How to Tell Great Stories in the ClassroomFeb 22, 2022
When you were a kid, did you have that teacher who was an amazing storyteller? It didn't matter if they were telling stories about a big crazy thing that happened or just a little anecdote about their ride to school, you could always count on that teacher to tell stories? And you can also count on everyone in the classroom to be hooked on every word they said? Yeah, me too.
I had a teacher named Mr. Whitney who could make you feel like the history of the world was a story that you were a part of. He would start off his stories cordially as if he was just going to deliver any old lecture, but he would start to build suspense and grow more and more animated as the story progresses.
He’d give little details that help paint the picture for all of us kids in the room, and inevitably at the climax of the story he would explode with enthusiasm and drama. He’d make the French showing up at the end of the Revolutionary War this huge reveal, or he’d paint a picture of the Concentration Camps during the Holocaust that would break your heart and make you want to learn more once his story was over.
Storytelling is an ancient tool every teacher should use.
Mr. Whitney is a storyteller, one of the oldest professions in the world. He was utilizing a tool that’s been around for millennia to engage his students and make the learning stick. This is what stories do. They engage us, they move us, and they help us remember. And this is why we loved our teachers who told them well.
Now, how did they tell them so well? What makes a storyteller a great storyteller? Because if you're an educator and one of your primary goals is to engage your students, maybe move them in some way, and have them actually learn and remember what you’re teaching, we should take advantage of the power of stories. As someone who likes to tell stories myself, I think the answer to telling good stories comes down to 3 main things: Understanding, practice, and bravery.
Understand what makes a great story.
First, understanding. Good storytellers understand what needs to be in every story you tell. You might have learned this in English class, but every story has to have the conflict, a plot, a theme (which is a universal lesson or take away from the story), it’s got to have characters, and a setting. When telling a story, we have to make sure all of those things are in it. What went wrong and now has to be solved? What’s the problem? Is there suspense as the story moves along and builds? What’s the bigger lesson I want my audience to have beyond the actual details of the story? Will they care about the characters in the story? What details can I provide that actually help paint a picture for my audience and put them in that story?
Understanding these key elements is crucial. How many times have you heard someone try to tell you a story but they give away the ending right away and so you sit through the rest of it not really interested because you already know where it's going? Or have you ever heard a story that just isn't that interesting because you can't relate to it at all because there’s no theme? To become great at storytelling, we have to understand stories. So the next time you're watching a show on Netflix or listening to a podcast or reading a book, take note of where you see these elements being used and try to use them in the next story you tell. Which brings me to number two, which is practice.
We have to continually practice storytelling.
Here's the deal about storytelling. It takes dedicated practice. We can know the structure of a great story and know that we need to build suspense, but it's really about practicing those stories over and over, finding new details to throw in and new ways to present those details before the story is ready to be told well. And so if you have a story that you want to tell to an audience, I suggest writing it out.
Then say it out loud, and ask the question, how can I add more suspense? Are there any fine details that I can add to it that stretches it out more, raises more questions, and will get the audience more invested? Or it might be asking what do I need to remove from this story? What details are not supporting the suspense? Is there anything I'm telling in this story that doesn’t help engage the audience or lend to the theme that I am trying to present?
Look for stories in your everyday life.
And the best way to tell stories in a lecture or presentation to students is to make sure storytelling isn't just happening when you’re giving a lecture or talk. Practice it in your everyday life. Look for the stories that unfold when you go to the grocery store or when you spill your coffee on the way to work, or you remember from childhood. Tell them to friends and family. Take mental notes of what makes them laugh, what loses their attention, what makes them lean in.
The more we tell stories, the better we will get at it. There’s lots of people to practice on, because honestly, who doesn't love a good story and a good storyteller?
Storytelling takes courage.
And lastly, courage. The best stories are the ones that are told most earnestly, where the storyteller isn’t afraid to tell it with zest and emotion. But sometimes it can feel awkward to be enthusiastic in front of others. Whether it's your students or some other audience, it can be easy to tone yourself down for fear of looking silly. But the truth is, enthusiasm is contagious, and people want it.
For the past two years, I've had to teach mostly virtually, whether it's to students, or teachers, or professionals. That means I'm telling stories in my basement to my computer and a bunch of Zoom screens that are often turned off and muted. I'm sure you know this, but this can be challenging. I’ve been tempted to tone down my enthusiasm when I'm telling stories, because I can't really gauge how my audience is reacting when I'm telling them in a virtual space. But what I've learned more and more in the past two years is that people still want animated, good storytelling.
I get such stronger feedback when I overcome the fear of sounding overanimated, or as kids would say, extra, and authentically tell stories. This requires courage from me. And as I've moved back into in-person speaking and teaching, I've taken this lesson with me. Virtual teaching has actually made me a better storyteller. Audiences crave authenticity, and so if a story warrants enthusiasm and energy, we should give it no matter how awkward it may feel at times.
Keep telling stories.
So whether you are teaching writing letters to kindergarteners or how photosynthesis works to middle school students, see if you can find more ways to tell stories in your work. Because I think it's pretty clear that not only will your students not quickly forget the information that they learn in the stories you tell, they won't soon forget the storyteller either.
Want more on storytelling? Check out my podcast, The Epic Classroom Podcast with Trevor Muir.
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