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Why Teachers Need to Be Great Storytellers

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Robert Schuetz's picture
Robert Schuetz
NBCT - Technology Coordinator, Innovation Coach

Wow - talk about timing?!? This is my post from earlier today. It highlights the need for teachers and students to find a piece of common ground through storytelling and that this will open the doors for greater communication and sharing. It also points out that people need to take responsibility for writing and sharing their own stories. Will Richardson calls it becoming "well Googled" - a phrase that I have grown to support wholeheartedly. Terrific post Suzie - thank you for the forum.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Robert--Lovely story! Thanks for sharing. Reminds me that good stories require not just tellers but also listeners.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


A long time ago, a Christ-haunted writer, Flannery O'Connor, wrote a Christ-haunted story called "The River" about a little boy named Harry Ashfield whose party animal parents find him a new babysitter who takes him to hear a hick preacher at an orange river. The new babysitter isn't some hot, high school cheerleader who is pretty good with kids and needs money. The new babysitter, Mrs. Connin, is a cynical, critical, speckled-skin, night-shift working, Jesus freak task-master whose own children have no manners.

At the end of the story, Harry drowns himself in the river, gladly.

Before Bevel drowns himself in the river, several other fascinating things happen: Harry personally changes his name to "Bevel;" Bevel, upon being introduced to Mrs. Connin's three sons, immediately gets bullied by them; Bevel gets run over by a pig and cries about it for five minutes; Bevel steals a picture book about Jesus from Mrs. Connin; Bevel gets baptized in the orange river by a preacher whose name is also Bevel; and early the next morning Bevel rides the street trolley out of town all by himself with no problem at all while his parents sleep off their hangovers after the previous evening's orgy. Then, later that morning, after his trolley ride, Bevel drowns himself in the river ... while the local gas station owner, who has a purple tumor hanging off the side of his head, chases after Bevel in the river with a huge peppermint stick. Flannery O'Connor is my favorite writer of all time.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, I read the story to my literature fanatics in 2nd period language arts class. They loved it. And then, today, I read some questions to them about the story and they answered them on paper. There were seventeen questions in all and one asked them if they thought Bevel was smart or stupid. Another question asked them ... As it refers to Mrs. Connin, what do you think "skeleton" means? The last question was this: On the deepest level, what do you think the story is about?

Kells wrote ... I think this story is about a boy. A boy that thinks he can find happiness in the river. The happiness about not being around drunks and smokers.

Clutch wrote ... Bevel was trying to Baptize himself in the river so that all his Pane was gone. Which was to stop his Parents from having Partys and getting Drunk.

Good for Kells and Clutch. I didn't mark their answers are wrong. We all figured that Bevel was a whole lot happier now, too, floating in a river that probably led to the beach. Red and Peetie weren't convinced Bevel was dead. When you think about it, the story really never said so.

Next week we're going to read another Flannery O'Connor story, "Revelation." On the best level it's a story about a nasty fat girl who's smart in school who beans a smug fat woman in the head with a huge book called Human Development while they're both sitting in a waiting room, waiting on the same doctor. Leading up to this revelation takes up almost half of the story.

Honestly, why go any deeper, or read any further?

Derek Pule's picture
Derek Pule
Distance Education Specialist

People will always remember stories. I can remember stories since my childhood but I can't remember facts. I like how you point out that stories can inspire if you ignite them!

Margherita Rossi's picture
Margherita Rossi
Teacher of Classical Humanities at Lyceum (High School) from Bologna, Italy

Telling stories is a beatiful way to teach and to learn. I think that it's indispensable "to ignite" our students. But I have a question: how it's possible to combine Storytelling with subjects? When I teach italian literature is easy telling stories. But when I have to teach some specific topic (e.g. a translation from greek or a complex latin construction), I can't tell stories, I need to be precise and rigorous. To talk about Dante'Hell is not problematic: students are fascinated from Comedy. The problem is to create passion about others topics, more technical (but essencial!). So, if you want, help me and show me examples of your teaching and of your conjugating Storytelling with Scholastic praxis. Thanks a lot! P.s. I would like there will be in Italy too a living debat about School like this! (sorry for my bad English).

DearTeacher's picture
6th Grade Science Teacher from SC and a teacher encourager online.

Stories are key. Think about it, why are blogs so popular? They are a personal take on what is going on in the world or a niche part of it. They are facts woven in with story. To me, Ignite Talks sound like a verbal, live blog post. They have many of the same elements.

If this is what draws us, teachers, in to the content being talked about, then it would be the same for our students and their families. Lets make our schools and classrooms more personal and relational...storytelling is a part of that!

One aspect of storytelling that was not brought up is that of the creative story. I think this is where PBL comes in. The more imaginative we can make the problem/project, the more compelling and relevant it will be. Draw students into a story. Make them a character in a story with a conflict that requires content to be learned in order to come to a resolution. This is what I am going to attempt in my Science classes next year. I want to draw the students in with the story so that they forget that they at learning, which they will do long the arc of the story.

Thanks for writing this. It was a great piece! You are awesome!

Luisa's picture

I think that storytelling is central in language learning and can be used to make lessons turn around it in a course. I mean that teachers can base all the activities upon a story, changing the progressive line they are used to in favour of a storytelling expansion. In a study of an economic case, for example, the story of a career with all its backsides can be explored to study economic aspects as contracts, interviews, CV, management in an integrated and motivated way where they become real and live in a personal and human situation.
Thank you for your presentation and interest in stories.

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