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Learning From the Past: The Power of Stories

March 3, 2020 / by Miriam Plotinsky

Early in my teaching career, I had a conversation with a student that will always haunt me. I was sitting at my desk at lunchtime, reading William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and laughing to myself when I realized that one of my twelfth-graders was perched at the edge of my desk. He pointed to the book. “Is that good?”  

It was a question I wasn’t expecting, since this particular student was hard-pressed to read anything I put in his hands. “It’s one of my favorites,” I said. “It’s hilarious in this really silly way. Have you seen the movie?”

My student looked down at the book. “I’ve always been jealous of people who could do that, you know? Just open a book and get lost in the story. I wish I could do that. Enjoy, Ms. P.” He grabbed his backpack and left the room before I could formulate a response. 

One of my biggest regrets is not circling back to that conversation. At the time, I was still in those first stages of teaching where the primary goal is survival, and I didn’t know what to say that would change his mind. I resolved in the following years to help students find their identity as learners through the power of stories. In addition to strategies like these that enumerate the benefits of storytelling in class, here are three more reasons to value a narrative approach to instruction. 

1) Incorporating stories into class increases language production. 

While literacy skills for all students can be maximized with the instructional lens of storytelling, the benefits for English Language Learners (ELLs) result in higher language output. Manuel Hernandez shares the multiple benefits of encouraging ELLs to “write, publish, and own their stories” in this Teaching Channel blog. I vividly remember a language learner in my creative writing class sharing a story she wrote about a scandal in her family.  As she read her story to the class, the gasps and squeals from her classmates gave her confidence in what she had written. When I collected the story, I saw that she had written over ten pages; in her English class, this same student struggled to write even one full page. Framing instruction in stories increases language production, both spoken and written.  When students produce more language, they get closer to reaching proficiency with literacy skills. Couching learning in the narrative isn’t just engaging; it speeds up language acquisition because the more kids are pulled in by a story, the easier it is to write and speak.   

2) Stories build stronger relationships. 

Recently I had a conversation with a ninth-grader about her Algebra class. “The teacher’s really fun,” she said. “She makes up these crazy word problems about celebrities or world events, and it helps because I know she cares whether or not I’m paying attention.” When I ask students what they enjoy about class, they often talk about their teachers and how much they admire them. What stood out about what this student shared is that her math teacher incorporated narrative structures into her content area. The benefit of doing this is twofold in that not only do students connect more with the material, but they also understand that the element of storytelling reflects a level of personal connection that the teacher wants to establish and maintain. When students know that their teachers care about them, they work that much harder to succeed. 

3) Stories increase teacher development of equitable and responsive practice. 

Last year, I taught a student in my English class who was honest with me right off the bat. “I don’t like English class,” she said. “Nothing personal. It’s just that I’m a visual artist.” I decided to help this student by responding to her needs, not mine. “Well, you will have to do English class things in here,” I said, “but you can also tell stories with your art.” Sure enough, whenever it was possible to accompany an assignment with an art piece, this student would labor for hours to make something impressive. Her work focused on the narrative aspect of what we were reading: feminist themes in The Awakening, or reflections on corruption of power in Macbeth. It wasn’t just this one student who was approaching the content on her terms; once other students saw that assignments responded to their needs, they started sharing their own narratives of success. We still fulfilled English course requirements, but we allowed time and space for flexibility. As a result, the story of our class was a joyful one. 

When teachers create room for storytelling in class, students engage more authentically with instruction because of the organic human interest in the narrative process. Making the time and space for stories that bring in multiple perspectives and chances for learning can open up a student’s world. When the time comes to plan lessons, think about how to incorporate the narrative, in all its gloriously responsive power, by increasing student language output, listening to what kids have to say, and truly responding to their needs with caring. 

Topics: Class Culture, Classroom Experiences, English Language Arts, English Language Learners, Classroom Community, Building Relationships

Miriam Plotinsky

Written by Miriam Plotinsky

Miriam Plotinsky is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer, and department chair. She is a National Board–certified teacher, and also holds certification in education administration and supervision.

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