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Learning with stories

When I am a teacher, I am a storyteller. The bright colors of whiteboard markers bought in bulk, the empty space on the board – when they come together, I get to make worlds. If I am teaching chemistry, I can make hydrogen into a person and explain how, yes, she’s on the smaller side of the spectrum (with an atomic mass of one) and she’s also emotionally intelligent – keen to fill in the cracks of carbon’s hydrocarbon friend group when there aren’t other atoms around to do so. I can make electrons, which almost exclusively travel in pairs, into the prime example of monogamy.  

While working full-time as a TA and counselor for the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program (SMYSP) over the summer, I reached an understanding that there are stories in everything: I found a narrative beneath the surface, patterns (especially in science) that you can weave together into a plot. You can substitute “characters” students can get to know for “vocabulary words” students need to memorize. And if you can get them to not only see that story, but to crave it – to want to know how it ends – that’s where the magic happens. They begin to want more.

In EDUC 104: Introduction to the Profession of Teaching, my professor pointed out something that perhaps I always knew subconsciously but never put into words, involving two views of teaching. In the first view, whenever something goes right in the classroom, it is because the students are excellent; when something goes wrong, it is because the teacher is deficient in some way. The opposite is true in the other view: When poor test scores come back, for example, it points to lazy students; across-the-board good scores mean that the teacher is simply an inspiration.

These two views, coupled with how we view success in the classroom, had me thinking about the roles that students and educators play in the classroom, particularly in underserved communities. If we see education as co-creation – that is, the teacher gives something, which the student takes and then gives something back – it ensures that the learning is active and fresh. The term “co-creation” also applies when we engage with stories; the writer gives us the words, and then the reader fills in the pictures with their mind.

A teacher brings punctuation to life in one of my favorite lines from the book, “The Poet’s Companion,” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. The quote reads, “When I teach, I explain about semicolons, the jab of the period, the curl of the comma: the two freights of verbs and subjects on either side like a train coupling.” In an example of co-creation, the teacher would help the student understand what a semicolon is, for example, and then say, “Try it out. Use a semicolon.” After the student plays around with it, the teacher gets a sense of what they know, then advises them if their understanding can be improved. This way the focus is on the process and on the exchange, not entirely on the final (and sometimes discouraging) product: the grade.

Helping students find the narrative in coursework makes students focus on the process – to make learning what matters. And if they can get a good story out of it in the process – if they’re studying physics and make vectors into a character named Victor, for example – it can help to make the material all the more accessible.


Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’

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Amanda Rizkalla

Amanda Rizkalla

Amanda Rizkalla is a sophomore from East Los Angeles studying English and Chemistry. In addition to writing for the Daily, she is involved with the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program and is a Diversity Outreach Associate in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She loves to cook, bake, read, write and bike around campus.