Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Teachers are the Supplemental Material: Storytelling to Teach Deeper Thinking

By on March 27, 2011

The following is an excerpt from my new book, ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers.” In the unabridged chapter, I explore specific cross-curricular lessons and activities that teachers can use to help encourage metacognition, think aloud, and storytelling as a means to teach commentary and deeper thinking. This excerpt argues why storytelling is a valuable tool in any classroom, and also gives a word of caution for teachers who use this important strategy.

Did you ever see Kevin Costner’s film, Dances with Wolves? Remember that wolf that tentatively skirted around the outside of the soldier’s camp, searching for attention? Remember how many times we had to sit through seeing Costner try to coax that wolf towards him to eat from his hand? Well, getting a tween to share their thoughts, to make connections to their content, is kind of like that. We have to coax them. Not with beef jerky, but with your own thoughts and commentary. Then you’ll have them eating from your hand, and when they begin to listen to the hand that feeds them, they will begin to learn how to think for themselves.

Our thoughts and commentary must occasionally come from our own archive of anecdotes. Children aren’t born knowing how to make decisions. You have to model it for them, and middle schoolers are more likely respond to lessons hidden in the anecdotes of your outside life than those stated on some poster hanging in your room or stated in some entry from the textbook.

Now, I don’t mean you need to share so much that you invite your 250 students over for Thanksgiving dinner, but I do mean you should tell them about how to cook a turkey. Better yet, share how you once burned the bird and ended up making a Stoffer’s Lasagna. Thus, you’ve modeled both flexibility and the ability to problem solve while laughing at yourself.

What you share models your own thought process, and from there you can train students to exploit their own stories, thoughts, and musings to help create a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Creating a classroom culture of storytelling leads to deeper connections, deeper commentary, and ultimately higher achievement. It is a version of Think Aloud, a strategy many elementary teachers use faithfully, yet an all-important process underutilized by many of us in the secondary levels.

However, a word of caution: I’m only talking about selected stories of your past. Use the power of storytelling wisely and it will also model to your students a higher standard of commentary. Be smart. Be the adult in the room.

Make sure you follow some guidelines when you are sharing stories of your past or present:

1. Don’t share anything you wouldn’t tell a person to their face – When I teach persuasive debate and counterargument, I always choose to share the fact that my husband and I fight over the TiVo remote. The point is, I don’t mind if my husband knows I’m sharing this particular ongoing bicker.

2. Be smart – They don’t need to know everything you did in college. Surely you can find another example from somewhere in your life to model the lesson of not doing what the masses tell you besides that asinine moment where you learned the hard way not to jump off a roof into a pool.

3. Make sure that your anecdote connects to the material – Non-sequitors are no fun, and students will know if you just like to hear yourself talk.

4. Make sure your story has a message – We don’t have instructional time to waste. Let your students know that even their lives have themes; they just need to pay attention to their own tales.

By sharing your appropriate anecdotes and your real-time Think Aloud, you can then ask students to freeze their tickertape, that continuous dialogue that quietly comments on everything around them, and analyze it, capture it, articulate it, and even reflect back as to how that thought came to be in their head.

And it all starts by being willing to be the first storyteller in the room.

Just remember, teaching deeper thinking is something you can’t merely do once and expect the results of deeper awareness of thought. After all, just as you can’t go to the gym one time, work out your glut once, and expect a firm derrier, you can’t just do one activity that activates students’ stories and Think Aloud and expect a deeper thinker. If your modeling and sharing isn’t constant and honest, then their willingness to “go there” for you won’t reveal itself.

Tap into and share your stories, your background knowledge, and your thinking process, and you will be modeling how students can tap into their own brain as well.

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Posted in: Educational Policy
  1. Mathew
    March 27, 2011

    Working with elementary students, I don’t have quite so many rules about what I share and what I don’t (my whole life has been G-Rated anyway). I share mostly when I’m modeling how to come up with ideas for writing using my life as an example. I don’t censor out the boring ideas from the good ones since I try to show them how to just spit out whatever’s in your head without judgement. Then I move down my list of ideas and choose the most interesting ones. Regardless, of rules or no rules for sharing, it’s important that students see their teacher as human some of the time which can be accomplished by letting students in to some part of your life.

    • Heather Wolpert-Gawron
      March 28, 2011

      Hey Matthew,
      It’s interesting that you bring this issue up. I, too, don’t think too much about the rules, per se. I am always narrating my decisions, whether it’s when I am writing or comprehending while I”m reading, editing, etc…My kids always know a lot about me, especially about me as a student as well.

      The rules were added to the chapter, I admit, to address some of the feedback I received after the chapter reviews came back from the publisher. The chapter itself begins with the argument of why teachers shouldn’t keep their lives inside and outside of school too segregated in their classroom discussions. I talk about the power of storytelling as a model for decision-making and to build deeper commentary. Then I go into more detail, giving lessons and activities that can coax out that deeper commentary in our students.

      Now, remember many of the teachers my chapters were sent to were in the secondary level, and Storytelling and Think Aloud seem to dissipate as strategies by then. My argument is that they shouldn’t.

      Anyway, the feedback I received was that they felt that sharing was dangerous, that there should be explicit guidelines of what NOT to share. The act of telling students stories made some of the reviewers nervous.

      My point, of course, is that we need to use our instincts and bring what we know about life to our teaching. If we didn’t, we might as well all be scripted. It’s up to us to model how we make connections with life in school to life outside of school. It breaks down the wall between “real life” and “school life” that can so easily be built.

      Thanks for your comment. How was CUE? I’m assuming you went this year, right? I missed it, but I’ll be back next year…

      • Warren Phillips
        April 4, 2011

        Storytelling is one of twenty important teaching strategies, and I recommend to my “Science Worksheets don’t Grow Dendrites” workshop participants that they have a “story bench” or “story stool”, a place where they tell their stories from. It is a time where students DON’T take notes – they listen.
        AFTER the story, highlight the important points and its’ relevance. Make sure they get the point, and, most important, the connection. Then take notes. I’ve had students visit me 30 years later and tell me a story that I told them. Sometimes I don’t remember the story, but they’ve connected it to me and the subject matter that I was teaching.

        Brain-based studies using functional MRI’s have proven that stories work to bring emotional connections into the hippocampus and the amygdala, places where information is not forgotten.

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