Teaching With Great Stories

Teaching has changed very little over the past 100 years. If my grandmother, a former teacher, walked into a classroom today she would see the same kinds of materials and the same teaching methods she used 75 years ago. That wouldn’t be so surprising except most people seem to think today’s schools don’t work that well. That being the case, shouldn’t we be making a few changes?

One thing that has changed in my homeschool classroom is, except with the exception of math, we never use textbooks anymore. It was hard to give up textbooks. I wanted them to work, I really did. Afterall, how nice would it be to hand a textbook to a high school student at the beginning of the school year and have them understand everything they need to know about the subject by the end? We all worry about preparing our children well and textbooks are nothing if they are not complete and systematic presentations of huge bodies of information. But, do they actually deliver?

All five of my kids really disliked textbooks. And even the most studious of my five kids didn’t do very well with the review and test material. Since tests are tools to measure learning, I never had to guess whether textbooks were doing the job with my children. The test scores told the story.

In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist who studies the brain, tells us why textbooks don’t teach very well. He explains it in scientific detail and supports it with scientific research, but what it all boils down to is this: the brain simply doesn’t pay attention to boring things. Despite the best intentions of parents, teachers, and textbook publishers, the brain will not pay attention to things it does not want or need to know.

For this reason, I use great stories to teach my children. Stories grab the attention of children and keep them engaged. With my children who are good readers, we use great books written by great writers. With my struggling readers, we use read-alouds, picture books, and great films and videos. The common thread here is “great,” meaning visual and printed material prepared by talented people who truly understand how people think and absorb information and ideas.

I learned about the importance of teaching with great stories while working as a classroom teacher. In my first year as a third grade public school teacher, I was given the responsibility of teaching Social Studies to every third grade student in the school. Dutifully, I began the year on page one of the district-approved textbook titled “Communities,” a book about community helpers and citizenship. However, I quickly noticed that even my best students were doing poorly on the tests. Something was wrong. I tweaked a few things and still saw little success. So I did something unheard of in my school – I tossed the textbook.

Instead, I purchased a new best-seller a friend had raved about -– “A Walk Across America,” by Peter Jenkins. In the book, Jenkins, a young man disillusioned with himself and his country, walks across America to see if he can prove himself wrong. It’s a lovely, emotional story that showcases the best of Americans and the communities they live in.

Each day I read a portion of Jenkins’ story to the children. I put a huge map of America on the wall and we followed Jenkins’ travels by marking his path on the map with pushpins. As he entered each new state or region of the country we learned about those areas. Much of the information we learned had been in the textbook we had shelved, but now we were learning it in the context of Jenkins’ amazing story. On the day I read about Jenkins’ dog passing away in the middle of the journey, it was difficult to read through my own tears and above the sobs of the students. At the end of each class, my students begged me for more.

Is it so unrealistic to believe that learning can and should be so fun and interesting that students clamor for more? I don’t think so. For the past few weeks, we have been watching the hit television series Downton Abbey in our homeschool. I challenge anyone to hand me a textbook that does a better job of conveying this period in history. From the biggest ideas and difficult concepts to the tiniest details, Downton Abbey is an amazing teaching tool. And each day my children beg to watch just one more episode.

There is an unlimited number and array of great books, television shows, and films available to teach almost anything well. What I love about these well-conceived and presented resources is, when utilized, we learn more than just details about people and places. They take us much deeper than textbooks and they often deliver a context for why the subject is important. We learn about what makes people and entire societies tick. We learn what inspires people. Or what crushes them. Why they reach out and why they sometimes keep to themselves. How they feel when they accomplish something, or when there is great loss. All of these things make children think more and think deeper than the shallow presentation of facts in textbooks.

One of my favorite homeschooling moments happened many years ago when we had just finished reading “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch,” a true story about a historical figure from the maritime industry who overcame one sad obstacle after another to finally achieve success and happiness in his life. A theme that runs through the story is that people must learn to “sail by ash breeze” when life gets difficult, a reference to the need to get out the oars (typically made of ash wood) and start rowing when the wind dies and the boat can no longer sail smoothly along on the breeze. The writer, Jean Lee Latham, does a beautiful job of not just telling the story of this amazing man, but also inspiring readers to work hard to “make their own breeze” when winds die and our lives get stuck in places where we don’t want to be.

Just after reading the book, I took my children to hear a Holocaust survivor speak at Georgetown College. On the way home, we began to discuss the woman’s amazing life, one where she had to overcome poverty, loss, and sorrow to find her way in the world. And yet, there she was, traveling around America, well-spoken and well-educated, and speaking to audiences of thousands. At the end of the conversation, my daughter, just 10 years old at the time, piped up from the back seat and said, “Mommy, mommy!”

“What,” I asked. “That lady sailed by ash breeze,” she said.

I’m still amazed my young daughter could not only understand this complicated and subtly-presented concept, but could so perfectly recognize it when it came her way again.

Nathaniel Bowditch was a man of great accomplishment who is sometimes referred to as the father of modern maritime navigation. He probably warrants a blurb in many history and science textbooks. But I’m pretty sure he would have been long forgotten in our family if we had read about him in a textbook. Because we learned about him in a “great book.” we not only know who he is and what he did, we also understand and embrace why he was able to do it. That’s the real lesson of Nathaniel Bowditch’s life.

Until Next Time: Be Fearless.

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