How to teach through storytelling

The high school history class was still, for the most part. Pencils scratched here and there against the paper as some of the students halfheartedly copied notes from the board. At the front of the classroom, the teacher droned on, periodically pausing to add information to the growing list of facts we would be responsible for knowing.

Were there slides or any type of visual aid?

Honestly, I don’t remember. I was one of the pencil scratchers with one key difference: I was intensely focused on reaching my goal of becoming ambidextrous. It was the perfect class in which to practice this skill — since I’d read the assigned chapter of interest the night before, I was already familiar with the material. And as the teacher wasn’t presenting anything that wasn’t in the reading, the notes were simply a review.

As I said, it was the perfect time to practice writing with my left hand — perhaps not the best use of my time, but who could blame me? I was bored out of my mind.

Now, the sad part is that I actually love history (and I even loved it while I was in that class). I love the stories and the characters who show up throughout time. I enjoy reading and learning from biographies, autobiographies, and historical fiction novels.

But I did not enjoy that history class.

On the other hand, I do not enjoy grammar. Yet there was one particularly memorable class in middle school in which grammar suddenly became more interesting. Yes, we were learning about the parts of speech — boring. But the teacher, who was also our drama instructor, had us do something creative with each part of speech. After presenting the material, Mrs. Tebo would divide us into groups with the assignment of writing and presenting some kind of story that included a certain number of nouns, adjectives, etc. In short order, the class covering this odious subject became much more fun because it introduced an element of creativity.

Two classes. Two subjects. One subject I liked, but I did not like the class; the other subject I did not like, but I liked the class.

The difference? Storytelling.

History of storytelling in education

Storytelling as a means of instruction has been around forever. Before there was any form of written communication, there was verbal communication. Stories of the ancestors were passed on from one generation to the next. Through these stories, children learned such things as how their people came to be, how they should live and interact with their community, how to pick up and master certain life skills, and so much more.

Why is storytelling important in education?

Aside from being a great way to grab the attention of your students and engage them in the lesson, stories also:

  • Give students a way to understand their world. Even fantasy stories, which on the surface appear to have nothing to do with reality, are able to present truths that apply to students’ lives.
  • Better enable students to remember facts. Stories connect the emotional with the logical. This utilization of multiple areas of the brain strengthens the ability to recall the facts embedded within a story.
  • Have the ability to calm and focus the minds of our students. And in this state, a student’s mind is much more receptive to new information.

How to use storytelling to teach various subjects

With the above-mentioned benefits, it’s clear that storytelling is a powerful tool in the educational process. But how do you incorporate it into the various subject areas?

One way to do this is by turning the lesson into an adventure. For example, Classcraft brings storytelling to life by allowing you to create quests for your students to embark upon as they navigate your lesson objectives.

Listed below are other ideas for incorporating storytelling into your teaching, as well as links to ready-to-use Classcraft lessons.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ve divided these ideas and techniques into different subjects, but if you teach in a self-contained classroom, you could easily overlap many of them.

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Photo credit: Free-Photos

Literature

This is by far the easiest subject in which to incorporate storytelling, since literature is about … well, stories! Just to shake things up a bit, here are some ideas to take you beyond the assigned reading:

  • Relate the classic story to a modern one. For example, the movie, Clueless is a 90s take on Jane Austen’s book Emma.
  • Have the students create their own modern take on a classic story, such as Romeo and Juliet.
  • Present the story from another point of view. The Three Little Pigs: The Wolf’s Side of the Story is a great example of this.
  • Have the students write their own version of the story from a different point of view, such as the antagonist’s.

Classcraft Literature Lesson (centered on The Giver by Lois Lowry): A Perfect World.

If you’re looking for a list of reads for your classroom take a look at these great books for middle schoolers.

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Photo credit: Free-Photos

Writing

For many students, writing assignments, especially of the technical variety, don’t exactly strike chords of joy. To change that, add a narrative element to the assignment:

  • Establish the context for the assignment through a story. For example, you could set the persuasive letter-writing scenario of trying to convince the principal to allow more recess time, or the instructional writing scenario with teaching someone how to survive in a new land (real or imagined).

Classcraft Writing Lesson: Recover The Ring.

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Photo credit: PDPics

Grammar

Grammar may be one of the less exciting topics, but as I learned, it can definitely be made more interesting through storytelling:

  • Assign the students a form of creative writing in which they focus on using one of the parts of speech. You can even allow them to work in groups and present their assignment to the class.
  • Introduce each part of speech as a character. For example, Noun and Verb are friends who never go anywhere without each other.
  • Create silly sentences for the students to diagram, or have the students individually contribute a word for a given part of speech and put together a very nonsensical sentence.
  • Mad Libs! These help students recall, contextualize, and retain vocabulary. And of course, they’re fun — for both you and them.

Classcraft Grammar Lesson: Grammar Help!

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Photo credit: ID 3844328

Spelling and vocabulary

When taken by themselves, spelling and vocabulary can be arduous memorization tasks. But put them within the framework of a story, and the hard work suddenly becomes more interesting:

  • Introduce spelling rules as characters. For example, the letter ‘e’ is a good listener. She often likes to hang out silently at the end of a word while her friends do the talking.
  • Amelia Bedelia books — these are great for introducing homonyms.
  • Have the students find the spelling/vocabulary words within an interesting story.
  • Have the students write their own story using the spelling/vocabulary words.

Classcraft Spelling Lesson: The Grammarist Chronicles: Chapter One The Capitilon.

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Photo credit: geralt

Math

While some students love numbers and would be perfectly happy to not incorporate any language into this subject, there are always ways to pull in the not-quite-so-number-happy students through storytelling:

  • Act out the facts and story problems to frame them in the context of reality. After all, math is used to explain and model the physical world!
  • Have the students come up with their own story problems (and possibly act them out in groups).
  • Turn geometric shapes into characters. How might they interact?
  • Read The Phantom Tollbooth aloud (bits at a time). I still remember what a dodecahedron is from when my fifth grade teacher read this book to us.

Classcraft Math Lesson: The Frozen Plain of Subtraction and Fractions.

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Photo credit: ErikaWittlieb

History

History is more than simply memorizing a bunch of names, dates, and events. As even its name implies, history is filled with the stories of people who lived in times past. To get your students more excited about history, you can:

  • Introduce new units with a good story — either true or from a historical fiction book (or your own imagination).
  • Read excerpts from biographies and autobiographies of those who lived during the time period you’re studying.
  • Imagine and discuss what it would have been like to be alive during that time. Perhaps students could even write their own narratives while pulling in facts and details either from your lectures or from independent research.

Classcraft History Lesson: A Nation Divided.

Old fashioned world globe
Photo credit: Amber Avalona

Geography

Geography is more than just the land — it’s the land and its effect on the people who lived there:

  • Introduce each type of land as a character, and discuss its characteristics through personification and analogies.
  • Pretend to be on a journey across each landform. Come up with actions for climbing mountains, skipping across plains, etc.
  • Tell a story where you pretend to live in one of the regions. Be sure to appeal to various senses!
  • Tell a story as if you’re traveling to each location. Describe what you see there and what it’s like to live in that place.

Classcraft Geography Lesson: A Pirate’s Treasure.

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Photo credit: felixioncool

Science

Science is all about asking questions and searching for answers. So where does storytelling come into the picture?

  • Guide the students in pretending to be an explorer venturing into the unknown depths of the ocean (or whatever the lesson may relate to). In this scenario, your mission could be to discover what lies at the bottom of the sea. You could also pretend to be scientists or even detectives. For younger students, you could include some kind of prop to use in this activity, such as explorer hats, lab coats, or magnifying glasses.
  • Incorporate some Magic School Bus stories into your lessons. If you’re learning about animals and nature, Octonauts and Wild Kratts are two great children’s shows to utilize. Wild Kratts even has its own website where you can learn more about the animals and their habitats.

Classcraft Science Lesson: Into the Solar System.

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Photo credit: bodobe

Art

Artists use pictures to tell stories and communicate ideas. So why not add a bit of natural storytelling to an art or art history class?

  • Introduce various artists with a short story about their life and, if known, a short story about their work.
  • Look at a particular work of art and, as a class, come up with a story centered on that piece. What could’ve inspired its creation? What does it seem to be communicating?
  • Incorporate a Draw and Tell story, like this one.
  • Tell the students a story, and have them draw what they imagine. This is an excellent way to get them thinking creatively.
  • Reversing the steps of the previous activity, have your students draw a picture and then tell you the story behind it.

Classcraft Art Lesson: Contour Line.

Photo credit: Vladvictoria

Music

Throughout history, music has been used as a way to share ideas and experiences with others. Thus, it’s an entirely valid form of storytelling, even in songs without lyrics. Consider these activities:

  • Listen to Peter and the Wolf. Ask the students to describe or write about what they imagine. Listen to it again and tell them the real story.
  • Listen to other pieces of music. Have your students discuss how the music makes them feel and what stories or pictures they imagine while they’re listening.
  • Introduce various composers with short stories and interesting facts about their life. This helps contextualize music in terms of what events may have inspired it, such as major historical events during the composer’s lifetime.

Classcraft Music Lesson: The Wizard’s Staff.

Storytelling can enhance any subject

From stone-age hunters who would regale their tales of slaying beasts to soldiers who reflected on their experiences in wars, storytelling has always been a powerful medium for communicating ideas, documenting history, and sharing knowledge with others.

In the classroom, teaching through storytelling can enhance an already interesting subject and enliven an otherwise boring subject to get your students more excited about learning.

So have fun with adding these ideas to your teaching toolbox! Your students are sure to love the activities you plan.

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