The world is made of stories…. and so is the classroom

The world is made of stories…. and so is the classroom

Life & Death Matters Post

This spring I attended the Ontario Association of Career Colleges conference in Windsor.  I arranged ahead of time to meet a few of the local PSW instructors for a ‘cuppa something’.

During both evening visits a few recurring themes emerged… I sensed their passion for teaching, their esteem for the students, and the role of story telling in teaching. I was reminded of a quote I read in the Readers Digest about 20 years ago, “The world is not made of atoms, it is made of stories.”

It got me to thinking about why we use story, and how to integrate story effectively in teaching.  In the book “Children Tell Stories: Teaching and Using Storytelling in the Classroom” by Hamilton and Weiss, I read,

Stories are the way we store information in the brain.  If teachers fill their students’ brains with miscellaneous facts and data without any connection, the brain becomes like a catch-all closet into which items are tossed and hopelessly lost.  But stories help us to organize and remember information, and the content together. (Caine and Caine 1994, Egan 1992, 11)

Stories go straight to the heart.  As the Irish poet and philosophyer James Stephens wrote, “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened.  The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow”.

Retrieved on August 7, 2013 

I love sharing stories when I teach… but as I consider what makes a great story, what to do, what not to do, I am stumped.  I go dry.  I can’t think!  So I googled “tips for telling great stories” and voila, here is a good place to start tips by Dave Kerpen.   Dave’s five tips follow, (and  I put my comments specifically about teaching palliative care in brackets)

  1. Have a purpose. Is the story to educate, entertain, put at ease or persuade?  When you figure out what the purpose is then you can keep it simple and effective.  (There are times when I tell stories to teach a point, and other times when I can not resist telling the story, when I just have to tell a story because it fits in, it is funny, and when people laugh they wake up! I figure that when teaching about dying, teaching about hospice and palliative care, it is good to include a few laughs.)
  2. Share a beginning, middle and end.  (Oh… this is a good reminder.  I sometimes wonder, and sometimes I wander when I tell stories.  So, good point, “get in, tell the story and get out!” Even lives have a beginning and an end, perhaps it is one of the things that makes life precious.  Don’t forget to stop!)
  3. Put skin on the bones, help them smell the details…give enough details that people can see the story in their heads. (I remember a health care worker who told us how she survived wiping diarrhea off a carpet, “I just pretended I was icing a chocolate cake.”  I can still see her telling this story! I will always remember that tip. (I try not to imagine the smells involved!) Palliative care provides incredible stories that stick to the ribs, that put skin on the bones.  People are incredible, and the stories about their lives are wonderful food for inspiration, for learning, for hoping.)
  4. Be the vulnerable underdog.  People relate more to the underdog than to the perennial champion. (We do not need to cut ourselves down to tell stories about our mistakes.  But students might like to hear how you also made mistakes, and know that you also are human!)
  5. Tell your own story.  (When I tell someone else’s story, I hope I give credit to the “owner” of the story.  This is one way to help people make connections with other colleagues.  “Oh, you are the one who did …” In the First Nation tradition we can be “keepers” of a story.)

To this list of Dave’s, I would add a few additional points:

  • Consider whether or not you have permission to share a story.  Am I breaking confidentiality?  How will I know if I can share this story?
  • Some stories are just too sacred to share.  Even in changing the details and maintaining confidentiality, it just does not feel right to share some stories.
  • Encourage students to share stories of their own.
  • Help students to reflect on their experiences, and to understand the value of their personal experiences.

What stories do you have? What advice can you offer to this discussion?

Please share this posting with your friends and colleagues, and let’s stimulate discussion about story telling…

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Courtney Murrell is a PSW who works in hospice palliative care.

When she is not at work, she is spending time with her family, going on hikes or writing. Courtney is a lifelong learner and loves to share her passion for writing as a wellness practice.

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