Stories: Listening, Telling, Teaching, and Learning

Fall 2017

I began to fully appreciate the power of telling stories when I read Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination.  Throughout the book, Coles emphasizes the important role stories play in our lives. He uses a quote from the poet William Carlos Williams to make his point: “Their [his patients’] story, yours, mine — it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them."1
Now, I cannot help but analyze myself and the people around me — particularly young people — when we are sitting at a gathering and listening to a keynote speaker or to anyone who is at the front of the group and talking. Inevitably, I see drifting heads and eyes and people who are thinking about what needs to be done at school or at home; but as soon as the speaker says something like “Let me explain my point with a story — a story when I was growing up — and how I was separated from my mom and dad for over a year . . .,” the refocusing of eyes and heads is palpable. You can see people shifting their posture and focusing on the speaker. No one wants to miss this part of the talk.
A perfect example of this took place at an American Montessori Society (AMS) annual conference. We were in the ballroom of a large hotel — about 3,500 of us in attendance — and one person was on stage. Without PowerPoint or notes, Bryan Stevenson, attorney and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, spoke movingly and rivetingly to us; one story after another flowed nonstop. Among the tears, laughter, and interest from the audience, he captured everyone’s attention throughout his one-hour-and-20-minute presentation. Stevenson’s storytelling was so electrifying that the audience gave him the longest standing ovation ever at an AMS conference, an ovation that brought tears to his eyes.
Recently, at a commencement speech I gave, I used the power of stories to capture the graduates’ attention by telling a story from Stevenson’s book — a story about how he felt when, at a church event, his mother saw him making fun of a child who stuttered.2 As I told this story, I could immediately see that the eighth-grade graduates were becoming mesmerized and totally engaged in what I was saying. Enhancing my speech was the song “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C — a beautiful, meaningful story in and of itself — playing in the background as the graduates walked off stage. The lyrics are a perfect way to conclude a graduation ceremony:
Will we think about tomorrow like we think about now?
Can we survive it out there? Can we make it somehow?
I guess I thought that this would never end
And suddenly it’s like we’re women and men
Will the past be a shadow that will follow us round?
Will these memories fade when I leave this town
I keep, I keep thinking that it’s not goodbye
Keep on thinking it’s a time to fly
As we go on, we remember
All the times we had together
And as our lives change, Come whatever
We will still be, friends forever3
In another graduation speech, I found myself telling a story to my son’s class at their high school graduation. The story began when I inadvertently caused a small plane to taxi itself into a brand-new twin-engine plane while I was waiting to begin a lesson leading toward my private pilot’s license. How they laughed and appreciated that here was a story that revealed someone — an assistant head of school no less —who at the age of 19 made a disastrous mistake but came out fine in the end! My hope was to inspire them to tell their own stories as they ventured into the world of college. My speech subsequently found its way into an article, “Some of Life’s Basic Tools,” in the CRIS Newsletter, the newsletter of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools.4
It is important to take the time to tell stories in our classes. It is even more important to provide an environment for our students to have the opportunity to tell their stories in class. Telling their stories helps students build and understand their own identities.  
The perfect way to set the stage for storytelling in class is to use the podcast The Moth: True Stories Told Live ( Start out by having your students listen in class to a Moth podcast where speakers have 10 minutes to tell their true story in front of an audience. The Moth has been in existence for 20 years and is one of the more popular podcasts. And, according to the Pew Research Center, more and more people are listening to podcasts.

A growing minority of Americans are listening to podcasts, according to survey data from Edison Research. As of 2016, 21% of Americans age 12 or older say they have listened to a podcast in the past month, reflecting steady incremental growth since 2013 — when this share was 12%.5
I recently had the remarkable experience of telling stories in a Moth-like setting. It was for True Tales Live, which is presented on Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Public Media TV the last Tuesday of each month. The program opens each airing with 92-year old storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham talking about the importance of storytelling. She reflects on the four “L”s of storytelling that her father handed down to her many years ago — listen, learn, laugh, and love. She closes by stating, “There is nothing that says I love you more pleasantly and more plainly than storytelling.”6 It is inspirational and the basis for all storytelling. Share this with your students, especially those students who have listened to a story or who want to tell a story.
Now, as a retired teacher and head of school, I consult with independent school faculties and boards of trustees. In my presentations, I do use PowerPoint with interesting graphics and videos, but I also weave in personal stories to emphasize a point. It is the stories that take people away from their electronic devices and generate that stare of interest and tell-me-more look. And the frosting on a story cake is humor! Public-speaking coach Carmine Gallo, in his best-selling book Talk Like Ted, includes “lighten up” as point number 6 in his advice to would-be public speakers. Both educators and students appreciate humor.  
I also volunteer with local organizations in my community, and stories often come into play. I have the good fortune to read to preschool children every week and to talk about the importance of stories. Recently, after reading two books to the children, I told a story of engaging a five-month-old child on a subway ride during my recent visit to Manhattan. I could see the children looking and wondering, “Really? You did that?” There is no age limit on telling and appreciating good storytelling.
At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Senior Moments is another organization I am involved with in my community. It is a group of 70- and 80-year-olds who visit senior centers and present short stories. What joy we — presenters and audience alike — receive when there is a good hearty laugh from a story.
How we use the power of stories in our lives and the work we do with students is eloquently illustrated by Robert Coles in The Call of Stories. He writes about two stories by American writer and feminist Tillie Olsen, “O Yes” and “Tell Me a Riddle.” In Atlanta, Georgia, in 1965, an English teacher used these two stories to describe the students in his class.

I don’t know how I ever could have got my students to take a look at themselves, an honest look, without that story. You can ask them to be honest, tell them to be, grade them according to whether they are, but they have their own thoughts and their own habits, and they won’t really clue you in to them a lot of the time. They may try to be honest, but they do a lot of holding back. They don’t want to talk about what’s really going on in their lives — maybe because they don’t want to hear themselves say certain things. They spend a lot of time being afraid of one another and trying to earn each other’s favor.7
As teachers, let’s all work hard to prevent this from happening to any of our students.

For Further Information 


1. William Carlos Williams, quoted in Robert Coles, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), p. 30.
2. Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014), pp. 285-287.
3. “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C; online at
4. Dane L. Peters, “Some of Life’s Basic Tools,” CRIS Newsletter, June 1992; online at
5. Pew Research Center, “State of the News Media 2016,” June 2016; online at
6. Kathryn Tucker Windham, True Tales Live, broadcast December 14, 2016; online at (0:34-3:14).
7. Coles, Call of Stories, pp. 54-55.