Teaching as Storytelling

In a literature course in which students were struggling with poetry, I asked the class to talk about how they read. I prepared them with a series of questions. Do particular words or turns of phrase delight you? Do you skip long chunks of description to get more quickly to the next appearance of a character? Do you have trouble enjoying a text with characters you don’t like? Do you more easily remember the plot summary or a certain scene from texts you’ve read? Students were happy to reflect on their reading tendencies and on my comments about how reading preferences shape understanding. The exercise demonstrated that learning has a plot. Hearing the range of strategies used by their classmates, students became aware that they were each living their own unique learning stories, stories that they are able to help shape.

Teaching is telling students a story that can intersect with these individual ones. Learning is a choose-your-own-adventure story in which students, guided by reflection on the learning process and course content, can recognize how their individual experiences become part of the story. The teaching story creates a through-line of the subject matter, the teacher, the students, and the broader learning contexts. When I teach, I narrate and shape this story in ways that help students recognize how much their self-reflection can be involved in learning. If I tell a story in which my students appear along with the subject matter, then they are invited to learn about themselves too.

By creating opportunities for students to approach learning not just as students but as people, learning may deepen from the understanding of course material to self-understanding. When learning is presented as a story, students are more likely to understand the material as relevant to their lives. I incorporate the person in teaching and learning, making flexible but structured space for students to consider their relationships to ideas, texts, and other people.

My goal is to enable students to risk approaching learning as people who might be affected by what they read and by what they create. Taking this risk depends on students’ having confidence and finding a purpose in self-reflection.

I developed a strategy for facilitating such reflection while teaching a large second-year course. I had students write reflection paragraphs in response to prompts I gave them during lectures. This assignment grew out of those initial questions I asked students about how they read. I wanted them to reflect, to stop and think actively during lectures. Each prompt requires an individual response, and that helps create a relationship between each student and the subject matter. Since I did not formally grade these reflections—anyone who completed each reflection received a full participation mark—students were free to experiment and explore. Since I read and reported on the reflections, there was pressure to put effort into the assignment but not as much pressure to do it “right.” Students had the time and reason to consider themselves, with less emphasis on what was expected of them and more emphasis on what they were honestly feeling and thinking in relation to the material.

Through reflection, students shape their learning identities. Through participation in discussion, they shape their learning communities. After the time for reflection and writing, I ask students to respond to the prompt verbally. This conversation allows students to share their ideas or questions with peers. In the following class, after I have read the reflections, I report back on common trends and make connections among the diverse ways of approaching the prompt. It also allows me to return to content the students struggled with, seeking new ways to explain it. I receive feedback on how the course is going from their responses as well.

A story is an engaging way to express ideas because it gives them meaning. Stories arrange diverse elements into meaningful combinations. In order to have students be active in conceptualizing their own learning, they need to know their own learning stories. If I teach material through the narrative of a learning community, I create the conditions for students to be aware of these stories.

Contact Dale Tracy at dale.tracy@queensu.ca.

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