Our mantra at 4QM Teaching is Story First! Students who rush off to make arguments about things they can’t yet narrate make a mess of things. If you want your students’ oral arguments and written essays to make sense and represent real thinking, first things first: make them answer Question One, What Happened?

Stories Take Time

Teaching students to tell good, true stories takes classroom time — time that’s well worth the investment. I’ve heard teachers worry that spending class time training students to “just” get the story down will undermine their attempts to teach students to think and write rigorously. If you apply high expectations to storytelling, you’ll actually see that narration requires rigor as well. And if your students learn to narrate well, their arguments are much more likely to be real and persuasive.

Telling a good, true story starts with reading, listening, or both. And what we read and hear must be recorded accurately in order for our thoughtful narration to remain non-fiction. Reading, listening, note taking — they’re all part of the skillful package that make answering Question One possible. The same is true, for that matter, for selecting reliable sources.

At any rate, once you know what you’re talking about, a well-crafted response to “What happened?” then requires the use of a variety of skillful storytelling techniques. Students should master them, which means that we should teach them.

Storytelling Instructions

Once my students have read and listened and taken accurate, durable, and hierarchical notes — raw lists not permitted! — then they’re ready to follow my storytelling instructions, the same ones I use myself when I plan my units and narrative lectures:

  • Frame your story by describing the main contrast or difference between the beginning and end of the story. Something important changed over time. Start by saying what changed, and if the change was surprising, say why. Build suspense: how did that happen?!?
  • Name the protagonists in the story and locate them in time and space. Describe who did what, and when and where they did it. Use active verbs!
  • Name and locate the events. Define events selectively and chunk them evenly. Include only actions that directly contribute to the main change over time you’re narrating.
  • Connect the actions of people in your story to the actions of other people in your story, or to the overall change your story is about. Do that by supplying an account of each actor’s motivations.
  • Conclude your story. You’ve just narrated an important historical change. Remind the reader or listener what you just taught them: what happened!

In our planning workshops and in our classes, Jon and I use storyboards to facilitate narrative planning, as he described in his recent blogpost, “The Power of Pictures.” Our six-panel storyboards act as limiting devices, forcing story planners to make efficient choices about which events to include and exclude. A storyboard provides a clear and logical way to record event names and locations, and makes the change over time we’re narrating explicit and visual. (By the way, facility in taking good, two-column narrative notes will make storyboarding much easier.)

Give your students some version of these storytelling instructions and a blank storyboard and see what they can do. Once they’ve drafted a narrative, I recommend having them practice their story by speaking it aloud. Speaking is an excellent test of fluency and mastery, an excellent memory device, and almost impossible to plagiarize. If public speaking is not a routine in your class, you’ll need to keep the stakes low while students practice.

Stories, Not Lists

One of the first things you’ll notice about students who are new to this exercise is that they have a strong compulsion to list events rather than to tell a story. I joke with students that every time I hear them say “And then Event X happened,” I lose another clump of hair from my head. (They know that I have none to spare.) They also know full well that, when narrating events in their own lives, some actual person did whatever thing they’re recounting, and that it didn’t just “happen.” Their real world has human agency; their History world, not yet.

I wonder sometimes if History teachers have mis-trained students to spout lists rather than to narrate actions. Traditional study props like ID sheets and Quizlet too often encourage students to practice recalling brute facts shorn of their narrative, human context. An “event,” after all, is just a handy label we give to an interaction between and among real people doing things with and to each other. Our students don’t intuitively grasp that, at least not in History classes. Teaching them to tell true stories can help (or force) them to see that what’s true in their lives is true in life in general: people do things to and with each other. That’s one of the things we mean by “history.”

So insist that students lead with WHO did WHAT to WHOM. And I hope it’s now clear that doing so is emphatically not a mechanical skill. On the contrary: it represents the beginning of awareness that “events” don’t “happen”; rather, people do things. Likewise, listening to students try to connect events, to say how someone’s actions led to someone else’s, will reveal for both of you what they understand and what remains opaque for them. In other words, it’s an awesome formative assessment.

Stories Raise Questions

Most important, a well-told story always raises questions for whoever is really listening. As our students narrate, they will be called upon to answer questions on the fly that we can highlight, extract from the story, and turn into inquiry questions. In fact, all Four Questions are typically embedded in a coherent narration of new and notable events in the human world. When the protagonists in your students’ stories do things, they will be doing them for reasons, provisionally supplied by your student narrators. Seven Southern states declared secession. Lincoln decided that he would not allow the Union to be destroyed, and so he fought to keep them in the United States.

What was he thinking? Why was that his choice? If that question doesn’t give you pause and make you wonder, then you’re not really listening to the story, and so will have a hard time taking this classic Question Two seriously. Storytelling is in fact the beginning of historical thinking. Inquiry projects are almost always attempts to take apart a story and then put it back together at a higher level of transparency and thoughtfulness.

When my students write their independent research essays, they start with a story they learn and narrate themselves. Then they identify the question-begging elements, and then begin their inquiry. When we frame unit questions with teachers in our workshops, we use exactly the same procedure: make your storyboard and tell your story, and then we’ll figure out which questions we need to answer in order to satisfy genuine curiosity and skepticism.

So storytelling is a form of historical thinking in its own right, and the gateway to all the other forms we rightly want our students to grapple with. Teachers, like students, need to practice not getting ahead of themselves. Start with Question One, and watch (and listen to) what happens…