Recently I found a quote that resonated with my teaching practice and the way I built my classroom atmosphere: “I learned how stories could answer questions, solve dilemmas, make what was strange familiar and what was familiar rare”. When I teach Drama, as much as possible, I use storytelling as the basis for our learning.
As with any classroom, the atmosphere and environment is crucial to students being interested and engaged with your lesson. It stands to reason that your students are impacted by your mood, your beliefs and the standards you set for the room. The beauty of story telling is that it is, by its nature, engaging. Too often students arrive in my classes and, as McElroy describes, “Their thinking has been dulled into accepting the spoon-fed answers, and they are “boxed into the test” .
I am not suggesting that Drama is the only subject that can engage students – in fact quite the opposite. But, it is unfortunate how often students are afraid to be creative. Students need to know their ideas are safe and welcome, even encouraged in the class. This is where a well timed story can make the difference in the class.
In my first year of teaching, I felt acutely what I call the ‘pressure of curriculum’. Too often I moved past, or skimmed over, topics that students were connecting with. Because I churned through the content, my classes felt unsettled, uneasy and even disrupted by my need to keep moving. More and more in my teaching, I have transitioned between the rigidity and focus of strict lesson planning, to involving the class in the stories and anecdotes that can be built over time. When I talk about stories, they don’t need to be off topic or tangential, but instead should be involved in the lesson. Bring the content to life, share information about the characters and figures in history, and create interest in your topic.
At more than one point, my cynicism has kicked in and I have thought students are ‘taking me for a ride’ with the story telling and sharing of their own ideas and voices. It is easy to spend too long on any part of a class, and this can cost you time. As teachers we must know our own balance between allowing expression, and maintaining an urgent work ethic.
In general, however, I have found that my story telling has a number of untold benefits in the room. Students tend to relax, share their own ideas, and collaborate more often in the room. The atmosphere and environment of the room softens, becomes more relaxed, and students are able to relate better to their peers as well, you the teacher.
Most of all what I find a well timed story can do, is build student’s curiosity. Setting up real life examples, situations and experiences can hook students in, whatever the subject. McElroy shares again, the power of a story “The details allows a listener to not only hear, but to see, feel, smell, and sense the action of the story.” If the chance arises, why not use a story to hook your audience? Chances are, they will listen.
All quotes in this blog post are taken from Storytelling in the Classroom, Colleen J. McElroy, 2006.