in ways chosen by the students themselves. Perhaps they can develop an infographic (as an informal assessment) using Piktochart to combine data, text, and symbols as a visual presentation of evidence.
Figurative language: When we think about this in terms of writing, we think about the quality of writing. When I think about this in terms of lesson design, I think about the variety of lessons and activities. Are lessons multimodal? Do they embed different media? Are students comparing what they learn to things in real life? Are they justifying and creating visuals of their learning? What are they doing that gives texture to their day-to-day lessons?
Students present what they’ve learned: Students should create and present an artifact reflecting their learning and research. This could be to the class, to an expert in the field, or to a focus group for feedback. It’s the climax not because it’s the end of the story but because it’s a key moment in the unit that students work up to. Will their findings be accepted, or what more will they have to do to tweak their work (falling action). What will audiences think of their work? What revisions still need to be made?
Have them design, print, make, write about, and speak about their topics. They can develop surveys (informal assessments based on inquiry) to crowdsource advice from others. They can develop websites as portfolios of their work, create slideshows, or present a speech inspired by a TedTalk or Ignite. Each of these is an assessment opportunity.
When I have my students present what they’ve learned, I use a rubric with “able to teach” as the highest level. After all, many people can understand content, but can they communicate it? The important thing here is that what is normally thought of as the end of the unit is, in fact, the start of the next phase of the story.
What to do with their feedback: What were the results of the climax? What feedback did students receive, and what will they do with it? Based on the rubric (which may have been filled out by a teacher, by someone from the local community related to the topic, or by the students themselves), what comes next to improve on the artifact and how it communicates the content?
The ending: Students can develop posters to promote their call to action, participate in a letter-writing campaign, take their findings to local schools and organizations, or produce screencasts for the school website.
Theme: Reflect on what was learned and how. The students can think back on their journey and identify a motto or message that defines their story and experience.
Notice that the unit is an entire journey. It’s about the suspense of what’s to come and looking back at what came before. It is not a one-shot project. There are assignments peppered throughout, but they become story points in the larger narrative of learning.