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The Power of Stories: 5 Ways to Incorporate Personal Narratives Into Your Classroom

by Naashia Mohamed |

Stories are a part of our everyday lives. We share anecdotes with our families, reminisce with friends, live the lives of others secondhand in the books we read and the movies we watch. Through sharing stories, we pass on knowledge, traditions, and values, keeping culture alive. They fire up our imaginations and trigger our curiosities. Perhaps most importantly, when stories engage us, they transport us into different realms and enable us to connect with each other and see the world from new perspectives. Stories provide an entry point to understanding experiences that are different from our own.

As educators, we know the power of stories in the classroom context, particularly when these are personal stories from our learners. Hearing the real-life experiences of their peers helps students to strengthen relationships and build community. For those sharing these experiences, the act of storytelling can be empowering — an action that validates their identities.

There is no one right way to use students’ personal narratives in a lesson. The use does, however, need to go beyond simply retelling their immigration story, or the cultural practices associated with their heritage. Here are some ideas to explore.

1. Use Stories as an Icebreaker

At the start of a new academic year, or when working with a new group of students, it is important to get to know your students and facilitate opportunities for them to get to know each other. Many students may feel apprehensive about sharing personal stories with a group of people they barely know but are more willing to engage with others one on one. An activity like Concentric Circles is a good one for these situations. Students form two concentric circles, with the inside circle facing out and the outside circle facing in, so that pairs of students stand facing each other. They exchange information with a partner on a set topic for a specified amount of time. The teacher signals the outer circle to move in one direction, giving each student a new peer to talk to. This allows students to develop fluency in narrating their story as they change partners and the opportunity to interact with a range of peers in a structured way. Examples of prompts that could lead to personal narratives for this activity include:

    • A story behind your name
    • A person you look up to
    • The best thing that happened to you this week
    • What you do for fun

2. Use Stories to Introduce a Topic or Expand on a Concept

A great way to create interest in a new topic is to begin with a personal story. In a lesson I was observing in a kindergarten class, the teacher had invited a student who was wearing a sling to share the story of how he had been injured when playing football. He had brought in a set of x-rays and invited students to look at them. Several students volunteered to share anecdotes of their own injuries in the past. Through these stories, the teacher connected students’ experiences with the topic of the lesson: the human body. The students were already invested in the topic and eager to learn more even before she introduced the topic to be explored. In another example, in a fourth-grade science lesson on photosynthesis, the teacher gave each child some beans to grow. The children maintained records of their growth and later wrote narratives from the point of view of the bean stalk. There is some evidence to show that the use of stories to teach can improve the retention of knowledge.  

3. Use Stories to Link to Home Languages

Encourage young learners to bring picture books from their cultures, and perhaps in their home languages. They can tell the story to others either in groups or to the whole class. Giving space to other languages provides validation and has a positive influence on children’s sense of belonging. When you have several languages represented in your classroom, you may like to involve families to create stories that link to their cultures or their family practices. This could be done by each family individually, or you could invite them to come together and work on a collaborative story. These stories could be in writing or in digital form, enabling them to be shared easily within the classroom community and beyond. Alternatively, families could be encouraged to come in and read to their children (and others!) in languages they are most confident in, creating a multilingual storytelling culture within your classroom.

4. Use Stories to Engage Unmotivated Learners

Some students may not want to share a personal story. Other students may insist they have no ideas to get started. Have a backup plan for such occasions. When my children were younger, we used StoryCubes, a set of nine six-sided dice, each with a different image on them, to create stories. I have also used story jars effectively with both young children and adolescents when they feel their creativity has run dry. Story jars are essentially three jars with random prompts in them: characters, setting, events. Students pick one prompt from each jar and use them together in a story.

5. Use Stories to Develop Empathy and Build Relationships

When teachers share personal stories, it helps to build trust and strengthen relationships with their students. It enables students to see teachers as real people whom they can relate with. This can encourage students to be open and authentic in sharing their own personal experiences. As a multilingual speaker of English, and a lifetime language learner, I often share with my students my own language learning journeys. Many international students tell me that knowing my story normalizes their experiences and empowers them to succeed. In selecting personal experiences to share with my students, I am mindful to choose narratives that will illustrate an element of the lesson, make real-world connections, and help to spark some inspiration in them.

Though stories can enliven lessons, do remember that for some students who have had traumatic experiences, sharing personal stories may be quite challenging. Knowing your students well can help avoid potential pitfalls and plan teaching more effectively in a way that will benefit everyone and make all student feel included. 

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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