“Once upon a time…” Telling stories in the Classroom?

(Second in a continuing series) Sitting and rocking, telling stories to grandchildren and creating new worlds for them is one of my favorite things to do. And in many ways it is identical to what I often do in the university classroom – tell stories that help my students better understand the part of the world we are investigating. I especially enjoy telling my own stories, stories that illustrate and explore and challenge. I enjoy leading my students into the significant decisions I had to make during my career, using the actual outcome as a comparison to the creative (if unpractical) solutions that often are offered. I am honest about the risks that I faced and honest in explaining when my actions failed. Where else can you find an audience that actually enjoys hearing those well-worn stories? It is amazing how often the lessons of the past still are applicable today, just wrapped in different clothes. I also include stories of others, or I make up stories that add real people, real emotions and real world outcomes to an academic issue. And it can be a really fun activity, enhancing the learning even more!

My goal is to present my lessons to my students in a way that is memorable enough for them to remember the content after the exam is passed! It is one thing to be an expert yourself, especially relying upon the more novel uses of technology and other data- driven methods of communicating. But where are the intimacy and the art, the more human approach to communicating that supports creativity and expansion of imaginative solutions? In this new world of education, my classroom time often is competing with all those tabs on the browser and the emails/texting that are built into today’s society.
The real issue? … Our educational system puts a premium on intellectual reasoning at the expense of “remarkability”. But we as mere humans are better served and effected by the remarkable, not the ordinary! So what we call learning often emphasizes memorizing concepts, dates, and data. And because the professional world is comprised mostly of university graduates, we now overemphasize theoretical models at the expense of those that tell stories!

As the advent of Emotional Intelligence and other behavioral theories indicate, it is the symbiosis of data and emotion that makes for an effective resolution to most human problems. The facts about any situation are easy to find and understand, but it is the emotions that come from hearing them in the form of a story is remarkable in a way that facts can never be.
As illustrated by a recent article by CrickCrackClub.com, a story-telling advocacy forum, the following provides a glimpse of the benefits of making stories and storytelling a part of daily class teaching. Some (but not all) of what is proposed may equally be achieved through other activities, however I would make the case for the immediacy, energy, speed, adaptability and sheer fun of oral storytelling.

Enjoyment
Stories engage and entertain: people enjoy listening to stories. Narrative has a timeless appeal to people regardless of age, social background, religion, culture and ethnicity. A good story is like a good joke, and there is a huge imperative to share it, and in this way, pass on the experience. This is how stories and other oral traditions travel.

Familiarity
The oral narrative form is familiar and so represents a useful tool for teaching. It allows the learner to engage with and consider new concepts, ideas and issues without having to deal with an unfamiliar mode of teaching and communication. Narrative based experiences which are responsive to and inclusive of the audience, can make complex ideas manageable and meaningful for students, whether they are listening to stories, or using stories themselves to communicate their understanding or ideas.


Focus and investigate

Stories can be used to focus and investigate. This focus may be on an issue, an artefact, an interaction or connection. A story may relate to a specific epoch or historic event, to a specific geographic area, environment or building, to a theme or to a person. Once the focus is established, then the storytelling and the work surrounding it can be used to investigate this element further.

Visualise and perceive
Stories generate and inspire incredibly imaginative responses in the listener. The language of the story and its delivery stimulates a series of vivid images on the ‘cinema screen’ of the mind’s eye. These images are often enduring and powerful as they are generated from within the individual in direct response to words and descriptions, facial expression and body language used by the storyteller.
Because the audience is not being fed external visual images, the imagination of each individual is free to create its own: drawing not only on the story, but on personal experiences of people and places, social interactions, sites, sounds, smells and sensations, dreams and nightmares.

Images endure in the mind when facts are often forgotten.
Once the listener has experienced their imagination when being told a story, they have a rich resource to draw on when retelling the story themselves, and it is the strength of this visual imagery that often provides an imperative to pass the story on.
Empathise, imagine, interpret and respond
Response to story is immediate and occurs as the narrative is being delivered and received. This response is fired by imagination, empathy with characters and situations, interpretation and visualisation of the narrative and the analogies, metaphors and allegories within it. Narrative involves characters: whether they be children or adults or even strictly ‘human’ these provide a point of reference for empathy.

Explore, describe, enquire and question
Responding to story, through interactions between storyteller and audience; in the exchanges that follow a storytelling session and when retelling a narrative, are processes of exploration, description, enquirya and questioning.
Order, analyse, reflect, compare, connect and make judgments
Exploration, enquiry and questioning can be further developed into a more detailed analysis of, for example, motivation – how and why characters acted and interacted in the way they did; cause and effect and the interconnections between the various elements of the story on a range of scales: both geographic and temporal; literal and metaphoric.

Have fun
Stories abound with playfulness. They can break the rules that apply to everyday experience and perception, and at the same time can conform to patterns of inevitability. Either way they present opportunities for listeners to engage with the prediction of outcomes. Trickster tales demonstrate cunning at the service of selfishness or for the sake of the common good. Tales of fools emphasize the nature of wisdom, and riddling tales exercise ideas of logic and choice.
Discussion relating to solving the problems faced by characters within such narratives help develop thinking and problem solving skills. The teller can present any situation they wish, while the listener responding to the story is given the opportunity to truly think ‘outside the box’.

Construct meaning, assimilate and apply understanding
Developing understanding leads to the listener and the storyteller, constructing meaning from the narrative and with further support this can be then applied to more familiar situations, contexts and experiences. In this way the meaning of the narrative, however old its source and where and when it is set, can be given contemporary relevance for the individuals hearing, retelling and working with the story here and now.

Accepting, understanding and dealing with change
Stories deal with change. Change is something that everyone, without exception, has to deal with. The changes to the character may be social or economic, or physical, or emotional, as in the awakening of remorse and pity in so many epic heroes.

: underline;”>
Focus and investigate
Stories can be used to focus and investigate. This focus may be on an issue, an artefact, an interaction or connection. A story may relate to a specific epoch or historic event, to a specific geographic area, environment or building, to a theme or to a person. Once the focus is established, then the storytelling and the work surrounding it can be used to investigate this element further.

Visualise and perceive
Stories generate and inspire incredibly imaginative responses in the listener. The language of the story and its delivery stimulates a series of vivid images on the ‘cinema screen’ of the mind’s eye. These images are often enduring and powerful as they are generated from within the individual in direct response to words and descriptions, facial expression and body language used by the storyteller.
Because the audience is not being fed external visual images, the imagination of each individual is free to create its own: drawing not only on the story, but on personal experiences of people and places, social interactions, sites, sounds, smells and sensations, dreams and nightmares.

Images endure in the mind when facts are often forgotten.
Once the listener has experienced their imagination when being told a story, they have a rich resource to draw on when retelling the story themselves, and it is the strength of this visual imagery that often provides an imperative to pass the story on.
Empathise, imagine, interpret and respond
Response to story is immediate and occurs as the narrative is being delivered and received. This response is fired by imagination, empathy with characters and situations, interpretation and visualisation of the narrative and the analogies, metaphors and allegories within it. Narrative involves characters: whether they be children or adults or even strictly ‘human’ these provide a point of reference for empathy.

Explore, describe, enquire and question
Responding to story, through interactions between storyteller and audience; in the exchanges that follow a storytelling session and when retelling a narrative, are processes of exploration, description, enquirya and questioning.
Order, analyse, reflect, compare, connect and make judgments
Exploration, enquiry and questioning can be further developed into a more detailed analysis of, for example, motivation – how and why characters acted and interacted in the way they did; cause and effect and the interconnections between the various elements of the story on a range of scales: both geographic and temporal; literal and metaphoric.

Have fun
Stories abound with playfulness. They can break the rules that apply to everyday experience and perception, and at the same time can conform to patterns of inevitability. Either way they present opportunities for listeners to engage with the prediction of outcomes. Trickster tales demonstrate cunning at the service of selfishness or for the sake of the common good. Tales of fools emphasize the nature of wisdom, and riddling tales exercise ideas of logic and choice.
Discussion relating to solving the problems faced by characters within such narratives help develop thinking and problem solving skills. The teller can present any situation they wish, while the listener responding to the story is given the opportunity to truly think ‘outside the box’.

Construct meaning, assimilate and apply understanding
Developing understanding leads to the listener and the storyteller, constructing meaning from the narrative and with further support this can be then applied to more familiar situations, contexts and experiences. In this way the meaning of the narrative, however old its source and where and when it is set, can be given contemporary relevance for the individuals hearing, retelling and working with the story here and now.

Accepting, understanding and dealing with change
Stories deal with change. Change is something that everyone, without exception, has to deal with. The changes to the character may be social or economic, or physical, or emotional, as in the awakening of remorse and pity in so many epic heroes.

Advertisements

What do you get when you cross a teacher with an elephant?… A teacher you can never forget!

(First in a continuing series) I love to laugh, especially those big ones where your belly shakes and your eyes tear up. There have been many studies verifying the therapeutic value of laughing in developing well-being and reducing stress. Laughter and humor are basic elements of the human condition, and it has motivated me to think about the role of such a powerful element in the classroom. I know that I use humor all the time in class because it helps me be a better teacher!

When we think about our favorite instructors and consider what made them so memorable to us – we might find that many of them were funny?  Teachers who use wit and humor in their classrooms are often seen as more interesting and authentic. Humor can even help to foster the student-teacher relationship, which in turn creates a positive and welcoming classroom environment. When meeting with a new group of students, a well-placed joke or quip can go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the term. The best thing about the use of humor in the classroom is that even if your joke bombs, it still accomplishes the goal of appearing light-hearted – as long as you can laugh at yourself. Self-deprecating humor can be effective in demonstrating that a faculty member is fun and approachable.

Certainly we all enjoy having fun, and my humor, even if bad, does usually increase the fun quotient. But beyond the fun factor, humor can be an effective way to engage students and activate learning. A recent NEA Survey included the following powerful role that humor provides them in the classroom:

  • Create a Comfortable Learning Environment   When teachers share a laugh or a smile with students, they help students feel more comfortable and open to learning. Using humor brings enthusiasm, positive feelings, and optimism to the classroom.“Because I know that a good laugh eases tension, increases creativity, … I will do almost anything to get the class rolling with laughter — voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements, hilarious personal stories (of which I have way too many), ridiculous examples…and I encourage my students to do the same.”  — Kaywin Cottle, Speech Communications teacher (NEA Facebook)
  • Lighten the mood and reduce the tension Even if you’re not naturally funny, you still can lighten things up a bit. “In Health class, we learned the cerebellum is responsible for balance and coordination. When I trip over their backpacks, I might make a joke that my cerebellum is taking a nap.” –Deirdre Sexton (NEA Facebook)
  • Engaging the student  Every teacher’s goal is to be effective in the classroom and help students learn. Educators want their students to be eager and engaged. Humor has the power to fuel that engagement.
  • Maximizes Learning Fire Up Their Brains…. During her research on learning and humor, educator-researcher Mary Kay Morrison looked at brain scans that showed high levels of activity in multiple areas of the brain when humor was used in conversation and instruction. “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom,” says Morrison, author of Using Humor to Maximize Learning. “In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”
  • Being at ease The key thing to remember is to do what’s comfortable for you. Not only will it make you more approachable, it will also help put students more at ease in your classroom.

 I use storytelling as a main part of my classroom delivery, a subject of a later blog posting, but the humor, no matter how corny serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism. I work hard in class to stimulate discussion and interaction, helping students take the risk of expressing their point of view. It is much easier to do so when the mood is inviting and less threatening.

Research also establishes that humor helps individuals cope with stress. It relaxes them. But not all the functions of humor are positive. Humor used divisively or to disparage others weakens group cohesion. Humor has negative impacts when it is used as a means of control. For example, given the power dynamic in the classroom, it is highly inappropriate for instructors to target students by making fun of their ignorance or beliefs.

Not every instructor feels comfortable being funny and I would never suggest they add jokes to their lectures. But you can quote funny stories from other people or use materials that contain humor to accomplish similar advantages. And whatever else you say about humor, whether you agree with me or not, you have to admit that there is nothing like a hearty laugh!