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How to Use Storytelling to Inspire Epic Learning in Your Classroom

Nov 22, 2019 2019-11-22

How many times have you listened to a lecture, memorized the information, and passed the exam only to be unable to recall most of what you learned just weeks later? How many times have you read a powerful story or watched a movie and been able to recall the plot years later? Information presented in a story doesn’t fade away after it’s been used; it sticks in the mind, ready to be accessed and used at any time.

A group of Princeton researchers found that when a story is told, the listeners brain fires in almost the exact same ways and location as the storyteller’s brain did when the event actually occurred. The listener’s brain does not distinguish between recalling the story and actually experiencing it. This phenomenon is called neural coupling and it’s what makes storytelling so effective. It’s why you can barely recall the slideshows you listened to in school, but can still recite lines from your favorite movie. Story is immensely powerful, and I believe that we can harness that power to create meaningful learning for our students.

Any Classroom Can be an Epic Classroom
I would argue that any content from a subject area can be crafted into a story. Lesson plans and curriculum can be crafted into the shape of a narrative and presented in a way that neural coupling can occur as students interact within a story in your classroom. Whether students know that they are participating in a story doesn’t matter. When they solve a conflict, participate in a theme beyond earning good grades, and see a project through to a resolution, a lasting imprint is made on their minds and souls.

At the heart of epic learning is structuring classes and projects into epics where students are the characters in a plot with conflicts, climax, and resolution. When we deliver school like a story to be experienced, knowledge is not just memorized; it is learned.

Crafting a Story
There are five elements of story you must consider when creating an epic project: theme, plot, setting, characters, and conflict. We will be delving more deeply into some of these elements and how to implement them in your classroom in future blogs. For today, I’ll be telling you about a project I conducted in my classroom and describing the elements of story within it.

When teaching the Industrial Revolution, I wanted my class to learn more deeply about the concept of modernity. Modernity is the rapid social and technological growth humans experience at different stages of history. In the Industrial Revolution, humans went from riding on the backs of horses for thousands of years to being able to travel 20,000 miles per hour and land a vehicle on the moon, all in a very short span of time. Modernity was the theme of my story.

At the time of this project, I was also learning about refugees and their plights in leaving their home countries. I wanted my students to learn more about this topic, and so I called a local social work agency and asked if they knew of any refugees who would be willing to come and talk to my class. A woman named Danysa came to speak to my class. She talked about losing her entire family to violence 20 years ago in the Rwandan genocide. The room was completely silent as Danysa shared about the murder of her husband.

Danysa fled to refugee camp in Kenya where she lived for more than a decade until one day she was put on a plane without the slightest idea where she was going. She ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the middle of January. She didn’t speak English. She didn’t know how to use a light switch or what to eat. She had no friends and knew no one. Danysa explained that she once rode a city bus for hours until the bus driver came to the end of his route and kicked her off. She hadn’t known how to signal the bus to stop.

My students could not believe what they were hearing. Finding out that this was happening in their own neighborhoods was heartbreaking. Our story now had a conflict that needed to be solved.

When Danysa left, my students began discussing her story and decided there has to be a way to help refugees who have just come to America. My classroom was then transformed into a social work agency. Students were on their phones talking to refugees throughout the area. One group was working with a translator to translate flashcards my students had written on how to use appliances into Swahili. Other groups were filming how-to videos or designing brochures.

My students had become characters in this story. They were impassioned and determined workers. They were driven by the idea of serving and acting outside of themselves.

I contacted the social work agency and asked if my students could present their final products to them. The agency could then use the products if they found any of them useful. The agency agreed and so at the end of the unit students presented their tools. During the presentations, my students acted like seasoned professionals. They were more focused, engaged, and serious than I had ever seen them before. They knew they were presenting to working professionals.

This was the climax of the story. Everything leading up to this day was a plot full of challenge and adventure. Now if you go into this social work agency, you will see many of my students’ tools on display.

This is a story students will remember. As the teacher, my first task was to conceptualize and plan a story that had all the essential elements. My next task was to utilize this engagement to its full potential in developing students content knowledge. I designed lessons tying what students were learning about modernity with refugees to modernity in the Industrial Revolution. This included having them write an expository essay about the meaning of modernity and how it has played out throughout history.

This use of story to create an epic learning experience for students can be used in any classroom. With a little direction on how to create and execute a story like this in your classroom, you too can create an epic learning environment for your students. In the next blog, we’ll be delving deeper into how to identify a conflict.

Trevor Muir is a teacher, author, international speaker, and project-based learning expert. He is the author of The Epic Classroom: How to Boost Engagement, Make Learning Memorable, and Transform Lives, a book about using the power of story to make learning engaging and unforgettable. Trevor is a professor at Grand Valley State University, a former faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, and is one of the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation educators. His writing has been featured in the Huffington Post, EdWeek, and regularly on WeAreTeachers. He gave a TEDx Talk, “School Should Take Place in the Real World,” at TEDxSanAntonio. You can find more about Trevor on his website:

Reading/English/Language Arts Academic Achievement Project-based Learning

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