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Using Storytelling When Introducing Writing Lessons/Part 1

Humans naturally gravitate to stories. As Anabaptists, we should be “storied” people. Storytelling doesn’t need to be left to the caring grandma, the charismatic preacher, or the cocky uncle. As a creative writing teacher, I soon discovered the power of stories. I used stories as a tool to model a certain aspect of writing, to start the brainstorming process, and to help students feel like writing is approachable. We generally think that younger students are the best audience for our stories, and rightly so, but I personally found that even high school students can identify with stories. Storytelling can be a tool that every writing teacher uses.

A good story delivers purpose and power through emotions, relatability, and lessons. I find that a three to five minute story as a class opening is so much more effective then explanations and lectures, although those do have their place. Normally a story contains an obstacle to overcome. Generally there is a plot line, a climax, and a resolution; however, storytelling can be somewhat reflective and thoughtful.

Often when I encourage teachers to tell stories, I hear a common refrain, “my childhood and experiences weren’t as interesting as yours. I have nothing to tell.” Storytelling is a tool that takes effort and exercise. I will address how to unearth your life’s stories in part two of this blog series, but for now, just believe that you have storytelling abilities and content. I think every teacher can become an excellent storyteller if they practice.

Tips for storytelling:

1. Practice. I’ve already touched on this tip, but I want to flesh it out a bit. Even if your story is only a few minutes long, you need to practice it beforehand. Practice is what gives you confidence and helps you in delivery. Use simple language. You don’t need to be verbose and overbearing. Just tell the story in the best way possible. As you tell the story to yourself or to the mirror, you’ll continually find better wording, better cadence, and better story lines. In my Children’s Literature class taught by Sharon Yoder at Faith Builder’s summer term, each pupil needed to tell a Bible story to the rest of the class. We all were supposed to practice it beforehand. Even though our knees were shaking, we all delivered excellent stories because we had practiced. If you need a real audience, tell stories to your nieces and nephews to practice. I cannot emphasize practice enough. This is key.

2. Use appropriate gestures, props, and breaks in your story. The simplest prop can make a great “hook” that creates interest. I always bring my Agate collection when I tell the story of when our church friend, Mark Kuhns, took me rock hunting.

Gestures can easily be overdone. That’s why I say appropriate gestures. Keep your gestures to a minimum. They can be distracting. On the other hand an excellent, themed gesture can add to the story. I watched a lady tell a simple story about her father’s hands. The way she moved her hands during the story made her story real.

Momentary pauses or quietness can accent a climax, give room for meditation, or prepare the listener for the next move in the story. I think pauses can be skillfully used to help the story be more powerful.

3. Be real. Your students know you. If you tell a story that you care about, your students will care too. There is the charismatic, jokester style of storyteller that makes a good comedian. You don’t need use that kind of storytelling to be excellent. Drama has its place, but the dignity of an appropriate story outweighs the importance of being dramatic. Be yourself. Your students will appreciate your own stories.

I’ve had those moments when I’ve felt super vulnerable in telling my stories. When you share your stories, you share you heart, you share what matters to you. When I had parents come to me later in the school term talking about the stories that happened to me when I was a young girl, I was startled. I had numerous parents telling me how much their children liked my stories. I started thinking. My students were taking my stories and retelling them to the family at the supper table. Stories do matter! When a story gets passed on from person to person, something exciting thing happens. The teller “owns” the story. We feel the emotions, we live in the shoes of somebody else, and we become more understanding and empathetic. I’m committed to telling stories. Want to join me?

-Jennifer Yoder

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