Helping Students Get the Most Out of Stories

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Gertrude Schliff Johnson offers many suggestions for effectively using stories in the classroom. She advocates a student-centered approach that actively engages students in reflection and learning. Specific activities, such as story-packet assignments, story in prayer, story dedication, and unit reflection papers, are described as well. Anecdotes from the author's teaching experience fill this article with the very "humanizing touch of stories."

For the past six years I have been researching the power of stories for communicating Catholic religious and moral values. At the same time, I have been experimenting with stories in my high school classroom (tenth- and twelfth-grade classes in Christology and the New Testament, morality, Christian adulthood, and sexuality). This work has literally turned my teaching around--from focusing on principles, words, and reason to emphasizing vision, virtue, and character. It has also allowed me to connect personally with my students on issues that formerly often led them to respond with indifference, confrontation, or debate. Through the use of stories, I am able to understand teenagers and their world in a way that is often difficult when one is teaching 120 students in five daily classes.

I am convinced that the stories have brought this change about and that they have been able to do this because I have learned to let them work in the classroom. That is, I have experienced a gradual deepening of awareness and understanding of what approach best allows stories to do their work or bear their own fruit. This article shares with you the insights gained from my experimentation with using stories.

PROBLEMS WITH A DIDACTIC APPROACH

I suggest that there are two basic methods of using stories in the classroom. The first approach is didactic. Its focus is basically on the teacher.

Its purpose, using stories to instruct, is the one with which most of us have been raised and to which we are accustomed. It is proprietary in nature; that is, the teacher, in a sense, owns the story. He or she formulates clear objectives (why this story is being told or read in this unit, what the teacher wants students to "get" from the story, what point or principle is being illustrated or bolstered, etc.). Follow-up questions are often phrased in a way that will lead students to the desired conclusions. For example, suppose in a morality or sexuality course that we are attempting to educate students toward abstinence from sex before marriage. We might choose a story that demonstrates the dangers and harmful effects of premature sexual intimacy and then phrase our questions to fit that agenda. We might ask the students if they can come up with a more complete list of negative consequences of premarital sex similar to the ones that occurred in the story.

Although this approach appears educationally sound, I have found that when I use it, the students seem to sense that they are being led, and many of them answer the questions in a rather superficial or dismissive manner. Even more important, they often do not go beyond what is being asked, so the potential or power of the story is limited.

When we use stories in a didactic manner, especially in relation to faith or values, we are also likely to be inclined to follow the story up with statements such as, "Now what this story really means is . . ." or "What Jesus is trying to tell us by way of this parable is . . ." or "The moral of this story is . . ." I have found that such statements are almost certain to "kill" the story for the students. The statements effectively diminish any active imagination, visual images, and personal interpretations the students might be experiencing, and replace them with what the teacher views as the correct analysis.

Furthermore, when we follow up stories with a reasoned analysis, we may find the students objecting to or resisting (as they often do) the interpretation, and the ensuing discussion can quickly turn to an argumentative debate. The result is that the point is made but not heard, emphasized but not embraced. The story thus has been robbed of its full potential to touch and move students.

OFFERING AND LETTING GO: A STUDENT-CENTERED APPROACH

The second method of using stories in the classroom, which I prefer, focuses on the students and on helping them get the most from the stories. This approach requires that the teacher choose and offer a story. We might let the students know that the story is being offered with the hope that it will speak to them in relation to the subject matter, the classroom environment or atmosphere, faith, or values in a way that is important for them. To offer a story, rather than instruct with one, means to read or to tell (a better choice, if possible) a story, then let go of it and transfer ownership of its meaning to the students.

I have experimented with several different techniques that seem to help students to truly own the stories I offer. The best method I have found to facilitate ownership is to formulate meaningful guidelines through questions and activities for the students' personal reflection on stories.

Open Questions

Meaningful guidelines for personal reflection include open questions such as the following ones:

  • How does this story make you feel?
  • Can you find yourself in this story? Where? How? Which person in this story do you relate with best? Why?
  • If you or Jesus could enter this story, what might be said or done differently? Would it change the way the story ends?
  • Does this story present an ideal you would like to make a part of your life? a person you would like to use as a role model?
  • Can you draw a picture or a symbol that represents this story?
  • Do any of the story's characters remind you of people you know?
  • Does this story have meaning for you because of some situation you are currently experiencing? Does the story relate in some way to your past or future?
  • Would you like to change the way this story ends? If so, what would your ending be?
  • Does this story help you to see something you have not seen before or to remember something you had forgotten?
  • Do you know a story that is similar to this one? If so, explain.

Activities

Another type of reflection guideline that enables students to make the story their own is to suggest an activity for them to do as a follow-up to reading the story, such as one of the following exercises:

  • Write a note or letter to one of the people in this story, telling her or him whether you agree with her or his actions. If you do not agree, tell what you would have done.
  • Write a note to someone in your class, family, or group of friends, telling that person what this story means to you, or giving him or her a message that is prompted by the story.
  • Discuss this story with someone. Write what you learn from that discussion.
  • Write a prayer about or in response to this story.
  • Update this story by outlining or rewriting it in a contemporary or more personally meaningful setting.

Using Reflection Guidelines

In my classes, guidelines like these questions and activities (plus any others that students may contribute during a brainstorming session) are used throughout the year. Students keep a copy of them in their notebooks, refer to them, and choose which ones to address each time we work with stories. Freedom of choice is important because it allows the students to frame or build their own assignments and encourages their ownership of the stories.

Students use the guidelines for writing in their journals, preparing for small-group or class discussion of a story, and working on weekly text assignments, which often include responding to stories in the student book or to textually related ones that I read or tell.

MANY USES OF STORY

Story Packet Assignments

Students also use reflection question and activity guidelines for another type of assignment that works well. I call it a story-packet assignment. Students read a group of stories I have put together on a particular topic of need or concern. They then reflect on those stories for a period of time (usually a week) and frame, in writing, their personal responses.

Sometimes I offer extra credit if they share this packet with a parent or a guardian, who then must let me know, by a brief written note, that she or he has also read the stories and how she or he responded. Although I do not require that the adults and the students talk with each other about the stories, the notes I receive from parents and guardians indicate that they often do. I find this is an excellent way to initiate dialogue between students and the significant adults in their lives.

Story in Prayer

Another way to encourage student ownership of stories is to use a story for prayer at the beginning or end of class. The story is read or told, and then followed by a brief related petition (from the teacher or from one or most of the students). No accompanying comment or interpretation is needed. Another prayer option, if the students keep journals, is to give them time to respond to the story with a personal entry.

Dedicating a Story

Sometimes I give a copy of a story to, or offer a story during class and dedicate it to, a particular student (with the student's previous permission) because of a prior discussion, an acknowledged situation, or a question with which I know he or she is struggling. This allows me to target ownership and actually speak to individual students through story.

Unit Reflection Papers

Students can further own the stories you offer by incorporating the stories into unit-reflection papers. I always list the stories I offer in a given unit as resources the students might use in developing these reflection papers--along with the text assignments, class exercises, speakers, audiovisuals, and so on. It is often through the students' reflections on the stories, together with the information gathered from all the other methods I use, that I learn the centrality or importance of the stories to the development of the students' insights into the topic under consideration.

Sharing a Picture or a Symbol

A special method to help an entire class own a story is to invite individuals to share a picture or symbol they have drawn that represents the story or their reaction to it. It is amazing how the story's meaning for them comes through in this medium, and how frequently the image can act as a powerful reminder of our own responses to the story. Displaying some of these visuals for the duration of a unit, a semester, or even the school year, helps to reap the full rewards from the use of story.

Stories by Students

A final suggestion on using stories involves having students themselves write stories. For the past year I have been involved in an interdisciplinary effort to help tenth-grade students with this creative work. These students wrote stories on two topics in the sexuality curriculum for their grade level: sexual roles and friendship. They also completed a brief self-evaluation on the meaning and value this story-writing process held for them. Their stories were graded on the technical quality of their writing and were entered into contests for extra credit in religion class.

In many instances the stories gave me a glimpse of what students are up against in their own world. Beyond that, however, some of the stories were perhaps the best material I could hope to have for addressing particular issues in future classes.

For example, for years I have looked for a good story to use with tenth graders on the topic of homosexuality. It finally came through a transfer student who was having a difficult time adjusting to our school and was doing no other academic work in my course. She wrote a story that really got at the heart of teen concerns about this topic and dealt with it in an exceedingly well-written and Christian manner. The story was a fictional account of the hurtful (one might say sinful) treatment of a young man the students' age who was homosexual. Its setting was a high school just like ours, and her narrative evoked empathy and understanding, even in students whom I knew to be phobic in this regard.

Impact on Students

Students have let me know in many and varied ways that being given the opportunity to own a story holds a great deal of meaning and can have a strong effect on them. They often tell me how a particular story has touched them, helped them to see differently, or moved them to take a course of action or make a decision they would not previously have considered. I have actually seen students modeling their own behavior after one of the characters in a story, standing up for values, or making their way through a difficult time by adopting bits and pieces of a story as their own. The process of writing stories also often helped students to speak of or work out a situation with which they had been struggling.

For example, I remember well the stories that moved Mariann to approach the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation; Brenda to purchase her own "chastity ring"; Jennifer to overcome a period of deep depression; Jamie to write a note to an estranged friend; Mike to rethink his opinion on the issue of abortion; and Kofito adopt a new and insightful attitude toward suffering and tragedy.

I was impressed by how the actual writing of stories helped Kristin to deal with the guilt she experienced after a classmate's death, John and Annemarie to work through their anger at what they viewed as sexism in the classroom, and Anne to let go of a hurtful past relationship.

A Connection with Students

When a story is offered--by a teacher or by a student--it serves as an invitation for students and teacher to connect with one another. It leads to a space where we can share our vision, the virtues we admire, and the character we wish to acquire, without being preachy or attempting to persuade one another of the correctness of our views. Rather, it gives us the opportunity to speak of the truth of stories as they relate to our individual life situations.

Many preconceived notions that students and teachers have about each other can be effectively shattered by such sharing. Stories commonly explored in this manner take us into personal, moral, and religious domains previously unthought of; they immensely enrich our discussions and relationships

Renewing Ourselves with Stories

Classroom experiences such as those I have described in this article have left me firmly convinced that stories, offered with an eye to student ownership, have something unique and tremendously valuable to offer teenagers. The approach captures their attention and engages them in the moral and religious growth process, and it has become an integral part of my own spiritual and moral journey with my students each year.

I will never return to that time when my teaching focused mainly on principles, words, and reason. I cannot now imagine my classroom without the humanizing touch of stories, offered for my students to own. Helping my students get the most from stories has helped me get the most from my students, and it has been a powerful means of continual self-learning and renewal in my everyday teaching.

[Editor's Note: For story recommendations, see the article "Story Collections for Classroom Teaching and Youth Ministry."]

acknowledgments

(Copyright © 2003 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for the free use of this article for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the written 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, 1997.