Pedagogical Moments: The Story

Once, long ago in a land across the sea, there lived a Great Teacher. To this Great Teacher there came a young man of an influential family. This young man sat down with those who surrounded the Great Teacher. He listened to the words of authority and wisdom. The young man, like many young men before him, had a question. He asked the Great Teacher, “Sir, what must I do so that I may live in the hereafter?”

The Great Teacher turned to the young man and said, “Do you know the Law?”

The young man replied that he had been taught the Law from his boyhood.

 “And what is the first part of the Law?” asked the Great Teacher.

“It is to love the Lord God with one’s whole heart, mind, and strength,” stated the young man. Then to further show his learning he continued, “and the second Law is to love one’s neighbor as he loves himself.”

“If you truly follow these Laws,” the Great Teacher replied, “you will live.”

 But the young man was not satisfied. He asked, “but who is my neighbor?”

The Great Teacher turned to those who listened and said, “A certain man was on a journey when he fell among thieves who took what he had and left him for dead…”

Why should you use a story?

The use of the story is an ancient pedagogical method. Ancient oral history was presented as story—Creation, the Fall of Man. Myths of human existence are man’s story version of life—the Gilgamesh epic. Values are passed on through story—the Illiad of Homer. Stories connect the listener to thoughts and ideas that are greater than the simply stated fact or opinion—Aesop’s fables. Stories are powerful tools you can use in your classroom.

Stories catch our attention and help us remember things. There has been more than one Monday morning conversation in my first-grade classroom about a story the minister told at church the day before.

Stories bring to life other places and times. They invite us to see other perspectives than our own. Stories add flesh to otherwise dry facts.

Stories pass down traditions and shape the loves in our lives.

When do you use a story?

Stories have a place in every part of the school curriculum. Some subjects, such as reading and history, are story-oriented subjects. Can you imagine trying to teach first graders to read with no story, only lists of words or facts? It is the story that first makes reading palatable and attainable. Story also has its place in math and science and even in physical education.

Story in reading and literature

Literature and reading are all about story. These are the subjects that dissect the story and examine its contents. But in all the dissection be careful that you don’t kill the story. Nothing makes reading or literature class more boring than not allowing the story to speak for itself.

Story in history

History is full of stories of real people, places, and happenings and it is perhaps my favorite subject to study. I’ve found, though, that many students and teachers list history as one of their least favorite subjects. Is it because they encounter history as names, places, events, and dates to be learned devoid of the story? Blessed is the history class taught by a teacher who makes Alexander the Great and his discouraged soldiers in far-flung India live again; who captures the terror of Londoners during the Battle of Britain; who walks with George Washington through the starving army camp at Valley Forge; or who makes the escape from Saigon by helicopter during Operation Frequent Wind seem real.

History is an excellent class to bring in story to what is being studied. If you can’t tell the story, find a story that will do it for you. Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story is a book of short anecdotes that can be read. Or find his old radio addresses on the internet and listen to them. Biographies can add interesting flesh to dry bone facts. Choose stories that bring the personal close. Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and The Candy Bomber are two books that provide stories into lives of real people living during Nazi Germany and the Berlin blockade.

Story in science

The natural world is full of stories from Creation to the James Webb telescope. But science can also be thought of as dull, dry, and uninteresting to the student who doesn’t understand it. Bring the story back into the dry facts. Introduce young nature learners to the stories of Robert McClung such as Bufo the Story of a Toad, Tiger the Story of a Swallowtail Butterfly and others. That is, if you can find them. Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus not only delights young students but gives them information in a fun and interesting way.

Biographies and stories of scientists add human interest.      

Story in math and language

While stories about the history of math and word usage and their importance in the world can be added to the daily lesson, story is also a great way to teach and recall concepts.

When teaching simple addition and subtraction to beginners turn the facts into stories about the students. Andy’s mother gave him five cookies and told him to give two of them to his brother. He has how many left? The use of story involves imagination, has sensory appeal, and holds attention. Stories can also be mnemonics to aid the memory of certain facts. For the fact family of 4,7, and 11; Polly can go to Seven-Eleven and buy four Slurpees.

Share the story of the Penn Walking Purchase when teaching perimeter and area to fourth graders. Make up a story about Tom and the fence he needs to keep his sheep in their pen. I can still remember my algebra teacher telling us a story about her figuring a time, distant, rate problem on a recent trip. Bring the story into the class.

Language and words all have stories. In spelling class share the story of language change, the Great Vowel Shift, and how the printing press helped freeze spelling. Once students know that knife was once pronounced /k/ /n/ /ih/ /f/ /eh/ (and yes that was in English) they will know how to spell knife.

Humans are hard-wired for story. Tap into this inherent trait to bring interest and purpose into your classes.

…And the Great Teacher turned to the young man and asked, “Which of these three was the neighbor?”


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