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The importance of narrative in the student-centered classroom

Adam PowleyApril 19, 2017

On the surface, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, and Harry Potter don’t have much in common—a farm boy in a backwater galaxy, a teenage girl in a dystopian future, and a kid living under the stairs in a clearly abusive family—and yet they are all YA (young adult) icons.

One trait that they share is that each character goes on a “Hero’s Journey,” a powerful engagement tool that is often lacking in the classroom. This is an ancient storytelling device. A seemingly normal person finds that, through no fault of their own, they have some mystic power or special gift and go on an epic quest to save the world. Along the way, they learn new skills or enhance old ones as they face challenges to prove their worth. In the end, this seemingly average person becomes a heroic, almost divine, figure. Luke becomes the last Jedi, Katniss emerges as the Mockingjay, and Harry is literally resurrected from the dead (sorry… spoilers).

Epic quest narratives are often included in video games. I still remember playing the classic role-playing game Final Fantasy VII with my friends as a teenager. In the game, the player takes on the role of a young Cloud Strife, a nobody in a rebel movement that eventually becomes strong enough to defeat the big bad boss, a nearly literal demon named Sephiroth. The game’s narrative was so engaging that when a major character was killed about a third of the way through, my friends and I was speechless (sorry again… spoilers).

Twenty years later, there are still online communities lobbying to bring her back! I seem to remember spending more time with that game than with most of my homework assignments. As a parent now, I see my young boys devour the epic quest narratives in book series like The Magic Treehouse or in Netflix series like Troll Hunters. Like me, they routinely fight against homework time.

Katniss Everdeen Hunger Games Hero

Each student’s story matters

In the back of every student’s mind is the eternal question, why do I need to learn this? A class narrative can provide an answer that addresses both immediate lesson activity needs as well as the overall importance of the subject. The structure of a classroom narrative will vary depending on the needs of the teacher.

When developing my class storyline, my immediate need was to improve student completion of the digital learning components of my flipped classroom structure. These recorded lectures that are to be completed outside of class time are important, but students struggle to complete all required parts. Inspiration came from a running app called Zombies, Run that uses narrative as a motivator for physical activity. Each episode has an introduction that explains the purpose of the run, and every two to three minutes the runner is rewarded with another piece of the narrative. The common runner is transformed into a hero that saves the town from a zombie apocalypse. The short term answer to “why do I need to do this?” is clearly answered, and that sense of purpose is a highly engaging internal motivator.

Giving your lessons meaning

Using this narrative device as a model for my 11th grade U.S. History class, I created a dystopian future with an autocratic dictatorship using the shell of our American Constitutional system. Among the fictional state’s first acts was the elimination of history from schools so that the public can be more easily manipulated.

In this world, the students take on the role of “Collector 10,” a young student saved from the Secret Police by Zed, the leader of a group of underground rebel historians. As Collectors, the students find and record summaries of long-forgotten history lectures and then create public history projects to re-educate the general public. The narrative provides a reason for engagement with the flipped content but also seeks to answer the bigger question: Why do I need to study history?

Throughout the year-long epic quest from novice Collector to the final takedown of the dictatorship, students learn what happens when the past is forgotten and historic skills are taken away. The narrative explains through an engaging story, rather than a dull lecture, how historic skills can be an effective weapon, and students realize firsthand through the unique class experience why studying history matters. The multilayered narrative provides a purpose for all of the hard work.

School-age kids are already self-interested and see themselves as full of special potential. YA fiction writers in all genres have long recognized young people’s desire to be a heroic figure going on epic quests.

In some ways, this is the goal of our modern push for a student-centered classroom. Teachers are asking students to become the heroes of their own education (like Luke, Katniss, or Harry) while the teacher become their guide (Obi Wan, Haymitch, or Dumbledore). A classroom narrative provides a reason for students to complete their work and creates the powerful internal motivator—a sense of purpose.

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Student Engagement