This post was written by NCTE members April Brannon and Jill Lomheim.
Undoubtedly, narrative writing is a valuable part of the curriculum, allowing students the opportunity to harness the power of language in a form of creative expression that is powerful and moving. Just as importantly, sharing personal stories with one another is a means to develop empathy and understanding.
As teachers, we wondered if there was a way to push the scope of the narrative unit even more. What if we went beyond the writing of narrative and into the development of public speaking and listening skills within our storytelling unit?
With these ideas in mind, we created a unit around NPR’s This I Believe show. In the series, contributors offer a brief narrative about a life lesson that is important to them. In addition to good storytelling, the audio recordings allow students to have real-world examples of pacing, pitch, and the importance of pauses.
The submissions are funny, sweet, shocking, and sad, sometimes all at the same time, and they all speak to the human condition in some way. In class, we shared a few of our favorites such this one and this one. We then let students pick a couple submissions that they wanted to listen to. To promote the development of listening skills, we noted what moments we appreciated without seeing the written text (you can find a written version of each submission online), making a note of the storytelling techniques the speaker used.
We then completed traditional narrative writing lessons, drawing on some of the teaching resources provided on the This I Believe site. Students got to work on their drafts and completed an audio recording in the free app, Audacity.
The next day, we had what we called “A Day of Listening” and joked that it was the quietest class in the history of the world as students wore headphones and silently provided written feedback on their classmates’ audio recordings. Reviewers commented both on the content of narrative and on pacing, pauses, and speed of delivery.
Because we wanted students to practice actual public speaking, we spent the next few days working on speech delivery, discussing gestures, eye contact, movement, and posture. We watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
The actual content of Adichie’s speech delivers a powerful message about recognizing multiple perspectives, and it is often cited by educators and activists because it opens the door for a fruitful discussion about storytelling as a way to a more empathetic world.
The talk provided a nice frame for the “This I Believe” project, underscoring the importance of students’ individual stories as they practiced their delivery. Adichie’s speech is a particularly good example to study precisely because it is not highly produced. In it, she stands behind a podium, shifts a bit between her feet and comes across not as professional actor or perfectly polished motivational speaker, but as a regular person with something important to say. In other words, her delivery offers a realistic model, much like the “This I Believe” podcasts.
On the day of the speeches, students carefully listened to each classmate’s story, noting phrases that they liked best. They weren’t given hard copies of what was said, so they had to really listen in order to capture important points.
At the conclusion of each presentation, listeners shared their favorite parts of each classmate’s speech. They didn’t offer a critique or share their personal insights on the speaker’s ideas. Instead they just listened and focused on appreciating what was said. (As teachers, we filled out rubrics and gave them to students the next day).
In doing this, the audience cultivated listening skills—it can be challenging to capture key lines and to listen for a prolonged series of presentations—and speakers were validated by knowing that they had been heard.
At the conclusion of her speech, Adichie argues, “Stories can empower and humanize,” and we agree. Let’s keep teaching students to tell their own stories. And let’s also teach them to listen to the stories of others.
April Brannon and Jill Lomheim are English teachers who believe in the power of language to transform. Former classroom teachers, they teach English and future English teachers at California State University, Fullerton.