The Vital Importance of Storytelling

We’re social animals and the empathic tie that binds me to you and you to one another is storytelling. It’s like a gossamer thread that we fling and we catch one and another and another’s imagination.
— Carmen Agra Deedy, 2011 National Book Festival (paraphrased)

Telling a Story to Develop Relationships

Mr. Hollingshead (“Mr. H”) was my 6th grade teacher at Whitworth Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Tall with a bushy beard and round John Denver glasses, Mr. H drove a cherry red VW van up and down the hills of our city. He was my first male teacher. A creased poster hung on his classroom door with old tape that said "Keep on truckin." What I remember most about Mr. H is how I felt being a student in his classroom that year: emotionally connected. As students, we were emotionally connected to him, to one another, and to what we explored together whether it was pronouns, long division, or science experiments. How did he pull this off? Through storytelling.

Mr. H’s great passion in life was opera and he was determined to share this passion with every group of students he taught. Once the Seattle Opera season was announced, he would decide which one we would attend together. Months before the field trip, Mr. H would escort all 30 of us into the stairwell a couple times a week for an hour. There we would sit elbow to elbow on rows of dirty stairs - an echo chamber - with absolute giddy delight. Assembled like an audience, with full view of the stage below, we'd prop our heads onto our palms and listen to Mr. H tell the story.

Thanks to masterful storytelling, sixth grade for me was about revenge, love, murder and rumor threaded through the complex stories Mr. H shared and reflected in real life on the playground and my long bus ride home. Opera stories helped me tell my own stories and make sense of the world around me.

More than anything else, stories built a strong relationship bridge from me to my teacher. Like listening to Eye of the Tiger, Rita Pierson’s TED Talk from 2013, regenerates my spirit and gets my adrenalin pumping. At one point she asserts that “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like." While I nod my head when she said this, I have to admit that I've learned plenty from people I don't like. It's just much more enjoyable learning from people I do like. And I really liked Mr. H.

Telling a Story to Root Specific Content

“How is it that students can relate the entire plot of Harry Potter, and forget everything I say?” - A teacher once said

Jeff Butler teaches high school math. He loves his subject but is often challenged by, well, getting his students appreciate it as much as he does. A black & white poster of the 1968 Olympics Black Panther salute hangs on a wall along with some of his biking memorabilia. Aside from these clues on the wall, students don’t really know much about Mr. Butler. Jeff readily admits to being an "introvert" and hesitates sharing too much of his life with his students. As he sees it, his primary job is to get his students through Algebra and the clock is ticking. An unconscious belief sits in the back of his mind, too: He never needed much cajoling to focus on math in high school, why should they? Working with Jeff as an instructional coach is a wonderful challenge. He is open to trying something new but needs guidance and some support.

We started with adding a story to just one lesson. “What is inductive reasoning, anyway?” I asked him. He answered me with numbers and a factual definition. I prodded him to tell me a story instead. After thinking for a couple minutes, he began: “It’s like you have a bag that you cannot see through and then you pick out a few objects and, well, maybe everything you pick out are green apples and so you assume or infer or induce that it’s a bag filled entirely of green apples.” This was it! After creating and practicing this story to make it relate to something honest and true in his own life , Jeff tries it out with his students the next day.

Jeff's large hands form around an invisible apple as he tells the story, growing from one small apple to a bushel of them, his arms opening wide. He adds some personal notes about walking his dog to the neighbor's apple tree. I watch as students sit up, smile, and wonder about his dog and where he lives and what he does with the apples he receives. You can practically hear the question bubbles popping above their heads.

Jeff pauses at the end of his story dramatically. He's enjoying this more than he anticipated, clearly. “Take out the apples and replace them with numbers…and there's the math!” His eyes pop open and the students giggle. They are enthralled. They haven’t seen their teacher so passionate ever. For the first time, his exit tickets demonstrate 100% comprehension.

Telling a Story to Survive

“Fairy tales are tales of survival, first and foremost.” Fairy Tale Review Kate Bernheimer

How did the entire Moken community survive the devastating 2004 tsunami, when over 230,000 others perished? This Thai community credits their oral traditions and the power of a story told and retold over generations embedding a directive guiding the people to safety: When you see the sea recede, run for the hillsStories save lives. 

The same could be said for the stories written in the late 18th C by the Grimm brothers in Germany; horrific tales of children getting lost or being guided to their deaths by well-meaning strangers. We share stories with each other today warning against taking a particular road during a particular time of day; avoiding a restaurant where someone’s cousin got sick, and signing up for a new form of exercise that is sure to transform our lives and improve our health. Big and small, life-saving or pleasure-seeking…these are all stories.

My 15-year old is particularly adept at sharing stories with her 10-year old brother. The consequences of certain actions (or inactions) usually end in a horrifying way ("If you don't take the right bus home, you will be kidnapped and tortured."). They are effective, too.

I've seen schools utilize survival stories with great impact in bonding upperclassmen with new students ("Surviving Freshman Year") and coaches sharing inspiring stories of pushing through challenge to survive a tournament. 

The best arguments for storytelling come from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham who explains the importance of creating emotional bonds through storytelling. Still one of the most powerful vehicles for communicating information, storytelling is sadly not a skill intentionally taught in most teacher education programs. But it should be. Whether to build relationships, root challenging content, or to save lives (physically and metaphorically), the power of stories remains one of our best teaching tools.

What stories are you telling?