Students can’t intuit history. They can’t know what happened in other times and places unless someone shares that information with them. Once they’ve learned enough history, they can begin to make educated guesses. But even then, they need to check reliable sources in order to confirm or, more likely, correct their guesses. In any case, most of our students will remain apprentices during their time with us.

So what does it mean to run a student-centered classroom when you’re committed, as Jon and I are, to a “story-first” approach to history education? If you believe, as we do, that higher-level inquiry and argument must follow and not precede historical knowledge, must you be committed to starting all units and learning cycles with teacher-directed lecture, reading, or video?  

Yes and no. In order to prepare our students for semi-independent inquiry, we need to equip them with enough narrative knowledge both to inspire curiosity and to facilitate reasonable interpretations, explanations, and judgments. And in order to equip them that way, we need, at least, to select and curate materials that will give them the story. 

But that hardly means that you need to precede every attempt to answer Question Two (What were they thinking?) with a lecture that narrates an answer to Question One, What happened? It’s fine to lecture, by the way, when your students are up for it. We live in the great age of Ted Talks and podcasts. People love hearing stories. The students in your class can love them, too. 

On the other hand, Ted Talks and podcasts require substantial resources to produce. And most of the audience for them is not 15 and compelled to listen. 

Activate The Inherent Drama

The key to making your story-first teaching as student-centered as it can be is to recognize that stories are inherently dramatic. That’s why storyboarding works so well in History class. The logic that makes storyboarding an excellent way to capture both sequential and episodic narratives — human action, chunked into events and richly visualized — can be a template for a pedagogical technique that engages students while it informs them about things they don’t yet know. 

Imagine your classroom as a dramaturgical space. What students need in order to enter into a dramatic story is a sense of setting, character, and conflict or tension. That’s something that you, the teacher, simply have to provide. We did a summer workshop a year ago in which teachers practiced setting the hook for their unit stories. It was terrific fun. Setting the hook, selling the contrast between where the story begins and where and how it ends, is like loading a spring. Set your trap, catch some students. 

Once your story-hook is set, then engage students in a series of near-field puzzles to drive the story forward. Imagine this: Louis XVI called the Estates General, a kind of representative assembly that hasn’t met in over a century. It is thoroughly old world: divided by rank. Louis only calls them because he needs to raise money. Seems straightforward enough. Three years later, his head is in a basket (along with his wife’s), and France has declared itself a republic (of virtue, no less!). What happened?!? 

A traditional way to tell that story is to, well, tell it. Teacher lectures, students take notes. Supplement liberally with reading and video. The alternative is to imagine your class as a theater troupe. Three estates? Assign them. And a king and queen, if you like. Then, direct your drama. At each turning point — at each box in your daily storyboard — ask your students to make a decision-cum-prediction. What will the estates say and do? How will the king and queen react? 

The dramaturgical classroom exploits the power of near-field inferences to keep your students engaged in unraveling a story. Provide short documents and images at intervals, and ask your student-actors to make decisions. Then show them what comes next. 

In order to make classroom dramaturgy work, you probably need to think about note taking as a formative assessment rather than as a means of recording teacher communication. Imagine this: students role-play the story, with your guidance. Then they achieve oral proficiency in telling it. Then, finally, they record it in their notes. Story first, notes last. 

When your students are fully bought in and doing school, they’ll take notes on anything. Feel free to lecture. But for reluctant or struggling students, recording a story they already get can make the whole enterprise of history learning more comprehensible. Notes lock in your learning. (Storyboards along the way don’t hurt, either.)  

There’s no getting around knowledge. But if we think of knowledge not as lists of data but rather as dramatic stories of real humans doing real human things, then maybe we can expand our range of teaching techniques by borrowing from our friends in the theater arts. All the world’s a stage, no?