Use Storytelling to Make History come Alive in the Classroom

History is a fascinating subject, so it should be easy to teach and fun to learn.  Unfortunately, the way it’s taught in far too many schools, it’s a chore for teachers and a boring session for too many students.  This is truly unfortunately, because, a teacher with a bit of imagination can make history the favorite period of the school day.

One of the most effective ways to make history come alive for students; to engage their fertile imaginations and encourage them to want to know more; is to use storytelling in teaching the subject.  History is rich with potential for lively storytelling, and the use of anecdotes and stories is how a teacher can bring historical events alive and make them relevant to students.

Almost any event or period in history is ripe for effective portrayal in a story.  Take the civil rights movement, for instance.  Still a somewhat sensitive period of American history, it is often related in dull and boring tones, with a recitation of names, dates and events that are hard for young students to relate to, or become interested in.  A story that contrasts the pre-civil rights period with today, though, can make it come alive.  Take use of public facilities, for instance.  Telling a story of a young boy, out on a hot day, and in dire need of a cool drink; who has to search for a fountain marked ‘For Colored Only,’ will help students see the inequities of the Jim Crow rules in ways that merely reading a passage cannot.

The history of international affairs is another subject that should be interesting, but often, the way it’s taught, it is not.  How, for instance, would a teacher explain how events in a foreign country can impact on the life of a teenage in America?  Using traditional methods, it would be difficult.  But, here’s how one enterprising lecturer did it.  The title of the presentation was ‘Sneaker Diplomacy,’ and it was the story of a pair of expensive running shoes, from the source of the raw materials, in such far flung places as an Egyptian cotton farm to a Korean-run factory in Vietnam, using machinery made in China.  By tracing the origin of the materials used to make the more than twenty different components in the average running shoe, to the nationalities of those who grow the material, assemble and pack the shoes, and then ship them to ports in America for transport to the shelves of their favorite shoe store, students quickly grasped how a labor strike in a country whose name they couldn’t pronounce impacted directly on them as individuals.

These are but two examples of how storytelling can bring historical events alive in the classroom.  If history is looked at as the study of past events and how they impact on the present, more stories will emerge for the teacher with even a little imagination, and the students will benefit from the effort.