Teaching a lesson as a story arc

Tell a story to your class. Students will connect better to the instructor and to the lessons with “stories that induce feelings and help us understand how we feel” (Noddings, 1996). Stories provide a “connect the dots” aspect to learning by providing structure and meaning to students (Bolkan, 2021). They improve attention during lessons and retention of material discussed (Kromka & Goodboy, 2019). Consider planning a semester-long story that emphasizes what you think are the most important course elements. Don’t think about which individual stories fit into individual lessons, but how the pieces fit into a cohesive semester-long narrative. Offer students a novel or complete storyline they can take from your course instead of short stories or individual scenes. Integrate the approach into your course from the start.

When thinking of the beginning, it is more effective to start at the end. Where do you want your students to be at the end of the semester? Think about what you are going to assess and what specific content you think is most important and useful for your students. Rather than following the traditional course building path of choosing course materials first and linking various elements together in a curriculum, work from the end point. Upside-down design, effective in middle school as well as K-12 (Reynolds & Kearns, 2017), allows you to design your path based on the destination.

Choose materials and lessons that will allow for staggered learning. Create a semester-long story arc that will help you tie your lessons together into a compelling and cohesive story. Ask yourself what themes the students can draw on. This will provide insight into ideas that need strong reinforcement for students to master what you think is most important. The next steps for you as the author are to research primary, secondary, and perhaps even optional sources of information to support the story. Place them strategically in your calendar. As you describe your high- and low-stakes weeks, lessons, and assessments, think about what needs to go where when crafting an effective narrative. Use and talk to materials that work in these places. Some writers work from the inside out and some work from the outside in, but all successful writers bring the same elements to their finished work. It’s not important that the class know the technique behind the creation, only that you help them find connections to their life learning that engage their minds.

The impact of your story will depend on the quality of your storytelling and how it is received. It starts with your syllabus. Your program has several goals, including making all students feel welcome, motivating their learning, providing them with a timeline for their own planning, communicating expectations about attendance and other course requirements, and introducing them to class. , college, and career resources (Slattery & Carlson, 139). What you think is most important is broken down into the course schedule. Do you remember every fact that your instructors recited to you? Focus on what interests you about the topic, because if you don’t passionately believe in your story, your audience won’t either.

What should be the takeaways from each class? What stories can you weave into the course to connect students to ideas? How can you create cooperative learning opportunities to help students discover learning on their own, a process that provides an even greater connection to what you teach (Shimazon & Aldrich, 2010). Focus on names, ideas or applications that are also essential in other units. Emphasize connections to other units when they appear in lesson or discussion to remind students that there is a story in which they are a part and that they are not passive participants.

Serve students who may never take another course in this area with the key names, ideas, and applications that you think will best encourage their lifelong learning. Tell the story you believe in – it’s the story your students will take with them.

Kent Oswald earned a master’s degree in teaching from Manhattanville College and is pursuing a second master’s degree in American Studies at the City University of New York. He teaches communication courses (business writing, media studies) at CUNY. Additional information on kentoswald.com.


Bolkan, San. “Storytelling in the Classroom: Facilitating Cognitive Interest by Promoting Attention, Structure, and Meaning.” Communication reports, flight. 34, no. 1, January 2021, p. 1–13.

Kromka, Stephen M. and Alan K. Goodboy. “Storytelling in the Classroom: Using Instructor Narratives to Increase Student Recall, Affect, and Attention.” communication education, flight. 68, no. 1, Jan. 2019, p. 20–43.

Nods, Nel. “Stories and Affect in Teacher Education.” Cambridge Journal of Education, flight. 26, no. 3, November 1996, p. 435.

Reynolds, Heather L., and Katherine Dowell Kearns. “A planning tool for integrating retrograde design, active learning, and authentic assessment into the middle school classroom.” College education, flight. 65, no. 1, January 2017, p. 17–27.

Shimazoe, Junko and Howard Aldrich. “Group work can be rewarding: understanding and overcoming resistance to cooperative learning.” College education, flight. 58, no. 2, 2010, p. 52-57.

Slattery, Jeanne M., and Janet F. Carlson. “Preparing an Effective Program: Current Best Practices.” College education, flight. 53, no. 4, 2005, p. 159–164.

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