Teaching Stories

Teaching is never boring. It may be stressful as well, but if I had to choose between the two, I’d go for stress. Without stress we’d all be dead, right? — or at least really bored.

When I tell people that I teach Latin in a high school, they usually question my sanity. Why would anyone want to spend all day with teenagers? And try to make them learn Latin?

First of all, teenagers are some of my favorite people. They have many of the same concerns as adults, just less experience. They are people in transition, and change interests me.

And teaching is a job I will never completely master. I will never arrived at the point where I can say, “Now I can laminate my lesson plans.” There’s always something new to think about, so it never gets boring.

But kids get bored, and no matter how much fun I’m having with participles or subordinate clauses, nobody listens if I don’t make it interesting. Their eyes glaze over. Finding ways to keep them wide-eyed is my quest.

The first rule of writing is: Show, Don’t Tell.

The first rule of teaching is: Telling isn’t Teaching.

Teaching isn’t so different from writing a story. Too much ‘telling’ makes a normal person stop listening, close the book, zone out. In writing, ‘show’ means to put the reader into the story through dialog, action and description. In teaching, we show through stories, and put the students into them, either as actors or chorus.

Teenagers can be an attentive audience. One of the fastest ways to get my students to listen is to tell them a story. Embarrassing stories are best, but anything funny, weird, unusual will do — anything that has a punchline they don’t see coming. (Strangely enough, they especially like to hear stories about me. I am a pretty boring person in real life; in my classroom, I am fascinating.)

Stories are easier to remember than ‘facts.’ If I tell a good story, they learn something they don’t forget. It’s not just more effective, it’s more fun — for all of us.

This year I’ve tried to do less grammar, more stories with my classes. We’ve had a lot of fun, created some pretty silly stories. And now, nearing the end of the first semester, my students know more grammar and vocabulary than previous classes learned in an entire year.

While the goals of a lesson must be transparent, a story requires suspense to keep our interest. I wouldn’t read a story that began, “Today, class, we’re going to learn about infinitives and how they are used in indirect statements.”

A better opening line might be, “Today, class, I’m going to take you to infinity — and beyond!” We travel through time, learn about relativity, and make immortal statements like, “We heard that Elvis was dead, but now know that aliens kidnapped him.” (Audivimus Elividem mortuum esse, sed nunc scimus alienos eum cepisse.)

I don’t know if Cicero would approve, but maybe one day the aliens will lead my students to him.

Telling doesn’t make good teaching or story-telling, but a story makes a great lesson.


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