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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Teacher's Summer Tale: The Trade Secrets to Creating Stories that Teach!

Family selfie, June 2016
near Trescott, Texas
I confess that I can weave a tale that would hold the attention of most reluctant readers and writers. The fateful tale of The Lost Camper and the Vampire Bats or The Possum Who Forgot to Play Dead are two of the top favorites. As a middle school literacy coach and reading intervention teacher, I learned the slick tricks to keeping middle schoolers (even addicted gamers) on the edge of their seat.

Disclaimer: These narratives do not come spilling out of my mouth. My stories are intentional and well-planned...and as unexciting as it sounds...often rehearsed in front of my dogs.


It is long-winded, but for the life of me, I didn't know what to cut out. So, no offense if you click out and check out one of my shorter, visually easier-to-read blogs. The top 10 blogs underneath my twitter feed is a good place to start.

And so without further adieu, I will share some of the tricks of the trade as I write a summer tale.

Narrator: Me (teacher)
Audience: Most often students who hate to read and write and are not afraid of tell you so
Length: No more than 10-15 minutes
Title: None (I will ask students to create one for me)
Other: My thoughts and notes in italicize 

Introduction: Hook the listener and provide essential background knowledge.

Before my story begins, you need to know that I, personally, do not hunt; but I'm not against wild hog hunting! I just can't shoot them myself. Actually, this is part of the story. This gives the listener a context. Now wild hogs, also called feral pigs, are not the cutesy, animated caricatures like Pumbaa from the Lion King or Wilbur from Charlotte's Web. I purposefully compare and contrast to familiar characters from books and/or movies. The wild hogs in my story are fiercely mean and dangerous...I use a pregnant pause to hook the reader...and deadly.

In fact, wild hogs in West Texas  pulverize (rich, descriptive vocabulary), or destroy, (demonstration of using a context clue) farmers' fields and eat their crops. At this point, I will allow a student to Google a picture and share with the class. This leverages students' out of school literacies to build background knowledge. Did you know that wild hogs can weigh between 300 to 500 pounds? I am modeling how to use a rhetorical question for a dramatic effect. These hogs have  jaws strong enough to break bones and devour entire carcasses. I might ask a questioned about the scientific name for an animal that eats both plants and animals.

If the wild hog feels threatened, they WILL attack humans. These are beasts (purposeful use of a metaphor) you do NOT want to meet face-to-face. The foundation of my story is laid and students have the background knowledge they need to make predictions and draw inferences as I weave my tale.

Beginning: Establish the setting and characters. 

It was late June when my husband, Mr. Dollar, myself, and our dog, Ben, were on a hunting trip with a few close friends. Since I don't hunt, I take along a good book to read. The land where we hunt has no cell phone service or I would be playing Words with Friends or Candy Crush! I mention Internet games because I want my students to see me outside of the classroom. It's part of characterization and often builds curiosity. Students are fascinated that teachers have a life outside of the classroom! 

Since wild hogs hunt at night, we were safe and sound I throw in an idiom, twenty-five feet off the ground, sitting comfortably in our deer stand. A deer stand is basically a wooden fort propped up by posts with windows on every side. I am using imagery to describe the setting. A wooden ladder, strategically propped against the doorway, is the only way to come and go. Now this is important to remember. I'm coaching my students on information to attend to as they listen. This will help my students to begin to look for clues in stories to support making inferences.

Beginning of story continued: Set the stage and begin building the plot.

Looking out into the night sky, I was able to see thousands of twinkling stars. This particular night it was so clear I was able to find constellations like the Big and Little Dipper. More imagery and connection to academic vocabulary. We had only planned on staying about an hour before heading back to our campsite. In spite of the grueling summer temperatures, at night the temperature may drop to the upper 50's or 60's (degrees Fahrenheit). I pretend to shiver for drama sake. 

Also, our friends were watching our dog, Ben, and knew to come look for us if we were gone for too long. Oh, I forgot to mention there are other dangers besides wild hogs! I do not say anything beyond this statement. Inadvertently students learn to internally ask themselves questions and drawing inferences. This is metacognition at its best!

The temperature was dipping I am purposefully using personification and I was ready to go back to camp. I took one step down the ladder when suddenly I heard a rustling noise coming from somewhere below the stand. This is the initial action that will set off the chain of events in the story.

Middle: Rising action and story climax told with voice inflections.

I froze in my tracks. I am now creating suspense and hoping students will begin making predictions based on the information so far. I always scope out faces for signs of boredom. 

I jumped into the stand and clung to Mr. Dollar. I am using a show-don't-tell strategy. 

What was that? I am also purposefully omitted dialogue tags like "I said" or  "he answered" because that is book talk. Narrative storytelling (apart from books) uses a different discourse. 

Before Mr. Dollar could say a word, we heard the noise again.

If I had to describe it, it would be a high-pitched scream that sounded neither human nor like an animal. It was ferocious sounding and sent chills up and down my spine. There is something enticing when a story teller is in the moment. The story doesn't sound rehearsed. I'd heard of bobcats living in West Texas, but had never heard of any in the area where we typically hunt. This statement teaches students how listeners can use their background knowledge/experiences to make predictions about text.

I prayed that whatever IT was, that IT wouldn't be able to climb the ladder.

Again, the horrific scream. I welcome interruptions at this point. Sometimes students  want to ask a clarifying question, makes a connection, or gives me an out affirmation like, "oh, snap!"

Chills covered my spine and my blood ran cold. This sentence is a trifecta: personification,idioms, and hyperbole combined. Remember there was no cell phone service and our only pair of walkie talkies were in our pick-up truck. We did have a rifle with a night a vision scope and a flashlight and we were prepared to use it. This sentence is important because it shows a fighting spirit; which is important to characterization and supports the end of the story.

We shined a flashlight down at the ground but saw nothing else.

Again, the horrific sound....This is the point to threaten to end the story...I'm not sure if I should continue, because you will not be able to unhear what I'm about to tell you. I use language my students use like "unsee", "unhear" or "throw shade at".

And that's where I will stop for today. This is how I know if the story is adolescent worthy. A good story will have students begging for more. 

Ending: Falling action and resolution after hearing sufficient begging.

Of course, I do finish my stories and ask for an honest evaluation (thumbs up or thumbs down). I tell students that I need their help to come up with a good title. This can be a competition or whole group effort. There are no grades assigned. No teacher ruse like telling students, "Now, you get to think of a story to tell your partner." NEVER. EVER. DO. THIS.

Kids are smart and will catch on that you only told the story to teach them something. This is true, of course. The trick is to do everything possible to avoid the slightest hint of the underlying lessons embedded in your story. When you've done this, you are on your way to mentoring others!

The bottom line is that I believe stories live inside of all of us. As teachers, we are FAR more valuable than the newest and coolest literacy program. Scripted programs or a bubble map can not come close to the well-planned lesson modeled by a teacher in storytelling form. This is because creativity can not be bottled or bought!

Sometimes the best lessons come from the imagination of excellent teachers.

What story lives inside of you?

Confession Reflection

  • In your opinion, are there advantages to teacher storytelling? Are there disadvantages?
  • Why would it be important to allow student-directed activities in response to a story (creating a title, researching more on a self-selected topic i.e. vampire bats)? Would student engagement change if teacher stories were followed up by graded assignments or a quiz?
  • What is the value of creating a space for teacher storytelling in the classroom? Why is it important to recognize and encourage teacher's unique voices and ways of telling stories?
  • How would teacher storytelling support student learning of Common Core standards?

Reference: Plot Map


  1. Awesome! I feel like a student student learning from the best!!!