The Power of Story-Telling to Build Community in the Classroom and Beyond

The featured image on this post is of a !Kung San storyteller in 1947. The storyteller sits with his hands raised and every muscle in his body tensed to tell the details of his tale. His audience is completely captivated and excited by his tale. Nobody is sneaking out a cell phone to get on Facebook or play a game here; they are all in to what he is telling them. Wouldn’t it be lovely if teachers saw the same dedication in their students in the classroom? Why can’t it be?

I love what my friend Jeff Goodman does concerning cell phones in his class. He first tells them that they need to be off their cell phones and give their full attention to the class because they don’t have much time in the class each day and need to stay focused. Then he tells them that if they do take out their cell phone, he will be forced to call his mother.

A student got on their phone in class after this warning, and Jeff followed through with calling his mother. He made a big show of crying to his mom about how he was such a failure as a teacher because he couldn’t keep his students engaged enough to not even want to get on their phone. He put the phone on speaker, so the students knew he was really talking to his mom. Of course, his elderly mom is used to calls like this now and they don’t upset her, but the point was clearly made to the student about the message he was sending to the instructor and the other students by such disrespectful behavior. The student put away his phone and never got on it again for that class or any other class through the rest of his entire college career. 

There is no instruction without emotion, meaning, delight, and connection. –Jeff Goodman

A group of students were given a standardized test and right before they went in to take the test, they were shown a picture of a man’s face.

Some of the students were shown a face with a wide grin and eyes crinkled with smile wrinkles. He looked happy and enthusiastic like he would be a nice guy if you met him.

The other students were shown a face with a furrowed brow, flared nostrils, and a mouth slightly parted and frowned. He looked angry and like he would either cuss you out or punch you into the ground if you met him.

The test results for the students were markedly different. Those that saw the nice guy got higher scores; those that saw the mean guy got lower scores than if they had been left alone entirely.

No school has ever had a former student say a standardized test has changed their life. –Joe Martin

I’ve just modeled for you, in this post, two examples of telling a story to teach a lesson. We humans are story-telling creatures and we remember the lessons we hear through a story much more than those without it.

How does story-telling look in a classroom?

In my English classes, I teach grammar as if the sentences were relationships. Compound sentences are marriage because two independent people (clauses) are agreeing to live together as equals. Complex sentences are a parent-child relationship because one person (clause) is dependent on the other to survive as a sentence.

In my math classes, I talked about converting mixed fractions like you were climbing up a mountain. You climb up the mountain by multiplying the bottom number by the whole number. Then you cross over the mountain by adding the top number to that.

In my science classes, I teach the different aspects of science by how they are experienced through books. Our two main books, The Martian by Andy Weir and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, introduce amazing scientific questions for us to explore through discussion questions and material on our class website.

In my history classes, I love to teach with film. Students connect with characters and engage in what really happened in the past while they also answer questions based on the films.

How would your class look if you included more story in it?