Once Upon A Time: Using Student-Generated Stories in Religion Classes

about this article

This article promotes the use of stories in religion classes. Michael Courtright begins with a theology of writing stories in which God is brought into the everyday moments of our life through reflection. Specific types of stories include autobiographies, personal narratives, and the use of "fictitious" stories. By using the "God Lens," students can examine the role God has in their stories. The use of metaphor and analogy is also discussed as a means to challenge students to see relationships between dissimilar things.

Filled with examples and background, this is a very hands-on article.

Religion classes should be interesting, if not compelling, and they can be if what is interesting is determined by the students. This, of course, is not a new approach. Learner-centered educational theories have been popular for decades. Using story as a teaching device is not new either. Jesus used stories and was quite successful. But combining these two pedagogical tools in religion classes can bring about dynamic results.

In this article, after a brief discussion on the theology of story writing, I will present three distinct types of stories, each with its own goal and purpose, and each with specific lesson ideas. In the end you may find that your teaching repertoire has grown in a way that will help not only your students but you as well.

A Theology of Writing Stories

Perhaps it is too obvious to state, but there is a definite link between the writer of a story and the content of that story. What surfaces from the writer's imaginative subconscious during the writing process reveals many things, but beyond this, the decisions a writer makes about what is included or excluded in a work reveals as much. This is true whether the story is autobiographical, historical, or fictional. In the end, what is on the page is there because the writer had possession of it or access to it, and wanted it there.

The "Divine Link" The link between writer and written work is important because when God is brought into the equation, that connection approaches the divine. We believe God is present in every life and in every moment of every life. Our hyperactivity or distractedness or drowsiness may prevent us from perceiving this continual presence. But reflection, especially written reflection, allows these God-moments to percolate up into consciousness. Once they are there, our logical nature forces us to address the experiences in some rational manner. This makes the presence of God in our everyday life easier to perceive. For reasons I will discuss shortly, when written reflection takes the form of stories, the stories--like our lives--become grace-filled and holy.

God in the Interesting Once we are aware of God's involvement in our life, we become more responsive, more intimate, more communicative, with God--and more appreciative of the divine relationship. We may see for the first time God's presence in our everyday life, not just in the more formal "religious" situations but in the less obvious ones--ones that nevertheless often seem to be more important, more crucial, and certainly more interesting, the ones in which we thought all along that God ought to have been involved.

The "divine link," then, is simply this: God is very present in what is most interesting to our students. The pedagogical application is equally simple: When teaching religion, start with the interesting. Stories will help you do this.

Stories of Self

Often autobiographies are written in the last part of grade school, usually as an exercise in writing in that genre. Educators, especially religious educators, should recognize this genre as a useful way to see God in post-grade-school life. This is not to say that an entire autobiography needs to be written at each grade level, but certainly the unique events occurring at life's stages deserve this sort of reflection.

For example:

  • What do you remember about your first day of high school?
  • Your most important lesson from your first year in high school?
  • Your closest friend?
  • Greatest accomplishment?
  • Biggest disappointment?

Seeing Through the "God Lens"

Limiting the scope of an autobiography to an event or incident or stage and carefully defining the parameters helps students examine their lives. When this examination is done with a "God lens" (if only a reminder that God is especially present in those events or incidents) the Divine Presence, initially unnoticed, becomes explicit. In hindsight, what at first appeared coincidental proves providential.

Matching Stories

After students complete their short vignettes, at least two matching exercises are possible:

  • Matching with other students: In class, have the students summarize their vignettes in a one-line TV Guide manner. Students with similar themes can pair up to discuss their stories.
  • Matching with the Scriptures: Have the students find Bible stories about people who felt as they do in their story--whether brave, clumsy, or scared.

The Direct Approach

A more blunt approach than the autobiographical story is to have the students write about a time when they experienced God in a very powerful way (perhaps through a death or a birth, a sickness, a sacrament, a beach or a mountain). In attempting to describe this experience, many details once forgotten will surface, and students will be surprised at how much they remember.

Teacher Involvement

Writing self-stories is as beneficial to adults as it is to high school students, and since the perceived faith-life of the teacher is an important ingredient in successful religious education, teachers would do well to write and share their vignettes right along with their students.

The self-stories approach is for students who are relatively comfortable with themselves and confident enough in their lives to address themselves directly. If your students are younger or not prone to self-disclosure, the next approach--fictitious stories--may work better.

Stories of "Fictitious" Situations

Writing stories based on predetermined, "fictitious" situations con reveal as much about the writers and God as the autobiographical vignettes, and at the same time can be a little less threatening for the students. As they write about familiar situations, it is likely that their own thoughts and feelings will come across by way of the characters.

Classic Situations Some classic situations that can be used to spark this "third-person" creativity include these:

  • a fish out of water (e.g., an English gentleman stranded on a desert island)
  • unrequited love
  • undeserved misfortune
  • a hero saving somebody from something
  • a bad guy turned good, or a good guy turned bad
  • growing up, growing old, or breaking up

The list is endless. Specifying futuristic or historical elements for any of the above brings in dimensions that some students need and like. Whatever the strategy, writing about something fictional allows the student-writer a safe place to express parts of his or her own story if desired, even if this is done unconsciously or with disguises.

Use in Morality Classes

The situational-story approach is very useful in morality or ethics classes. Moral dilemmas, choices between good things, conflicts of values, mixed motives, and situations with mixed outcomes all provide fertile ground for creative writing. After completing their story, students can explore the principles and values reflected in their work. For example:

  • Do other students like the characters?
  • Do they agree with the characters?
  • What would they do in a similar situation?
  • Are the conflicts real?
  • What Bible story is similar, and what did the biblical characters do?

These discussion questions effectively combine morality course material with interesting contexts, again generated by the students themselves.

Writing with Analogy

The last kind of writing is meant to challenge the students' imagination into seeing unique relationships between disparate or seemingly incomparable things.

Metaphor

Based on the concepts espoused in synectics theories (for information, write to Synectics Education Systems, 121 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138), metaphor help; students appreciate the breadth, depth, and intricacies of concepts such as love. For instance:

How is love like an ocean?
It is deep, seemingly endless, and calm.
But it is rough around the edges.
If you aren't familiar with it, it is dangerous.
It contains a lot of different kinds of life.
If you don't jump in, you'll never see underwater.

Writing like this as a class can get everyone's mind working analogously and metaphorically so that when asked to write a piece about love, for instance, the students know how to start. This kind of direct analogy is useful for any religious concept:

  • How is God like the sky?
  • How is a family like a garden?
  • How is the Church like a salad?

Personal Analogy Another approach is the personal analogy, where the student-writer becomes part of the analogy:

  • Be the sun rising in the morning.
  • Be a lamb in the fields around Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.
  • Pretend you are a blind person in the time of the Gospels. You have heard about a miracle worker.
  • Pretend you are a new student with a developmental disability. Personal analogies do more than challenge students to see hidden relationships: they challenge them to see reality from someone else's point of view, to walk in another's shoes for a while. This in itself is a powerful and useful lesson of awareness.

I hope that these three approaches to student-generated stories will lead you and your religion classes into new areas of insight. Our students are bombarded daily by stories of different value and worth. And though some say that in the age of "The Simpsons" and "Twin Peaks," a little prudence in choosing the stories we deal with might be appropriate, others challenge us to discover why stories and characters like these are so popular. Allowing students to write about what interests them may be a wise and fruitful path.

Michael J. Courtright is the chair of the religion department and the academic dean at Saint Monaco's High School, Santa Monica, California.

acknowledgements

Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published February 1, 1991.