In a recent letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos writes that he has banned PowerPoint presentations at meetings. Instead of bullet points on a screen, his team will turn to another approach to learn and collaborate: storytelling.
At Rivers, our seventh graders are ahead of the curve on this one. In humanities, they have spent the year exploring the theme The World Through Story. They’ve asked the questions: What are the stories we tell ourselves and others tell about us? How do they shape our understanding of the world? How do stories about the world shape us?
In her book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that story is one of the most powerful influences on our behavior. Facts alone, she writes, “overlook the core of what makes us human; our fears, our desires, our prior beliefs. To make a change we must tap into those motives, presenting information in a frame that emphasizes common beliefs, triggers hope and expands people’s sense of agency.”
Seventh grade humanities teacher Laura Brewer offers similar thoughts: “Stories are powerful ways to understand and remember events. The stories people tell about themselves, and the stories people tell about others, the stories that are forgotten, and the stories that are remembered not only profoundly shape history, but also are a powerful tool as students learn to understand and make sense of events, both past and present.”
Last week, the seventh grade came together for a Humanities Night patterned after the Moth Radio Hour, a popular storytelling program. Each student shared a meaningful story from their family’s past. The performances were stirring, the culmination of considerable effort.
Students spent weeks collecting stories from their families — immigration stories, wartime or veteran stories, courage stories, love stories, holiday stories, and memoirs. After choosing one of these to tell, students prepared by arranging their story into a storyline — complete with characters, a conflict, and a theme. Once those were identified, they worked to choose details and three main plot points.
Why three? Students learned about the “rule of three” — an important storytelling technique which helps storytellers remember their stories, build on each idea with vibrant details and action verbs, and connect with their audience.
And they practiced . . . . a lot. First, they practiced just their beginning, next the whole story, and then they worked to nail the ending. They made videos of themselves practicing. They worked on body language and how to vary their tone of voice. They listened to a lot of storytellers to get ideas and examples. They received feedback from teachers and peers.
Mrs. Brewer said that one challenge — opportunity — in this assignment is that students have had relatively little exposure to oral storytelling. “Most students are getting stories from sources outside the family,” she continued. “They get stories from TV, Movies, and books — each of those media is different from oral storytelling.”
Mr. Taylor noted that students gained an appreciation for the complexity of story: “They came to understand the significance of medium and audience in storytelling. Writing a story to be read on the page is not the same as composing a story to be shared aloud. Arguably, it’s more difficult! Practicing in front of their peers was instrumental in getting them to understand the significance of intonation and pace changes, pauses, gestures, and expressions — things that hide behind the words on the page. Interestingly, some of them came to realize the mutability of story, that details of stories they’d been told or thought they knew were, in fact, additions, exaggerations, half-truths, or convenient place holders. Even though the students practiced a lot, the fact that they never told the same story twice attests to the flexibility of oral storytelling in particular. This raised some thought-provoking questions for my group about truth and the veracity of stories.”
One unexpected discovery, for many students, was how much the audience played a role in storytelling. As Mrs. Brewer noted, “The audience was made up of people who they knew loved and supported them. They really got a lot of energy from the audience, and everyone upped their game in their final performance.”
The audience came away inspired, too — including the teachers. Mrs. Brewer remarked, “Every year, I learn and remember so much more from their oral stories than I do from the ones I read. I learn what they care about and what they love about their families. It’s clear what kind of meaning they are making of their lives at this point. I’m always struck by how much the students love their families and what they do together.”