Telling Tales Inside of School

For years I felt a little guilty about telling stories from my personal life in the classroom. Was I doing this just to be entertaining? Was I secretly craving the students’ approval? I wasn’t sure, but I kept doing it despite my doubts. It felt natural. We would be talking about some abstract idea and it would make me think of something I once did or something that happened to people I knew. So I would stop the class and tell the story.

I'm not sure why I questioned this habit. Maybe I thought it was a deviation from the material or a personal indulgence, but I couldn't help introducing stories from my life into my teaching. For example, in my senior seminar we read Plato's Crito. In one section of the dialog, Socrates makes an argument against an ‘eye-for an eye’ standard of justice. I always tell the following story whenever we get to this section.

About ten years ago I went to my credit union and needed to make a rather complicated transaction. I needed some money to go in one account and some in another. I also needed a cashier’s check and some cash back. Once I got back in my car, however, I realized that the teller had given me $10 too much in cash. Knowing that tellers are held responsible for a shortage in their tills, I went back into the bank and waited in line. When I at last got to the window, I said, “Hi, remember me? I was just in here a few minutes ago and I think we made a mistake.” The teller immediately cut me off and gave me dismissive smirk. “I don’t make mistakes,” she said.

Now at this point in the story I usually turn to the class and ask whether I would be justified in saying, “Maybe you’re right" and then walking away. Students often laugh and point out that my first mistake was going back into the bank. “My time is worth more than $10,” they say, or “Serves her right for copping an attitude.”

Then we walk through the moral question of whether there are any circumstances in which it is just to exploit an honest mistake when we know someone will suffer for our gain. Is moral behavior an internally-arrived at standard or is it dependent on external factors (like the teller copping an attitude)? Does the teller's attitude entitle me to the $10 as a way of achieving an eye for an eye? Or was Socrates’ right that a good person never knowingly commits an unjust act regardless of the actions of others?

These are all interesting, abstract questions, but until I tell the story that’s all they are: just a series of rather theoretical questions that would have been responded to with silence in most cases. Put some narrative meat on their bones and everyone in the room has an insight. Sometimes students will offer their own versions of the bank teller experience. This story always provokes an interesting debate, with some students arguing I should keep the money, and others arguing that I have an ethical responsibility to return it. Over the years I've had good luck using well-chosen personal stories in class. Moreover, I’ve had students bring up these stories years after they graduated.

So it relieved any residual anxiety to read in Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School that many studies in cognitive psychology affirm the effectiveness of storytelling in the classroom. According to Willingham, stories are highly effective for several reasons:

First, they are easy to comprehend because they follow narrative patterns that students already know: this happened, which led to this, which caused this… This allows students to make connections between events and even inferences about missing information.

Stories are also interesting. Whenever people read a wide array of material, researchers consistently find those told in story form are rated the highest. But too much information slows the plot. We all know people who can kill a story by telling us everything that happened.

Third (as is evident from my ex-students) stories are extremely easy to remember. This is in part because of their inter-relatedness. If you can recall one plot event, you can recall others that were caused or resulted from it.

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise. I seem to have intuitively known that stories work even if I sometimes felt anxious. What's always been curious to me is that teachers realize few pedagogical benefits from the years they spent as students. As a new professor I adopted the very models for teaching that I hated when I was a student (lecturing the full hour, ticky-tacky quizzes, making coverage of the material my top priority). It never occurred to me there was another way to do things. Gradually, however, I began to realize that I had some good, intuitive teaching instincts. There was nothing weird about relating an incident at the dry cleaners if it illustrated an important point or started a good discussion.

I remember once mentioning my worry about telling stories in class to a colleague in the religion department. He just shrugged and said, “Worked for Jesus.”

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