Here are three ways we can teach our students a story about something interesting or important that happened in the human world: 

  1. We can give them a reading (or video) that contains the story and teach them how to find that story in the reading (or video)
  2. We can tell them the story ourselves, out loud, with props and dramatic devices
  3. We can do both at once — reading and telling — by framing a narrative puzzle and then curating documents that allow students to reconstruct the story on their own. 

All three methods are most effective when the teacher gives clear guidance and instruction, naturally. No matter what the format — reading, lecture, or DBQ — we need to model for students how to identify the key actors and major events and then to connect those events (or identify missing connections) in a coherent sequence. 

For both reading and lecture (1 and 2 above), the first step is typically note taking. “Take notes” and “find the main ideas” are cop-out directions. Show students how to track the action in a narrative by marking up the text for actors, decisions, and events. Make their notes look like a storyboard-in-training. For narratives, that’s what notes are. 

For document-based storytelling, the trick is to frame the narrative enterprise — give students the setting in advance — and then to provide enough description in primary, secondary, and tertiary excerpts for students to reconstruct a chain of linked actions and events. 

These techniques for transmitting stories to our students are not mutually exclusive. In real life, history teachers use all three, and the first two are staples in most history classrooms. For each, it helps a ton to tell students what they’re doing and why: they’re answering Question One. They’re trying to get the story of what happened, so that they can start to understand how people think, why things happen when and where they do, and how to make complex, thoughtful judgments when confronting real-life problems. 

Do Your Students Know The Story?

So let’s say your students have learned a story through reading, lecture, DBQ, or some combination of the three. Do they know it? Unlikely. And for sure, if they haven’t practiced it, they won’t know it for long. 

Here are three ways of getting your students to tell (and retell) a story. 

  1. Storyboard it
  2. Tell it
  3. Write it, in character

Once your students are done reading, listening, or both, put them to work on a storyboard. The storyboard, as we show and tell in our workshops and as we’ve explained in blog posts, forces us to make lots of salutary, brain-stretching decisions. How do we chunk the story? How much detail do we include? When and where, exactly, do we begin and end? Which version of the story will we tell? What images will make the events in our storyboard vivid and clear? The mental exercise involved in making these decisions trains our brains and consolidates our memories. That’s good, important work for our students. 

Once you’ve got a storyboard, you’ve produced the script you need to tell the story orally. In fact, once you’ve made your storyboard, you’re probably ready to narrate without it. So try it. Telling a story to a classmate, or telling a chunk of a story and handing it off to another classmate, with or without verbal or visual cues, is terrific practice. It makes the logic of the story clear and memorable. And stumbles are good. They mean either that you need to practice more, or that you’ve actually stumbled upon something that doesn’t (yet) make sense to you. 

You can write a story, but flat-out omniscient narration in writing can be a hazard for students. My students find it hard not to write boring encyclopedia entries in this format. And sending them home to work on standard written narration is an invitation to consult, without attribution, said boring entries. Instead, having students write in character animates the human sensibility that they deploy almost effortlessly when they tell their own stories in their own, non-school voices. 

So instead of, “Tell the story of the Reign of Terror,” try, “You are a sans culotte, or a friend of Marie, or a pious peasant, or a Girondist. Describe Robespierre’s rule in a letter to a trusted friend.” Perspective makes the task harder, but also more personal. Your students need at least a provisional answer to Question Two for their character — what were they thinking? — before composing their facsimile narration, but that’s an integral part of the learning in any case. 

When my daughters were young, I was amazed by their appetite for stories. The exuberant command came as soon we we finished the last page of a picture book: “again!” The clever retort, which I discovered far too late: “you tell me!” Precious wisdom, for parents and history teachers alike.