I do lots of active learning in my classroom along with active lecturing and discussion.  What I don’t often do is tell stories.  I have colleagues who can make a lecture a performance piece with all the theater and drama you could want, but I’ve always aimed more for engaging students through Socratic questions and thoughtful mini-lectures.  Don’t mistake me, I tell short stories about people’s lives and actions constantly but I almost never tell one cohesive story from the beginning of class till the end. In part, my worries that a Broadway-worthy lecture will impress itself as the only possible interpretation of facts has kept me from indulging in the part of me that loves community theater and a good dramatic pause.

But.  I set aside a week of my class to think about the Indian Removal Act this fall and we “went” to three different places–Wapakoneta, Ohio; Hopkinsville, KY; and Tahlequah, OK.  I’ve been doing research around Wapakoneta and months ago thought I would pull some sources from my research for them to read.  The realities of the semester, however, meant that I had little time to find undergrad-friendly primary sources that I could make easily accessible to my students.  In a bit of a panic, I threw caution to the wind and decided to tell them about the process of Indian removal as a story from the perspective of the people, both native and white around Northwest Ohio.

I enjoy the spotlight so I certainly didn’t mind creating an interesting, dramatic story and the topic lent itself to this kind of emotional experience.  I tried to craft my story in such a way that the complexities of the past were obvious; I shaped my story around identity.  Who was a “real” native? Who would pass for white? What would happen to the African Americans who lived around the native community? What happened to the land they left behind and the land they came to in Kansas?

Many of my students could define the Indian Removal Act from APUSH, but I think few of them had thought deeply about the reality of removal.  When I dismissed my second section, no one moved for a few seconds.  They were stunned.

And, on a topic like Indian Removal, that we have for so long dehumanized by memorizing the date of the Act, I think stunned is ok.  Maybe even good.  They will certainly not think of removal as an unfortunate necessity ever again.

So, I think storytelling will take a place in my rotation of teaching strategies alongside the true lecture.  Something to be used with discretion and care.  A practice that is effective in small doses.  I’m still uncomfortable with how didactic it can seem, but I think there are probably ways to overcome that.  So, I ask; do you tell stories in your classroom? How do you encourage students to use these stories and make them your own?

One thought on “Storytelling

  1. Adding storytelling to your teaching strategies is such a good approach. Both for the impact of the stories themselves and for the technique that will serve historians well when they leave the classroom. Storytelling matters when we take history outside the classroom and apply it to policymaking, voting decisions, and discussions around social change. Historians have such an important role to play in these areas and being able to turn brilliant scholarship into accessible information for folks outside academia is key to having an impact. Stories resonate. They’re an important gateway to deeper understanding. Keep telling those stories and encourage your students to do the same!

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