A long long time ago before smart boards, before desks, before classrooms even existed, there was a new teacher in the woods whose backpack was filled with stuff. The weight of her stuff caused her to move at a sluggish pace, often struggling to keep up with students. She lost her students’ attention as she shifted through the stuff in her bag looking for the right tool for each lesson. Finally she even lost track of the sun in the sky.
After one very long, rainy day, the new teacher took refuge beneath an old Cedar tree as she tried to dry out the sopping pile of stuff spilling out of her bag. As tears began to run down her cheeks she heard a soft voice from up above.
-“Teacher girl, teacher girl, why are you crying?”
She looked around, but could not see where the voice was coming from.
-“Teacher girl, teacher girl, why are you crying?” came the voice again.
She realized it was the voice of the wind whistling in the branches above.
-”My body aches from the weight of all the tools in my bag, I used most of the sunny hours looking for stuff, and no matter how much I plan I cannot seem to keep the attention of my students.”
-“Teacher girl, teacher girl, leave your bag here with me. All the tools you will ever need are within. “
The teacher girl left her bag beneath the cedar tree as she was told and walked back to her cabin feeling lighter than she ever remembered feeling before.
The next day, as she set out into the forest with her students, she carried no bag and she found all that she needed, along the way. Whenever attention strayed she would gather the students beneath an old Cedar tree and tell them stories from within. It was a sound not so different from the wind. Storytelling became the new teacher’s most powerful tool. It was her magic ribbon used to tie all the lessons together for her students to carry home within.
Storytelling is like a Swiss army knife. It is an effective teaching tool that serves many purposes without adding any weight to the pack of outdoor educators. Stories can hook students into a new topic, reinforce new vocabulary or concepts, set expectations, allow students respite, create shared experiences, and so much more.
Current brain research provides evidence that optimal learning happens in low-stress environments where content carries personal meaning. Stories naturally reduce stress, which is why we tell them to children at bedtime. They serve as an effective hook for lessons that might typically cause stress. Steps to an investigation, details about native plants, and group expectations may be difficult to assimilate on their own, but when paired with stories, they are more likely to be stored in long-term memory.
Stories can be told in as little as five minutes and be expanded upwards depending on the need of the group. Characters can be transformed to reflect the personalities of different students. And of course many stories can be taken into the field to serve different learning goals without adding any weight to the backpacks of instructors. Over time many students organically begin creating and sharing their own stories contributing further to the depth and diversity of learning.
Storytelling can seem daunting at first, but there is a steep learning curve and high return on one’s investment. Beginning with small groups, friends or family is a great way to develop the art of a storyteller. Wisdom Tales From Around The World by Heather Forest and Once Upon A Time: Storytelling to Teach Character and Prevent Bullying are great sources of inspiration. The most important thing to remember is that there is no wrong way to tell a story. Enjoy the learning curve.
The story teaches, the story connects, the story tells of a bigger world.