Using Stories to Increase Students Engagement in History Class

Tips on Using Stories to increase Engagement in History

There is something missing in your class. You have great history activities for your students, your passion is through the roof, and you have amazing primary sources for them to read and wrestle with- but there is something that is still needed to really make your history lessons impactful and to engage your students. STORY.

We all know that stories are what moves us as humans.  It's how we make sense of the world and every aspect of our lives.  And it's how kids- from elementary to high school students make sense of their lives.  Teaching history must mean teaching stories (its the name for gosh sake!) if we want our students to not just remember our lessons, but to truly be able to engage and think critically in our history classes.

There is a reason why all cultures start with creation stories, because if they began with creation lectures, the culture would never last! The story makes it memorable, meaningful, exciting and worth passing on. Let's face it- lectures can be the most boring way for students to learn and for teachers to teach! But it doesn’t have to be.  Even if you don’t enjoy lecturing, you might love story-telling! It's a totally different approach and can be one of the most engaging strategies for teaching history.

One of my favorite lessons in world history is on Napoleon.  I used to do a brief lecture, analyze images and cartoons, and then debate Napoleon’s impact on Europe.  It was always pretty good- but then one year, I decided to just story-tell Napoleon’s rise as a general during the revolutionary wars, becoming emperor, conquering much of Europe, being sent to Elba, escaping, raising his army yet again, losing at Waterloo and being sent to St. Helena. 

I had always been weary of lecturing for more than 15 minutes, but students were so engaged in the story and wanting to know more. Like, they were literally, on the edge of their seats. All from a story. No notes, no readings (at first), just storytelling. This helped to transform how I viewed the role of story in the classroom as the foundation for how to teach history effectively.

But you certainly don’t need to story-tell for 30 minutes or even 10 minutes to build story-telling into your history classes. These are some simple ways to engage students in history via story.

Tell the Story In the Image

Post a powerful image or photograph & ask students to write a paragraph about what story they think the image is telling.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, it's also worth a heck of a story! Just think of the amazing and interesting stories that the students could pull out of photographs like, "Lunch Atop a Skyscraper," or "A Little Girl in Textile Factory."  You can do this as a hook for a lesson- to have them take guesses about what the history lesson you are going to teach them that class is.  Students can read their short (one-two paragraph) stories to each other and they’ll be engaged, interested, and ready to learn. This could also be done after a reading or short lecture to have them bring the historical facts to life or as a closing activity to end class.  For the next class, post a few of the best ones around the room and have students read them and vote for the best one. 

A Picture is Worth a Powerful Story

Movies Can Make History Come Alive

Simple, huh?  This is a no brainer but sometimes teachers shy away from them because it can be frowned upon for being passive learning. But watching movies in history class can be really engaging and impactful! Do you think more of your students will remember five years later- a reading on combat during the Vietnam War or a ten minute clip from Forrest Gump? And don’t shy away from movies or clips just because they are not entirely accurate- there’s a powerful learning lesson in that as well. After watching a movie like The Patriot that has many misleading scenes do an activity investigating the inaccuracies. Or go deeper and have students investigate how other groups, not represented in the film, might have experienced or been impacted by the events in the story. This is a great way to bring minorities and women into history, even if the plot did not. 

Story-Lectures Should Replace Drill & Kill Lectures: 

A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Stalin nailed it there- and thats why just telling students that Stalin’s Soviet regime killed somewhere between 10-20 million people doesn’t have the same effect as telling the story of a single father sent by his own son to the gulags for wiping his razor on a picture of Stalin in the newspaper.  Millions of African Americans being freed by the Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t resonate as much as the story of Juneteenth and the freeing of the last African Americans does! This is how we bring back the lecture into an active learning strategy! The story gives students a place to store the many terms and concepts that they must learn throughout each unit.

All of my youtube videos are based on this idea called “story-lectures.” They focus on one great story- how Jacob Riis used new flash photography to expose the lives of immigrants in the slums, the story of the real woman behind the Rosie the Riveter poster reflects the many women effected by the war, or how the Harlem Hellfighters fought both the Germans and American discrimination in World War I to reveal how WWI overall impacted African Americans.  If you lead with a story- and story tell before or as you lecture, students will be interested and make greater connections to the material.  

Oral Histories To Enrich Family and Community Connections

Oral history projects should be included in all history classrooms at least once a year.  They do not have to be extensive and overly complex- they can be simple, open-ended, and fun!  When students are given the opportunity to sit and talk with mom, grandpa, or their neighbor, and learn about some historical event or experience they had in life, it can really make history come alive. Even the opening scene of the D-Day invasion from Saving Private Ryan isn’t as gripping to my imagination as the stories my grandfather told me about his wartime experiences in the Battle of the Atlantic.  It didn’t just connect me to him and my family, it connected me to the history, to the war, and how it impacted real people. If you wanted more structure, you can’t go wrong with using storycorps or for Thanksgiving doing their “Great Thanksgiving Listen” activity.  

Oral History Lessons

Writing Historical Narratives & Poetry

This is an activity for history class that never fails to engage and interest students! After studying a group of people- maybe new immigrants migrating to America and living in tenements, students participating in a sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement, merchants trading along the Silk Road, or members of different castes in Ancient India- have students write narratives, journal entries, love letters, or poems that brings the story of one character from the topic to life.  I love doing this in groups and have each member pick a different figure and write from their perspective and perform a “poetry cafe” at the end. 

Poetry cafes involve having students read to one another in their small groups and then some volunteers to read theirs in front of the whole class. I always dim the lights and put on light jazz as they work to set the mood! But the writing of poems from different perspectives develops critical thinking skills and historical empathy- two vital skills in the history classroom you want to nourish and it's so fun, engaging, and approachable for diverse students!

Bring Guest Speakers into History Class

All communities are filled with people who have amazing stories worthy to share in a history class.  Invite in an elder who experienced a historical event you are studying- the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, getting the Polio-vaccine, or even something more personal to your town like a great fire, the closing of a manufacturing plant, or someone who emigrated to your town to share their experiences. Have students create questions, take notes, and write reflections. With zoom its easier than ever! All the way in Hawai’i, I had a holocaust survivor share his experiences with my students and it was one of the most powerful experiences my students had all year!


What are ways you bring stories into your classrooms? I’d love to hear other strategies and activities! 

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