George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Why Teachers Need to Be Great Storytellers

July 25, 2013
Photo credit: uniondocs via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The New Tech Network includes more than 100 schools in diverse settings that put project-based learning at the center of instruction. That's all true, but it doesn't begin to tell the story of what makes learning "electric." That's how one educator from this network describes project experiences that ignite students' curiosity and build their agency to tackle challenging work.

The bare facts don't engage emotions in the way that a recent New Tech graduate does when she tells her former teachers, "Your students graduate not just prepared, but inspired to chase their own whys."

After spending a few days with 1,300 teachers, instructional coaches, and school leaders at the New Tech Annual Conference #NTAC13, I was reminded of the power of stories to engage, inspire, and move us to act.

With the new school year fast approaching, this is an ideal time to think about how you and your students can harness storytelling to frame productive conversations about teaching and learning in your community.

Make It Personal

Sam Chaltain (@samchaltain), veteran educator and author, challenged the NTAC audience during his keynote to elevate stories that will counter more typical media messages about test scores, cheating scandals, or teacher strikes. To shift the narrative about education, he suggests making it more personal. Invite community members to answer this question: "When (and where) were you when you learned best?"

Chaltain used that question as the prompt for his book, Faces of Learning: 50 Powerful Stories of Defining Moments in Education. It also seems like a worthy question for students to explore in project-based learning.

Don't be surprised if the answers unleash specific memories about learning that was relevant, supportive, challenging, engaging, and experiential. Those are the key qualities that Chaltain hears people identify, again and again, when they reflect on their own learning. Once community members recall the power of such experiences in their own lives, they're more inclined to support school practices that create similar opportunities for today's learners.

One of Chaltain's suggestions that I'd love to see schools adopt: Host "story slams" where parents, teachers, and other community members share memories from their own personal learning journeys.

Change the Storyline

What's the most compelling education story you've heard lately? If you're a teacher, you can likely think of dozens -- if not hundreds -- of stories about students who have discovered their voice, found their passion through a project, or improved their community with the power of their own ideas. Unfortunately, these aren't the plotlines that most screenwriters find exciting. "It's either Dead Poets Society or Bad Teacher," laments Chaltain.

Introduce community members to stories that paint a more nuanced picture of the challenges and opportunities in today's classrooms. One excellent example is A Year at Mission Hill, a documentary series that takes a close-up look at a remarkable public school in the Boston area.

Consider hosting a screening at your school, followed by a discussion for parents and other community members about how you might adopt or adapt strategies from Mission Hill. Better yet, engage students as discussion leaders to make sure they have a voice in the conversation.

Ignite Energy

A highlight of NTAC13 was the effective use of Ignite talks. Teachers, former students, instructional coaches, even New Tech President Lydia Dobyns (@lydiadobyns) stepped up to the challenge of sharing their stories about teaching and learning with this lightning-fast format.

Make Ignite talks part of your school's storytelling tradition this school year. If you're not familiar with Ignite, visit this site to learn more about the basic format. Each presenter has five minutes and 20 slides to tell a story in front of an audience. The Ignite slogan sums up the challenge: "Enlighten us, but make it quick." Passion is essential. Humor doesn't hurt. Good visuals are a must.

Consider how the energy would change if you used Ignite talks to kick off your next staff meeting, school assembly, or back-to-school night. In the classroom, a provocative Ignite talk could make a terrific entry event for a project. The same format could be used as part of a culminating event, with students in storyteller role.

Finally, don't be afraid to end your stories with a call to action. What do you need from your audience? How can they help write the next, best chapter about education? Invite them to become part of the story about effective teaching and learning in your community.

Please use the comments to tell us about the education stories that you plan to tell this school year.

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  • Family Engagement

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