The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
Stories have been used from time immemorial to pass down truths from generation to generation. One of the first things that children learn as they grow is the power of storytelling. They quickly latch onto favorite tales, asking their parents to read or tell them again and again. In turn, parents sometimes find that hard lessons can be framed in the guise of a story to make it more manageable for their children. While they might not be eloquent enough to adequately communicate the idea that persistence beats out flashiness more often than not, any parent can read their child one of Aesop’s most famous fables, The Tortoise and the Hare.
Storytelling works with any linear sequence or series of components that can be told in order. To make the most of the experience, teachers should utilize a variety of modalities in their creation. They’ll craft a narrative to carry the listener through the major points, include visuals and kinesthetic responses, and even call on various emotions throughout. Storytelling works both as a performance piece and also as a full participation activity. Not only are certain students going to participate as they represent different components of the tale, there will be something for the rest of the class to do as they follow along.
Why It Works
Our brains are wired for narratives. Though reading bullet points or listening to dry facts can convey information, a story puts the entire brain to work. It follows the basic pattern of cause and effect, a connection that forms a significant part of how we think. Most people think in narratives throughout the day, whether it be filling up the car with gasoline or thinking about their wayward child. Many people make up short stories in their heads for every action and conversation, and storytelling leverages that tendency.
When people hear a story, they try to relate it to an existing experience. This desire to find connections activates the part of the brain that helps them relate to similar feelings of pain, joy, or even disgust. While people are hearing or watching a story unfold, parts of the brain are being activated that mimic the emotions being felt by characters in the narrative. When a theater audience breaks down in tears as a movie character loses her life-long friend, they are viscerally experiencing an emotional state being projected by a fictional character. The capacity for empathy makes storytelling infinitely powerful.
As emotions are being engaged, so too are memory tags. The greater the emotional connections, the greater the likelihood that the story will be memorable. In addition to emotions, however, successful storytelling incorporates a variety of modalities. Not only do students relate emotional states to various parts of the narrative, they see a common element woven throughout and visual representations of each stage. They hear a narrative describing the journey and key phrases for each component. Finally, great storytelling involves physical motions to engage the kinesthetic memory engrams of the listeners. The greater the sensory input of a story, the greater its memorability.
Of all the worksheet alternatives in this book, storytelling might take the most preparation. With a bit of preplanning, however, it can be a fantastic method for driving home content and making it memorable.
1. Choose a subject for storytelling. The subject should be easily segmented, broken down into five to seven subcomponents for students to learn. Some examples of good topics for storytelling are algorithms (e.g., steps for long division), sequences (e.g., life cycles, timelines, historical events), or even literary plot summaries.
2. For each subcomponent, write a short narrative, anywhere from four to six sentences. This will serve as the story that moves the students from section to section. If there are key vocabulary terms associated with the subject, this is where they’ll be included.
3. Choose a common element to be woven throughout the storytelling. This element, typically a character in the story, is what will tie everything together. It is the journey of this element that will take students through the narrative.
4. For each subcomponent, create some type of visual image or component to represent it. Though students will be listening to the narrative, they will also need something to latch onto visually. Some examples are pictures, real-world objects, diagrams, or even drawings.
5. Additionally, each step or stage in the story will need a short audio cue or phrase for students to repeat. This short statement or exclamation should sum up the subcomponent, just as the visual image represents it. The audio cues will be one of two ways that students not participating in the demonstration (i.e., the audience) will interact with the storytelling.
6. Students will also need to move their bodies to make storytelling a fully immersive experience. Each subcomponent should not only have a narrative for the storyteller to say, a visual cue with a common element, and an audio cue for the audience, it also needs some type of hand or body motion. Tagging each stage of the story with a kinesthetic response gives it even more stickiness.
7. If possible, add an emotional element to each subcomponent. This can be something that accompanies the audio cue (e.g., shout angrily) or the body motion (e.g., slump your shoulders). Any emotional element creates additional memory tags for students’ brains to latch onto.
Ms. Hernandez’s fifth grade students were struggling with fractions. Though they understood the basic elements of fractions, manipulating them and changing their form seemed extremely complicated for them. While they could sometimes generate equivalent fractions if they could draw pictorial representations, their conceptual understanding of fractions greater than one was weak. In other words, they couldn’t change an improper fraction to a mixed number with any reliability.
To make this process more memorable, Ms. Hernandez decided to try something she had learned from a recent conference she’d attended. She had learned about storytelling from a breakout session and wanted to see if it would really work with her students. Adapting it for her purposes, she decided to create a short narrative about Debbie, a denominator that was feeling sad because she was a part of an improper fraction.
She called five students up to the front of the class and gave each of them a cue card to read at a certain time. Ms. Hernandez began the story by showing the students the number 3 that she had cut out from a cardboard box. “Class, I’d like you all to say hello to Debbie.” A few students mumbled hello but many just stared in confusion. “Debbie is a denominator but she is feeling very sad. She’s upset because she’s an improper fraction. She knows this because when she looks in the mirror, she sees that the numerator is larger than her.”
At this point, Ms. Hernandez had the first student, holding Debbie, turn and look at the second student, who was holding a large 5. “Debbie is depressed because things aren’t proper. She’s supposed to be the largest number in the fraction but she isn’t. She mumbles sadly…”
Ms. Hernandez pointed to the first student, who read from the cue card, “Improper am I,” in a sad Yoda voice. She then turned to the rest of the students and said, “When we get to this part of the story, I want you to say that at the end of the first step. Hold out three fingers with your right hand at your belly button and five fingers on your left hand on your forehead to represent the improper fraction five-thirds.” After the class practiced reciting that a few times, Ms. Hernandez continued with the story and passed Debbie to the second person.
“Debbie was determined not to let things stay the way they were. Instead, she knew that if she could find fractional sets of wholes in the numerator, she could move them out and possibly shrink the five down. There was only one operation she could use – division. She knew she had to divide and conquer,” Ms. Hernandez continued. She then pointed to the second student, who read from his cue card.
“Denominator divides into numerator,” the student said in a robotic voice.
“That’s great,” said Ms. Hernandez. To the rest of the class, she said, “When we get to this part of the story, take your right hand, which shows three fingers, and move it up into your left hand, which should have five fingers. You can repeat the phrase, ‘Denominator divides into numerator,’ in your best imitation of a robot. Now let’s continue the story.”
Ms. Hernandez passed Debbie down to the third student and continued speaking. “Debbie divided herself up into the numerator and found that she went into five one time. That means that she found one whole, or three-thirds, that she could drive out of the numerator. She couldn’t just get rid of it, however. Instead, she drove out three-thirds and renamed it as a whole number,” Ms. Hernandez continued. The third student then unfolded a huge 1 made out of cardboard and showed how Debbie fit into the 3/3 drawn on the large 1. When cued, the student shouted, “Get out of here!”
Ms. Hernandez thanked the student and then addressed the class. “When Debbie divides up, she finds three-thirds and drives it out of the numerator, renaming it as the whole number one. What you can do is pretend like you have a huge boulder on your shoulders and you’re throwing it as far as you can. Grunt with effort and say, ‘Get out of here!’ Are you ready to see what happens next?”
The class nodded and Debbie moved down to the fourth student. “When Debbie divided herself into the numerator five, she drove out a whole, or three-thirds, but found there were a few fractional pieces left over. Three goes into five once but has a remainder of two. She liked the cute little two,” Ms. Hernandez said as she pointed to a small 2 that the fourth student was holding, “because it was smaller than her. She looked fondly at the numerator and said…”
Ms. Hernandez pointed at the student, who sheepishly said, “It’s so tiny.”
Ms. Hernandez laughed and said, “That’s right, as long as the numerator is smaller than the denominator, Debbie is happy. If not, you need to divide some more. What you all can do is pretend you’re opening a present on Christmas morning and you find an adorable little puppy. If you can bring yourself to it, squeal like a little girl and say, ‘It’s so tiny!’ That is your reminder that the new numerator needs to be smaller than the denominator. Now let’s finish the story.”
Ms. Hernandez moved Debbie down to the fifth student, who wasn’t holding anything. “Debbie started depressed but now she’s delighted. She felt bad as a part of the improper fraction five-thirds but now is happy as a part of the mixed number one and two-thirds. But the original numerator five, and the whole number one, and the new numerator two are all looking at her.” She directed the other four students to turn and stare at Debbie. “They all changed and they want to see what she’ll do. What will she turn into? How will she change?”
Ms. Hernandez pointed at the final student, who crossed her arms and said moodily, “Hmph. You can’t change me!”
Ms. Hernandez clapped. “Perfect! That’s what we all do on the final step, class. Cross your arms, pretend you’re a moody teenager, and say, ‘Hmph. You can’t change me!’ Debbie divides herself up, changing the numerator and creating a whole number, but she never changes. Thus five-thirds is equal to one and two-thirds and the denominator never changes. Do you want to try it again?” Ms. Hernandez asked.
The students erupted with waving hands, all wanting to play a part in the story of Debbie the Denominator. She knew that, with this story, her students would have a good chance of remembering the steps for changing an improper fraction to a mixed number.
Storytelling provides for a lot of variations within itself because of all the components it can contain. Visuals, motions, audio cues, and common elements can all be adjusted to meet the needs of students. One of the greatest parts of storytelling is the inherent ability for repetition. If teachers write down the cues and narrative and save any physical props, the students themselves can repeat the story. This would be a great activity for the end of the day or can even be included in a center or station rotation.
Once students become familiar with storytelling, having experienced several different stories, they might enjoy the opportunity to create one of their own. Using a template like the one above that spells out the various components, students can work in groups to make a compelling story that reviews a concept or series of steps. By breaking it down into subcomponents, students can practice writing a narrative for each section. They can create visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and emotional cues as well. The most exciting part for them, however, will probably be presenting it for the class. Their humor and originality can be unleashed in a variety of ways, all related to the subject matter.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
If you can't beat them, join them.
Online storytelling is already an internet sensation, one that every tweenage girl already knows about and uses everyday, TikTok. Rather than fight popular culture, leverage it! While a large portion of TikTok features dance moves, there are many other uses for it. You can use it to record videos up to 15 seconds each. String up to four videos together and voila! you have a one minute video.
After stringing the video together that pantomimes your story, use the microphone button to record a voice over. This is where you tell your story about Debbie the Denominator or whatever else you want to share. Upload it onto your class webpage or even district site to share your ingenuity and creativity. Students can now use the video to record their own voice over, practicing their storytelling abilities, or even write and record one of their own. Who says social media can't be used to support education?