There’s an amazing story behind everything, and great teachers know how to bring it to life

A good teacher is by nature a good storyteller. Short, resonant anecdotes bring abstract concepts to life; stories humanize teachers and capture kids’ imaginations. These are the things our students will remember long after the lesson is over.

My colleague Kevin Oliveau is a master storyteller.

Being in Dr. Oliveau’s World War I class is like reliving the plot of your favorite movie with someone who knows it inside-out: the history of its production, the science behind the special effects, the psychology of the characters, the philosophical implications of the unfolding events. These battles fought on distant shores a century ago are transformed into something like an epic film: vivid, engrossing, urgently relevant.

Here is what I mean: ten minutes into class, Dr. Oliveau riffs on a student’s comment about U-boats. He pulls up an image on the projector and describes what it might have been like to live inside one of these vessels:

"You’re talking about cold, damp rooms where stuff drips on you all the time. And one bunk for eight people. So how do you do it? You need to sleep for 8 hours a day. It means also that if your fellow crewman has lice or nits or fleas, you have them as well. So when you climb into the bunk, it’s when someone has just climbed out of it. So these spaces are really cramped, really difficult.

[He’s gesturing at the image now.] And there’s the equivalent of an analog computer which guides the torpedo in a straight line at a fixed depth until it strikes the enemy vessel below the water line where it’s most vulnerable. And it doesn’t actually destroy the ship; it lets the sea into the ship and lets the sea do the work. Has anyone been in one of these?"

As an English teacher, I’m sitting there appreciating his craft: he uses the second person to place each student in the story; he packs his description with unsettling and memorable sensory imagery; he asks well-placed questions that activate kids’ imaginations. Students’ hands shoot up to share their thoughts and questions, delving deeper into the content and relishing the opportunity to participate.

There are reasons that great teachers like Dr. Oliveau use narrative frequently: it works. Neuroscientist David Eagleman observes that stories facilitate the spread of ideas from person to person:

"It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable po­tency of story."

The human need to tell and consume stories reveals a lot about how our brains work. Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests that a major function of the brain’s left hemisphere is to organize our memories into plausible stories, filling in gaps when necessary. Gazzaniga’s research supports what teachers like Dr. Oliveau intuit: that stories are how we make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense on its own.

Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham concurs; he explains the educational benefits of narrative and suggests some ways teachers can incorporate story into their pedagogy, focusing on the  “four Cs of narrative”: causality, conflicts, complications, and character. (Teachers should scroll to the bottom of that resource for helpful suggestions using each element across disciplines).

Dr. Oliveau’s lesson showed me three ways that great stories become opportunities for deeper and more joyful learning: they inspire active participation; they reveal what is possible, and they break through the boundaries of academic disciplines. Below, I explain how each takes shape in Dr. Oliveau’s instruction.

Great stories inspire active participation.

Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison explained her ideal relationship with her readers way back in 1984:

"The text, if it is to take improvisation and audience participation into account, cannot be the authority – it should be the map. It should make a way for the reader (audience) to participate in the tale."

For Morrison, the best stories demand active participation; they map the territory and invite the audience to explore and discover. That’s just how Dr. Oliveau’s stories work: they build a highly detailed, multidimensional world around his students. It’s essentially a very low-tech version of virtual reality.

His class is a collaborative, sometimes raucous, call-and-response event. Kids chime in with details, jokes, questions, and exclamations, until the conflict-laden story reaches a fever pitch. Led by Dr. Oliveau’s prodding and momentous questions, the class delights in the process of retelling the key moments point by point, reliving their fascination by poring over each historical figure’s motivation, the details coming together to reveal a compelling portrait of history.

From the corner of the room, he shouts a question in the general direction of the back row:

"Oliveau: What is the counter move the Germans fail to anticipate?

Keaton: Convoys. The Germans didn’t know that the British would use convoys.

Oliveau: Right. The Royal Navy and merchant ships don’t like this. It’s boring, not exciting. Instead of heroically charging out, it’s like, we’re going to put you on this dinky boat, and you’re going to go sail circles around these other boats, and with luck, nothing will happen. [Student laughter.] And by the way, your boat is so small that when there’s a storm at sea, everyone is going to get violently seasick. So there’s resistance.  But how did convoys reduce losses?"

Kids wave their hands to offer their hypotheses and help craft the story; and on and on, the process repeats.

Great stories reveal what is possible.

People who don’t geek out over history tend to think of it in the past tense: a collection of dusty artifacts and static, settled events. Why bother? But to experience history as a great story is to be reminded of the terrifying and exciting fact that many futures are possible, and we don’t ever quite know how things might turn out.

Dr. Oliveau structures his entire lesson around that insight. His essential question is: why does England’s attitude toward involvement in the war shift so dramatically? This question is great because it invites kids to examine the dramatic contingency of history: the outcome of a war is not a foregone conclusion leading inevitably toward our current geopolitical order. Things could be very different today. Dr. Oliveau’s rich and detailed stories transport his students from the comfortable hindsight of 2017 to the uncertain complexity of one hundred years prior.

As he moves through each phase of the war, Dr. Oliveau reenacts the concerns and desires of various nations’ military leaders as they would have experienced them in the moment. He explains Germany’s worries:

"By 1918 they haven’t hit their goal. One of the things about war is, you’re not sure. Even if you sink the 3 million tons which they pretty much did in twice the time, it’s not enough. They didn’t think about what the British might do in response. They were sort of optimistic in their view. They didn’t think, we’re gonna try this but it probably won’t work. They needed something to work, and they convinced themselves it would. They managed to sink almost 3 million tons that year, but it wasn’t enough."

When events are narrated as if their outcomes are uncertain, it’s easy to appreciate how many things needed to go wrong (or right) to get us where we are today.

Great stories cross academic disciplines.

Students learn deeply when they understand the content’s relevance to their own lives. We educators are thankfully in a moment in which that insight is neither original nor controversial.

Stories are an effective way to bridge the relevance divide — to craft a pathway between a student’s passions and the day’s learning goal. This is because narrative weaves disparate elements into a coherent whole.

No matter what Dr. Oliveau’s students are interested in, it’s a safe bet that he at least tangentially connected it to his narrative of the first World War. In 90 minutes, Dr. Oliveau’s lesson drew together anecdotes about syphilis, trench warfare, Ernest Hemingway, the science and engineering of weaponry, behavioral economics concepts like the sunk cost fallacy, military strategy, the sociological implications of male soldiers’ absence from the workforce, and the legacy of imperialism. Students also had to perform some basic mathematical calculations to determine how far Germany was from achieving its goals in 1918. The high point, however, was easily his highly technical explanation of submarines’ limited offensive capacity:

"Oliveau: Right, it’s a three dimensional problem. It’s what submariners call firing solution. You have to locate your enemy precisely enough to fire your weapon. This problem won’t be solved till the end of World War II. It gets very complicated because in the ocean there are temperature differences and salinity differences, which has the tendency to reflect sound waves in an arc.  In the modern day, we have —

Will (interrupts): How do you know that?

Ben (to Will): ‘Veau knows everything."

Ben’s comment stood out to me as the moment of the class because it insightfully identifies exactly what Dr. Oliveau offers his students. Through storytelling, Dr. Oliveau becomes a sort of omniscient game master, constructing a detailed discursive world and organizing students’ play within that world, integrating each distinct part into an engaging and unified narrative. To borrow from John Keats, it is a thing of beauty.