Storytelling and narratives are an integral part of my curriculum: We read, discuss, analyze, and create fictional and nonfictional narratives the entire school year. Teaching began with storytelling. The oral tradition connected communities, providing answers to the biggest questions of creation, life, and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us, and make us. Not every human culture in the world is literate, but every single culture tells stories.
I use storytelling to establish classroom community and to nurture our encompassing culture. Sharing—the storytelling of teachers and the storytelling of students—nourishes our time and place with each other as it helps students make thematic connections between the layers of curricula and their own experiences. For example, a recent discussion on the subject guns led to me telling a story about my grandfather’s reflection on his World War Two experiences and his changing opinion on the value of weapons. My story triggered anecdotes from students about their own relatives’ perspectives on the same subject and themes. Without planning, we had suddenly built a three-dimensional picture of a controversial topic, and gained respect for each other’s experiential knowledge.
When students share their experiences through storytelling, they are invested in the content and are actively-engaged learners. They learn that they, too, can contribute to the tapestry of the human condition; that they have something worthwhile to add to the conversation; that their experiences are important, their opinions validated, their voices heard. Research backs up the idea that “even students with low motivation and weak academic skills are more likely to listen, read, write, and work hard in the context of storytelling” (as cited in Hamilton & Weiss, 2005, p. 2). Stories, all of our stories, connect us to one another.
Philosopher James Stevens wrote, “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow” (as cited in Hamilton & Weiss, 2005, p. 3). The things that we learn and remember usually stick with us because on some level we can relate to them personally. If we use stories in our teaching, it may give our students a better opportunity to connect to a more personal kind of learning.