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Tips for Imaginative Educators: #1 Find the Story

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Here's the golden rule of Imaginative Education:  Identify the emotional significance of the topics you are teaching.

This rule applies to all educators.  No matter what you teach, where you teach, or the age of your students, engaging teaching starts with you identifying what it is about the topic that evokes your sense of wonder.  On one level, this is obvious. Students know when their teachers are interested or engaged in a topic. A teacher’s passion and enthusiasm in general can inspire students to learn. In imaginative teaching, the teacher's engagement with the curriculum lies at the very heart of effective practice.  It is not an option.  It is not a frill.  A teacher’s emotional engagement with a curriculum topic is an essential part of all good teaching. Finding an emotional connection to a topic is how you find the story; it is the first and most important step towards teaching as storytelling. (Read more about teaching as storytelling here: How To Make Your Teaching Meaningful And Memorable.)

Story vs. Storytelling:  Defining Terms

Let me clarify terms.  Using "story" in your teaching does not mean you are going to create a fictional story.  Nor does it mean that you must endlessly tell your students personal stories.  Lastly, it does not mean you need to find a "story" to read along with all of your lessons.  These activities are uses of story and may, on one level, support learning and formation of relationships with your students, but they do not tap into the potency of the story tool for imaginative learning.

For the imaginative educator, a “story” is more profound:  it is a way of shaping information to bring out its emotional importance.

The Good News

Any and all topics in the curriculum can be story-shaped. Whether primary explorations of numbers, advanced study of quantum physics, a lesson on counting to 100, or exploration of world literature, topics that are taught in ways that leave students feeling a human emotion such as care, concern, awe, fear, intrigue etc. are more meaningful and memorable. This is the great educational power of the story.

More Good News

All human beings make meaning in their lives in storied ways: all human beings feel something for the events in their lives. If I asked you how 2016 has been treating you so far, you would tell me a “story”; you would describe your year in a way that would leave me feeling something about the events that have shaped it so far. This is “story-shaping”; it connects human emotion to information. The trick for effective teaching is to tie up emotional responses with the curriculum content you are dealing with.

Remember the golden rule: Begin with your emotional engagement--find the story--and you will be able to evoke the wonder in your math concepts, language arts concepts, or biology lessons.

I have had the great honour of learning about the power of story from a master thinker and teacher: Dr. Kieran Egan. Over the course of his rich career he has focused a lot of his energy on describing the power of story for teaching and learning.   The Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) has spent over a decade bringing his ideas into practical reality.

Quick Example:  Punctuation

If you want your students to learn to effectively use punctuation—like I mean really know how to correctly use a semi-colon—then you'll be more effective if they feel something about it.  So, remembering our golden rule, start by asking yourself:

What’s the story on punctuation? How is punctuation wonder-ful?

(These may not be questions that you have ever asked yourself before.  I know.)

I'm curious...what do you think about punctuation?  (I would love to know what you think...Post a comment below!) One thought I had is that punctuation marks are ingenious; they are tidy little packages of meaning that help convey body language that we physically experience in face-to-face interactions but that is lost in written communication. Imagine, for example, the facial expressions and bodily gestures that may be conveyed with an “!” Or, think about the way a “;” can replace a wink (e.g. I got a new car; it is a midnight blue Mazarati.) This could be my story on punctuation: punctuation marks are unsung heroes; they are great conveyors of meaning upon which human beings rely for clarity in all aspects of life.

Summary of Tip #1:  Find The Story

Find the story in the topic you are teaching.  To do that, begin all of your planning by feeling your way into a topic.  Explore with your emotions alert. Seek what it is about the topic that engages your passion or evokes your sense of wonder. When you have found that emotional core then you, like the reporter sent to get “the story” on some news-worthy event, know what emotional aspect you can evoke to engage your students in the topic.

Stay tuned for the next Teacher Tip in the Tools of Imagination Series.  Learn what different features of story-shaped lessons will most engage your students.

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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 

She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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Guest Sunday, 21 July 2019