This post provides tips for integrating storytelling and story creation in your classes.
There are two minutes left in my sixth grade Latin class. It’s been an excellent day—we’ve accomplished all we set out to do.
“Anyone want to tell a Meaningless Story?” I ask.
A volunteer stands in front of class, says, “I have a story” in Latin (and the students respond, also in Latin, “You have a story”), and then delivers what usually takes about six words to say:
“My dog threw up on the carpet last night.”
“I rode on a train once.”
The hilarity that ensues has become legendary.
Although sometimes a meaningful story slips in by mistake (I learned about a student’s encounter with ball lightning that way), the point of Meaningless Stories is to show that stories are meaningful even when they are meaningless, and that everyone has a story and deserves to tell it.
These principles are part of a thread that has run through my teaching career: stories are powerful. They contain a huge amount of potential energy that is waiting to be harnessed.
This energy has become the gas in the tank of my best Latin classes.
Stories, novels, fiction—especially the young-adult type most relatable to students’ lives—can be a powerful engine to drive any teacher’s curriculum, regardless of the discipline.
How does story drive your teaching? Share with us below!
My journey with stories
I started writing stories at age six, and knew when I was in grade school that writing novels would be a lifelong pursuit. At nineteen I figured I would make writing my full-time job, but after a conversation with a wiser man (also a writer) who prudently advised me to have a fallback, I began to experiment with teaching and found that I liked it.
For many years, however, teaching Latin and writing fiction were separate pursuits. Although my scholarly specialty was mythology—the study of stories, par excellence—I never made the connection that Latin itself finds its sweet spot with students only through intimate union with stories.
I spent the first decade and a half of my teaching career attempting to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. I did my best to be endearing and strange, and mostly succeeded. But all the time I was going home at night and stealing time from grading papers to write novels. I didn’t realize that the two activities could be—in fact, should be—combined.
Ancient Greek teens
I first combined stories with teaching through my work with Duke TIP.
My course for gifted fifth through seventh graders, Growing Up Heroic: Adventures in Greek Mythology, focuses on stories from ancient Greece. As I developed this course I attempted, however, to come at them from a unique angle: all the myths studied were about Greek teenagers or young adults.
I had learned from my writing career that readers of YA literature, children roughly of the ages 11-17, most appreciated and took to heart stories about protagonists who were a few years older than they; in other words, older and more mature, but not so old as to be unrelatable.
So instead of writing as if all the Greek stories were about adults (they are most definitely not), I looked at the YA segment of the ancient tales and emphasized what adolescence or coming of age meant to ancient Greeks. As a result, the myths took on new life and meaning.
Pandora as teen bride
The Pandora story, for example, transformed itself through this YA lens. Traditional classroom treatment of this myth makes it into a cautionary tale about misplaced curiosity. But in fact, the myth encodes, among other things, the tensions inherent in the ancient Greek practice of girls getting married shortly after puberty. Juliet, anyone?
This angle on Pandora allows students to connect the myth with associated elements of Greek religion and culture, compare and contrast it with the experience of boys in ancient Greece, and bring to bear the influence of the family on ancient Greek teenagers. It also gives students the opportunity to see how the story tallies with similar tensions in the other stories they are studying.
None of this would be possible if they were to treat the myth as a kind of fable with a unitary, non-culturally-specific moral or message.
Most importantly, I insert a hook into the structure of each lesson: that is, the content of the story mirrors students’ own thoughts and concerns about growing up, which means they can access a relatable portal into these ancient stories.
The Iliad and Jumping the Nail
In that same course, students read a short YA novel called Jumping the Nail (by Eve Bunting) in order to open up to students the concept of the Greek shame culture in Homer’s Iliad.
The Iliad is, to me, the greatest story ever told, but students often bog down in its thick cultural context. Why was Achilles so mad at Agamemnon? Why caused him to “go on strike” from the Trojan War? And anyway, what were the Greeks doing camping out on the beach in front of the impregnable walls of Troy in the first place?
Much of this context can be encapsulated in a relatively simple but seemingly alien idea that reputation meant everything to ancient Greek men, and they would do anything necessary to preserve it.
“Why?” chimes in the gifted seventh grader. “Don’t they realize that what other people think shouldn’t determine their actions?”
Enter Jumping the Nail, the best story I’ve ever read that allows students to see for their age group and with their concerns how reputation and peer pressure become controlling aspects of people’s lives.
This novel, which takes place in mid-twentieth-century southern California, concerns a group of teens for whom the greatest feat of bravery is to “jump the Nail,” or leap successfully from a 90-foot cliff over a pointed outcrop of rock (the “Nail”) and into the Pacific Ocean, while their greatest fear is not to fail in the leap but not even to attempt it at all. Jumping the Nail becomes for this community not only a badge of honor but a touchstone for a myriad of other cultural norms and expectations that lead to disastrous results.
How does the community affect our actions? How does the Greeks’ own kind of peer pressure affect the warriors of the Iliad? Students come to find out through Jumping the Nail.
The Latin classroom and YA literature
Rick Riordan, once a middle school teacher himself, saw the potential of Greek mythology and YA literature and made it into the immensely popular Percy Jackson series. Latin is another question entirely.
Latin being a language, you’d think reading stories would be front and center in the Latin classroom. But often it isn’t in many courses that emphasize grammar and translation skills. One highly popular textbook, for example, is famous for its dreary storyline of two young Roman boys whose wagon gets stuck in a ditch and remains there for several chapters. Fortunately, better textbooks now exist and lately there has been an explosion of easy-to-read, teacher-authored content that builds student reading skills by being amusing and engaging.
In my own classroom, however, the natural affinity between YA literature and the classics has now reached its logical end: my YA novel about ancient Rome has become a part of my sixth-grade curriculum, and for a specific reason.
I have always been fascinated by fantasy novels with magic spells in them—those of Tolkien and LeGuin, for example. And of course the popularity of Harry Potter has added to the luster of that genre. As I read each book, I asked a question to which I gave particular attention: how does magic work? What is the origin of its efficacy?
That question drove the writing of my series of novel, The Mirror and the Mage and The Staff and the Shield, which are about the teenage life of Lucius Junius Brutus, the George Washington of the Roman republic. I envisioned Lucius’ young life as that of a mage—a wizard, a spell caster—who used Latin grammar as the origin of his power.
Specifically, the correct use of Latin grammar.
It is widely known that if you do not phrase a spell correctly, it won’t work. Famously in the Harry Potter universe, waving a wand and saying “Wingardium Levio-SAH” will not make a feather levitate. You must say “Wingardium Levi-OH-sa.”
We have J.K. Rowling, classics major, to thank for bringing Latin to YA fantasy literature. My aim was to take the language a step further and use the old chestnut of declensions, that traditional bedevilment of students, to help those on the quest of making magic that works. In The Mirror and the Mage, devising a “grammar”—that is, stringing together a series of words with the proper endings of the nouns, adjectives, and participles chosen—is the means to defeating the monster or, even better, the mirror-wielding Etruscan seers who seek to thwart Rome’s destiny.
My Latin students read this novel at the end of their first year of study, when they are summing up what they have learned and looking forward to deepening their knowledge in seventh grade. From their preliminary study of declensions, they know the challenge faced by Lucius (and his Greek friend, Demetria) to keep the proper forms of the words in their heads, but they have not yet fully faced it themselves. This book introduces to them the structure of the concept—the big picture, so to speak—without their having fully to memorize or use the declensions themselves.
As a result, their involvement with declensions becomes much less that of impenetrable content necessary to be memorized in the vague prospect of later mastery, but as living tools for the purpose of accomplishing great things. In other words, they learn alongside Lucius that grammar might just save your life.
To reinforce that idea of living usefulness, I have developed a game that students can play online that simulates in a simplified manner the grammar-creation of Lucius and Demetria. There are several levels: one that emphasizes vocabulary only, one that asks students to consider the proper endings, and still another, for the really motivated student, that introduces the historical endings of archaic Latin and invites them to consider how language changes over time.
There is more: Mythology rears its head, especially Etruscan mythology; there are discussion questions for the Language Arts teacher who requested it. (In other news, I designed the eInvestigators program mystery, The Etruscan Excavation, but that’s a story for another day.) And hopefully the plot itself, written for maximum suspense, sweetens the process.
Where the rubber hits the road: YA and Your Curricula
So if you have read this far, it is quite possible that you are wondering how you might apply this YA-enhancement in your own classroom. There are a number of books that attempt to blend a good story with interest in an academic subject. And Nathan Hale’s wildly popular graphic novels about American history make for inspiring (though gruesome) reading for history and social studies students.
But really, isn’t it going to be more immediate to your teaching and your students if you use your own ideas and create your own book? A whole YA novel may be a daunting prospect to some. But what about a short story? Or a concept and a character?
Or, even better: let the students do the creation.
A student-centered story-creation template
Here’s a template to use for creating a student-centered story project:
- What is the concept you’re trying to get across? Is it mitosis? The rhetorical devices in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech? The quadratic equation? Isolate a discrete content set that is important in your curriculum.
- What are the skills (the “magic”) you’re trying to build through study of that concept? What kind of practice of the skill can you offer through creation of the story? Often, the best way for a student to move toward higher-order use of a concept is to explain that concept in his or her own words. Telling a story allows the student the opportunity to restate and bring to life a set of content.
- What context makes sense for letting students explore this concept? Is it a fantasy world where equations battle against being solved? Is it time travel, to help a historical figure do the right thing? A mystery? Duke TIP’s eInvestigators program offers “crack the case” courses that use a mystery or problem to be solved as motivation for students to engage with a subject. Depending on the age of the student and their level of creativity and initiative, you can either leave this more open-ended or develop it to be quite narrow and determined.
- What is the YA-oriented (coming-of-age, problems of adolescence) hook that will draw a student in to the creation of their story? The student’s character should be someone like them, facing problems that they face: peer pressure, relationships, family, aspirations for the future. Again, this part of the rubric can be as open-ended as you choose. Ideally, the hook should also relate somehow to the topic considered (“You are going to create a story in which the normal way of genetic mutation is changed; your character should face a challenge in their life that will make the mutation either an advantage or a disadvantage for that challenge”).
- Decide whether this will be a group, pair, or individual product. For differentiation of the assignment, consider that the most motivated of individuals will hit the ground running with this and have fifty pages written in a week (and perhaps publication in their future!), so an independent project might suit well. For others, it may be better to have groups of four brainstorm a story together and assign specific sections of it to each other. The use of shared online spaces (such as Google Docs) makes this type of assignment easier to do.
- Do you have students who balk at the idea of creating their own characters? Consider the possibility of having them write “fan fiction,” using a favorite YA character of theirs in their story.
These elements can be used to create a rubric for a defined subject, treatment and length of a short story that will allow students truly to own your curriculum and make it memorable.
Because everyone does have a story and everyone wants to tell it.