Storytelling is a method of teaching that predates the modern education system. Stories are a human art form that allows learning to intersect with one’s lived experience, creating meaning and significance that transcends other instructional methods. Storytelling has been identified as a method for increasing student engagement, particularly when implemented in a participatory fashion, allowing students to craft their own stories that help connect the learning with emotions, thoughts and creativity. In addition, storytelling can bring forward multiple perspectives and artistic interpretations, allowing the teacher to build on the diversity of voices and promoting an inclusive learning environment. In creating their own stories, students can bring disparate information to life in a personally meaningful, creative, and connected fashion. In their stories, students can examine important issues or themes, including inequities or other systemic factors (e.g., regarding gender or ethnicity). Thus, storytelling can be a powerful liberating experience for students from marginalized groups, providing a source of personal and community empowerment by allowing students to weave their own identities and culture into their learning. Even school subjects like mathematics or science can be interwoven into students’ stories by situating the topics within the lived experience of both the storyteller and the story receiver.
Strategies for Storytelling
In our research of the storytelling approach, we have encountered a broad range of strategies used by teachers and scholars to engage students in creating and listening to personally meaningful stories. We have identified two primary modes that rely on, respectively, the use of multimedia, and oral communication. Multimedia approaches can include physical media like drawings and handwriting, or digital media such as web-based environments, digital video, or digitized graphic novels. In contrast, oral communication methods can include podcasts, community interviews and documentaries, spoken word, songwriting or drama. As a Critical Action approach, storytelling allows students to adopt a critical perspective in which they interpret and respond to the world, in relation to a particular topic or issue, adding their voice to the communities in which they may otherwise feel silent or silenced. The audience is an important component of any storytelling approach, and can include classmates, the wider student body (within the school), the local community (parents, neighbours), or the global audience via the Worldwide Web. Teachers must learn to support students in developing their story, presenting it to the audience, then reflecting on what they have learned and what they will take with them from the experience.
How does storytelling engage Critical Action?
The empowerment provided through telling one’s own story can help students create new and more positive understandings of their own life, in relation to school subjects. Moreover, by listening to peers’ stories, students, teachers, and other listeners can widen their own understandings. Finally, by reflecting on our own stories, in conversation or written reflections, students and teachers can further build meaning, perhaps gaining insight into possible actions, career directions, political or cultural movements, etc. The pedagogy of storytelling empowers students, providing a way for them to step outside the “dominant perspective” and give voice to their own experience: to “tell their own story” about any given topic.
What is required from teachers in adopting a storytelling approach?
Storytelling may be a new approach for teachers, differing dramatically from more traditional approaches. While there may be no “correct answers” in storytelling, it can be assessed (e.g., for the student’s inclusion of specified themes, for the coherence of their argument, or for their inclusion of multiple perspectives). To begin, the teacher must express to students “why we are doing this.” Students will be eager to participate, but as always, they will need to understand why they are engaging in this specific form of learning. Students should understand the purpose of their stories: Who will be the audience? What will the goal be – what are their stories hoping to effect? A helpful starting place could be to hold an initial conversation with students about the topic area that will be addressed in their stories – to expose and examine some of their own experiences and ideas, and to help them start thinking about possible stories they could tell. Next, teachers will need to be clear about the assignment, or “ground rules”: What form can students’ stories take? Are there any specific requirements for media? Finally, the teacher will need a clear plan about how students’ stories will be received: How will stories be shared with that audience? Students might be nervous or enthusiastic about particular audiences that might hear their story; and knowing the audience could certainly influence their story creation. Only through adequate preparation and deep consideration of students’ experiences and ideas can the teacher be sure to prepare a storytelling lesson that will empower students, help them to learn deeply and build connections to their ideas, and potentially influence the audience of peers and wider community.
For those CALE teachers who are interested in using this approach for their lesson designs, we will further explore the approaches in our later meetings, including video interviews with experts and classroom enactments, as well as many resources to help teachers design. Meanwhile, here are a couple examples that may help you better understand what storytelling looks like in practice.
Some Examples of Storytelling Projects
We Said project
In this project, students from around the globe individually created comic stories about the COVID-19 virus. This project allowed students to recognize how intersectionality can affect access to health care in developing and developed countries. The use of digital or traditional comic stories helped students illustrate, express, and realize how different aspects of their lives have changed due to the pandemic and helped connect with other student bodies and stories facing similar and different issues.
Voices to hear
In Voices to Hear, students in K – 12 and higher education created podcasts to understand further how particular tribes in Northern Idaho make decisions related to the environment (Voices to Hear – Education, 2019). The use of oral storytelling or podcast provided an avenue for students to learn and understand issues about sustainability through an Indigenous lens as well as scientific inquiry.