Teaching With Stories

The power of narrative to instruct and touch the human heart
Teaching With Stories
Stories bind mentors and mentees in a kind of friendship. (Biba Kayewich)
Walker Larson

As a literature teacher, I not only teach about stories, but I also strive more and more to teach with stories. I aim to weave narratives into my lessons to demonstrate and dramatize the concepts I want the students to grasp. The longer I teach, the more convinced I become of the power of story to instill truth and inspire wonder in a way that nothing else can, not least of all because stories are indissolubly linked with the human experience and human nature.

They tap into our psyche, touching us in a unique way.

‘Let Me Tell You a Story’

Whenever these words are uttered, the listeners perk up. Maybe, it’s Grandpa, leaning back in his chair, the mist of time coming over his eyes as he prepares to tell (or retell) one of his many hunting tales. Or maybe it’s the friend who can turn any experience—a car wash, the first day on a new job—into an uproarious adventure. Or maybe it’s the teacher at the front of the classroom, spinning the strands of the lesson into the gold of a story—something concrete and full of value that the students can take home with them.

People’s faces are never as intent as when they’re listening to a good story. The room grows quiet. The speaker’s words swell with energy. Anticipation builds. A climax of humor, joy, or sorrow is reached, and you can see it reflected in the eyes of the audience and their laughter or moans. They are locked in. Captive.

As anyone who has taught can tell you, there are few things that we teachers prize more than that look of total engagement and earnest wonder in the faces of our students. Conversely, there are few things we dread more than a bored, distracted, or even disdainful expression from our students.

When I explain a concept in an abstract way—if I do it really well—I can engage about 80 to 90 percent of the class. But when I tell a story well, I’ll hook the last few stragglers, that final 10 to 20 percent. It’s one of the few ways, in my experience, to captivate the entire audience.

Why is this? How can we explain the bewitching power of stories, and what can we draw from that knowledge to aid us as teachers or mentors?

Stories bind mentors and mentees in a kind of friendship. (Biba Kayewich)
Stories bind mentors and mentees in a kind of friendship. (Biba Kayewich)

Making the Abstract Concrete

One of the main reasons that narratives are effective pedagogical tools is that they engage the whole person (incidentally, this is also one of the reasons literature is an important subject to study in school—but that’s another article). When you experience a story, the senses, memory, imagination, emotions, and intellect are all engaged, whereas in many other intellectual pursuits—say, reading a scientific paper—only the intellect is primarily engaged.

The training of the intellect is crucial, of course, yet we’re more than just intellects. And I think, particularly when dealing with children, it’s important, at times, to appeal to their hearts as well as their heads to grow emotional maturity alongside intellectual maturity.

In addition, when a truth enters not only the mind but also the memory, imagination, and emotions, it becomes more fully and deeply a part of you. It can shape you, inspire you, and transform you. If we often feel that our message passes right through our listeners—be they our children, grandchildren, students, or just our friends—without them remembering or valuing the truths we’re trying to impart, perhaps we need to learn to package those truths in a way that touches as it enlightens, inspires as it instructs. Stories are a great way to do this.

Stories provide meaning in a tangible way. As Melanie Green writes in an article published on the Association for Psychological Science website, “Stories can bring abstract principles to life by giving them concrete form.” Children and teens in particular struggle to understand—or, more importantly, to care about—something wholly theoretical or abstract. But translate it into “the real world,” into living human experience, and all of a sudden they realize why the issue at hand matters. The idea has been clothed in something more substantial and tangible.

For example, I was recently teaching a high school class on Dante’s “Purgatorio.” I was trying to explain Dante’s understanding of how love can go astray when it chooses to rest on unsatisfactory objects rather than pursuing the highest good. To demonstrate the point, I referred the students to my “LEGO Airport Syndrome” story, with which they were already familiar. Not only did this draw out some laughs, but I think it drove home the point that Dante was making in a relatable and memorable manner.

What is the “LEGO Airport Syndrome” story, you ask? It goes like this: When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I saw an advertisement for a LEGO airport set, and I became immediately obsessed with it. I dreamed about it, yearned for it, and studied it for more than a month. I became so intent on it that I printed out a picture of it and kept it in my pocket at all times. I prayed that I’d get it. Sure enough, I received it on my next birthday, which was an absolute thrill. I hastily assembled it and spent hours playing with it—for about a week. And then, it no longer interested me. It didn’t satisfy.

The students laugh because they see the ridiculousness of my behavior in the story, but also because they themselves have had similar experiences. We can all remember some toy we longed for that turned out to be a disappointment. After telling the story, I usually point out to the students that adults do the same thing. Our toys are just bigger than when we were kids—a car, a boat, that new house or job title, etc.

This is one of the less serious stories I tell. It’s just a silly little anecdote. Yet, somehow, the students never fail to remember it, and I can reference it years later and receive nods and chuckles in response. This is quite remarkable when I consider that the students struggle to remember simple literary term definitions from one year to the next. Clearly, stories sink into the mind in a much deeper way than mere definitions.

Memory and Application

One of the most practical benefits of storytelling in teaching is its effect on students’ ability to remember material. This has been demonstrated scientifically. In a 1969 Stanford study, for example, people were tested on their ability to memorize a list of words in two minutes. One group was instructed to put the words into a story, the other was simply given a list to memorize. Ninety-three percent of the students who created a story could remember the words, while only 13 percent of the list-memorizers could.
In addition, revealing a concept through a story also requires a bit more active learning on the part of the student. They must wrestle a bit to understand how the concept being taught becomes manifest in the story. They must work to apply the concept to the story. And, as we all know, applying concepts is one of the best ways to learn—and to remember.


When a teacher or mentor tells a personal anecdote, it can build rapport with listeners. After all, this is what we do with our friends: We share experiences and work together to find meaning in them. Listeners recognize the storytelling as an act of friendship, even if only subconsciously.

Of course, anecdotes shouldn’t be too personal, and a proper hierarchy and respect must be maintained. But none of that excludes the possibility of a real—if unequal—friendship existing between young people and their mentors. And such a friendship can pave the way for deeper learning.

In an unpublished work, “The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School,” literature professor and educator John Senior writes, “They often say derisively, ‘He teaches himself instead of the subject.’ But he is the subject. If there is reason for derision, it isn’t such teaching but the failure (usually the vanity) of the teacher. Every teacher teaches himself. And every student studies himself.”

It isn’t that the teacher shows off or makes everything about himself or herself. Rather, the teacher must be willing to give something of his or her own humanity if he hopes to touch and inspire his students and make the course material real for them. In the case of literature (which is what I know best), the stories are deeply human, but sometimes, a final ingredient is needed for the students to recognize in those great works of literature their own humanity: The teacher must connect the work to his or her own life to show the students how it’s done.

After all, we are—in the humanities at least—trying to humanize the students, make them aware of their own humanity and all that means, including its potential for both nobility and depravity. How can we humanize without human connection through story and shared experience?

The Mystery of Story

I think that, in the end, stories resonate with us because we have a deep-rooted intuition that reality itself is a story, an overarching, luminous tale in which the stories of our lives are subplots, all bound up with that overall epic we call existence. We’re inherently made to seek meaning, and stories are a primary way we do this. They organize experience, revealing to us a beginning, a middle, and an end—ultimately, a purpose for what happens to us. All is not chaos.

In her article, Ms. Green references an old Indian proverb that provides a proper summation and conclusion for the ideas expressed here. It goes like this: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

Walker Larson teaches literature at a private academy in Wisconsin, where he resides with his wife and daughter. He holds a master's in English literature and language, and his writing has appeared in The Hemingway Review, Intellectual Takeout, and his Substack, “TheHazelnut.” He is also the author of two novels, "Hologram" and "Song of Spheres."
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