Secrets of Arts Education in the 21st Century

Teachers as Entertainers


Why should teachers need to entertain their students? Because storytelling is the access point for all learning.  As Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  Language, history, science, even math problems all tell narratives.  If we can identify these stories for children by teaching in stories and encouraging stories from students, we improve their level of understanding.

From her masters thesis for Simon Fraser University in June 1997, Lindsay  M. Brown points out: “Qualitative and quantitative evidence overwhelmingly suggests that narrative – reading, but also and especially oral storytelling -increases IQ, creativity, memory, and concentration.” She states what many believe to be the reason storytelling improves retention: “Neurological research appears to show that reading or listening to narrative produces intense frontal lobe activity in the form of mental visualization, which in turn enhances the development of neural dendrites, particularly in children.”

Mark Turner in his much cited 1996 study The Literary Mind, identifies the narrative or narrative thought as a significant contributor to brain development.  Storytelling, according to Turner and other researchers, influences everything from eye-hand coordination to empathy to cultural understanding.  Storytelling is a brain function that requires all parts of the brain to communicate with each other.  Frontal, parietal, temporal and even occipital lobes come into play when telling a story.  This brain communication forms new neural pathways in early childhood and leads to advanced problem solving skills in later years.  This engagement of all the parts of the brain develops invaluable brain plasticity and new neural pathways.

A University of Chicago study done with support from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Brain Research Foundation released in July 2010 indicates, “there may be limitations to the remarkable flexibility for language functions displayed by children with brain injuries.”  The study found, “The children with brain injuries produced shorter, less complex stories than typically developing children.” Although the children in the study showed similar vocabulary and sentence comprehension abilities compared to their normally developing counterparts, they were missing the vital ability to communicate complex ideas in an engaging form. Storytelling promotes higher thinking and communication among all parts of the brain.

It might be enough to say that storytelling is good for us as individuals, but storytelling has a deep cultural value.  It is the glue that holds groups together.  When we refer to weaving a tale or spinning a story, we are using the metaphors of foundation.  Weaving fabric for a garment or a spider spinning a web for a home are indicative of how we perceive the value of the narrative.  Telling stories is foundational for any culture.  We look to cave paintings to tell us the stories of primitive humans, Homer lays the groundwork for Western culture and Shakespeare provides a quantum leap in the development of the English language.  Culture exists only in our stories.

We all love stories and this is especially true for children.  From story time at the library to telling stories on stage in the school play, kids love a good yarn.  As teachers it’s important to understand how to tell a story and especially how to elicit a story from a student.  Telling stories engages the community of learners by promoting the Homeric experience.  We bond with our stories.  If we are to engage our students in a profound experience, we must become great storytellers and great listeners of stories.


Comments on: "Teachers as Entertainers" (87)

  1. I completely agree that storytelling is the glue that holds cultures together. For millennia, ancient Indians handed down encyclopedic knowledge simply through stories and songs. The Vedas were written only recently, when the printed word was discovered and reached Indian subcontinent.

  2. The point about how brain-injured children cannot put everything together to tell the story is very interesting. It makes sense.

  3. As a mother, a writer, a human being…I loved this post…and especially this line:

    “As teachers it’s important to understand how to tell a story and especially how to elicit a story from a student.”

    The active listening part is often overlooked. I believe storytelling is a misnomer, as it’s often about listening as well.

    Beautiful post. Thank you! 🙂

    • Thanks Mikalee, I agree that listening is key. My students’ stories are usually so much more interesting than mine. If I can get them to internalize the learning objective by telling a story, it’s just so cool! thanks for the comment.

  4. I’m taking an Orality and Literacy class in college and you, if you haven’t already, might enjoy the book Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong.
    It addresses some of what you said and expounds a lot.

  5. […] source : […]

  6. I know that my kids always prefer the teachers that interact with them and keep them interested. 🙂

  7. humanitarikim said:

    I love a good storyteller, but I had this one teacher in college who got off on tangents telling us very entertaining stories and never seemed to teach us anything related to the class subject. I guess it was an easy A, but perhaps a waste of my tuition money?

    • Yeah, I think storytelling as a teaching tool is more useful when the students go from being somewhat entertained to being inspired. That has to do with internalizing the subject matter and if the teacher isn’t helping you understand what his story has to do with you, it’s just a coffee break. Thanks for your comment.

  8. I found this piece extremely interesting.
    It’s extremely surprising that telling a story also uses hand-eye coordination, how is that even helpful in telling a story? I, for one, would say that it’s probably because a lot of people gesture while telling a story.
    I guess that’s why I’ve never found my English teacher boring. She makes English fun, and it’s also partly due to the fact that I love listening to stories and other people’s interpretations of them. Math, however, is a completely different story! My math teacher never even talks about stories, let alone turning word problems into them!
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    Ashley, aka TheEverydayMuser

    • I loved Maths because early on someone told me each problem was like a jigsaw puzzle. There are certain rules to follow and only one right answer at the end, sometimes you have to spend time trying out each different piece until it fits.

  9. How true! Such a facinating read this. I work in a school and we had a “story ambassador” from Ireland visit our school, doing exactly that- telling stories to the young pupils. They pupils were absolutely still for the entire hour, completely engrossed in the stories.

  10. The Very Hungry Bookworm said:

    As a teacher, I can really relate to this. When I describe my job to people, I ask them to imagine a combination between actress, stand-up comic, and flawed but all-knowing sage. That is what the kids expect you to be!

  11. Thank you for such an informative, yet concise article. It is refreshing to read confirmation of what I have found myself as a teacher, that teaching through story-telling ready does engage my children and help them to retain information, as well as spark their imaginations and help make learning fun.

  12. Stories rock and so do you!

  13. As an art teacher, it’s tough to cover the art history portion of my curriculum without turning it into what we call a “campfire story”. I shut all of the ligts and tell the history behind a painter, or artwork as a narrated adventure. The kids love it, they remember it, and more importantly, it drives a response. Great post. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! My post was FPed on Monday. Awesome!

    • Mindy, thanks so much for your comment! I agree, it sometimes seems “campy” to do the storyteller thing but it gets me excited to see a bunch of 6th graders leaning forward attempting to drink up every detail. I’ll check out your post.

  14. wordsandwhich said:

    Wow, I loved this article. I switched out of Education into Business, and I’ve just about finished my business course. Now I want to go back into Education! Very interesting.

    • After teaching for so long (off and on for 25 years) I find I am just now hitting my stride as a teacher. New technology and new ways of thinking are making for a very exciting field right now. If you feel drawn to education, I say, GO FOR IT! Thanks for commenting, btw.

  15. Great Blog!
    The only teachers that caught my attention, in school, were the entertainers. I can still remember lessons in anthropology over thirty year later, and only because the teacher was a good storyteller.
    Unfortunately, things are looking bleak for entertainer/teachers. There’s getting to be less and less room for unique characters in our schools, as teachers are being forced to teach-to-the standardized tests that determine wether or not they’ll receive a piece of the Merit Pay pie.

    • educationrumination, I think the tide is starting to turn ever so subtly. We know there’s something wrong with the current system, we just don’t have a clue how to fix it. It will take a new generation, I believe to use some of these great tools in a way that moves us forward culturally, not for higher test scores and mo money but toward global solutions and broader cultural shifts. Thanks for your comment, btw.

  16. […] the original post: Teachers as Entertainers Posted on 2011 年 02 月 16 日 by lanshang1460. This entry was posted in 未分类 and tagged […]

  17. Fantastic blog. I wished all teachers would read it….maybe you could submit it to several teacher based publications.



  18. As a teacher I loved, loved, LOVED this perspective! Great site, I am really excited to read more. 🙂

  19. When my kids were young, many decades ago, I used to go into 2nd grade classes and ask the students to give me their names, their favorite color, food, activity and television program. I also asked for things they disliked. I took the information home, fashioned a simple story out of their replies and told them to the class the following week. It was amazing to see their faces light up when they realized they were part of a story, and that a story could be made out of the elements of their lives. We then talked about our favorite stories — why we loved them and how we would rewrite them. Reading became a more intimate adventure and a few still write me some 20 years later. The happily ever after comes from being able to place yourself in the context of a story. Thanks for the great post.

  20. Totally agree. My kids won’t remember all the academics they learned but they will remember their favorite teacher and why. And if their teacher is entertaining all the better for making a boring forgetful day to a fun memorable experience.

  21. Hello! I really liked this post. I’m currently taking education psychology and will definitely mention storytelling in class to see what my professor has to say about it… we just covered memory and retention last class.

    Also, after browsing through comments, I’d also like to agree that things are starting to change in education. You said, “we know there’s something wrong with the current system…” EXACTLY. There is. I think that teachers who love what they do and want the best for the kids they work with are going to continue to work, and research, and learn about new and creative ways to reach their students. The arts, especially, need to be readdressed and brought to an equal level (as a subject on their own, equal to math and science) as well as used in the everyday classroom. Anything to keep students engaged and enjoying school– instead of pressuring them to do well on standardized tests– should be utilized and I think that these things are beginning to be/are in the process of being realized and reformed.

    Anyway, my own spiel aside, I really enjoyed this post. Thanks! : )

  22. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed all the English class I had. My teachers kept on telling all those fascinating stories to the point that it was impossible not to look forward to every meetings that we would have back then. However, I also had those teachers in other subjects like Physics, Math, and Accounting who rarely used storytelling in their class. But that’s fine with me for they usually make up to it by being clowns.

  23. I totally Agree! I love story telling, which is how my mother taught my sister and I many things. Also I ended up going to school for Drama because I love and learn through listening and telling stories. Thanks for the great post!

  24. First of all, congrats on the FP!

    I couldn’t agree more. School is just not relevant to many kids, but mix in the storytelling element, some interaction, and magic often happens. There’s also the possibility of utilizing arts (illustrations, acting out the story, puppetry, etc.) Great ideas, and I enjoyed reading the post!

  25. As a fellow teacher I had to laugh at the title of this post! All I do is entertain my students! I may as well wear a top hat and tap shoes some days 🙂 One of my favorite quotes I heard in college is: Good teaching is 10% instruction and 90% pure entertainment.

  26. This is fascinating. I believe so deeply that stories are important to the education process. I love the Rudyard Kipling quote, and I couldn’t agree more! I have always loved history, but I just never did like our curriculum because it was so choppy. There was never enough of a story to sustain it, and I always dug for more so I could remember it.

  27. As a fresh new student teacher, I really appreciate this perspective!

  28. I think you are correct. Teaching is like telling a good joke, it’s all in the delivery.

  29. Good morning Miss SallyA.
    As a third year student in BSEd English (where reading should be equated with breathing), your entry is encouraging.

    I’m totally hook now with Shakespearian works.. and one day, I’ll share it to my students and my future children.

    It pays to read. Hope you can write something about it.
    Thank you.

  30. I’m glad I clicked on this. I have an MA in Oral Traditions, and also, as a Drama teacher myself, you’ve hit a lot of what’s important about stories on the head.
    What I’m really happy to have found out recently is that the national standard for 3rd grades next year is finally bringing back a full Fairy & Folk tale section, and working it into the history of oral traditions, the passing on of tales (and why there are over 260 Cinderella stories). Students know the Disneyfied stories and little else. They do learn so much from finding stories, playing in role, deconstructing and decoding, and finding that their lives, their families and the people around them are all made up of stories.
    I’m on the planning committee now of a proposed new Arts based Charter school to open in 2012., You can bet Storytelling is going to be part of it, if I have any say in it.

  31. Isha The Jeweler said:

    I totally agree with the points made here. My favorite class ever was my combined language arts and history class in the seventh grade because once in a while, my teacher would walk out the room, and come back in a black cape and walking with a cane, and all of a sudden she was The Sage. A character, that by the end of the year, all of her students were on intimate terms with. But The Sage would tell us a story in an old shaky voice from whatever time period we were learning about, and made the lessons stick with us. Teachers should use whatever methods they can to keep their students’ attention, and storytelling is definitely a great one. Great post!

  32. I am so glad there are other people thinking about this, especially in the education circles! I’m all about this…and field trips…

  33. Excellent post. One year, just killing some down time, I told my class a story about how I got in a fight when I was in high school. At the end of the year, the kids knew some of the curriculum stuff, but everybody seemed to remember every single detail of my fight story.

    I suppose your post illustrates what that little anecdote should’ve taught me!

  34. It is lateral thinking, you know, of just to guess about teachers as entertainers.

  35. awesome post… i loved all those teachers who used to tell us stories… i still remember many of them… 🙂

  36. johnlmalone said:

    loved this blog Sallya. I’ve only been blogging for a few weeks and am just learning the art. I rewrote my latest blog TOTALLY after I read this and reckon it’s far better for me having listewned to you. thanks

  37. I completely agree with you. Teachers must become engaging to the point of taking on the role of entertainer. Sometimes I feel more like a stand-up comedian (not a particularly funny one) than teacher when I am teaching my class.

  38. Do you think it’s possible to become a great storyteller, as a teacher, if you are not naturally one? Is it something that should be addressed in the education curriculum?

    • I absolutely believe storytelling is both art and skill. It can be taught and EVERYONE has a story to tell. It’s a teacher who often has the privilege of uncovering the students’ voice but it was there all along.

  39. That was interesting, and it’ll be on my mind for a bit.

  40. Joe Kreydt said:

    Though storytelling is certainly important, no great educator has ever said students need to be entertained. In fact, entertaining students can be extremely dangerous. I recommend reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. And also reading “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. Essentially, when children see education as another form of entertainment, it’s less likely they’ll understand its importance.

  41. intrepidtraveller said:

    I’m teaching English in Korea at the moment and my boss keeps emphasizing how our job is to be “edutainers”…half education half entertainer. It works especially well with young ones who cannot and will not learn unless you make it into a game or engage them. It can make trying to be a professional teacher very difficult at times though…feel more like a monkey jumping up and down for the lil guys.

  42. […] Why should teachers need to entertain their students? Because storytelling is the access point for all learning.  As Rudyard Kipling said, "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."  Language, history, science, even math problems all tell narratives.  If we can identify these stories for children by teaching in stories and enc … Read More […]

  43. I love story-telling, which makes me think I’d make a great teacher 🙂
    But for now I’ll stick to spinning yarns on my blog.

    Lovely post! I’m going to share it with my 20 yr old niece, who, incidentally, also teaches 6th grade.

  44. thekaufholds said:

    I am a history teacher, and I definitely agree with this idea. History IS a story and so many people seem to forget that! On the other side, however, I do worry that history as stories can too easily be exaggerated, key details can be left out or misinterpreted, or the “winner” is often the one left to tell only their side of the story. I believe it is definitely important to always tell multiple sides of the story. Great article, I’m glad I stumbled upon this one!

  45. […] found this great blog post called “Teachers as Entertainers” from Musings of a Middle School Arts Teacher. This teacher’s emphasis on storytelling […]

    • Thank you Josef! I couldn’t agree more with the history interpretation argument. I think it’s the reason why we need to look at stories from different sides of an issue, different cultures and different languages. In addition to providing proximity to truth, it also fosters empathy.

  46. My son told me once when we were driving somewhere, “Tell me a story from your face.” I was always telling him stories anytime we were in traffic. Every time I start to tell a story “from my face” in class, the room gets hushed. We all love a story (and my students are high school ones).

  47. I loved this! As a future high school English teacher I agree that stories are important. I firmly believe that everyone has a personal story or narrative to tell. I love doing journals with my students for that very reason. 🙂 Great quotes and information; it’s so nice to see teachers in other subjects discussing the importance of this.

    • Thanks, skyliner. I love teaching through stories. I use Freytag’s plot line to help my kids understand what makes a story work and they get it! And some of my students are only 10 years old. It’s not that the material is difficult, children often don’t learn something because they are not engaged enough to pay attention. That’s why I think stories hit the mark. Good luck with your teaching career!

  48. I teach Juniors and Seniors in High School and I am amazed at how my students love stories. Sometimes they pay attention to a story more than almost any other form of teaching.

    • That is so true. I teach in a middle school setting (4th-8th grades) and my kids are hungry for stories. If I can engage them in a narrative, their desire to know more rises precipitously.

  49. […] Teachers as Entertainers « Musings of a Middle School Arts Teacher […]

  50. what a great post! as a HS choir director, I pretty much teach kids how to tell the stories of the human race through music. still, I often get caught up in teaching sight reading, turning, proper vowel shape, etc…but the kids are ALWAYS much more engaged when we talk about the stories the music tells. it is a part of our history as a species, and would do well to not forget it, especially as teachers!

    • Thanks Katie, I agree! As a musician I can tell you my best work comes when I am in the moment of the story of the song whether it’s a musical or lyrical story (It helps to know about breath support, posture and placement, too). Thanks for the comment!

  51. Great stuff! The reason why Hip-Hop has had tremendous influence on the African-American culture (and other cultures as well) is in its ability to tell the story of a people who felt silenced and ostracized socio-politically. The Hip-Hop form of storytelling may at times provide a level of authencity that to the ear can spark the will to act or the initiative to change.

    Good job!

    • I agree! Hip-Hop started where the stories were occurring and I think this visceral nature makes it a powerful transmitter of stories. Thanks for sharing.

  52. My fiancee is an Elementary Art Teacher and while her day is fraught with all of the trappings that can befall an educator at any level, she is occasionally blown away by one of her students saying something like, “Miss Conner, last night there was a tv show about Georgia O’Keeffe!”. What makes that interesting is the fact that this isn’t being said by a student attending an exclusive private school, which there are many here in Baltimore, but by a student who lives in an economically depressed area in a Baltimore County public school. I feel that it speaks to her ability to communicate the importance of Art and artists; making the artists appear to be people rather than abstract notions of disconnect. She keeps it entertaining AND grounded in reality. I guess it doesn’t hurt that she is a singer and songwriter in a popular band here in Baltimore, communicating feeling is what she does.

    • scottcarberry, kudos to your finacee! I love that she practices her art outside the classroom. Her kids are excited about art and artists because she is, no doubt, excited about her subject. What a gift she gives her students. Wish her well for me!

  53. This is great. My husband is doing his first year of teaching at a school for very under-privileged kids. Attention span is a definite issue. In reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty, I’ve also been really fascinated about how these kids communicate and learn through story-telling much more than kids coming out of a middle class background might. Quite a shift in thinking for someone who’s been used to getting her information in bullet point segments her whole life.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Tell your husband he’s doing the most important work out there! Thanks for the comment and the book suggestion.

  54. As a teacher I loved, loved, LOVED this perspective! Great site, I am really excited to read more.

    • Thanks so much! I will be back online this weekend and then posting Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I really appreciate the post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: