Tell me a story…

I have to give credit to a twitter convo between @wmchamberlain, @spencerideas, and @shareski for being the spark for this post.

twitter convo

Have we forgotten how to hold kid’s interest without tricks?

I heard a storyteller once tell a tale that I have not forgotten.

I can remember that she walked to the front of the room and sat criss-cross on a desk.  She said, “I am going to tell you a story that is almost an hour long. ”  She paused for the very subtle but noticeable groans.  She then said, “Most of you will be turned off after the first line when you find out it is about baseball.  But is about more than baseball, and it is a story that will make you lose track of time.”

She proceeded to tell the story, and 60 minutes later she finished.  It could have been 6 minutes, maybe it was more than 60, I don’t know because I lost track of time and never even looked at my watch even once.

After she was finished, a student asked a simple question.  “What is the moral of that story?” Her answer burned into my brain.  “The moral is is not up to me to determine, it is up to your heart to determine. Great storytellers never tell the audience what to think.”

That hit me hard.  I was five years into teaching.  I was hitting that phase where essential questions drove my teaching.  Objectives were clearly written on the board.  I had 25 kids walking out of class all being able to re-state what they were “supposed to” have learned that day.  Every unit drove home a powerful point.  I even designed each unit to have a moral.

“Great storytellers never tell the audience what to think.”

I still remember that line, that story, that classroom, where I was sitting, how I felt when she said that line, and how it impacted my teaching the very next day.

I listened to that story 20 years ago.  The storyteller’s name was Carol Birch.  You leave a little piece of yourself with everyone you meet.  That day Carol left a piece of herself with me that I used as a cornerstone to re-build myself as a teacher.  I learned the importance of story.

When I look back at the people that each left a block with me that I used to build my teaching career, they each have one thing in common–they told great stories.  They were not professors and teachers who supported Project Based Learning , active learning, or used programs or techniques like Class Dojo 🙂

They were people who changed my life with stories.

I wonder if teachers have forgotten how to tell a story? Have we forgotten how to hold kid’s interest without “tricks?”

Could you walk in tomorrow, sit on a desk in the middle of the room, and with just your voice, could you grab kids hearts for 5 minutes? 10? 20?

I challenge you to try it.

Grab and hold kids’ attention without any tricks.  Without any technology.  Without any images or video.  Let a great story be the center of your class one day.

Tomorrow don’t just focus on content.  Use that content to tell a story that has heart. Remember kids do not want to be taught, they want to be moved.

And this is where I should probably end…but I feel the need to add one more thing.  Kids do want to be moved, but they also want to have the power to move others.  Make sure you give them the chance to tell stories in class.  And I challenge you again…let them do it without any tricks 🙂




  1. i took a teaching class when I first started my career. It was district created, district mandated, and all about grabbing kids’ attention. Yuck! One day, the instructor told us all that it was time for us to teach each other, in a method we had worked on in the class. I panicked. I wasn’t even really paying attention enough to know what that was. Others planned skits, games, movement lessons. I brought in one of my favorite funny picture books about mysteries. I read, using all my voices. The class was mesmerized and the teacher said, “That’s your hook. You tell stories.” I still do to this day. And, funny, but social studies is a place my kids love just sitting on the carpet and listening to me tell the stories.

    1. I did not think about it while writing, but the VERY first thing I do before even saying hello at the beginning of the year (and the VERY last thing) is to read them a story.

      I know my post went extreme (I love crazy hooks and glitter), but they do have to be “a part” of the class story.

  2. http://www.learn.edu/ot

    Right around the corner from you… as you know 🙂

    Stories relate things and give perspective – they scaffold just as well as the vocab list before the unit (maybe better…?)

    Cool thing about stories is how you can hear them over and over again, and it may not carry meaning until that one day…

  3. Can I comment on my own blog?

    Today started to write the narration for videos we are making on the Amazon Rainforest. We talked about the power of Story. One of the groups wanted to know if they could do it in the style of the 3 Little Pigs. Someone else in the class asked if I could read the story (yes, I just happen to have a copy of the Three Little Pigs in my room. My first instinct was no, we just don’t have the time, and that is what I said. then I thought back to this post…paused…took the book and read the story.

    Yes, 25 twelve-year-olds will sit in silence desperate to find out what happens to the pigs 🙂 I am glad we all paused to share a story together.

  4. I teach Social Studies 9, Japanese and BC First Nations 12 and am always telling stories. It does help create a context for the lesson and for our community in the class. Looking at the twitter conversation you had, one of the participants wondered whether it was possible to tell stories in a math class. I don’t teach math, but the most memorable math class I had in high school was one in which the teacher started talking about infinity in a mathematical way. To this day (many, many years later) I can still remember details of that classroom at that moment – from where I was sitting to who was around me and exactly how I felt. For the first time I felt a sense of wonder in math class.

    I also remember how the teacher ended that talk. She said “All right, we have to get back to work.” It was such a dissapointment to leave that moment and it never happened again in that class. Pity.


    1. Stories do lead to wonder…which leads to exploration.

      I have always found it funny how when kids come back to visit they always reminisce first about “Remember that story you told about…”

  5. I think we can and should tell stories in math class as well as in other STEM classes. When I began teaching at my current university I was assigned to teach an introductory course in computer networking that the other profs felt was a boring subject. Storytelling has made that course one of my favorites to teach.

    Did you know that the router (the basic building block of the Internet) was developed as the result of a love story? Two founders of what would become Cisco were college students in different departments of the same university. The email system could not send messages from one department to another, so the lovebirds developed a routing device device that enabled that function, and internetworking was born. (Disclaimer- I am aware that the credibility of this story is in question, but I tell it anyway because it powerfully illustrates the way that computer networks solve human problems.)

    Storytelling has breathes life into my teaching when I use it effectively. And by the way Paul, I’ve told another story in my signature to this post. Stories needn’t be long to be compelling.

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