Saturday, August 9, 2014

Student Engagement Through Storytelling

Post by Rodger Wilming:  Rodger is in his 15th year as a Language Arts teacher at Bettendorf High School and currently teaches Literature and Creative Writing.  You can follow Rodger on Twitter @RodgerWilming

Our profession has seen plenty of change over the last decade or so. Much of that change has been difficult, some not so difficult. I don’t tend to keep up on all of the latest buzz words or silver bullets designed to increase student achievement, but one I have truly embraced is so-called “student engagement”. I know a disengaged or distracted student isn't going to learn. I could be one of those kids from time to time. The teachers who engaged me and held my attention the longest were often the best storytellers. I use stories in my classroom nearly every day as a way to establish connections between my students, current events, the curriculum and me. And for the most part that strategy works. I have a regular repertoire of stories I can roll out for most any occasion.

One story that makes its way into the classroom every year without fail is my winter of 1978-1979 epic. I use it on days when we have school and others around us have cancelled. I was a senior at Davenport West High School that winter. We had so much cold and snow that winter that driving the two-lane highways around the city was like driving through tunnels with 14 foot walls. It was so snowy that we were using up snow days like there was no tomorrow. Finally, the schools stopped closing and just left it to parents to decide if their children could make it to school or not. One of my fellow students, a kid who lived out on a farm, loaded his friends in his dad’s giant farm tractor and drove on in to school one snowy morning. This is the part of the story where one or two students always cry “BS”. I tell them that I swear the story is true (sometimes I even wonder how much I have embellished the story myself). They might not believe me, but I have surely engaged everyone by this point.  Mission accomplished!

I’m 53 years old and looking toward retirement in 10 years or so. This summer I decided I needed a local financial planner to help me look at my fiscal situation going forward. Turns out, the gentleman is the parent of one of my favorite former students. Bingo! Connection established. We poured over every detail of my current finances and then moved on to my expectations for the future. Finally, there was a lull in the discussion and I said, “We must be around the same age. Did you go to school around here?”

He said, “Yes, I went to Davenport West High.”

“Me too,” I said. “Class of ’79.”

“Really?” he said. “I was 1980 myself.” Coincidences were swirling around us now. It was a huge group though. The class of ’79 had nearly a thousand graduates. The class of 1980 was much the same. We got playing the “remember-this game” when I brought up the winter of ’78-‘79. He agreed it was a terrible winter. “It was so bad,” he said, “that my dad sent me and my friends to school in our farm tractor.”

And there it was. Another connection made and a question I had been asking myself for some time was answered. The next time a student cries “BS” on a day when other schools call a snow day and we are stuck in class I can tell my story of the kid who drove his dad’s tractor to school with confidence and engage another class full of angry kids who wish they were at home under a warm blanket updating their twitter accounts.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” - Philip Pullman

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