The universe is made of stories, not atoms. –Muriel Rukeyser
Sonya was a very mature kindergartner whose mother was concerned that she would be bored in my class because she already knew how to do everything in the curriculum. Mom was especially peeved that I would be spending two days on the letter M, when her daughter already knew how to read. I told a story about a magic mountain. The children painted the mountains, drew the mountains, and then discovered the M in the mountains they painted. The little girl scoffed with obvious contempt, “Mr. Levy, I already knew how to make an M,” then continued with delight and satisfaction at having made a great discovery, “but now I know what an M is!” (1996, Levy)
That’s the difference a story makes. Story gives meaning to facts. It’s how we organize our experiences. It digs deeper than skill, down to the hidden treasure of “aha!” If I had to summarize in one word what we should look for in every lesson we teach, that’s it–aha! Aha opens the door to wonder, and wonder to worship. The best way to get there is through a story. Jesus knew it.
What Is It About a Story?
Think of the elements of a story. It has a setting we can imagine, characters we identify with, a plot we lose ourselves in, a conflict that intrigues us, and a resolution that satisfies or leaves us wondering. A good story commands the complete attention of our minds and provokes the full spectrum of our emotions. It leaves room for the Holy Spirit to whisper meaning and relevance. At any grade level, when a teacher begins to illustrate an abstract concept with a story, students immediately pay attention. In the upper-grades, teachers use case studies, stories of particular people, places, or events to illuminate the big ideas of the discipline. Primary teachers use stories to promote conceptual understanding, content mastery, and character development. At the kindergarten level, the story contextualizes the content with concrete examples that invite students to explore academic concepts and wrestle with complex issues of right and wrong, good and evil, spirit and flesh. The right story inspires empathy, awakens a love for the goodness and justice of God, a hatred for the evil and oppression of sin. It educates the emotions as well as the mind. It’s as much about transformation as information. Rather than put a period at the end of a learning experience, the story lingers on, encouraging further exploration and deeper connection. Most of all, it invites the listener to create her own meaning as she weaves the weft of the story with the warp of her own experience on the loom of God’s living word.
Heads on a Stick
James K. A. Smith suggests in his book You Are What You Love that our educational system operates as if the students were “brains on a stick.” What will really shape their spiritual yearning, build intellectual curiosity, and inspire a life longing for God is what appeals to the imagination–more to the gut than to the head. In the end, we do what we love, not what we rationally decide. And what we love is formed at a level deeper than cognition. Great stories speak to that deeper imagination. They provide metaphors, not propositions. They are not just understood but also “felt.” They appeal to both head and heart. A story invites a different kind of knowing.
The Wonder of Story
Ruth Wilson defines knowing that combines feeling and thinking as wonder, when “the world is known through the heart as well as the mind.” Wonder leaves something to the imagination, for students themselves to discover. When I visit primary classrooms, I can usually predict too much teacher talk. Too much explaining to “brains on a stick.” Whenever a teacher sees the word “explain,” she should translate “tell a story.” In a beautiful 1st grade lesson about the fascinating life of birds, the teacher is asked to explain what an ornithologist is. Young children love to master technical vocabulary. It’s good for them to know the term ornithologist. But instead of explain, what if she told a story:
When I was a little girl we went over my grandfather’s house every Sunday for dinner. I’ll never forget the beautiful settings on the table. Grandmother put out her best plates that had little red and blue roses all around the edges. There were even two forks! All my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered at the table. One Sunday, in the middle of dinner, Grandfather put down his fork and cupped his hands behind his ears. “Listen,” he whispered. We heard a beautiful song coming from the front yard. Grandfather led us to the window, and we looked out and saw the most amazing bird! It had a red dress like it was going to a party. Grandfather gave us some binoculars, and we could see the smooth feathers and sharp claws clasping the branch. My grandfather loved birds so much he had a special name. He was called an “ornithologist.” He had a beautiful book where he drew pictures and wrote notes because he never wanted to forget anything he learned. If you love birds as much as my grandfather, you might become an ornithologist when you grow up. And I have a book for you, just like my grandfather’s, where you can draw pictures and write down all you learn about birds.”
No, she might not really have such a grandfather. If that bothered her moral conscience, she could say, “I had a friend who. …” That might not be true, either. But not to worry, there is always “Once upon a time. …”
Come learn more about Deeper Learning at the Powerful Practices: Implementing Deeper Learning in Christian Schools conference March 7-8, 2019. Pre-conference day March 6 for a deeper dive into Deeper Learning.
A version of this blog appeared in Education Week, Nov. 5, 2019
 Levy, Steven. Starting from Scratch. Heinemann, 1996
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.