Story: A cautionary tale

Story: A cautionary tale

Teachers have been telling stories for as long as teachers have taught others. Students are still learning from the stories of our greatest teachers thousands of years later like Plato, Confucius, and Jesus, as examples. But that makes story sound like a classic “old school” pedagogical method, and that is not the characterization I think we should promote.

Narrative is our primary tool for understanding the world around us, and it is a fundamental tool in our ability to processes information.

Yet despite our cultural belief in the importance of story as a teaching tool we really don’t use it much anymore. We all have our students read stories, and most of us still carve out time to read aloud to our students, but few of us use stories as a tool to explain or highlight concepts outside of those to platforms.

I spend a great deal of my research time looking for ways to integrate lessons. I do this because I believe – one, that the real world is integrated and education should follow suit, and two, that it is the only way to meet the growing list of demands on teaching time.

I have come to believe that one of the strongest threads tying all our curricula together is story.

Our focus on data, the science of pedagogy and the hard Common Core push into nonfiction, have left us with sharp, versatile tools, and little desire to use them. Those things do make a difference but they are not the difference.  The difference is our ability to add to our student’s story. I think we have forgotten the importance of story.

Wait, DON’T STOP READING…. NOT yet, give me at least one maybe even two more paragraphs before you drop this as a rambling rant.

An example: A couple of years ago a fifth grade science class I was working with was struggling with the concept of mass.

We expected some of them to get stuck on this as mass is tricky. Weight is easy enough, but the difference between mass and weight is still shaky in most of student’s heads. To be honest most teachers gloss over it because it’s shaky for them as well. So I shared the story of Archimedes and the King’s crown.

Archimedes, brings the concept of mass alive with a “Eureka” moment and a naked street dance that no 5th grader will easily forget.

Another example: Using my new idea to teach with a story I prepared and then set a trap in math class.  And when the complaints and questions about the practicality of our lesson came up, I shared the story of Abraham Wald, who saved hundreds of American pilots in WW2 and explained math is about interrogating the questions asked and the information available to get answers.

Just one more: Oxygen and the elements in general are not truly abstract, but for most if not all of our students they can be. Asking, or even expecting them to jump into STEM classes without seeding their curiosity with story can be a tough sell.

But having them listen to how and why Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen offers insight, understanding and examples of how difficult and how important understanding the unseen can be.

Great teaching has always been centered on giving the student a reason to be curious and teaching them how to explore. I’m convinced stories are where the best seeds of curiosity come from.

Brian Cleary
Brian Cleary

Mr. Brian Cleary works for the Evergreen School District of Vancouver, WA. He has been in elementary education for almost 25 years, as a teacher, librarian, and currently as an Elementary Instructional Coach. He received his BA in Elementary Education for the University of Puget Sound, and an M.Ed. in Leadership from City University of Seattle. "I believe in the teacher, the student, and learning; the small start of big things, and the teachable moment. I believe in rigor, connecting, and real assessment, that the books of Rowlings, Seuss, and Curtis change lives. I believe that learning to fail is more powerful than learning to win. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing high stakes testing and merit pay. I believe in reading out loud, project-based lessons, and number 2 pencils and teaching children how to learn rather than what to study - and I believe in long, slow, deep, conversations that last more than one period."

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