Storytelling & Narrative
Learn to tell any story for any audience.
So much of who we are, what we do, and the work that we care about is reducible to stories. The goal of this course is for students to build their storytelling skills. In Storytelling & Narrative, students will:
Learn how to craft stories for different audiences and contexts
Build habits & skills for students to become authors of their own stories
Become more discerning listeners to the stories of others
Understand how technology is changing storytelling
Learn how to make use of tools to craft effective stories
Develop a better understanding for how to read and understand stories across media
Our Storytelling & Narrative curriculum allows students to discover why stories are such an effective mode of expression. And as better storytellers, students will be more able to persuade, to problem solve, and to participate in (and make meaning of) our society.
This curriculum may be used as a semester-long elective or the units may be inserted into other English Language Arts classes.
Students are first and foremost creators in this class. Crafting stories is the heart of Storytelling & Narrative, and texts play a supporting role to aid this goal. Our Storytelling & Narrative curriculum includes:
Mini-Projects - Each unit is built around a storytelling project utilizing a particular media. For example, students will create Humans of New York style profiles, translate short stories into storyboards for video, create pitches for products, write speeches for candidates, and design awareness campaigns for issues they care about.
Activities - Our curriculum includes activities to build skills for the mini-projects. For example, students storyboard select panels from the Jacob Lawrence migration series to build skills in visual storytelling and storylining. In another activity, students go through a process of editing their own biographies from 50 words down to six to build their sense of what is essential.
Reading- Storytelling & Narrative includes reading great stories. The emphasis is on understanding the decisions of the authors in order to hone students’ own craft as storytellers: Why are we getting sucked in? What role is this character going to serve? Where are we going to go next in the story? While our curriculum is built around example stories from a diverse set of authors and genres, it is also flexible enough for you to include stories that you love or that resonate with your students.
Other media - Because we are wired for story, stories exist everywhere. We don’t just read stories, we watch them on television, at the movies, and on our laptops; we listen to them on podcasts or around the dinner table; we tell them & consume them on social media; and we get sucked into them on video games. Students analyze stories across these media in order to learn how to create their own.
Discussion - A hallmark of a great story is that you want to talk about it! Our curriculum builds in space for these discussions both in smaller groups and class-wide.
Collaboration - Professional storytelling is as likely to be a team sport as an individual one. For every writer working alone on the great American novel, there is a team of writers collaborating on the next season of Billions, the Dove real beauty campaign, or the presidential candidate’s stump speech. Our curriculum includes plenty of opportunities for students to learn to tell collaborative stories, not just individual ones.
Mini-lectures - There is a craft, a skill, to storytelling. Lectures can be the most straightforward way to share this content, and when they are, we make use of them. Kaleidoscope lectures ask students to think about some theme or question as they listen. Occasionally, the lecture will not be from the teacher--TED Talks & other videos are a part of this curriculum.
Agency - The stories we tell about ourselves influence how we feel about ourselves, what we think we’re capable of, and the actions we take. The stories we tell about others influence how we feel about them, the compassion we show, and the actions we take. Storytelling & Narrative students will learn to recognize and (re-)write these stories to become authors of their own stories.
Employability - Storytelling is a skill that can be honed and cultivated. It is a winning difference between Bill Clinton & Hillary Clinton, between Ronald Reagan & Mitt Romney. It is the most prized attribute among hunter-gatherers. And it is not going anywhere. Storytelling is a 40,000 year skill—it has always mattered and always will.
Leadership - Junot Diaz refers to the Presidency as Storyteller-in-Chief. Top graduate institutions like the Harvard Kennedy School and Stanford Graduate School of Business offer over-subscribed storytelling & narrative classes. Organizations like Story Collider help scientists tell compelling public stories about their research. Across all domains, we recognize that our leaders are our storytellers and that the stories they tell shape the society we live in.
We co-design our classes with students and expert teachers (for more, see our design process).
The lead designer for this class is Topher Kandik, a National Board Certified English teacher who was 2016 DC Teacher of the Year. Over his career, Topher has partnered with a wide variety of storytelling organizations including the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, 826DC, the American Film Institute, the National Press Club, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the American Poetry Museum.
The goals & topics in the Storytelling & Narrative curriculum have been vetted for relevance and interest by high school students on our Student Advisory Board. We’ve also tested pieces of the curriculum with a Storytelling & Narrative summer fellowship for high school students.
We’ve learned that students want to be better storytellers--our Storytelling & Narrative summer 2019 fellowship was oversubscribed and highly rated by participants (4.5/5.0).
After the Storytelling & Narrative summer fellowship, students say that they see many reasons storytelling matters:
Empathy: “It is the way that we share experiences.”
Communication: “It is a universal way of conveying ideas.”
Universality: “Everyone has a story to share.”
Influence: “Stories have the power to make and break.”
Professional success: “It’s a transferrable soft skill that helps almost all aspects of personal life and career.”
Humanity: “It is what makes us human.”
We created this class to help all students (not just the creative writing, drama club set) “learn to tell any story for any audience.” Here are some people we think will be interested in bringing this curriculum to a school:
Any educator who believes in the power of story and wants to share it with students
School leaders who want to prepare students for the jobs of the future
Academic leaders who want a fun way to reinforce English Language Arts skills
Teachers excited to help students create stories not just analyze them
Counselors who want to give their students a leg up in college admissions (college admissions = storytelling contest)
Who it’s for
While designed for 11th and 12th graders, there aren’t any prerequisites for this class. Depending on the reading level of your students, teachers may want to use more or less complex texts or give students more than those included in our curriculum.
The Storytelling & Narrative curriculum covers many of the Common Core English Language Arts standards for grades 11-12. For example, we partially cover the ELA standards for Writing (especially those pertaining to narratives and distribution of stories), for Reading: Literature (especially craft & structure), and speaking & listening (especially those of discussion). In our materials, we mark off where we are covering these standards. Depending on the choices you make within the curricular framework, Language and Literature standards may be more or less covered (e.g., we don’t teach grammar as part of this course but there are many opportunities to reinforce it; we do not require Shakespeare, but you could include his work as an example of adapting works between media, which is a part of this class).
The units that comprise Storytelling & Narrative are designed to be taught together as a semester-long elective but may also be slotted into existing English Language Arts courses on a unit-by-unit basis.
Why Stories? - The purpose of this unit is to motivate students to want to become expert storytellers and to begin to acquaint them with the basic elements of storytelling. Although stories are fundamental to the human experience, we don’t often show students why they matter. In this unit, students will watch TED Talks, grapple with examples underscoring the influence of stories, and write their own stories.
Spoken Stories - Oral storytelling is a human cultural artifact that has persisted across our species’ history. The goal of this unit is for students to improve their ability to tell a story. Students will learn about the core elements of oral storytelling and then practice crafting and telling their own oral stories.
Film and Television: Fiction, Non-fiction and Documentary - Film and television have become important platforms for all kinds of storytellers--from film directors to marketers, creatives to politicians. In this unit, students will be taught the building blocks of cinematography in order to better understand how and why videos connect with an audience. Students will be asked to decipher movie scenes, investigating why certain decisions were made and how a certain element of a scene evokes particular emotions. They apply this new knowledge by working on their own small group video projects, becoming film directors, producers, editors, & cinematographers (not to mention actors & actresses).
Campaign Storytelling: Storytelling is everywhere in the public domain. Politicians use stories to influence voters, marketers use stories to influence consumers, and issue journalists use stories to influence readers and the public. In this unit, students will explore the way that stories are used to provoke individuals towards a specific action--be it going to the polls, making a purchase, or donating to a cause. Students will practice becoming their own campaigners by writing stump speeches, brainstorming advertising initiatives, & designing social impact campaigns.
The Future of Stories: Although the nature of stories and storytelling has changed since we began telling stories tens of thousands of years ago, storytelling is changing more rapidly than ever before. Many of the technical skills required to be a good storyteller and the ways to build an audience have changed. With the rise of YouTube, social media, & virtual reality, we are now entering a new age of distributed storytelling, one where the tools are still evolving and there is more and more ambiguity to navigate.