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If It's Not Broken, Don't Fix It!

Posted by on in Common Core Standards
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They say that necessity creates ingenuity.  There's truth in that.  I was terribly bored when the whole idea of teaching the curriculum through the narrative hit me.  As the drone of the “professional development” presenter faded into the background of my thoughts, I started to wish that I had chosen a different session. Suddenly, though, the thought struck me that I often do the same thing to my students.  I bore them.  If I wanted to learn from this session, then I needed it to be relevant, engaging and connected to my teaching practice.  That got me thinking, what if this presenter were presenting me with the same information, but it was presented through “story”?  Then I would be interested. There it was; the entire concept for Quest Teaching.  What if… I could craft a story that would connect many curriculum concepts throughout the narrative?

Then the teacher in me came out and I started to think about the criteria for the story. This is what I came up with:

1. It would have to be good literature; not filled with contrived dialogue imparting knowledge to my students, but rather a fast paced exciting quest that would hook them into the learning before they knew what was happening.

2.  It would have to have all the elements of good literature: well developed characters with which the kids could connect, action woven throughout an intricate plot, interesting vocabulary to increase their love of words, use the variety of literary techniques that I teach them to use, and of course, be centered around a problem that was curriculum related, but kid relevant.

3.  I wanted the story to provide jumping off points for lessons in science, social studies and language arts at a minimum, and hopefully link to other subjects, too.  Could it provide a hook to learn about mapping while it also led into a lesson about rocks and minerals? (Can you tell I’m a theme teacher at heart?)

Could this be done?  I’ve always loved writing, so was I crazy enough to try?  The answer was yes. I planned the story and it all came together. All the skills and concepts I wanted them to learn could be embedded in the plot!  I started by modelling the writing process with my class. Each week I would share the new chapter that I wrote, after planning and marking, of course.

The response was magic! They loved it, and begged for more.  It really worked better than I ever imagined. My students identified with the characters, and rooted for them while they were taken through the story. They also loved the page-turner endings of most chapters. But, the best part of the whole process was how the story gave me a way to connect all their learning. The “remember when…” factor provided me with the jumping off point for lessons that I was seeking.  As the students identified with all that the characters had gone through, they connected it to the classroom lessons and therefore, they were immediately interested and engaged. The learning “mileage” rendered from the story has been incredible.

Why did it work so well?  This experience led me to further investigation.  Based on my own experience, and the historical evidence demonstrating the impact of the oral tradition, I believed that using an interesting narrative provided a solid foundation and backdrop for learning. But would current educational research support this conclusion?  In an attempt to employ research-based best practices in my classroom, would there be a body of research to justify using such a narrative approach to teaching? 

Absolutely.  Here’s just a smattering of what the research says:

“While stories often have a profound effect on us due to emotional content, recent research also shows that our brains are actually hard-wired to seek out a coherent narrative structure in the stories we hear and tell. This structure helps us absorb the information in a story, and connect it with our own experiences in the world." ~ Sherrelle Walker M.A. , http://www.scilearn.com/blog/using-stories-to-teach

“A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed an intimate connection between the brain activity of speakers and listeners in conversation, demonstrating how the brain of an engaged listener “syncs up” with a speaker. By engaging students with compelling stories that impart important material, teachers reach students both emotionally and biochemically, increasing the potential for rich learning experiences.” ~ Sherrelle Walker M.A. , http://www.scilearn.com/blog/using-stories-to-teach

Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. We used the speaker's spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker's activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener's activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate. Moreover, though on average the listener's brain activity mirrors the speaker's activity with a delay, we also find areas that exhibit predictive anticipatory responses. We connected the extent of neural coupling to a quantitative measure of story comprehension and find that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding.~Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, Uri Hasson, http://www.pnas.org/content/107/32/14425.abstract

Thus, the narrative provides the emotional connection to the curriculum content.  An emotional connection is needed for real learning to take place.  Story telling is a tried and true, powerful method of teaching. The oral tradition, rich in story telling, had it right when it came to imparting wisdom to the younger generations. If it’s not broken, don’t’ fix it. Whenever possible, making the curriculum relevant via a “story”, has always been and will always be, a  “best practice” for helping students connect!

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Sharon Skretting is the author of The Ultimate Treasure Quest I: The Jewel of Peru, and the founder of the Quest Teaching blog-site. She has been teaching elementary school for twenty years. Being able to use her love of writing to excite her students about learning is a dream come true for Sharon. Her goal is to write fast paced, excellent literature, filled with interesting characters, danger and intricate plots that will help make students make connections to curricular concepts. The website is filled with technology, teacher tools and interactive learning quests related to curriculum.

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Guest Friday, 09 December 2016