Guest Post: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…
by Dr. Virginia Smith, President, Character First Education, 6 minute read
One of the primary responsibilities in my job at Character First Education is creating curriculum. We have a series of elementary education units on character that can be found at characterfirsteducation.com and we also offer curriculum and program choices for higher grades such as middle and high school. Even though all of our curriculum is very different depending on age level, they all share one thing in common – stories.
Storytelling has long been a means of passing on important information from generation to generation. There is even evidence of storytelling drawn on the walls of caves in the era of pre-written history. Historical fiction and biographies in modern times help convey important lessons of the past that would otherwise be forgotten. When I taught high school in Texas, I often told stories even though my subject matter was foreign language.
Why is storytelling so effective?
Educators, and those who evaluate them, all know that engagement is key to learning. If a student is actively engaged with the process and the information being presented, they are much more likely to retain and remember. Not only does the amount of information retained improve, but also the quality, clarity, and ease of access.
Let’s take a moment and talk about how learning occurs. Learning happens in context. Context is what gives information meaning. If, for example, you are learning about civil rights, the context of that learning would include the time period you are studying. The time period gives meaning to what you are learning about rights as they evolved through different periods and settings. Storytelling is one of the very best ways to provide context in learning. In a good story you set the stage by providing time, atmosphere, and background and other important information. It is this setting that provides hooks for the new knowledge to attach onto in your brain.
In order to be accessible, new learning is stored in your brain in what educators refer to as scaffolding. Just like the scaffolding on the outside of a building project, the scaffolding in your brain is a place where the new information is placed – usually right next to related information. The information is then connected to the information that is closely related. That way when you remember a closely related piece of information, it helps you remember other things. You have probably noticed this when you are trying to remember, for example, the name of a particular restaurant. You might start out by saying “Do you remember that place where we ate last month? You know, the place with the spicy chicken wings and Dana said it was the best cole slaw she had ever had….let me think….it was on 23rd street….OH yeah, I remember!” It is from those connections that we retrieve our memories of information.
Those types of connections are built into a good story and make it easier for students to remember important information.
Research in the area of learning and retention has demonstrated a high positive correlation between the number of times information is accessed through memory and the likelihood of being able to recall that information easily and quickly. Each time you remember a piece of information your neurons fire along a synapse. Just like muscle memory improves when learning a sport or practicing a musical instrument, practice through repeatedly firing those synapses not only strengthens them, but also serves to build more connections – shorter and therefore faster - to the information that is being recalled more frequently. Going back to the example of remembering the name of the restaurant – the more you are required to access that information, the more automatic your response.
An added bonus of storytelling is that is helps students apply what they learn - and application helps them to not only recall that information, but also to grow as individuals. If they are studying Thomas Edison and how he was diligent and never gave up when inventing the incandescent light bulb, when they face “difficult learning” (learning that requires repeated attempts and isn’t automatic) they are more likely to persevere and not give up.
So what does that really mean to someone who wants to write curriculum for students? The more related stories you can share along with the critical information you want the students to know, the better they will be able to remember. When learning about verb tenses, come up with a funny or interesting story that uses them. In Texas where I taught, we used the story of the Aggie bricklayer who consistently made mistakes that ended up in humorous situations because he did things at the wrong time. When studying important dates in history, share the stories of people during that time period. When wanting to help students develop good character, tell stories of people who demonstrated good character in times of crisis. When talking about courage, for example, tell the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) who landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River after both engines failed. When students are faced with a situation where they must demonstrate courage, they can draw on what they learned about Sully’s heroic act.
Now that we’ve talked about how stories are important, let’s cover a few tips for writing a good one!
Set the stage. Just like the title of this blog entry, a catchy first line of a story sets the tone and creates interest. What types of emotions and feelings does the setting “dark and stormy night” build? You might feel some tension and anxiety – or maybe even excitement if you enjoy a good storm. Either way, you are drawn directly into the story because you are envisioning the scene.
Introduce the characters. In any good story there are at least a few main characters. Name them and provide a brief description that allows the reader, or listener, to connect. To continue after the scene setting - “Mark, a local doctor, had just left the hospital after his graveyard shift.” Now we know the main character is Mark, he’s a doctor, and he works late at the hospital.
Provide the action. Now that we know what the scene is, who the character is, we now are ready to know what he’s doing. As you continue to build the story, you can weave in important information you want the student to remember. “It was a dark and stormy night in Philadelphia in 1793. Mark Hanson, a local doctor, had just left his graveyard shift at the hospital where he had treated a young immigrant mother from the Caribbean. He had never seen a case quite like hers. She arrived feeling very ill, couldn’t eat, and complained of a terrible headache and muscle aches. As he rode his horse through the worsening storm, he kept going over her symptoms in his head. He knew that he had heard of something, some disease that, although wasn’t new to this continent, was new to this young nation. Only 17 years ago, in 1776, the U.S. had gained independence from Great Britain and was experiencing the first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean. The closer he got to his home, the more the wind drove the cold rain onto his face and body. He glanced down at his hands, gripping the reins so tightly that his knuckles were pale yellow. That was it! He remembered. The symptoms all matched yellow fever, which had been diagnosed as early as 1690 on the continent.” Now the students have been provided with several bits of information: Yellow fever arrived in Philadelphia in 1793; and the first cases were diagnosed in immigrants from the Caribbean - even though the disease had existed on the continent since 1690. Symptoms included lack of appetite (nausea implied), headache, and muscle aches. The U.S. gained its independence in 1776 and was only 17 years old. It is when we provide the action in the story that we can rapidly grow the number of connections we provide, interrelating the important facts that are to be remembered.
Wrap it up in a conclusion. A good story oftentimes has a conclusion. As you tell the story of the fictional doctor, and insert additional nuggets of information (like details of what life was like in America at that time), begin to draw everything to a close. You might share how the actions of this doctor, and others at the time, saved lives and brought the epidemic to an end. You might end the story much the same way it began with the doctor, now older and wiser, returning to his home - satisfied that his actions had made a difference not only for the residents of Philadelphia, but also to his family waiting inside.
Be sure, when writing your story, that you keep the intended audience in mind. Use age-appropriate vocabulary and concepts. Also, make sure the length takes into consideration the attention span they possess.
By using stories to share information in the curriculum you write, you will not only increase student understanding and retention of important facts, you will also help them apply it to their lives as they grow and develop into who they will eventually become.
About the Author
Dr. Virginia Smith, EdD, holds a doctorate in education from Oklahoma State University. In her blog, "Growing Great Kids" she discusses a range of issues related to character education and preparing young people for success.
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