Use narratives to assist form your curriculum

The beginning of this school year must be mandatory. In 2021, the last thing students need is a list of rules, deadlines and topics. They need meaningful connections to the course content and to each other. So, let’s turn a sleepy curriculum into an engaging story. Let’s help students see themselves as active participants in an unfolding, larger context.

Here’s an example of how a seventh grade history teacher started her first grade with storytelling:

What does it mean to be a Texan? And how has that changed over time? How do nature and culture affect who you are and how you see the world? The history of Texas shows how where we live affects our lives and that new groups generate new ideas that often lead to conflict, integration and worldview changes. We will explore these ideas with Native American groups, European colonization, Mexican independence, and finally the Texan Revolution – with each new context developing our understanding of human-environment interaction as well as culture, change and identity.

And this is how a middle school math teacher designed the coming year as a classic hero’s journey:

Call to adventure: Are you ready to solve the world’s problems? Can we use math to simplify complexity and find amicable solutions?

Trials and Tribulations: Argumentation through complexity is not an easy task. Can we use our numerical sense and critical thinking to creatively communicate our ideas?

The abyss: We will face known and unknown variables and quantities that change at different speeds. We may need to adjust our perspective to find the best angle or approach to have the best chance of convincing people that we can help the world.

The return: How did you make the complex appear simple? Are you able to maximize space, make the best investment, or share their chances of winning the lottery with someone? How will your new arguments and wisdom help you solve the world’s problems?

In both examples, teachers use narrative elements – character and story arc – to help students see the bigger picture of what they are about to learn. The benefits are many and include providing context for students, the why of studying, taking an active role in finding more information, being clear about what is expected of them, and a reassuring reminder that the learning process is ups and downs has and more than okay.

The call of the stories

Since the beginning of time, stories have kindled the human mind. Stories teach us who we are and how we can literally survive and thrive. Storytelling is used to pass on important information from generation to generation. Renowned medicine professor and author Robert Coles examined in The Call of Stories how stories shape our imaginations and morals and help us articulate the narrative of our own lives. More recently, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (2009) provides four reasons why stories are a motivating structure for students.

  1. Stories are easy to understand because they are a structure that is familiar to everyone.
  2. Stories are compelling because they require frequent intermediate conclusions that encourage us to constantly ponder their meanings.
  3. We remember stories because they have a causal structure, and that structure helps us retain information.
  4. Stories resonate emotionally because they humanize abstract ideas (Willingham, 2009, pp. 66-75).

Tools to stay on course

Take a moment to remember a time when you were dizzy with overwhelmed or faced with a task in a class or an impressive book passage. You probably thought something like this: There’s no way I’m going to get through this … It’s a terrible feeling. As teachers, we can alleviate this fear by letting students know that two seemingly contradicting things are true about learning:

  1. Learning is not linear; it happens through a complex set of experiences that require us to question what we understand, persevere in confusion or cognitive dissonance, and ultimately gain new insights that inevitably raise new questions and uncertainties. In short, imbalance is part of learning, not an intellectual deficiency.
  2. There are structures that we as learners can rely on and tools that help us navigate the high seas of complex concepts. Think about how the following structures can help your students orientate themselves at the beginning of your course. Pick one to write the story of your course. Watch how it plays out; Over time, try different structures to see which ones appeal to the learners the most.

Possible structures for the story of your course

1. Chronology

The best known and easiest way to structure your course is by chronological order. But just because it’s known doesn’t have to be boring! By examining how the events of one period or movement develop and flow into the next, you will challenge students’ ability to understand how cause and effect relationships shape history, paradigms, and scientific epochs. When students are able to fit a particular method or discovery into a larger time frame, they can think deeper and more abstractly about its context. Whether we reason like a historian, hypothesize like a scientist, or compose like a journalist, the ability to trace our thinking back to a specific moment in history is useful.

2. Thesis / antithesis / synthesis

Although we believe the world is getting more and more complex, it has never been an easy place. History and science are replete with competing theories and belief systems that have grown in importance, challenged, and either replaced or merged into new theories that have propelled humanity forward. The famous historian Georg Hegel had a whole theory of history and philosophy based on such a pattern.

What we propose is certainly over-simplifying, but can serve as inspiration for creating a narrative for your course. For example, each quarter your students might explore a conceptual relationship that seems to make a concrete statement – think systems require order and cohesion to thrive sufficiently. Your students could read books on the subject, study empires or nation-states at their peak, or evaluate healthy biomes and ecosystems. Your next unit would then question this principle and show the students that when systems stagnate or become inflexible, for example, they can suppress or collapse. Then your students could read texts on a similar topic, learn more about the collapse of empires, or study how human pollution harms various ecosystems. The overall idea is to lead students to a clear conclusion and then challenge them by making their understanding more difficult with each new unit. Not only does this provide some organizational logic and sequence for your course, but also to get students to always question their assumptions.

3. Hero’s journey

Joseph Campbell was an anthropologist who studied and spent time with cultures around the world. Although each culture was different in many ways, many of their stories followed a similar arc, a structure that Campbell called the Monomyth, known as the Hero’s Journey. In fact, countless of our favorite films today, from Star Wars to Moana, follow a similar structure. Because of its ubiquity, it will be quickly recognizable to students. Below is a brief overview of how it can give you structure for your course.

  1. The Call to Adventure: What type of adventure or quest will your students embark on in your course? How can you invite them to join in and step out of their comfort zone?
  2. Trials & Tribulations: What kind of challenges will you face in your course? What skills do you need to be successful? What knowledge? How can your course build these skills so that students know they need them to be successful along the way?
  3. The Abyss: Consider starting students with a large project or self-directed study unit once they have acquired all of the required skills. How can you use the knowledge you have acquired so far in your course to solve a problem in your life?
  4. The Return: How can you end your year in a way that encourages student reflection and promotes their work as the year progresses? The end of the year is a time for students to internalize and share what they have learned.

Stems of sentences for thinking about teaching as storytelling

The following stems can help you brainstorm the history of your course.

This course is about …

This year we will …

We start with ___, then _____ and finally ____ all of us to understand the ____.

Give it a try and see how it gives your course a direction and a different tone for the year!

This blog is an adapted excerpt from Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. You can find more options for involving students in their online course offerings.

What do you think of teaching as storytelling? Please share in the comments!

Also, subscribe to our newsletter for more articles like this one.

Comments are closed.