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National Storytelling Week: Using Stories to Engage Learners

30/01/19

Using stories to engage learners across the curriculum, not just English. Practical ideas and opinion piece about placing knowledge and curriculum content in context. (***Warning: ‘Of Mice and Men’ spoiler alert***) - Paul

‘Oh. My. God.’

shrieks one student loudly and skids her book across her table, as other reading books drop and hit desks and there are outtakes of breath and loud sighs and 'ooohs' and 'ahhhs' and chatting and exclaiming erupts around the classroom. The TA looks over nervously. Spontaneous conversations are happening, a young lad wails ‘nooooo’ dramatically, is someone actually crying? Everyone is talking at once. ‘I can’t believe it’ one girl mouths to me over the din. I’m standing at the front of the room happily in ‘out of control’ control. The students are not misbehaving, far from it, they are reacting to the plot climax in ‘Of Mice and Men’ which we have been reading for 4 weeks now. A natural shock and responding to a part of a story designed to challenge us. 

The story has been a fantastic engagement tool for me as a new teacher with a new class, something that has structured our lessons, captured our imaginations and built rapport amongst us. We have learnt a lot of curriculum content too. But the fact that we have invested time and energy and emotions in the characters, been enthralled as the story unfolded, has meant that when George shoots Lenny, they don’t just focus on the craft of the writer and how he constructed the narrative, they completely meltdown.

‘He did it because he loved him’ one lad says.
‘You don’t kill things you love! ’ another retorts.

My teacher mind springs into action, drawing on my professional wisdom, I can see the potential for philosophical debate in this moment. Other comments conjure ideas for other ways to hit curriculum content:

‘Lenny needed help, he couldn’t get it’ – Social Care, Disability discrimination

‘It was the depression that pushed them over the edge’ – History and Economics

‘It was her fault’ - Women’s rights, #MeToo, Equality

Indeed throughout the whole story, which we have been studying as part of an English Lang and Lit GCSE, there are hundreds of potential curriculum avenues to explore other than English; Civil Rights, Geography, PSHEE, Drama, Music and more.

The English outcomes of course have been rich. Amongst other things we wrote a transactional piece advertising itinerant jobs, we wrote dialogue script between characters, we analysed in depth the writer’s craft in an extended essay. Above all though it was the magic of the story that meant the students were engaged. And in this way it becomes more meaningful, as we see at the moment when the class goes crazy after the shooting. I am convinced that with a well chosen story, either a published novel or comic strip or a narrative song or personal anecdote or a made up narrative or a newspaper article, a teacher can bring any curriculum content to life.

‘Wonder’ - PSHEE
‘Boy in Striped Pyjamas’ – History, Geography, RE
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – Civil Rights, Law
‘The Twits’ – Science (Upside down room?!)


‘She’s Leaving Home’ by The Beatles - Drama or Dance stimulus
‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday – History


Can you see the Maths in the tragic story of The Titanic? The Artistic potential in ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? The scope for Food Tech in the BFG (Snozzcumbers anyone?). I can, and I am sure that stories could help us teach anything.

As my colleague Hywel Roberts said at #BrewEdWakefield on Saturday, relaying a tale of when he was challenged to find a story to support the topic of coastal erosion;

‘Let’s say there’s an old man, who lives in a house by the sea…’

Start a story with your class this week and see where it takes you.

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