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How to Use Storytelling to Increase Student Engagement

Students love to hear a good story.

No matter how old they are, any classroom full of kids will quiet down to hear their teacher tell them a story. Here are a few ways I’ve used storytelling to increase student engagement.

READING

As much as I love to read aloud to my kids, it’s something I just don’t have as much time for as I’d like. When there are certain books I know I won’t get to, but I know that my students would like, I often tell an abbreviated version of the story. Of course, I don’t give any real spoilers, and I don’t give away the endings, but usually my summary is enough to get several kids to pick up the book and read it on their own. After reading Hatchet, I often use this method for Brian’s Winter and The River, and the students literally make a list on the board of who’s waiting to check the book out next.

(I know what you’re thinking: “aren’t you basically reading the back of the book?” No! I definitely don’t do that. The summary on the back of most books often don’t draw my students in. I find that when I actually tell the story of the book, while leaving out the really juicy parts, the kids are much more interested and more likely to read the book.)

WRITING

Every year, I tell my “spaghetti story”. The story tells about my first time cooking spaghetti alone – and it includes fire. It’s a funny story, it’s a true story, and it gets lots of laughs. I make sure to use lots of descriptive words, repetition, and hyperbole. Then, I retell the same story, but in a totally boring, “here are the facts” kind of way. This leads into our discussion on voice and how it affects our writing. The kids usually beg me to tell the story again and again after, and I often have students from other classes asking me to tell them the story at recess or lunch. More importantly, I can use the spaghetti story as a reference point throughout the year, as students work on their writing, and I can see the positive effects that it has on the kids’ writing.

SOCIAL STUDIES

Have you ever heard the story of Gavrilo Princip? In South Carolina, we aren’t required to teach much about World War I, and it can be a pretty dry, boring tale for ten year olds. However, I’ve learned that telling the story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination really draws the students in. The story is practically a comedy of errors, and the kids love the drama surrounding the Black Hand and the assassination plot. History is full of so many little facts and details that we overlook, while these details are the things that make it come alive for our kids.

Gavrilo Princip meme

So what if I’m not a good storyteller?

Some of us weren’t born telling stories, and that’s okay. A simple search turns up tons of sites with tips for being a good storyteller, but not all of those tips are good for telling stories in the classroom, so I’ve come up with what I think are the most important points. Follow these tips to keep your students enrapt:

  • Keep your stories short – Every teacher knows that kids don’t have long attention spans. They’re going to get tired of your story pretty quickly if it drags on and on.
  • Be expressive – Keep your students engaged by varying your volume, using hand gestures, and making eye contact.
  • Focus on the human element – Even if you’re telling a story about something that happened in the Phillippines in 1847, try to focus on the details that make the story relatable for your students.

Plus, an added bonus…

If your school district or state curriculum is anything like mine, there are ELA standards that focus on public speaking, and Common Core features similar standards. Students are expected to tell stories, participate in discussions, and make presentations. When you tell stories, your students learn this important skill as well. Don’t just listen to me, though; check out why Pat Mora, Lucía González, and others think that storytelling is important in this video from Colorín Colorado.

Published in Teaching

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