Teaching as Storytelling: Why Episode IV Comes First

The T-shirt said: Episode IV comes first; it’s just good parenting.

Storytelling I shared the picture on Facebook. Within an hour, I had a ton of “likes” and comments. One friend shared a link to a blog post explaining precisely how to order the six Star Wars movies for maximum enjoyment and minimum second-trilogy annoyance. It was an exercise in hardcore geekdom, but it took the Star Wars story—and the whole idea of story—more seriously than many English teachers I have known. When you’re a fan, you care that the true identity of Darth Vader is a surprise and a shock. You care that watching the movies in George Lucas’ approved order destroys that shock and surprise. Sometimes fans understand a story better than its creator.

Stories matter. We spend millions of dollars and millions of hours on stories—stories in books, stories in movies, stories on television shows. We dissect them. We analyze them. We take sides. (Team Edward? No: Team Jacob!) We get angry when someone messes with them. Our dreams, our folk tales, our mythologies, our history—all of these things take the form of stories. Stories are how our brains make sense of life.

What is it that makes some stories work, while others leave us untouched?

I think there are two very basic, essential pieces to the puzzle:

1)      We don’t know what is going to happen next, but

2)      We care what is going to happen next.

It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Think about this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Storytelling

It’s very early in the movie. We don’t know who this man is. We don’t really know what he’s up to, or why he needs the thing in his hand. There have been very few words–we have to watch closely and pay attention to follow the action. But somehow, even though we don’t know the character, we’re completely connected to what he is doing, and we’re worried about what will happen to him. There is a sense of danger; the stakes are life-and-death, even though we may not understand them yet. Three minutes into the movie, we are hooked. We are engaged. We are invested.

The fact is, we are storytelling animals—story-making animals. We can’t help ourselves. Put any series of events or situations in a line and we will turn them into a story and ask what happens next. We will force a pattern, even where none exists.

If you doubt me, take a look at this series of pictures and see if you can avoid making connections that create a story:

Storytelling

Now, just for fun, see what happens if you rearrange the pictures:

Storytelling

And, of course, when you remove certain elements, it affects the story we imagine:

Storytelling

The title of this blog post is “Teaching as Storytelling,” so obviously I’m trying to make a connection. Am I saying that our classes must be engaging and suspenseful, that our students have to dodge giant, rolling boulders in order to get a good grade? No…though it’s tempting, sometimes.

What we say in class, how we say it, the order we in which we say it, and what we leave out…all of these things are enormously important because students are not simply receiving information from us. They are engaged in a story with us, whether we intend them to be or not.

Now, obviously, not all subjects lend themselves to storytelling in a literal way. There are very few characters you can forge an emotional connection with in math classes (unless you happen to be teaching Flatland).

However, there is intellectual engagement to be had, and there is always at least one character who has something at stake in the outcome. We say that learning should be an adventure for our students, but do we really believe it? We say that learning should be a journey, but do we talk to students in the language of travel? Do we make sure they’ve packed properly, that they have a map, and that they’re ready for the challenges that lie ahead? Do we spend time to get them excited about where they’re going?

If we want our students to be personally and emotionally connected to what we’re teaching, if we want them to feel like characters engaged in an important story or journey, we should be able to answer at least some of the following questions for ourselves, even if students never think to ask them:

  • In what ways will this course connect me to the larger world?
  • What do I need to understand about that world?
  • How might that understanding change the way I think about things?
  • How might that understanding change the way I think about myself?
  • What’s the Big Payoff if I hang in till the end?
  • What is at stake if I do not hang on till the end?

Every class has an arc to it, a shape. We start somewhere. We end somewhere else. Students don’t always know where they are going—it has to be revealed, moment by moment. That is what creates suspense.

Yes, I know, we’ve all been told to post our learning objectives and talk about our learning objectives and write syllabi and lay everything out for our students. We’ve been told to reveal everything and make everything super-clear. But there is a benefit to withholding some information and being purposeful about what you reveal and when you reveal it. There’s a benefit to having students wonder what’s going to happen next.

Think about the classic model of storytelling we all learned in school: the movement from exposition to rising action to climax and denouement. Then think about the elements of good instructional technique and curriculum writing. They’re not so very different. A great class has some of the elements of a good mystery story. A question or mystery is posed. Clues are discovered and analyzed. Pieces are put together. Conclusions are reached.

Storytelling

Thinking of curriculum as a mystery that gradually unfolds and needs to be solved should lead us to think differently about what we say in class and how we say it. If we want our students to be actively engaged in identifying and solving problems, we have to stop spoon-feeding them information. We have to stop putting all the pieces together and tying them up with a bow.

As the author of the Star Wars blog said, it matters that you gasped in shock when you first discovered that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. That shock—that emotional resonance—is a major part of people’s love for the original movies. Why would you ever want to deny new viewers that pleasure—that emotional engagement?

As teachers, we are people who love our subject matter. Something engaged us, way back when we first encountered it. Something connected with us, intrigued us, made us ask questions and want to know more.  Our job now, as teachers, is to give students what was once given to us—those moments of engagement and excitement that made us want to set off on our journey of learning. Our job is to be great storytellers—to put students in the cave with Indy, leaning forward in their chairs, pencils in hand, asking, “What happens next?”

Now, perhaps you’re snickering or rolling your eyes. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Doing long division is not exactly as suspenseful as stealing idols from a dark and dangerous cave.” And you’re right. It’s not. But the stakes are just as high for our students…and the pathway is strewn with booby-traps.

It’s not easy, what we’re asking students to do every day. It’s not simple. Not everyone completes the journey. In some of our neighborhoods, barely half of the kids make it to the end of their schooling story. Not everyone comes out with an armload of treasure, either. That’s a fact. So don’t tell me it’s not an adventure, or that the stakes aren’t life and death. Every moment we have with our students matters. Every moment is a chance to hand them the sword and say, “Go slay the dragon.”

Maybe we should stop plastering our walls with signs that say things like, “All students will learn,” and start putting up signs that say, “Heroes required.”

2 Comments

  1. Carol Chosid March 28, 2013 Reply

    I really liked the ideas and analogies Dr. Ordover presented. As a former English teacher, I could readily relate to the concepts of exposition, rising action,climax, and denouement as an arc which can be translated to classroom instruction. What a wonderful model to present to teachers and students! I was particularly impressed with the “journey” that students undertake — the idea that it can be an open road filled with endless possibilities or a dead end street. I want to believe that we’re all in this together because we want to illuminate paths for the young people we meet along the way.

  2. Lara Hill, Ed.D. April 27, 2013 Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly with you, Dr. Ordover, that we should help students “slay the dragon.” However, I was also thinking how much this extended metaphor of hero’s journey also ties with educators themselves in the classroom that often feel overwhelmed by the “dragons” along their teaching journey. How can we provide more support to them so they can better prepare our students for their schooling journey?

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