Tuesday, June 10, 2014

“Teachers as Story-Tellers (for Writing’s Sake)” Written by John Dorroh

   Some of the best classes for me as a K-12 student were when my teachers told a story. Sometimes the story was meant to stand alone, often emphasizing some point of a recent lesson; perhaps a reinforcement of sorts. Other stories were told spur of the moment, usually at the teacher’s discretion. However, there was a respected clique of “designated de-railers” who were experts at getting the teachers off the subject.
   Ruth Webb, my fourth-grade teacher, was an “extreme” story-teller. The first day of the school year she shared with us in great detail the trip that we’d be taking that year around the world.  Somehow one of her sons had managed to move a small wooden red fishing boat into one of the corners of the classroom. It was in that boat where Mrs. Webb stood to prepare us for the upcoming trip that would take us to at least 15 countries.
   “Our boat, class,” she said, stretching her hand out as if to look beyond the horizon, “is much, much larger than the boat in which I’m standing.  It’s a seaworthy sailing ship with room for all of us and our provisions.”
   To this day I can remember pulling into the port of Venice, Italy, in our imaginary vessel.  We learned about lire, spaghetti alla bologanese, the museums, St. Mark’s Square, gondolas, life along the Grand Canal, the turbulent history of the floating city, and its relationship to the United States.       She told stories about common, ordinary citizens such as Pietro Lombardi, the “Olive Man,” as well as more well-known Venetians who banded together on the mudflats of the surrounding lagoons to protect themselves from the Horrible Huns.
   Ruth Webb made social studies come alive with her stories, leaving us to believe that we’d actually been to those places.  The rich details she used, her excitement in sharing her knowledge and discoveries, and her commitment to having us “fish deep” helped us to learn in an engaging manner, which made learning fun, easy, and all but guaranteed.
   Betty Caldwell, my seventh-grade world history teacher, was another superb story-teller.  She made us take copious amounts of notes from three separate blackboards. The drudgery! But the notes would become a useful reference as she told stories that made us feel we were there, reliving history.
   “Do you know, students, the real story of Cleopatra?”
Silence washed over us as we waited to find out what she had to say about one of the most famous females in history. It was only then that the notes made sense. They were the background of the characters that played such memorable roles in the history of our world.  Perhaps most importantly the notes helped us to make connections to our own lives.
   Unfortunately, the majority of my teachers didn't have the gift of story-telling. That didn't make them bad teachers; they had their own methods. (OK, a few shouldn't have ever been issued a teaching license). Looking back I can state with some certainty that I excelled in the classes in which teachers engaged me with their background character scaffolds, anecdotes, chronicles, and regular humorous asides.
   As previously stated, a few of our classmates were professionals at getting our teachers off the subject.  Some teachers caved in, but others were aware of the underlying motives and refused to deviate from their precious lesson plans. “No time for that…we’ve got to cover these notes…”
   Years later in my own high school science classroom, I understood the value of story-telling and of letting students “get me off the subject.” With a bit of practice and foresight, I could determine where the side-tracking efforts were headed, and I could usually lead the conversation back to the lesson. No one taught me how to do that; I simply modeled what my story-telling teachers had done with me.

How writing tied in with story-telling…
   I often used story-telling as a springboard for writing. My first concern was whether the story (by student or teacher) was unstructured or not. For example, if the story was instantaneous, told as a personal anecdote, I often made a mental note or jotted a single word for reference. Unprompted stories were generally more difficult to tie in with a writing goal (i.e. - giving evidence to substantiate a main point) since it was a chance occurrence.
   An example is the story that Larry B. shared about his motorcycle wreck in front of West Point High School one morning. 
   “…I really wasn't speeding or nothing, and suddenly a red truck…I think it was a Chevy… comes backing out into the street…I had just looked over at the front door of the school for less than a second and BAM!  There was glass and an awfully big crash of metal and glass shattering on the pavement…my body stopped like really quick and I could see the back panel of the truck coming my way. I swear, Mr. D., I was only going about 20 miles per hour. And it almost caused my bike to be totaled…”
   Since we had been studying Isaac Newton’s work earlier in the week, Larry surprised us when he said, “Hey…when my body and bike stopped so quickly, like on a dime, was that Newton’s laws or what?  Which of those laws was that, Mr. D?’’’
   What a grand moment for a teacher! Don’t get me wrong. I was sorry that it took an accident for Larry to have such an epiphany, and I was happy that no one got hurt, but hearing his story had served as a vehicle, in part, for him to make a connection of a scientific principle to his everyday life.
   I knew that all three of Newton’s Laws had played a part, but I felt a need for the students to make that discovery for themselves. My mentor, Bob Tierney, an original member of the Bay Area Writing Project at Berkeley, had spoken to thousands of teachers around the world about the “exhilaration of discovery.” His articles and books (How to Write to Learn Science, NSTA, 2014) mentioned its importance as well.
   To begin the discovery process, I instructed my students to write a journal entry about Larry’s accident, focusing on, and being aware of instances where forces of motion had come into play.  My accommodations included a longer period for writing and large pictures of motorcycles, trains, and cars taped on the walls near the front of the room, to help establish a tone. I didn’t know if or to what degree video clips might prejudice their writing, so I didn’t use any.
   Fifteen minutes later after the buzzer sounded, most of the students volunteered to read their entries about Larry’s crash. It quickly became evident that most of them were discovering, through Larry’s story and their own reflective writing, that all three of Newton’s laws had played a part in Larry’s wreck that fateful Friday morning. Andre R. wrote:
      “…Larry is lucky!  He could have been killed…I wonder what Mr. Newton would have said about that?...Of course, Mr. Newton didn’t invent the laws of nature, he just found a good way to describe their effects to the rest of us…The first law says that things in motion stay in motion and things at rest stay at rest. Well, everything was in motion, including Larry and his motorbike…When he hit the truck, it stopped him like Larry said. Actually he said that he saw the truck coming toward him!  The second law was something about momentum. Bigger things have more force in motion, something like that…the truck had lots more of that than Larry or his bike…and the third law is that all motion has an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not sure how this ties in with Larry. Like I said, Larry is a lucky dude. Keep your eyes on the road Larry!”
  Although there were a few misconceptions in their writing, we cleared these up with some “mild conversation.”

More structure…
   Often I used a more structured form of combining story-telling with writing. For example, when we began a unit on amphibians and reptiles in a biology class, I invited everyone to tell a personal snake story. I hypothesized that everyone in the world who could walk and talk had at least one snake story to share with anyone who’d listen.
   To model a good snake story, I went first. I used my facial expression, change in volume, and mannerisms to convey how frightened I was the day I encountered a water moccasin floating on a piece of lumber where some buddies and I were swimming. Everyone had had such experiences and was willing to tell them to the class.  When we were finished, I felt sorry for snakes, who had received such a bad rap from us humans.
   The readings were followed by our first writing component, which was a short composition in which the students recounted someone else’s snake story. I instructed them to interview that person after writing 5-8 probing questions intended to draw out information about their snake experience: Where did the snake story take place – woods, backyard, lake, etc? What was the weather like that day/night? Were there other animals in the vicinity?
   After interviewing their fellow classmates, we collaborated to prepare a large table on chart paper that had headings on tops of the vertical columns: “Habitat”/ “Time of Day” /  “Description of Snake”/ etc. That chart served as a basis for establishing a foundation for our studies on reptiles. We referred back to the chart paper throughout the unit, adding additional columns and data as we learned more information.

   Good teachers, I believe, have been telling stories for thousands of years. Aristotle, Socrates, Jesus, Dr. Seuss, and Ruth Webb all used story-telling to convey main points of all sorts of lessons. With a bit of effort and planning a mediocre lesson can become memorable for even less-sophisticated students. Combining writing with the story-telling can make help your students “go deeper” with the text and with their understanding of any discipline.


  1. John, I love this post and have already begun sharing it with colleagues. Your storytelling here makes this kind of teaching seem so much more accessible and do-able than reading a book/article on instructional strategies. Thank you so much!

  2. John--When storytelling collides with expertise and then gathers momentum with passion, the result: lessons and experiences that students will NEVER forget.

    Digression CAN be a good thing. I love the idea of you plotting where getting siderailed will work, as the kids are simultaneously scheming to get you off-track, not knowing that is exactly where you DO want to go--off the beaten path towards a preplanned destination.

    Thanks for sharing. You brought back memories of a few mesmerizing storyteller-teachers in my past...

  3. My high school biology teacher had us write an article in the point of view of a slice of pizza, detailing our travels through the human digestive system. Because I goofed off too much in this course, I did not learn the material. I started by writing about how painful the chewing felt, and how traces of my crust were beginning to breakdown into sugar from the saliva. Then I was forced down an esophagus, into a stomach where my crust was burned by acid, and my fats were slowly separating from my proteins. I was not enjoying this travel adventure, so I resisted. The hydrochloric acid was stronger than I was, and I was clearly losing this battle. I ran like a coward, and returned through the same esophagus and mouth, and landed in a wastebasket. I got an A.