Teacher to Storyteller

by | 09.14.16

John Preston is a high school special education teacher in New York. He uses storytelling in his instruction to help English Language Learners better grasp algebra and geometry.

John Preston

I teach at a high school for recent immigrants. I always knew I was interested in ESL education, partly because I’m fluent in Spanish and the majority of my students speak Spanish as their first language. I was drawn to special education because in college I [did] various internships, mostly dealing with discrimination and discrimination laws. Learning about the different federal and state laws that had to be passed to make sure that all students can get the education they deserve—I just feel really lucky to be working at the intersection of [ESL and special education].

I was well into my first year [of teaching] before I trained with [a coach who] has a different fundamental [approach] to how we teach mathematics. She wants educators to push students to truly understand math, rather than just memorize rules, tricks and other strategies which actually obscure mathematics. Students need to reason with mathematics, not perform mathematics. She uses storytelling in instruction to help English Language Learners cognitively grasp content.

[What I’ve learned is that this technique] is especially useful for students who are learning English because all understanding is rooted in language, even mathematical understanding. Language has to happen for true understanding to happen. So, using a narrative or a story, it activates that part of their mind. Then, you can bring in the math.

[In math], I think it’s always a struggle to help kids understand knowledge not just as a nuclear fact, but as something that can be applied in different situations. I do think that when you use less traditional teaching, specifically storytelling, they’re already thinking of it in a new way. Then, they’re prepared to access that information in a new scenario—one they might not have seen before.

My co-worker actually found this awesome way to teach geometric transformations using Alice in Wonderland. In that case, the story was there. We weren’t creating anything—we were just inserting the math where it belonged in the story and then using that to activate kids’ knowledge.

Using Alice in Wonderland to teach about geometric transformations—specifically dilations and learning about growth factor—was difficult because the book is not an easy text to read. But, even though it was challenging, our students enjoyed that it was interesting and they were able to connect this abstract thing happening on graph paper to a story.

To me, whatever strategy you’re using as a teacher, if it’s not actually bringing kids closer to understanding the math, then it’s not worthwhile. You don’t need to give kids 100 examples of the exact same type of problem. If they can do it five times, 10 times, they’ve got it. So, let’s show them something a little more exciting, a little more difficult, so they actually have to apply what they’ve shown they can do.Storytelling also works really well in concert with students learning together. Basically, whenever you can get the students talking to each other, that’s when they learn; it’s about talking, explaining and thinking through things verbally. My school, as a whole, had an instructional focus this past year—writing to explain and speaking to explain. We’ve been trying to be very consistent across the different content areas in terms of how we’re supporting students in their writing and in their speaking. So, there’s definitely a lot of collaboration between all the content areas.

I wouldn’t say it makes [lesson planning] more complicated, but I think it forces us teachers to put ourselves in the student’s mind. We know the content, and sometimes we aren’t thinking about all the different cognitive areas or content skills kids need to approach certain problems. You just have to be more intentional with it.

Students need to “solve problems that are worth solving”—and they need time. This was probably the most transformative lesson I learned. [Often], we may be apprehensive about giving our students challenging problems, worried about spending 15 minutes on one question, anxious about students not feeling motivated. We may, on some level, not believe that our students can succeed. This line of thinking is what causes students to feel disengaged. It is incredibly worthwhile to give students difficult problems so we can assess true mastery, not repetition. Students will not [feel] a true sense of accomplishment doing the same exercise 30 times. Students will feel accomplished when they have to think hard, experiment, talk about their solutions, receive feedback and try again.

Below, John shares two pieces of advice for teachers looking to build storytelling into instruction:

  1. It just has to be genuine and fit within that teacher’s style and that teacher’s personality. So [teachers] should bring it into whatever established practice they might have. Then, introduce it fully, but slowly. I think a lot of teachers can be hesitant about this type of teaching—some students may be a little hesitant about learning this way. As with all teaching strategies, there might be a tendency to try it [only] once if it wasn’t as great as we’d hoped. But, you should try [this type of instruction] for at least two or three different lessons, then see if there’s student growth.
  2. I’m going into my second year of teaching. I’ve found [this method] helpful and I want to use this technique more in the future, but I’m not the expert on this. Everything that I’ve done has been extremely collaborative—I think it works best when you aren’t working on an island and you have other colleagues or administrators you can bounce ideas off and really refine them. Then, you can look at student work together to say, “Okay, where is the growth—can we further leverage this?”

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About the Author


John Preston
John Preston

John Preston is a high school special education teacher in New York. He uses storytelling in his instruction to help English Language Learners better grasp algebra and geometry.


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