Thursday, July 22, 2010

Storytelling as a Teaching Tool

I always found history interesting, but I never found it compelling until I had a great history teacher. His name was Dr. Ziegler and he taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. What was the difference between this teacher and all the others before him? He didn’t just talk to us about history. He told us stories! We felt like we were there. We could smell the smells, hear the sounds, and feel the emotions. I loved it. I’ve been a history buff ever since. I decided then and there that if I was ever a teacher, I would teach history just like Mr. Ziegler. I have done exactly that. Then I discovered how well storytelling went with other subjects.

A Powerful Tool

Nothing grabs students’ attention like a well placed story. It works with any subject; math, science, language arts, computers, you name it. Almost any relevant story or anecdote will do because the power is in your delivery. It could be a quick anecdote about something your brother did, or a full story like the following example.

A Fun Example

My favorite story to tell is of the bombing of Ft. McHenry when Frances Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled banner. I do a dramatic lead in, describing events leading up to Mr. Key getting on the British ship. I help students feel like they are there with Mr. Key including all the sights, sounds, feelings, etc. Then I close the blinds and turn off the lights. By this time the kids are quite literally on the edge of their seats. Next I describe how Mr. Key can only see the flag when there is an explosion (using sounds and lights as props). Finally, while describing the sun coming up, I slowly open the blinds and turn on the lights. I seriously have had classes spontaneously start singing the Star Spangled Banner at that point! Did I mention they are only 2nd graders? (Now, if only the principal had been in there at the time…). What a powerful tool.

A Math Example

Second grader sometimes have difficulty understanding the importance of the zero.  To help them, I tell the true story of a woman working in a jewelry store.  She sold a $20,000 bracelet for $2,000.  When approached about her mistake, she replied, "Eh, what's one zero?"  Of course I tell it with flair, and I am sure to focus on the moment she was fired.  My students don't forget how important a zero is after that!

Storytelling Techniques

Storytelling doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so I have compiled a short list of helpful suggestions.

1. This should go without saying, but know your story well. Make sure you don’t need to look at any notes as that will interfere with your delivery. Although a sneak peak here and there won’t hurt.

2. Use voice inflection. Whisper or shout when appropriate.

3. Move around the room as you talk, use your hands, body and facial expressions.

4. Look for props you can use in your classroom such as the window blinds in the story above.

5. Invoke all 5 senses for your audience through descriptive words.

6. Mention how the person in your story may have been feeling, ask students to consider how they would feel in the same situation.

7. Interesting side notes. I like to add flavor to a story by mentioning small things. For example, what Mr. Key’s impressions of the British were while he was aboard their ship.


Don’t expect to be an expert right off the bat. As with many things, you will learn more as you practice. I can promise you the kids will appreciate it.

Storytelling is an excellent way to engage students in a lesson. Whether using a quick anecdote during a math lesson or a longer story during a history lesson, storytelling is powerful. How do you use storytelling in your class?

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  1. Couldn't agree with you more. I remember my favorite teacher in college, Mr. Manalo. He taught humanities using anecdotes about history and first-hand experiences. His stories have stayed with me to this day.

    Oh, and if I may add, it's fun for the teacher too. Pretend you're doing theater. Use facial expressions and gestures as much as words. It works even in college classrooms.

    Great post, Teacher! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Story telling is important at all ages. Just look at the popularity of Discovery and NG channels among adults!

  3. Excellent information, exactly what I needed. Thanks. Keep up the good work!

    work from home

  4. Experience is the best teacher, hmm .. apparently you are a history teacher. Sorry, my english is less understood. But...nice stories..hehe

  5. Great post, brother! :D Blogwalking

  6. I couldn't agree more. In fact I wrote about how we think in pictures here:

    And since this is how we think, storytelling is an effective way to teach. I'm also very glad to see you've included math here too.

    I'm glad you found me on blogcatalog. I like what I see here! Oh, and you went to UH? I was born and raised in Hawaii!