It was one of my most depressing moments ever as a teacher. I’m in front of the room, my mouth was moving, but every student was frozen as if their brain was on screen saver. Maybe you also have memories of sharing content with your class, but your students just stare back at you. Glazed eyes, nothing’s happening, they are zoned out. This has happened to the best of us, at least once.
I will give you a simple tool you can use to ensure this never happens to you again.
Ask your students if they would like the thrill and kudos that come with discovering one of the great elements of all time on the periodic table. Hands go up. First, take a deep breath… and exhale slowly.
Oxygen was actually discovered independently by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in 1772. But he rarely got much credit for the discovery.
A little over a year later, in 1774, Joseph Priestley not only made the same discovery, but his work was published first. Now it takes just a bit of imagination to turn this into the question, “Why did one inventor become famous and the other not?”
Was it because Priestley turned in his homework (publication) on time? Maybe, but that’s also a cool connection to modern-day school.
Stories like the one above can hook in your students’ brains.
Most ALL successful television shows have a story (crime shows, drama, and even sports). Your brain system ensures you are a story-maker. It is our stories and narratives that guide our lives. Where did this all start?
There is evidence of storytelling by our ancestors dating back thousands of years (Coe, Aiken, & Palmer (2006). More recently, science has unraveled the how and why we have a ‘storytelling’ brain. (Martinez-Conde et al., 2019). Your brain seems to be designed to create a story or reason for the ‘why and how’ something happens. “Why did you do that?” Or, “Tell me what happened.”
This system is comprised of the activity in your verbal/language hemisphere (usually the left side) and the seamless activation of memories that support the narrative (temporal lobes). Let’s say something bad happens. You’ve heard another say, “That must have happened for a reason.” We humans are constantly trying make sense of our world which is often random, chaotic, and certainly not fair. We do this by making up reasons to explain things. We are driven to weave narratives.
Now we turn to, “What’s the way to hook in students with a 100 yr. old strategy?” Movies! From silent films to home movies, all moviemakers say, “I just want a good story.” A crime report by a local police department becomes fodder for a 20/20 segment on TV. A novel set of superheroes has just the right STORY, and it becomes the Marvel Comics movie sensation.
Many people go helpless and say, “I can’t tell stories. Some can do it, and others can’t.” Listen, this is all about mindset. (Have we heard that before?) Stop focusing on what you can’t do. Begin with simple tools you can use at work starting tomorrow.
Stories are a great way to engage students of all ages. Improve all your stories with simple tools. There are five easy-to-use tools listed below. Just pick one, try it out, tweak it. After a week or two, you’ll be ready to use a second idea.
1. First, begin with the most dramatic and suspenseful opening you can. Recall my opening in this newsletter: “It was one of my most depressing moments ever as a teacher.”? Sounds like the middle of the story, which it is. Typically, I would fill in the other story parts later for the audience.
Good stories engage from the start. One of the key ingredients to use is to engage emotions with both highs and lows (Green, Chatham & Sestir, 2012). I can promise you’ll have fewer disconnected students with a dramatic opening.
2. What else can you use in your class? Remember to use props. Get yourself a ‘prop box’ and make it up to be a bit mysterious. Fill it with hats and random objects that you and your students can use imaginatively. Get prop materials from recycling centers or your own closets. A prop gives you an animated part of the story to talk about.
What’s the easiest close-by prop? A book. When you start ‘telling’ your story, it’s OK to have the book nearby to look at if you forget a part. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You are a student again!
Props are a great hook that anyone can use! Many have found that covering up the prop box creates curiosity and keeps the students hooked in. I have done this dozens of times, especially when using a real brain as a prop.
3. Another story starter? Using real life events, conversations, or high lights / low lights with a student, colleague, or friend are great ways to start. Leave out the names or any clues that give away the identity of the character. You might open your story with, “My heart sank, I dropped my jaw, frozen in place. One of my good friends just told me something really crazy. But first, here’s how it started…”
4. Learn from others. Read stories widely. Pick up as many different world folktales, fables, myths, and legends as you can.
Watch good storytellers and take mental notes about how they do it. Every storyteller is different, and you can learn something from them all.
Here’s an example from a history or math book. In math, the story of how the value of Pi was discovered is straight out of a CSI forensics playbook. The Pi formula may have been devised around 250 BC by the Greek mathematician Archimedes. Then, around 150 AD, Greek-Roman scientist Ptolemy gave a more accurate value for π (Pi). More than 100 years later, the Wei Kingdom mathematician Liu Hui created an algorithm to obtain a value of π of 3.1416, which was the best estimate of Pi for the next 800 years.
There is a great detective story in the sequence in the discovery and value of Pi. It is just waiting for a math teacher to create the learning hooks. The story can include science, math, and biology. There’s a great story here if you wanted to tell it with props, world maps and even end with a real pie to be shared after the math seatwork is done!
5. Build your confidence by reading your student’s picture books or chapter books with an interesting voice. Stop to ask questions. Make the book reading interactive. It will help you create a shared event with a story. Pick stories with small numbers of characters and repeating events, as these are easiest to remember. Having said that, pick any story you like — no, that you love! If it captivates you, it will captivate your students, too.
In summary, keep your stories short and simple. Engage the emotions. Use props often. Write the stories down in a notebook. Writing helps you remember a story, and it models the same to the children. My favorite resource is: Imperative Narratives (Mike Tveten).
That’s it for this month; it’s closing time. Now for my biggest fear. Maybe you still use the ‘time bias.’ Many will read this and then respond with, “I’m just too busy; I’ve got no time for these changes or strategies to help me and my students soar like eagles.” If you feel that way, I am sorry; I have failed you. I failed to activate your choice of playing the ‘long game.’ Biases are shortcuts to save time and are often about the ‘short game.’
You see, life goes by so fast that many would say, “Live in the moment, smell the roses, life is short.” And they’re right. Life is about savoring the smell of the flowers, eating a great meal, and enjoying hugs from friends and family.
But most everything in life that’s worth having over a lifetime also requires the ‘the long game.’ At school, it includes building relationships and fostering cognitive capacity. At home, the list includes maintaining relationships, appreciating the daily blessings, and saving for retirement. Choose right now; what have you decided on… long or short? Then begin… right now.