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Learning Library Blog The power of storytelling
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The power of storytelling

By Nicole Krueger
September 25, 2019
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The diagnosis hit hard. After a series of car accidents, Luis Perez discovered he had a visual impairment that could eventually leave him blind.

While losing the light was painful enough, it was the loss of the identity he had forged for himself that took him to a dark place.

“It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that now I have to change a lot about myself and the way I do things,” says Perez, a technical assistance specialist for the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST and past president of the ISTE Inclusive Learning Network.

He was tempted to give up. Instead, he started telling his story.

He wrote poetry. He learned photography and started posting his images on Instagram. He wrote a book. Then another. He created a TED Talk and began delivering it in front of audiences.

As he told the story of himself, an educator living between worlds – between light and dark, between sighted and blind – his new identity began to coalesce.

“Part of telling my story was processing through some of those feelings,” he says. “The more I told it, the easier it became and the more comfortable I became in my own skin.”

But something else happened when Perez shared his story. It grew bigger than him. What started as one person’s lived experience became a much larger story about how assistive technology can change lives and unleash voices.

Perez is one of thousands of educators worldwide who are rediscovering the power of storytelling for learning and teaching. With the help of digital tools that have smashed through traditional barriers to creating and sharing stories, a growing number of teachers are stepping into their role as what educational philosopher Kieran Egan calls “the tellers of our culture’s tales.”

As more educators of all backgrounds start stretching their voices – and encouraging students to stretch their own – they’re beginning to shift the narratives both inside and outside the classroom that have kept education locked in stagnation for decades.

“There’s a maxim that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. That’s happening a lot in education,” says Jennie Magiera, chief program officer for EdTech Team. “Educators need to tell the story of the work they’re doing, the positive bright spots around what’s happening in the classroom. Teachers need to help make sure the narrative is full and robust.”

A reason for learning

In Japanese, the term ikigai refers to a person’s reason for being – the thing that propels them out of bed every morning. It indicates not only the source of meaning in one’s life, but also the mental and spiritual state that allows people to feel their lives have value.

National Geographic reporter Dan Buettner hypothesizes that ikigai is the rea- son Okinawa residents have such long lives. Author and educator Bernajean Porter teases out learners’ ikigai by asking them to write a story about their future. It’s a simple exercise that, in some cases, has altered the course of their lives.

There was the student who insisted the exercise was stupid because it was impossible to predict the future. He sat on the floor and refused to write – until Porter asked a pointed question.

“I said, ‘Your life is blank screen right now. Do you want someone else writing the story of what you’re going to do, or do you want to write that blank space for yourself?’ The next day, he came in with seven pages he’d written that night,” she says.

Then there was the student from an immigrant family who could only envision herself in the same jobs as her relatives, waiting tables or working in a nursing home. When Porter started asking about the things that made her light up, she invented a story about working onstage. That summer, she got a job painting scenery for a local theater.

“Now she’s on her way,” says Porter, who travels the globe to facilitate effective digital storytelling. “That’s the power of storytelling. If you don’t like the life you’re in, start making a new story for yourself.”

Education leaders and policymakers often latch on to the tangible and measurable aspects of teaching, such as test scores, standards and curriculum content. In the process, they risk discarding the more nebulous but vital aspects of human learning – like the role of ikigai in propelling students to succeed. Storytelling can serve as the thread connecting the content they need to learn with their intrinsic reasons for learning it.

“Storytelling is part of our humanity and part of what makes our culture and society beautiful,” Magiera says. “We’re trying to raise children to become the best versions of themselves and amplify their humanity, and to do that we need to leverage the stories in their lives to help them gain mastery of the content we’re being charged to deliver.”

Long before schools ever existed, humans taught each other through stories. Not only is storytelling the oldest form of teaching, but there’s plenty of research to show it’s also the “stickiest, most portable form communication,” she says. When used as an instructional tool, it can boost both long-term retention and understanding.

As co-leaders of ISTE’s Digital Storytelling Network, educators Gwynn Moore and Julie Jaeger are working to bust the myth that storytelling belongs only in language arts classrooms. Th y cite examples of educators using storytelling across a variety of content areas, including science and math.

To introduce students to the life cycle of water, for example, one teacher wrote a story from the point of view of a water molecule as it evaporated into the clouds and then condensed back into liquid form. To help students wrap their brains around the concept of X, a math teacher told a story about how X was having an identity crisis because its value varied from day to day.

Listening to the teacher tell a story offers a host of benefits to students. It lights up the brain, engages empathy and allows educ tors to “reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences,” says social entrepreneur Kimberly Weichel, author of Our Voices Matter: Wisdom, Hope and Action for Our Time.

But it’s when students start telling their own stories that the real magic happens.

“There’s an elevation of thought process kids have to go through to create a story, then find images that enhance the story and help the audience understand the emotional content,” says Moore, an instructional media and technology teacher at Aurora Frontier P-8 in Colorado. “It totally takes their learning to a higher level, and it stays there.”

Amplifying student voices

Whenever the news vans rolled into the South Shore neighborhood in Chicago, they never asked about the great things that happened there. They only showed up to report on the gun violence and drug activity that had earned the community monikers such as “Terror Town” and “Chiraq.”

Seeing their lives reduced to a one- dimensional story about violence made students at Bradwell School of Excellence feel frustrated and angry.

With the help of fifth grade teacher Linsey Rose Robinson, they took to social media to start building a new narrative for their neighborhood. Titled “This Isn’t Chiraq,” their narrative portrayed a neighborhood filled with love and humanity, where people go to church, kids shoot hoops and students dream of going to college.

They emailed their story to news outlets across Chicago, and every single one picked it up. As the students spoke out, the world began to see another side of Terror Town, that of a tight-knit community where people look out for one another.

When teachers encourage students to tell their stories, what they’re really doing is helping kids find their voices and orient themselves within the world.  Digital story- telling empowered the South Shore students to take back the narrative of their neighbor- hood, and it’s empowering young people across the globe to become lifelong self- advocates. It can also help them emotionally process the personal traumas that often get in the way of learning.

“Storytelling gives students a chance to test out their voice,” says Diana Rendina, a media specialist and teacher-librarian at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida. “It allows them to see that others care to listen to what they have to say. I think that it’s important for us to create space for students to tell their stories. The classroom environment can be perfect for this because it’s a place that feels safe for students, where they don’t have to worry about being judged.”

There’s no reason those stories need to stay within the classroom, however. Today’s students have the digital tools to not only discover their voices but to share them with an authentic audience.

“The power of the tools we have now is that there used to be a lot of gatekeepers who decided how you could tell your story, whether through the news or through publishing,” Perez says. “Now I have a green screen in my house and I can get in front of my iPhone, create something and share it with the world. You can tell your story with- out asking for permission.”

Using a broad range of online tools, students can tell their stories through blogs, videos, podcasts and memes. From Flipgrid and PowerPoint to social media and video editing software, just about any app can be- come a storytelling vehicle in the hands of a creative student. Some of the more popular classroom tools, such as Storybird, allow students to easily create professional-looking visual stories or comics, taking technical skills out of the equation so they can focus on content.

Of course, teachers need to be careful about where and how students share their stories. The ease of digital sharing raises complex privacy issues, particularly when it comes to children, and it’s crucial for students, parents and teachers to think carefully about how much kids share online. Finding and vetting credible apps to ensure their privacy policies align with current child privacy laws is a key element of bringing storytelling to the classroom.

Ultimately, it’s not the tools that make a storyteller, Jaeger emphasizes. Creating a digital report, slideshow or multimedia presentation isn’t storytelling unless it contains the necessary elements of a story: a problem, a resolution, an emotional hook and an underlying meaning.

“I think the biggest thing about story- telling with students is that their story can be told in so many different ways, and they need to find the one that best fits their voice and their comfort level,” says Sherry Gick, director of innovative learning for Five-Star Technology Solutions. “They need a lot of exposure, because it’s important to be able to try different formats and write in different ways without the fear of failure. There needs to be some freedom and creativity to find that comfort zone.”

Shattering the single story

A few years after the Chicago students wrested back control of their neighbor- hood’s narrative, Magiera shared their story with thousands of educators at ISTE 2017. Her goal was to showcase how teachers can amplify student voices and use technology to shatter the single story – the one-sided narrative that reduces complex human beings into flat stereotypes.

Keynoting at the conference was thrilling and terrifying. A tearful Magiera exited the stage to a standing ovation. Nothing in her life to that point could compare with that moment.

Then came a barrage of comments that pricked her bubble.

“People kept saying to me, ‘Did they pick you because you’re a woman of color?’ It immediately devalued my voice,” she says. “Whether they meant to be condescending or not, the implication was that I was not picked for my expertise but because I checked a box.”

In warning against the danger of the single story, Magiera had suddenly found herself trapped inside one. So she took her own advice and set about shattering it.

Digging deeper, she found that the questions typically stemmed from a lack of exposure; people simply hadn’t seen many practicing educators of color delivering key- notes at major conferences.

“We lack equity and access for educators of color to share their stories,” she says.

In response, she founded Our Voice Academy, a program that helps educators of color refine their stories for the big stage. To date, some 60 educators have completed the program, and almost all have gone on to deliver keynotes or spotlight talks.

Many of the educators who attended the academy have also participated in TED Masterclass, an online course that helps educators cultivate their own TED Talks. Through ISTE’s partnership with TED, over 2,000 educators from different backgrounds are learning the art of storytelling, and many have begun sharing their stories at the ISTE conference.

Education consultant Cheyenne Batista, founder and CEO of Firefly Worldwide Inc., is one of them. During her keynote at the conference last August, she encouraged other educators to follow her example.

“A key point in my talk is that you have a voice and it will be heard,” she says. “I hope everyone embraces the concept that each of us has something to say and we never hold ourselves back from grabbing the mic and sharing ideas that inspire people.”

Some educators are already experiencing firsthand how a well-told story can help serve as a powerful advocacy tool, helping transformation spread.

“When teachers or students tell about the difference something made in their life, that one story can hold the metaphor for all the accomplishments that might be within a program,” Porter says. Statistical evidence of a program’s success may appeal to the numerically minded, but the emotional component of a good story has far more potential to win the hearts of parents, school board members and policymakers, empowering educators to build support and secure funding for their initiatives.

It’s not just individual teachers who need to share their perspectives, either. Schools and districts also have a story to tell.

“To transform education, it has to be those schools telling their own stories,” says Gick, who works with schools to help them do exactly that. “If they don’t, oftentimes the story is not an accurate or complete one. So many people in education are doing great things. Change comes through the sharing and other people growing through those ideas.”

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Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.