Leading Teaching with Narrative


When teaching literacy—whether it be reading and writing or grammar and mechanics—detached exercises and single-focused instruction are not ideal methods to retain literacy skills. That’s because (spoiler alert) words are not mathematical concepts. We can memorize grammar terms and study vocabulary words until we are blue in the face, but this approach omits the very soul of words: human connection.

Now, this is not really a secret, nor is it some tremendous epiphany. What may be, however, is the idea that everything you teach can (and should) be laced with narrative. This is known as narrative-based teaching, and can help shape a personal connection to every other concept, skill, or form of writing.

Narrative is the Epitome of Human Experience

We tell stories for one fundamental reason: to share with others. Storytelling has existed since the dawn of time, and narrative is embedded in everything we consume, enjoy, and experience. Therefore, rooting everything we teach with narrative, we are appealing to that which makes us human. We are planting authentic situations in our learning, allowing learners to recognize and use literary concepts in “the real world.”

In the simplest of explanations: it makes learning interesting. We are, by nature, a narcissistic species—without an emotional, personal connection, it is difficult for us to deeply involve ourselves with a concept or topic, especially if it is new or does not come easy to us. This, I would argue, is not a flaw—it is simply part of our genetic makeup. It is also what links our souls and generations together and should be preserved and used to our advantage when we teach.

Oral storytelling and centering human experiences in learning approaches is also an intersectional way of decolonizing the classroom. By placing equal value on oral traditions as we do on Eurocentric, anthologized literature, we allow diverse voices and experiences to guide learning through representation as well as allow a connection through empathy. Which should always be at the forefront of our pedagogy, regardless of instructional goals.

The Foundations of Narrative in Organic Learning

Think about it: when teaching children how to read, we start with simply reading books. We introduce the very fundamentals of understanding language through storytelling. We embed a curiosity for stories in their bodies, hoping to impassion them with a love for reading that will carry on throughout their lives. Psychological studies have shown that organic learning yields better results, specifically with diverse learners. When we put two and two together, it is clear that narrative-based teaching is fundamental in an organic learning environment.

So, why do we stop narrative-centric instruction once schooling begins?

There are, of course, nuanced and systemic problems with our education institutions that can both simply and complexly answer this very question. However, as a teacher or parent, we can control the ins and outs of how we approach subjects, even when being mandated with the general what we are teaching.

In her article, “Resilience in Language Learners and the Relationship to Storytelling” Kate Nguyen states that: “Storytelling is an important educational technique that may play an important role in the process of development for individuals. Not enough is known about the relationship between storytelling and the psychological resilience of the adult learner. Adults draw upon stories for strength in multiple contexts. One can recall the stories of childhood, and one can recall the past and present stories of adulthood, and one can tell stories and some learn to teach through stories … [When analyzing] the relationship between academic stress and resilience in social interaction through an examination of case studies. Storytelling may provide decreased academic stress, while at the same time the storytelling enhanced resilience”

The research included in this peer-reviewed article suggests that “the significant themes for participants were the efficacy of learning resiliency through the pedagogy of storytelling, the value of community, and the transformative resiliency development of applying the learning to their own lives” and aims to measure the quantifiable effect of narrative with learners, in all aspects.

In short: storytelling provides a safe and non-threatening learning environment accessible to diverse learners in various situations.

Narrative-Based Curriculum and Teaching Narrative First

Not only should you implement narrative-based teaching with all concepts, but when structuring your curriculum, consider beginning the study of narrative before anything else. Pedagogically, this approach not only connects the student to the material, but the student to you. Memoir is a narrative genre that works twofold in this way: positioning the learner to understand the role of narrative, and their own human experience. Further, when your student trusts you and you’ve built a strong relationship, they are apt to being open throughout their learning process. Your classroom ecosystem’s efficiency relies heavily on this rapport—and narrative can build it. 

Another advantage of focusing on the narrative first—whether it be within a unit, assignment, concept, semester, or school year—is how this peels the curtain back for learners so they understand how deeply embedded narrative constructs are in every corner of their lives. This will help analytical skills form before you even introduce complex concepts.

For example, once we’ve laid the groundwork by reading and writing narratives for several weeks in the beginning of the semester in my English Composition classes, students then begin to naturally break down other genres of compositions with a narrative lens. The best example of familiar appearances of narrative is while exploring the advertisement genre—and I always show this clip from Mad Men:

In this scene, Don Draper—an “ad man”—pulls in his audience through narrative. It is an exceptional “behind the scenes look” on how advertisements in general appeal to our storytelling DNA. More importantly, however, it provides context for understanding how narrative can be used as a persuasive tool in rhetoric, by invoking pathos. This, in turn, creates conversation about how narrative techniques are literally everywhere, and are used for different reasons in different ways.  

Overall, narrative is a powerful and familiar tool that will engage, inspire, and assist learners as they navigate throughout all levels of literacy education and English classes. However, intersectionality of narrative can, and should, be a targeted focus in teaching all subjects. From math, to science, to history, connecting concepts through narrative can reshape how students view the world and learning in general.

For Writing Classes Specifically:  

How do we continue momentum, and continue to use the familiar approach to writing with narrative as well as that personal connection and communicative bond throughout the rest of the semester?

By teaching intentional choices of the creative writer—of the composer in general—an ongoing conversation emerges. We can present the following questions to learners to engage in an ongoing dialogue with rhetoric and narrative uses:

How are these compositions different? How are they the same?

What impact does the author’s life have on their work?

How does social context affect the audience’s reception of the work? How does intentional use of kairos by the composer impact its effectiveness?

By training the analytical eye to see the familiar narrative everywhere, learners connect to the world around them and are fulfilled with their personal needs to develop the desire to engage with concepts. By first introducing narrative genres, then engaging in narrative consistently through all aspects of learning, you may be pleasantly surprised with how little resistance you find in even the most bland or complex subjects.

Narrative-based Assignment Ideas in the Classroom:

    • ad analysis
    • photo essay
    • blog post
    • podcasts
    • editorial articles
    • Visual compositions
    • Rhetorical analysis of literature
    • Literacy narratives

Questions to Ask Yourself:

How do I already intersect the narrative genre into my teaching through specific exercises, assignments and assessments?

How can I be more transparent with my learners and intentionally use narrative throughout all genres and units?

Is this something I even care to do or need to include in my teaching? Why or why not?

The Infodemic Wildfire: Our Ethical Responsibility of Media Literacy

Photo by: Carlos Jimenez

What is Digital and Media Literacy?

According to Common Sense Media, an independent, nonprofit, researched-base website designed for parents and educators to keep kids safe and informed in a media-driven world, digital/media literacy is “the ability to effectively find, identify, evaluate, and use information” and “specifically applies to media from the internet, smartphones, video games, and other nontraditional sources. Just as media literacy includes the ability to identify media and its messages and create media responsibly, digital literacy includes both nuts-and-bolts skills and ethical obligations.”

Since beginning to teach college composition courses right in the midst of the 2016 election cycle, I have made media literacy a prominent part of my curriculum. It has, of course, evolved each semester as the focus on identifying “fake news” articles and websites pivoted to a focus on understanding sensationalism and credibility. Somehow, through this pandemic, the importance of media literacy has not only ballooned, but shifted again as we wade through misinformation and conspiracy outbreak in a post-truth era.

Why is Media Literacy so important?

Media literacy education has never been more important. It is our responsibility as free citizens to diligently work to identify bias in our own media consumption, especially before we hit “share.” Bias is engrained within human nature—it’s what we do with it that matters. If we ignore our own biases and feed only agreeable information into our echo chambers to stay comfortable and affirmed, we remain ignorant. However, if we exploit the biases of others for personal gain or affirmation and inflict harm, or perpetuate that harm by proxy, bias can be especially dangerous.

“Truth” is not defined by “What I want to hear.” Think: do you only go to doctors that tell you you’re healthy? Do you choose to only listen to the experts that support your worldview? Have you ever explored your own personal narrative to determine WHY you hold that worldview in the first place, and then actively break it down to understand the gaps within your own vulnerabilities to exploitative media?

This misinformation crisis can be analyzed, and has been reflected upon in American society, many hypothesizing how we began thinking that we know more than experts—and while research is within my personal expertise as an academic and educator, the very beautifully democratic way we create and access information has become our own ouroboros, exploited by those in power or those that want to be. Between YouTube, Fox “News” commentators, and our reality show president, the information sector of the internet has evolved into a full-on ratings grab. Like kids taking tide pods for likes and viral fame, misinformation is used as a tool for personal and financial gain, accomplished through textbook manipulation tactics often used by abusers, cult leaders, and snake oil salesmen. They prey on the need for promise, and then position themselves as the only one to believe, feeding into vulnerability and ego simultaneously. Viral misinformation has spread like a wildfire since the pandemic, and they all know it: it’s a seller’s market.

The issue is, it’s no longer just your retired family member watching Fox News for 10 hours a day who has become brainwashed by extremist propaganda that you can politely unfollow on Facebook. The radicalization of media consumers on all platforms is as widespread as the global pandemic itself, the dark corners of the internet becoming more accessible and mainstream than ever. By taking advantage of the phenomenon that drives people to want to “go viral” (irony not lost on me), those putting a megaphone to their mouths and spreading misinformation will get people killed. As a result of this phenomenon, likely fueled by more people at home consuming news while zipped into their technological devices, many succumbed by curiosity, fear and a desperation to make sense of the world, there have been several official statements condemning misinformation that has spread by doctors and medical professionals who need to clarify things. This is dangerous. This is a public crisis.

Our Personal Responsibility

However, all is not lost: we are still free citizens and our access to information allows us the opportunity for social responsibility. As a teacher, I am readjusting and adding a LOT of material for my classes in the Fall—I think I have added about a dozen resources, lesson plans, and approaches to necessary media and digital literacy in the past two weeks and Spring semester hasn’t even ended. One resource that can certainly assist in a communal agreement to liberate our society from fake news and predatory misinformation is this Media Literacy Certificate from PBS. While this simple certification process is created for educators (and librarians, tutors, etc) and targeted at K-12 teachers specifically, I believe can be of great value for everyone: teachers of all levels, parents, those of us who have friends or family members who consume entertainment news or turn to YouTube for “news,” as well as for ourselves to stay informed and safe as regular media consumers. It is FREE and there are also some great learning resources in general on this landing page through the KQED Media Academy.

Other really useful sources include: the Teaching Tolerance website, which takes digital literacy a step further to specifically combat injustices in the classroom by empowering young learners with the tools needed to gather information safely and ethically; and Metabunk, a site “dedicated to the art and pastime of honest, polite, scientific investigating and debunking.” As conspiracy becomes less UFO (since I guess that’s a real thing, now), and more as a means to divide and conquer while keeping those in power profitably in power, the Conspiracy Theory Handbook outlines how conspiracy theories spread, why they are harmful, and effective responses to those who have lost themselves down the rabbit hole.

This very short list is non-exhaustive, and this entire blog post is but a fraction of understanding digital literacy in all its facets—fact checking, for one, is its own lesson. However, we must first identify the problem so we can properly face it. This is step one. Will you join me?

For educators: What are your go-to resources when strengthening media literacy in your students?

For parents: What age-level conversations have you had with your children?

For everyone: What have you done to ensure you are consuming media healthily?

Media Literacy Activity Self-Check:
In a longer freewrite, explore your own worldview and inquiry WHY you hold that worldview in the first place. Is it your upbringing? Your geographic location? What media sites align with this worldview, and how often do you solely look to those sited for affirmation or comfort? Finally, try to actively break down your personal narrative to understand the gaps within your own vulnerabilities: what parts of your experience do you think leave you open to exploitative media? How can you protect yourself from your own bias to be exploited and manipulated and remain educated?



Say What You Really Mean and Avoid Value Judgements

Photo by: Patrick Tomasso

The most common feedback I give my students with their writing is: Be specific! That is always our goal, isn’t it? To compose with the 3 C’s: Clarity, Conciseness, and Coherence. So often, general statements muddy a composition, making it difficult to understand what claims are actually being made, and therefore impossible to distinguish the purpose of the writing. Part of the problem here is that when we hear the term opinion, we think evaluation: “good” or “bad.” But these are value judgements, and ironically, do nothing to add value to your writing. Omitting value judgements from your writing can improve the 3C’s and allow you to communicate more effectively.

By definition, a value judgement is: a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of something or someone, or of the usefulness of something or someone, based on a comparison or other relativity. As a generalization, a value judgment can refer to a judgment based upon a particular set of values or on a particular value system.

Some examples of value judgements include: good, bad, better, best, wrong, right, worst, best, etc. Basically, you are assigning value to something in a subjective, ambiguous manner.

Value judgements are problematic for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, think about the word judgement and its negative connotation–it is one thing to have an opinion, it’s another to use that opinion as weapon. Secondly, value is totally subjective. What value system are you making your judgements by?

Step outside of your writing for a moment and understand the context. Who are your readers? Who are you to your readers? Assigning value to a topic, subject or argument is not inclusive and can offend, alienate, or disregard entire audience groups. This is where empathy and narrative-based learning can help provide insight to others’ experiences and why it is so important to consider different perspectives. “Good” weather to a surfer in Southern California, for example, is not “good” weather to an ice-fisher in Michigan. As Morticia Addams famously said: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Value judgements then open up your writing for misinterpretation, giving your readers the opportunity to misconstrue your overall point.

Aside from lacking empathy and possible alienating audience groups, value judgements simply do not say much. They are often used as fillers that provide a shallow opinion of a general topic. Value judgements usually spark more questions! Good, how? Good, to whom? Good, why? These generic, shallow statements are not claims at all, but shadows of opinion that dim your writing and obscure what you are trying to communicate.

Ask yourself or your students: What do you mean by ‘good’? ‘Bad’ to whom? Think of precise adjectives that illustrate exactly what you are trying to say in the context of your writing. Instead of “good” think: effective, positive, encouraging, convincing, secure etc. Instead of “bad” think: harmful, destructive, dangerous, ineffective, etc. Choose a different descriptor that actually adds value to your overall point and the argument or statement you are trying to make.

This also applies to creative writing practice when it comes to using value judgements in the form of generic descriptors. When you describe something as “beautiful,” you are creating more questions as to how? To whom? Why?

When we think of writing as communication, the need for saying what you mean is easier to practice.

This practice goes beyond writing in an academic setting. As parents, we should say what we mean to our children too, and teach them to communicate effectively. Rather than tell them good job–mean what you say! When you ask your child how their day was, and they respond with good… ask them to explain how and why. Teaching literacy in this moment, including vocabulary, deep thinking, and communication skills will help them transfer the concept to their writing and academics. Encouraging literacy practice off the page will help to deepen learning capacity and improve the link between meaningful communication and writing.

Even in our personal relationships, we know how important it is to say what we mean—in our families, workplaces, friendships, partnerships—we know we should always communicate our needs and opinions precisely. It is no different with writing.

I encourage you to spend the entire day avoiding value judgements: start with removing “good” and “bad” from your vocabulary and say what you really mean.