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Encouraging Your Students to Engage in Deeper Thinking

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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The following is an excerpt from my new book, 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. In the unabridged chapter, I explore specific cross-curricular lessons and activities that teachers can use to help encourage metacognition, think aloud, and storytelling as a means to teach commentary and deeper thinking. This excerpt argues why storytelling is a valuable tool in any classroom, and also gives a word of caution for teachers who use this important strategy.

Did you ever see Kevin Costner's film, Dances with Wolves? Remember that wolf that tentatively skirted around the outside of the soldier's camp, searching for attention? Remember how many times we had to sit through seeing Costner try to coax that wolf towards him to eat from his hand? Well, getting a tween to share their thoughts, to make connections to their content, is kind of like that. We have to coax them. Not with beef jerky, but with your own thoughts and commentary. Then you'll have them eating from your hand, and when they begin to listen to the hand that feeds them, they will begin to learn how to think for themselves.

Our thoughts and commentary must occasionally come from our own archive of anecdotes. Children aren't born knowing how to make decisions. You have to model it for them, and middle schoolers are more likely respond to lessons hidden in the anecdotes of your outside life than those stated on some poster hanging in your room or stated in some entry from the textbook.

Now, I don't mean you need to share so much that you invite your 250 students over for Thanksgiving dinner, but I do mean you should tell them about how to cook a turkey. Better yet, share how you once burned the bird and ended up making a Stouffer's Lasagna. Thus, you've modeled both flexibility and the ability to problem solve while laughing at yourself.

What you share models your own thought process, and from there you can train students to exploit their own stories, thoughts, and musings to help create a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Creating a classroom culture of storytelling leads to deeper connections, deeper commentary, and ultimately higher achievement. It is a version of Think Aloud, a strategy many elementary teachers use faithfully, yet an all-important process underutilized by many of us in the secondary levels.

However, a word of caution: I'm only talking about selected stories of your past. Use the power of storytelling wisely and it will also model to your students a higher standard of commentary. Be smart. Be the adult in the room.

Make sure you follow some guidelines when you are sharing stories of your past or present:

1. Don't share anything you wouldn't tell a person to their face. When I teach persuasive debate and counterargument, I always choose to share the fact that my husband and I fight over the TiVo remote. The point is, I don't mind if my husband knows I'm sharing this particular ongoing bicker.

2. Be smart. They don't need to know everything you did in college. Surely you can find another example from somewhere in your life to model the lesson of not doing what the masses tell you besides that asinine moment where you learned the hard way not to jump off a roof into a pool.

3. Make sure that your anecdote connects to the material. Non-sequitors are no fun, and students will know if you just like to hear yourself talk.

4. Make sure your story has a message. We don't have instructional time to waste. Let your students know that even their lives have themes; they just need to pay attention to their own tales.

By sharing your appropriate anecdotes and your real-time Think Aloud, you can then ask students to freeze their tickertape, that continuous dialogue that quietly comments on everything around them, and analyze it, capture it, articulate it, and even reflect back as to how that thought came to be in their head.

And it all starts by being willing to be the first storyteller in the room.

Just remember, teaching deeper thinking is something you can't merely do once and expect the results of deeper awareness of thought. After all, just as you can't go to the gym one time, work out your glut once, and expect a firm derrière, you can't just do one activity that activates students' stories and Think Aloud and expect a deeper thinker. If your modeling and sharing isn't constant and honest, then their willingness to "go there" for you won't reveal itself.

Tap into and share your stories, your background knowledge, and your thinking process, and you will be modeling how students can tap into their own brain as well.

Heather's book is available at the Web site Eye on Eye Education Publishing and on Amazon.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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Sacha Luria's picture
Sacha Luria
Teacher and mother of three children

As someone who grew up listening to stories (and LOVING every minute of it), I know too well how stories teach you to instinctively analyze and correlate parts of the stories to your real life-- two things that are essential in engaging deeper thinking.

On a related note, I also use stories to encourage my class to do summer reading (which also helps promote deeper thinking). Here's a link to my post about it:


Kayley's picture

Luke, I agree with you. I am also a mathematics teacher and it is so hard and frustrating sometimes for the students to get the deeper thinking down in my class, which jsut makes them turned off from math. I like this article because I love to use my personal stories as lessons or to help the students understand why they need to learn what I'm trying to teach. However, it will be very helpful to use these steps and guidelines. It can be so challenging at times to get students to start that critical, deeper thinking. I need to do a better job of continually setting up challenges for them.

Derek's picture

I really agree with making personal connections to further help out your content. I think it goes even past middle school into high school. In my content area, government, I'm able to talk about real life examples and real things going on that affect the lives of the students and other people they know. Through this, they definately have a greater interest and become more interested in the heart of what I am talking about with the students. I also agree with your points of being smart and being careful of what you say. Sometimes on particular issues, feelings can become sensitive and it's important to really think ahead before saying things that might get you in trouble.

Douglas Quick's picture
Douglas Quick
K-5 Technology Teacher in St. Clair Shores, MI

"middle schoolers are more likely respond to lessons hidden in the anecdotes of your outside life than those stated on some poster hanging in your room or stated in some entry from the textbook."

I love this quote from the article. I think that lessons based on real life experiences are way more sticky than those taught out of context. Why not teach supply and demand through the use of Pokemon cards?

Jana's picture

I agree that as a teacher, you should make personal connections with the material and share them with your students. Last year, a fellow teacher make a connection with a historical event which happened the same year as her father was born. The students remembered the year, because her father had been born the same year. It's all about making personal connections to the material to make it more intriguing.

Lalla Pierce's picture

I have most assuredly seen the power of story-telling not only in my classroom, but with middle schoolers at church. It is a fine line of being personal enough without getting too personal, but when achieved opens the doors to a much more meaningful environment where students are suddenly engaged and receptive in amazing ways.

Last spring (my first year of teaching), with a group of students I'd only had a few weeks, we were discussing the book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens," when a student challenged one of the ideas in the book. We continued to have a very transparent, thoughtful, respectful conversation--and before class was over one student had shared about her mother's depression, another about his own struggle with depression and acceptance, and a last broke down in tears and ended up getting the help she desperately needed. I really don't attribute this to anything other than a community I had quickly allowed to form centered on the premise of respect for one another's stories.

Dusti's picture

I can agree from my experience as a student, that when a teacher connected a personal experience with a topic, it become more memorable and I could relate more to my teacher as a human being and not just a teacher in the front of the classroom. I find it a skill in teaching that I am learning how to recall personal experiences to identify with a topic I am teaching. I am looking to improve my ability to share real-life examples and application of math concepts in personal stories as I teach to ultimately model to students how to identify math applications in their life.

Aleksandra's picture
Sixth grade Math teacher in Florida

Teaching sixth graders math could be tough as most students see math as boring and challenging. Students have a hard time thinking critically and solving word problems, but I do agree that using personal stories with a hidden lesson would help students make a connection much easier. I've tried a similar tactic with little result and now will try to use the story telling method that you have suggested to model higher order thinking to my students. Hopefuly this will be a funner and more involving step towards students' success. Thank you for the great ideas!

bu2flyy's picture

I agree totally to what you are saying personal anecdotes or anything that makes learning tangible for students does get them excited about completing tasks. However, I sometimes struggle in my math classroom to get students to connect to the topic I am teaching. I have always noticed that when I have connected a lesson to something in the real world that the students seem to do just fine.

Marie's picture
eighth grade math teacher in Camden, New Jersey

I am a math teacher in an urban setting. From experience I have found that when you relate the math concepts to real world situation, students are more interested and engaged in the process. It is very important for students to be critical thinkers and reasons abstractly about their learning.

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