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Storytelling, Writing and Self-Advocacy: How to Shift the Way We Teach Writing

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jun 22, 2016 5:00:00 AM


The way writing is traditionally taught is fundamentally flawed. The five-paragraph essay formula bears little relation to the types of writing required in adult life. Think about it. Does the five-paragraph format help you write a great email? Proposal? Sales report? The answer is probably not.The type of writing required to bridge the gap from high school to college and meaningful work is absent in most schools. Yet every student has the potential to learn it because it’s innate to us as humans, and we’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve been talking. The secret to powerful communication—written as well-spoken fluency—is storytelling.

Storytelling triggers a complex web of brain activity that includes not only executive function, but also memory, empathy and the desire to act. Stories about our own experience, it turns out, are the most powerful types of stories. Personal narratives are the key not only to improved writing and speaking, but also to the social-emotional underpinnings of college and career success, including reflection, self-advocacy, collaboration, persistence, and meta-cognition.

Here are three examples of innovative programs using storytelling to turbocharge students’ writing and college access through storytelling:

Blair Academy

Every student at Blair tells their story out loud twice, once in the spring of their first year and then again senior fall. All of their stories are saved on video. Chris Fortunato, head of school at Blair, describes the Leadership Stories program:

“We want students to be inspired by their own and other students’ stories. We want every student at Blair to commit to something, and to see over the course of their time here that they have been able to make a difference based on that commitment.”

Blair has also launched The Blair Leadership Stories Project that showcases student and alumni stories.

Brooklyn Technical High School

At Brooklyn Tech, students learn the tools to write personal narratives in English class alongside memoirs by famous authors and other works, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that explore the relationship between storytelling and identity. Counselors encourage students to write letters to themselves each year, to capture stories of learning and change while they are still fresh. When it comes time for college admission essays, students use those letters to reconnect with the paths they have followed, and who they have become in and out of the classroom. 

College Summit

College Summit is one of the most established and successful college access organizations, having helped thousands of low-income students gain admission to selective colleges by telling stories of their personal transformation. Through its new Peer Forward program, College Summit teaches high school student leaders how to tell their own stories and use them to fuel their own admissions and scholarships, as well as to secure college-going commitments from every student in their high school.  

In addition to improved college outcomes, storytelling also drives improvements in literacy standards for ELL students. So, as schools search for methods to improve writing and speaking outcomes for all students, storytelling is a key tool in the new literacy arsenal. But the brain’s love of storytelling drives even more than literacy and college readiness.

Storytelling empowers students to connect what they have done in the past to their vision of what they will do in the future through the actions they take in the present. When students share their unique stories with others, they build emotional capacity and what social theorist Marshall Ganz calls “agency.”

In Ganz’s framework, storytelling is a key component of citizenship and community building. When we teach students to explore moments they had to make a decision in the face of a challenge, we are empowering them to make future decisions based on their vision of what is good for the larger community. Storytelling gives students a framework to use their own stories to take on leadership in their communities: student storytellers become leaders by enabling others to act, to make decisions and to create change based on their own lived experience.

At first, a storytelling-based approach to writing might seem to run counter to the outline- and analysis-driven essay format we are taught in school, and the false but widespread idea that evidence-based, argumentative writing is the most important and persuasive type of writing.

The College Board seems to privilege argumentative writing over narrative writing with the redesigned SAT essay that favors a document-based essay similar to its AP exams. The document-based essay (DBQ) is extremely valuable in teaching students to navigate multiple points of view. But holding conflicting perspectives together with a disembodied argument is less persuasive than a narrative structure based in one’s own experience and that of other people. Stories literally activate more parts of the brain. Stories are a more complicated and more powerful type of writing than argument for many reasons, not least of which is because stories connect people across their differences, each person bringing his or her own stories to the broader community. In contrast to the SAT, the ACT recognizes the importance of narrative—both in the hierarchy of writing and in students’ self-advocacy—by encouraging and teaching students to write narrative essays on the new ACT.

In 2008, I was Director of Development and Marketing at CUNY’s tuition-freeMacaulay Honors College. In a heartbeat, when the economy crashed, our students found themselves shut out of competitive jobs and internships. After reading Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind I worked with a professional storyteller to develop a program that taught students to tell their stories in the career process. Overnight the students’ outcomes shifted. When they used personal stories, leading with who they were and what they believed, they were able to create a bridge from their past to their future. Their emails got answered, they got interviews and they got jobs.

As diverse students navigate rapidly shifting and largely unpredictable pathways from high school to college to 20th century work and learning, storytelling provides a toolkit to connect with other people based on their past experience, their future vision and their actions together in the present.

This blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post. Image via