Storytelling to Teach Academic Subjects

As Deeptha Vivekanand, Founder, Ever After, prepares to deliver a workshop on ‘Storytelling to Teach Academic Subjects‘ on February 6th at the Chennai Storytelling Festival 2015, here’s a look at what makes stories and storytelling so relevant and important in a classroom. This post also seeks to challenge the notion that storytelling is only for the very young. Stories in all forms–oral histories, books, films, art–are powerful tools to enrich the teaching of a subject. Read on to find out how:

There’s something really enduring about a story. Maybe it’s the fact that the words and images that go into it are chosen with such care. Maybe it’s the fact that it has progression, from one event to another, from one idea to another. Maybe it’s the way stories and characters emotionally engage us. We go from one place to another with these characters, watching them, listening to them, investing in them, remembering them. This is the strength of a story. What you get from it stays with you, tucked away in a complex web of associations and emotional reactions and experiences.

Stories can have a great positive impact on education methods and can increase the level of student involvement in a subject. While acknowledging that syllabus-prescribed texts nowadays are probably more colourful and anecdotal than the material she remembers from her school days, Deeptha, talks about the shortfalls of a textbook based learning system: Students “don’t feel challenged to go beyond the given text, look for information and draw their own conclusions. But when we ask them to write a story based on a topic, they get the chance to both look up the facts and express their thoughts creatively, hence engaging both sides of the brain”. There is, for instance, something mechanical about the conventional curriculum approach to social studies and science, a fixation with memorising in learning. Engaging with the narratives of a concept gives students a chance to see it as more interesting than what is presented in the text. They suddenly see the opportunity to use creativity
and active thinking in the learning process.

One significant example of a story that can be effectively used in teaching social studies and history is Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. This is a well-known book that children often come across outside the educational context. Its strong narrative thrust and moving emotional content give it all the qualities of a novel. However, it is actually a real-world account of the persecution of Jews during WWII. It is grounded in the political and social backdrop of war-torn Europe. It can be used as a way to study and discuss the events of history, the impact of political turmoil on individuals and to understand the importance of basic human rights in any context. In studying such a rich and personal account of the war, students will find themselves understanding historical events at an emotional level, remembering them not just for the dates and political manoeuvres, but for the human trauma they represent. A contemporary equivalent of the Anne Frank story is Malala Yousufzai, whose tale captures the suffering of schoolgirls in militancy-affected Pakistan.

Narratives of science are also becoming increasingly relevant to understanding the scientific method and the discoveries that it has spawned. Visual media, like the new production of the Cosmos series (presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson) incorporate snippets of biographical information about the astronomers, physicists and chemists behind the discoveries that make our conception of the universe what it is. Students retain information about rules and processes by associating them with the dynamic, brilliant individuals who make up the field of science. Examples of popular (and important) written word narratives include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Double Helix by James D. Watson (chronicling the research and intrigue that led to the discovery of DNA). Skloot’s story about Henrietta Lacks discusses the ethical questions that emerged when the cancer cells of a poor Black American woman were used, without the knowledge and sanction of her family, to fuel a scientific endeavour and create an immortal line of cancer cells which are used in medical research till date. Skloot also provides information about what exactly biologists learned about the disease from Lacks’ cells. These are, effectively, the stories of the units that make up human life.

Stories have incredible scope. Deeptha feels that if they had used textbooks in their sessions, the learning of students “would have been limited to only the basics—who, what, when, where. The whys and hows would have been ignored because there isn’t much to ponder over.”

Whether we use the Jataka Tales to learn about Buddhism, the Akbar-Birbal stories to discover the of culture Mughal India, or the glamourous classic stories of Greek heroes and polymaths to uncover the meaning life in the ancient civilizations, there is no limit on what we can glean from the stories around us. None of this is to undermine the values of traditional education systems, but only to suggest that the introduction of narratives can create a window for imagination, memory and understanding to manifest in broader and more exciting way. Also, Nisha Abdulla, Co-founder of Ever After believes that stories can be used to encourage linking ideas across disciplines, as this might be the “need of the hour.” She describes a lesson in which the term ‘physical features’ of a country was studied as a combination of science, geography and economic trade. She also describes instances of stories providing the opportunity for discussions about values and dialogue: “In a recent history session we were looking at the legacy a strong leader leaves behind and the influence it has on a country and its people. We compared the legacies left behind by Mandela and Hitler in South Africa and Germany respectively in the form of stories written about that time. The children were then challenged to flip the narrative.” Students then find themselves raising questions about “democracy and rights, nation building in a diverse country like India with its own history of marginalisation.”

Narratives are conducive to the retention of academic concepts, and they encourage adopting stances through slow deliberation and a deep, detailed knowledge of multiple perspectives. Perhaps, as Nisha suggests, “children need to go through this process – only then will they become adults who are comfortable with various perspectives in others.” In a world where rigidity and intolerance are prevalent in human attitudes, the construction of mentalities that value dialogue and thoughtfulness and celebrate the growing multiplicity of identities, ideas, and knowledge can only be a good thing.

Finally, perhaps it is also important to understand our own roles in the universe of stories. We, as individuals have a place in the larger scheme of things, and initiatives like the Big History Project discuss the history of the world not just by drawing emotional and other parallels between students’ lives and the stories they come across, but by locating us, as people and as lifeforms in the much bigger story of planets, societies and our place in the universe. History is then conceptualised as a narrative that includes the minute filigree of our lives, as well as the larger sweeping social and natural phenomena that shape us. The stories that we learn through become our own stories—of origins, processes and extinction.

-Dakshayini Suresh, for Ever After

 

 

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8 steps in the digital storytelling process as illustrated in edtechteacher.org

The Power of Storytelling across the Curriculum: The Role of Digital Storytelling

In our Learning through Stories program that we conduct across schools in Bangalore, we use different tools to tell a story – books, oral storytelling and most important of all, digital storytelling.

Digital Storytelling is a very powerful method of teaching and learning that uses the narrative, digital pictures, animation, audio and video to create a digital media that talks about, narrates, explains and above all tells a an engaging story that the digital storyteller wanted to convey.

Steps in digital storytelling Here’s what digital storytelling requires a storyteller (the student, the teacher or both together) to do. This illustration from edtechteacher.org explains eight important steps in digital storytelling.

8 steps in the digital storytelling process as illustrated in edtechteacher.org

Steps in the digital storytelling process

Benefits of using digital storytelling in the classroom

Creating a digital story requires the students to apply thought and reasoning in order to tell their point of view about a topic. It urges them to use their imagination and get creative. Digital storytelling compels the students to thoroughly probe, explore, question and examine a topic before they can develop it into a digital story.

The power of storytelling in the curriculum

At the center of a digital production is the story – the script of the film. When a class gets down to write a script for a digital story, they are actually constructing several different stories – all based on individual perspectives and viewpoints. This means that the students are dwelling deep into the topic, getting a good grasp of it, understanding it before putting forth their arguments or taking a stand about the topic.

Bottom-line: using storytelling in the classroom improves reading and writing skills, augments visual comprehension, guarantees better retention and recall of the concept, promotes logical thinking and boosts imagination.

University of Illinois’ Community Informatics Initiative website, prairienet.org explains the power of stories in the curriculum:

“Children who are exposed to storytelling learn the process of creating and sharing an effective story. Students learning digital storytelling learn how to express and share emotions with their audience in the 21st century…In order for their story to be effective students must be able to express their emotion using and piecing together video, pictures and sound.

This learning process can help them express their feelings, views and creativity using new modes of communication…In order to develop a story, the child must first understand who he or she is creating the story for, developing their ability to empathize with others and improving their conflict resolution skills.”

How do we do it – the Ever After edge

In our Learning through Stories program that we conduct for the Amaatra Academy, Bangalore, we teach their Social Sciences curriculum for grades 6 to 9. We liberally use stories from folktales, myths, books and films to teach about the Mughal Empire, French Revolution, Early Humans, Democracy and so on.

One such lesson was on King Akbar for 7th graders. One of the topics that we touched upon and discussed was his heroic conquests, accomplishments and his greatness. As assignment, we asked the students to reflect back on the story of Akbar and explain what greatness meant to them. This is what one student had to say:

Ever After's Learning through Stories  program in school impact

Such profound thoughts and all prompted by a story! Now you know why storytelling can be such a powerful tool in learning and teaching. The class is currently working on a digital story project on Water. We’ll upload those stories soon!

To know more about Ever After’s story-based services and program, go to www.ever-after.co.in or email us to info@ever-after.co.in. Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and resources about using storytelling in education. We also invite you to join our Facebook Group – #learningthroughstories (#Learning through Stories). And don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly newsletter. Just drop us a mail telling us that you’d like to subscribe and we’ll make sure you get all of our next issues.

 

I am Ever After

ImageHello! It’s been a great two weeks since the Ever After centre was set up. Quite like a fairy tale, except no fairy Godmothers or magic wands came to the rescue! Just a solid belief in the idea of story-based learning. The actions simply followed. Paulo Coelho says, “When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it.” This is specifically true here.

What was a distant dream few years ago has come true today. It was such a pleasure to see the happy faces of those lovely kids and parents as they walked out the door. Their little ones had entertained a modest audience of fifteen people with folktales and fables, with only minimal practice but maximum confidence! Most of all, it was great to know that this small group had been touched by the power of story.

Lots has been said about what stories can do for our psyche. We are after all, made up of stories. What stops us then from using them more extensively at all levels? While I don’t have the power to influence decision makers in every field, I am here to do my bit for Education.

I am here to spread the cheer that stories bring. I am here to help every child that walks through our doors realize what a good story can do for them, for life. I am here to present facts through fantasy, drama and magic. I am Ever After.