Share your story, share your wisdom: How to make learning memorable

June 14, 2012

There I sat in my professor’s office, sobbing. “But it is such a lousy grade,” I said. “I’ll never get another scholarship. Then, how will I pay for school? I’ll have to drop out.”

I hated statistics, but it was a mandatory course in my research program. My grade was a passing one, but just barely.

Tim, in his Northern English fashion, didn’t really have much use for tears, but he knew that I was hurting. He retorted, “Look, you’re not going to drop out of school. It will work out just fine.”

“But how?” I sniveled.

“Let me tell you about the time I got a terrible grade in one of my courses in grad school…” He went on to tell me about an experience that paralleled my own. “I made it through OK, and so will you. After you’ve crossed that stage and you have your degree in hand, no one is going to ask you what your grade in statistics was! You passed. That’s enough. Now go on, and get back to work.”

Having my teacher and mentor share a story with me about his own shortcomings did not diminish his professional excellence in my eyes; in fact, it made me respect him even more. My point to you is this: Through our personal stories, as teachers we have an opportunity to create memorable learning experiences that motivate, inspire and teach our learners.

Here are some tips on how to incorporate stories into your teaching practice:

Be vulnerable 

Stories that show your humanity and your vulnerability are likely to resonate the most deeply with others. We are not talking about melodramatically pulling all your skeletons out of the closet and putting them on parade. It is about show-ing that you, too, are human. Adult learners in particular, can be hampered by a fear of failure. By sharing our failures and vulnerabilities, we become approachable and believable.

Get personal (just a little) 

Stories that are drawn from your own experience will have the most impact. Professional speaker, Patricia Fripp calls it “mining your experience”. Find the golden nuggets of your life and polish them. Then offer them as gifts of the heart.

Unless there is a good reason to do otherwise, tell your stories using the first person. They are your stories, after all.

Speak your truth 

Your stories will be more believable if they are true. A little bit of literary license is allowed, but at least 90% of the story should be accurate and true. If there is too much embellishment, others will pick up on it. If they do, then you lose credibility as a storyteller — and as a teacher. It is OK to massage the truth, just don’t stretch it too far.

Keep it short 

Keep your stories crisp, clean and to the point. Someone once told me that a story that relates directly to your lesson should take up a maximum of 5% of your teaching time. In a 60-minute class, your story should be a maximum of 3 minutes. If it is longer, students may tune out or get impatient. I have used that guideline in my teaching practice and it seems to work well.

Focus on the learner 

Your teaching stories may be about you, but they are for your learner. Edit out unnecessary details. Ask yourself, “How will this story help my learners?”

Make a point 

In teaching, we do not tell stories to simply to entertain our students. We use the entertainment and emotional elements of a story to create memorable learning experiences. The connection between your story and the point you are trying to make may not be obvious to the listener. Use transitional phrases such as “My point to you is…” to help others contextualize the story you have just shared with them.

How can you create memorable learning experiences for your students with stories? Your life is a gold mine of experience. What nuggets of life do you have to share with your students? The wisdom contained within them is priceless.

Related posts: 

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


The wisdom of your story: Storytelling resources for teachers

January 27, 2012

Storytelling is a practice that dates back centuries. Sometime in the last 20th century however, its use in the classroom began to diminish, but researcher, Melanie C. Green, reminds us that “stories are a powerful structure for organizing and transmitting information, and for creating meaning in our lives and environments”.

How-to articles and resources

Storyteller.nethttp://www.storyteller.net/– This site has a sub-page called “Articles” with dozens of links and resources

Storytelling: How to tell a tale – by LibrarySpot.com – http://www.libraryspot.com/features/storytellingfeature.htm – This article goes over the essentials, and learning the art of storytelling. It also has links to a variety of other resources.

Storytelling Lessons, lesson plans and activities

Storytelling – Oral Traditions (lesson plan for grades 4-6) – by Teachers’ Domain – http://www.teachersdomain.org/resource/echo07.lan.stories.lporaltrad/

Storytelling – ProTeacher.com – This site is a collection of links to other resources, including lesson plans and activities – http://www.proteacher.com/070163.shtml

Professional organizations

National Storytelling Network (U.S.A. ) http://www.storynet.org/

Research articles

Storytelling in Teaching – by Melanie C. Green, published in APS Observer – http://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1562

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Would you care for an earthworm with your coffee?: Turning language blunders into powerful teaching stories

January 25, 2012

Let’s face it: Language lessons sometimes involve material that is dry or boring. The reality is, it can be hard to remember facts or information. The rules of grammar? Bo-ring! At least, that is what the average person might think. Adult education guru, Stephen Lieb, tells us that adult learners need content that is relevant and useful in their every day live. What can seem less relevant to every day life of working to paying the bills, raising the kids and trying to have some kind of life. Most people just do not see a connection.

Scenario #1: Teaching with examples

Examples provide a method to make the learning concrete and relevant.

Seasoned teachers will have an arsenal of examples of their own students’ grammar and language mistakes. Examples can also be found on Internet sites such as ESL Prof.

“When I was six, I went to primate school.”

Clearly the speaker intended to say “primary” instead of “primate”. This is a classic example of mixing up words with similar sounds that have completely different meanings.

If you were using this example with EAL adult learners, you might make the connection between  language errors and the real world by linking it to employment. You might say that the implication for an adult EAL learner might be that if he or she were to say this in a job interview, it might cost them the job. Though it is not ethical (or logical) some recruitment officers may make decisions about a prospective employee’s intelligence or competence based on their language skills.

That example would provide a real-world context for why it is important to learn vocabulary very well. You have developed a cogent and logical argument to support your point using an example.

Scenario #2: Teaching through stories

Imagine dipping into your own past, experience and heritage to create a story that illustrates the same point. When teaching native Spanish speakers English, I would tell them about my own struggles with language learning.

Setting the stage and the context

“I was so proud to have a native Spanish speaker visit my home,” I would tell them. “We had agreed to do a language exchange and help each other with our conversation skills.”

Providing key detail

“I prepared coffee and baked home-made oatmeal cookies, my mother’s recipe.”

Deliver the punch line

“I asked my new friend, “¿Desea guisano con su café?

The quick thinkers erupt in laughter. Others will puzzle over the meaning until it clicks that what I meant, instead of “guisano”, was “galleta”.

As a learner of Spanish as a second language, I spent years confusing those two words. The result was that instead of offering my guest a cookie (galleta), I had offered them an earthworm (guisano).

To a native speaker, the result is either a turned stomach or comedic effect, or a bit of both.

The moral of the story

I would follow the story by saying this to the students: “My point to you is that it is easy to confuse words in a new language. In fact, it is normal. But be aware that these kinds of mistakes can result in people laughing at you or, possibly even taking you as an imbecile. In my case, I was lucky. My friend, who was both quick witted and gracious simply said, ‘Por favor, una galleta. No me gustan los guisanos‘.” (Translation: “A cookie, please. I don’t really care for earthworms.”)

From a linguistic point of view, the two scenarios are similar. The language learner mistakenly uses one word for another. The two words sound similar to the ear of a non-native speaker. But to a native speaker, the difference in meaning between the two words is worlds apart. It would never even occur to them to mix those words up.

Examples provide logical reasons, whereas stories create memorable moments that connect with human experience and emotion.

I admit that this type of story worked only because I was working with Spanish speakers learning  English. It would not work with a linguistically diverse group.

The point here is to ask yourself, what stories or experiences do you have that can help you make a point and make a connection with your learners at the same time? We all have stories. What are  some of yours?

Related posts:

Share your story, share your wisdom: How to make learning memorable

Storytelling resources for teachers

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Share or Tweet this post: Would you care for an earthworm with your coffee?: Turning language blunders into powerful teaching stories http://wp.me/pNAh3-1bM

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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