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A Huge Opportunity For Storytellers




Man looking out from mountain vista

We face a significant opportunity

In the U.S. public schools, 48 states have now adopted the “Common Core State Standards” for what students should learn.

This is an enormous development for teachers of children in kindergarten through high school.

The near-universal adoption of these standards is so new that teachers are scrambling to adapt their teaching to them. Even some of the largest textbook publishers have not yet provided full sets of materials.

As a result, these standards represent, I believe, a significant opportunity for storytellers.

“Standards? Storytellers Don’t Do Standards!”

For those of us who, like Einstein, cherish imagination above knowledge, trends toward standardized curriculum don’t necessarily sound inviting.

We are reminded of the French school administrator of years past who famously bragged, we are told, that he could look at his watch and know what every student in France was studying at that moment.

Where is there room in such a system, we might say, for individual learning styles? Individual interests? Divergent thinking?

Where is there room for education as an exciting adventure? For the thrill of discovery? For any form of enjoyment at all?

Not As Bad As I Feared…

Once I looked at these standards, though (and talked to the forward-looking educator/storyteller Lynne Burns about them), I saw them in a more hopeful light.

First, the creators of these standards have given some thought to what skills they think high school graduates need, to succeed in college and their careers. Indeed, each grade-level standard refers to a long-term “College and Career Readiness” standard.

This means that, unlike some other systems, the work at each grade level builds in a meaningful way on the work at previous levels – and helps prepare the student for the next levels.

Second, these standards don’t seem to lend themselves to over-reliance on uncomprehending memorization.

The vast majority, in fact, seem to focus on thinking skills. They are dominated by words and phrases like “analyze,” “compare and contrast,” “explain the relationships between…,” etc.

But Wait: There’s Another Problem

If the good news is that these standards seem to challenge students to do more than memorize, that merely highlights an ongoing problem: from the students’ point of view, why would they want to exert the effort? What will motivate them to rise to the challenge?

Imagine a student who is faced with a task like this, for example:

Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details.

I readily imagine the student thinking, “What does that have to do with my life? Why would I care about that?”

The more a curriculum requires mental exertion (learning to analyze requires more effort than simple memorization, for example), the more important it becomes to answer the students’ questions about “Why?”

This is a huge potential problem inherent in all standards-driven education: the student might be treated like a thinking machine, expected to perform tasks that seem unconnected to the student’s universal human motivations, such as:

  • What do I want to accomplish? How can I accomplish it?
  • Who is on this journey with me? How do we fit into each others’ lives?

In other words, these standards don’t, by themselves, make curriculum meaningful to the student.

Stories and Connection

Who could help humanize such a curriculum?

photo of girl eagerly raising her hand in school

Needed: connection, meaning, involvement

Such helpers would need to be experts in:

  • Connecting to human motivations;
  • Putting problems in understandable contexts; and
  • Engaging people both intellectually and emotionally.

Sound familiar?

If anyone knows about connecting to human motivations and emotions, it’s storytellers. After all, such meaning-building is the essence of what stories do.

Re-wording E.M. Forster’s famous dictum, I would say:

“’The king died and then the queen died’” is a series of unconnected events. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a story.”

In other words, a story differs from a recital of facts in that a story creates causal connections between the facts. A story is really the most basic way of giving meaning to events, of interpreting people’s motivations and personalities.

Such interpretation is essential both to story and to human life.

Specialists in Meaning

Whenever you need to create personal involvement in an otherwise impersonal context, the premier discipline to call upon is storytelling.

Said another way, the missing element in the Common Core State Standards is EXACTLY what storytellers have, since time beyond memory, always known how to provide.

We specialize in helping people create meaning and become involved.

Photo of a shovel resting on red dirt

Like a shovel-store in a gold rush, we have what people need

How Often Does This Happen?

Two factors are therefore converging. First, teachers are desperate for help in this time of change.

Second, storytellers have the exact skills that educators need.

We are like a long-established shovel store that just happens to be near a new gold rush. Suddenly, everybody needs what we offer!

A convergence like that comes once in a long, long while.

So How Do We Help?

I see three principal ways that storytellers can help well-meaning teachers carry out a Core Standards based curriculum, so that students become engaged. We can do, or assist teachers in doing, the following:

  1. Perform stories;
  2. Help students learn, create, and tell their own stories;
  3. Teach storytelling games.

In a future article, I’ll talk about the contributions that each of these methods can make.

In the meantime, read on for a new, free resource for the least familiar of the three: Story Games.


Storytelling is a part of every human culture; so are games.

logo: silhouettes of 3 children with words "Storytelling Games"

Storytelling games can help teach subjects, enjoyably

So it’s natural that people in many cultures have created games that involve stories.

For me, a storytelling game is any game that involves:

  • Telling a story;
  • Telling part of a story; or
  • Using a skill that’s used in storytelling.

It turns out that people have created such games, for entertainment purposes, for generations.

Many such games help the beginning storyteller develop a particular storytelling skill. Other games focus on particular kinds of content that are of interest to teachers – and that apply to educational standards.

For example, there are storytelling games that require the use of words or phrases that can have two or more meanings. In such games, the spotlight of attention is easily and entertainingly focused on homonyms and metaphors.

To learn more about storytelling games every month, just subscribe – at no charge – to my new, free Storytelling Games newsletter.

In the newsletter, you’ll get games, variations on games, hints on teaching games, and suggestions of Common Core Standards that particular games help develop.

In time, I’ll have a website devoted to storytelling games. For now, you can subscribe by double-clicking this link:

Questions or problems? Please use my contact form:

This newsletter is a gift from me to the storytelling (and education) communities. Happy Holidays! Enjoy!

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