“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.

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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.

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Blue Light Special at Farber College

I guess I have been around too long, since I still remember K-Mart’s surprise sales. The loudspeaker would say “Blue Light Special on Aisle 3” and the stampede would be on for a genuine bargain. It was a great promotion for a few years and attracted many customers. It also helped shape the image of the institution. You can imagine my surprise and recollection when I heard the report last week that in the most recent year, schools in higher education collected only 59% of the full tuition/fees for attending. Yes, in the aggregate, higher ed’s discount pricing amounted to a 41% discount. Now that is a Blue Light Special!

My first reaction was a predictable knee-jerk criticism of what I called “Higher Education Socialism”. It seems so obvious – universities continue to raise tuition and fees at relatively high rates, so that those students and their families that had more wealth (or had been more frugal in their savings) would pay full freight and thereby subsidize the poorer students who were unable to afford the high price tags. So the Ivy League schools are able to charge the maximum increase the market will bear and use the extra funds to support the poorer valedictorians. (With an endowment larger than most countries I doubt Harvard really needs the cash!) So we have a neat transfer of wealth that increases opportunities for those in need and is supported by those most able to carry the freight. Depending on your political persuasion you might find this either very pleasing or very disdainful. But it does seem effective. Of course, each year these figures are announced there is a great deal of contentious discussion. One of the most compelling discussions was posed by Jordan Weissman in the Atlantic Magazine of May 12, 2013 in his article “How Colleges Are Selling Out the Poor to Court the Rich.”

I’ll have to admit that I was completely taken back by this story, I guess because of my naivety, but it sounded preposterous. He starts with the proposition that if the government aggregated all the funds it dispenses to students through a variety of loans, tax breaks, grants and other benefits, it could almost pay the entire tuition bill for ALL students in public colleges and universities (approximately $60 Billion). Of course this wouldn’t be very pleasing to the private schools and for-profits of the world, but it is an interesting concept that illustrates the dimensions of the dilemma.

But as I read I became more and more persuaded about the dynamics at work here. The additional factors that were added to the discussion were the role of Federal loans and other Federal tax benefits in the mix, combined with the increasing pressure on many colleges to compete for the better students.

Weissman refers to a report released recently by Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation on the state of financial aid in higher ed. It documents the “obscene prices some of the poorest undergraduates are asked to pay at hundreds of educational institutions across the country, even as these same schools lavish discounts on the children of wealthier families in order to lure them onto campus.” How so, you may ask?

These mid- and lower tier schools are relying on federal grants to cover the costs of needy students while using their own resources to furnish aid to richer undergrads. “With their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue,” the report continues, “the nation’s public and private four-year colleges and universities are in danger of shutting down what has long been a pathway to the middle class for low-income and working-class students.” The theory was that, in a time of tight state budgets, charging wealthy students exorbitantly would allow them to charge poorer students reasonably. It hasn’t worked out that way. Unlike twenty years ago, the report explains, it is now more common for colleges to hand out aid packages based on “merit” rather than financial need. And “merit” is often a rather nebulous concept. In other words, low-income families are routinely being asked to fork over more than half of their annual income for the privilege of sending their child off to campus for a year, much more than other families.

Of course these institutions continue to stress the Federal loan program for newer students. These schools are accepting government money meant to make college accessible for low-income Americans, yet still charge them extravagantly. Meanwhile, they continue to hand aid off to wealthier students, either because they score higher on the SAT or bring in extra revenue.

The results are big discounts and lower prices for the wealthier students so that the school can be more competitive for the better students as well as increase its “ranking”. The poorer students are paying increasing shares of their income as the school’s aid is shifting elsewhere. No wonder student defaults on Federal loans are so problematic.

What are we left with? For me, the only way to make a difference is to find ways to lower the cost of higher education for all students, regardless of income. Secondly, the Federal loan program must be revamped to include more restrictive rules limiting tuition increases and their linkage with loans amounts. For too long colleges have raised tuition and fees each year to absorb the increasing loan limits. This is the very reason that students now graduate (or worse, drop out) owing large sums they will never repay.

At least Blue Light Specials applied to all customers equally!