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Storytelling Is Not Lecturing; Lecturing is Not Storytelling

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I sit in the lecture hall with 10,000 others waiting for my new teacher to speak. I look at my cell phone and silently groan that this in going to be a long hour; as long an hour as an hour can be as is typically the case when I listen to a lecture.   She begins, “Let me tell you about Uncle Willie.”  I take a deep breath of relief and settle in to hear her story.

I came at the age of three to Grandma and my Uncle Willie in this little town in Arkansas. Uncle Willie was paralyzed on the right side. My grandmother and Uncle Willie owned a little store in town, and they needed me and my brother to work in the store. So Momma taught me to read and write, and my Uncle Willie taught me to do my times tables. He used to grab me by my clothes and hold me in front of a potbelly stove, and with a slur attendant to his condition, he’d say, “Now, Sister, I want you to do your foursies, your sevensies, your ninesies.” I learned my times tables so exquisitely even now, 60 years later, if I’m awakened after an evening of copious libation and told, “Do your twelvsies,” I’ve got my twelvsies.

I was so sure that if I didn’t learn, my Uncle Willie would grab me, open the potbelly stove, throw me in, and close the door. Of course, I found that he was so tenderhearted he wouldn’t kill a fly. One day my Uncle Willie died, and I went to Little Rock where I was met by one of America’s great rainbows in the clouds, the black lady who led the children into the high school in the late fifties in Little Rock.

She met me and said, “There is somebody who is dying to meet you.” She introduced me to this handsome black man in a three-piece suit.

When I met him, he said, “I don’t want to shake your hand. I want to hug you.”

He then said, “You know, Maya, the State of Arkansas has lost a great man in losing Willie. In the 1920s, I was the only child of a blind mother. Your Uncle Willie gave me a job in his store, paid me 10 cents a week, and taught me to do my times tables.”

I asked him, “How would he do it?”

He said, “He used to grab me like this…”

Then I knew he was talking about Uncle Willie.

He said, “Because of him, I am who I am today, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, first black mayor in the South.”

I look back at Uncle Willie, that crippled, black man in the South where lynching was the disorder of the day, I have no idea the range of his influence. But I know that when it looked for me like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put “a rainbow in the clouds” in the form of Uncle Willie.

I tell you my stories not to brag but to tell you about all of rainbows in my clouds.  You are the rainbows in somebody’s cloud.

. . . Maya Angelou tells the 10,000 educators who sat at her feet at the recent ASCD conference.  I exaggerated at the beginning about the expected boredom.  This would have been the case if the speaker started to lecture to me.  I knew Dr, Angelou would tell us stories and read us poetry.  She is a master of storytelling, poetry, speaking, and teaching; and the energy in the room was palatable as she spoke to us. I am a strong advocate against the use of lecturing for teaching which I discuss in detail in Who Would Choose a Lecture as Their Primary Mode of Learning? This does not mean I am against an educator standing in front of a group of learners to give procedural directions or to tell a story to teach a concept.  I have been challenged by colleagues because I really like TED talks but many of the best TED talks tell a story.  One of the most popular Ted talks of all time was Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight who told the story of her stroke and insights about the brain due to her her stroke. So what is it that makes stories such powerful teaching?

Stories are different. Stories have everything that facts wish they had but never will: color, action, characters, sights, smells, sounds, emotions–stuff that we can easily relate to. We can imagine ourselves doing, or not doing, or having already done, what the story describes. Stories put facts into a meaningful, and therefore memorable, context.  (

Brain Activity: Lecture versus Storytelling

Your brain on story is different than your brain when it is receiving any other form of information, including straight facts and data. There are proven intersections between neuroscience, biology, and story we cannot ignore. The threads of stories that we read, hear, watch, and click on affect us intrinsically. And tempt us as well. ( It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens. When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.  (

What follows is a graph of a student’s brain activity during a given week.  The student’s brain activity, the electrodermal activity, is nearly flat-lined during classes.  Note that the activity is higher during sleep than during class.


So what happens to the brain when being told a story?

We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our exiting experiences.  That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate, a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust. (

So my advice for teachers is that next time you feel the need to convey information via a lecture, create or find a story that illustrates those concepts and tell learners that story.  Matthew James Friday in his Edutopia article, Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters describes the benefits of storytelling in the classroom:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story — there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages the boys who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by children from kindergarten to the end of elementary school.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English-language learners to speak and write English.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 20, 2013 at 2:16 am

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