Students Remember More When They Tell Stories

FerlazzoCommunity organizers learn people’s stories and help them develop a new interpretation of those stories, which they can use to propel themselves to action. It’s similar to a challenge we face in the classroom—we need to help students connect our lesson content to their background knowledge and then attach new understandings and learnings to it.

For example, our rather dry World History textbook listed several qualities of feudalism, including people who spend most of their time working in the fields and not owning the land they farmed, and flatly declared that feudalism ended with the Renaissance. After students talked with their families about their lives and shared their own experiences, we concluded that the textbook was wrong. Students subsequently clamored to learn more—and read more challenging texts—about the Middle Ages.

Students embraced these new opportunities because the lessons took place within the framework of their own stories and those of their families. Neuroscience researchers Renate and Geoffrey Caine reflect on the importance of stories in their study of two types of memory systems: taxon and locale.

Taxon learning consists of lists, basic skills, and habits. Locale, on the other hand, involves creating stories out of a person’s life experiences. Taxon tells how to turn a key in our house door and locale tells us what to do when we lose the key. Taxon memories must be rehearsed regularly to move into long-term memory. Locale memories, however, go automatically into long-term memory.

Our students come to us with a wealth of experiences and stories, and we all too often neglect making use of this gift in our classrooms.

How do you use students’ stories in your teaching?

Post submitted Larry Ferlazzo, a community organizer for 19 years prior to becoming an English teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. Larry is the author of “Getting Organized Around Assets,” in the March Educational Leadership, and he blogs at http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org. Follow him on Twitter @LarryFerlazzo

Laura Varlas is an ASCD project manager in publishing, and a graduate student in the secondary education: English/language arts program at George Washington University.