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Storytelling: Deeper Than Learning

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This post is by Steven Levy, former School Designer, EL Education.

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

--Muriel Rukeyser

Aha!

Sonya was a very mature kindergartner whose mother was concerned that she would be bored in my class because she already knew how to do everything in the curriculum. Mom was especially peeved that I would be spending two days on the letter M, when her daughter already knew how to read. I told a story about a magic mountain. The children painted the mountains, drew the mountains, and then discovered the M in the mountains they painted. The little girl scoffed with obvious contempt, "Mr. Levy, I already knew how to make an M," then continued with delight and satisfaction at having made a great discovery, "but now I know what an M is!"

That's the difference a story makes. Story gives meaning to facts. It's how we organize our experiences. It digs deeper than skill, down to the hidden treasure of "aha!" If I had to summarize in one word what we should look for in every lesson we teach, that's it--aha! And the best way to get there Is through a story.

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What Is It About a Story? 

Think of the elements of a story. It has a setting we can imagine, characters we identify with, a plot we lose ourselves in, a conflict that intrigues us, and a resolution that satisfies or leaves us wondering. A good story commands the complete attention of our minds and provokes the full spectrum of our emotions. At any grade level, when a teacher begins to illustrate an abstract concept with a story, students immediately pay attention. In many EL Education schools, upper-grade teachers use case studies, stories of particular people, places, or events to illuminate the big ideas of the discipline. Primary teachers use stories to promote conceptual understanding, content mastery, and character development. At the kindergarten level, the story contextualizes the content with concrete examples that invite students to explore complex concepts and moral integrity. The right story inspires empathy, awakens a love for goodness and justice, a hatred for evil and oppression. It educates the emotions as well as the mind. It's as much about transformation as information. Rather than put a period at the end of a learning experience, the story lingers on, encouraging further exploration and deeper connection. Most of all, it invites the listener to create her own meaning as she weaves the weft of the story with the warp of her own experience.

Heads on a Stick

James K. A. Smith suggests in his book You Are What You Love that our educational system operates as if the students were "brains on a stick." What will really shape their moral compass, build intellectual curiosity, and inspire a search for meaning is what appeals to the imagination--more to the gut than to the head. In the end, we do what we love, not what we rationally decide. And what we love is formed at a level deeper than cognition. Great stories speak to that deeper imagination. They provide metaphors, not propositions. They are not just understood but also "felt." They appeal to both head and heart. A story invites a different kind of knowing.

The Wonder of Story

Ruth Wilson defines knowing that combines feeling and thinking as wonder, when "the world is known through the heart as well as the mind." Wonder leaves something to the imagination, for students themselves to discover. When I visit primary classrooms, I can usually predict too much teacher talk. Too much explaining to "brains on a stick." Whenever a teacher sees the word "explain," she should translate "tell a story." In a beautiful 1st grade lesson about the fascinating life of birds, the teacher is asked to explain what an ornithologist is. Young children love to master technical vocabulary. It's good for them to know the term ornithologist. But instead of explain, what if she told a story:

When I was a little girl we went over my grandfather's house every Sunday for dinner. I'll never forget the beautiful settings on the table. Grandmother put out her best plates that had little red and blue roses all around the edges. There were even two forks! All my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered at the table. One Sunday, in the middle of dinner, Grandfather put down his fork and cupped his hands behind his ears. "Listen," he whispered. We heard a beautiful song coming from the front yard. Grandfather led us to the window, and we looked out and saw the most amazing bird! It had a red dress like it was going to a party. Grandfather gave us some binoculars, and we could see the smooth feathers and sharp claws clasping the branch. My grandfather loved birds so much he had a special name. He was called an "ornithologist." He had a beautiful book where he drew pictures and wrote notes because he never wanted to forget anything he learned. If you love birds as much as my grandfather, you might become an ornithologist when you grow up. And I have a book for you, just like my grandfather's, where you can draw pictures and write down all you learn about birds."

No, she might not really have such a grandfather. If that bothered her moral conscience, she could say, "I had a friend who. ..." That might not be true, either. But not to worry, there is always "Once upon a time. ..."

Photo Credit: David Grant

 

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