3 Storytelling Tips for Teachers

3 Storytelling Tips for Teachers

Timpchat - studentsThe school year is winding down, so we thought we would take a moment to thank all of our hard-working teachers by republishing an article about storytelling in the classroom. Thanks for all of your hard work, dedication, sacrifice, creativity and love.

Tips to enhancing your storytelling in the classroom.


The key to making any lesson go from interesting to memorable is a story. A carefully chosen, well-timed story can help a student understand and remember the lesson, and – more importantly- understand how to apply the lesson to their lives. Researchers have found that a human brain can retain more information if it is given in story form then if it is given through a list of unrelated facts.


The case in point I want to share comes from my own life, but here’s a little warning. Since Halloween is coming up and the Timpanogos Storytelling Institute will soon be holding its Hauntings competition, I feel it’s an appropriate time to share this story.  One day in my high school English class we were reviewing our vocabulary words for the week and our teacher asked us, “What does paranoia mean?” After one student explained the dictionary definition she had written down on her homework page the night before, the teacher then asked, “Now, what does that word really mean?” We were stumped. She explained that a dictionary may give us a definition of a word, but to really understand a word we have to experience it. Then she began to tell us the story of how she came to understand what paranoia really meant. It happened while she was on a trip to the USSR in the late 1970s. The tour bus full of Americans were warned ahead of time that they would be carefully watched by KGB agents while they were in the country and that it was likely that all telephone calls would be monitored as well. They were also told not to keep any valuables in their hotel rooms and to keep an eye out for pickpockets as their US passport was highly prized in the country at that time. Her feeling of paranoia mounted over the days as she would catch a glimpse of someone watching her or she would hear a click on the other end of the phone. One day, while in Moscow, she went into a women’s rest room. As she entered she carefully looked under the stall doors to see if anyone was there. She noticed a pair of shoes in the far stall and decided to use a stall closer to the entrance. Just as she shut her stall door she heard the rest room door open and someone walked in, walked the length of the stalls, and then turned and stopped in front of her door. At about the same time, the door to the other stall opened and she heard a second set of footsteps. Unsure of what to do, she put her back against the door to hold it shut. Just then, something came over the top of the stall door, hitting her head and knocking her to the floor unconscious. When she awoke she found that her purse had been stolen, but thankfully she was unharmed, except for the nasty bump on her head. “And that’s what paranoia is,” she told her mesmerized class. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. The word “paranoia” would’ve been just another vocabulary word if it hadn’t been for her story.


So here are three ideas that you can use to incorporate stories into your curriculum, whether you teach in a school setting, at church, or in your home.


1. Keep it short and focus on how the story relates to the lesson. Don’t meander off in your story and bring in irrelevant sidebars. A concise story is much more likely to make an impact and be remembered than a rambling one.


2. Get your students involved. Have them think of their own stories in relation to the lesson material. It is one thing for a student to have an intellectual understanding of a topic, but when they can have an emotional understanding as well, then you know that the lesson has become theirs. They can use their head and their hearts to understand. For instance, just this morning I was teaching a student about symbols, and I used the example of “instrument in the hands of God.” (Obviously this wasn’t a public school situation.) We got our heads around it by talking about the word “instrument” and all that is associated with it, but to get our hearts wrapped around it I asked him to think of a time when he had been an instrument and what that felt like. I then told him a story about a time I felt like I was an instrument. The story made an impact on him, and he was able to think of an example in his own life.


3. There are ways to incorporate stories into almost every subject matter that you might teach. I have taught English, history, and creative writing, which all naturally lend themselves to stories, but I was able to incorporate stories into my science curriculum as well. Stories can be used as hooks to begin a lesson, but they can also be used to help the students organize information and create mental file folders. A story about the constellation of Orion might begin a unit on astronomy and help a student to file away the facts about the solar system.


Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Let’s help our students use their imaginations to gain knowledge by incorporating more storytelling into our lessons.

Getting to Know Josh Goforth

Getting to Know Josh Goforth

Josh GoforthFrom his Appalachian Mountain accent to his incredible talents on pretty much all the instruments, Josh Goforth is one of those storytellers you really need to hear in order to believe. With stories filled with the most original characters alive (he swears they all exist) and songs that will have you clapping and singing along, you can’t help be enchanted and transported to his boyhood upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains.
1. What is the first story you remember hearing and/or the first story you remember telling?

I remember the ghost stories my grandmother told.  Her accent was slow and haunting and as a kid, it scared me to death.  But I’m thankful now to have heard those stories.  The suspense she created taught me quite a bit about pacing.  It’s hard to pick a first one, people in my community were constantly telling stories.

2. How was the seed of storytelling planted in your life?

Storytelling was a way of life where I grew up.  I remember sitting for hours in the evening and hearing family stories from my grandparents.  There were so many interesting characters in the community that the stories seemed endless.

3. Where does storytelling grow from here? How do you want see storytelling influencing society?

Storytelling has much to teach all of us.  In a world of quick media and instant entertainment, our stories show us the beauty of a slow unfolding and help us reach a deeper understanding of our emotions and our shared humanity.

4.If you needed to start a dance party, what song would you lead with? 

Tough call, the song in my head right now is signed sealed delivered…Stevie Wonder.  I know, you thought it was gonna be some fiddle tune.  Haha
Don’t miss Josh during the festival. Find his schedule and information about the festival at https://timpfest.org/events/28th-annual-timpanogos-storytelling-festival/

Getting to Know Charlotte Blake Alston

Getting to Know Charlotte Blake Alston

One of Timpanogos’ favorite storytellers, Charlotte Blake Alston has a wonderful way of weaving stories that allow listeners of all ages to see themselves and the world around them in new and vital ways. With wisdom, wit, and frequently music, Charlotte’s stories are guaranteed to enchant and entertain.


  1. What is the first story you remember hearing and/or the first story you remember telling?


What sticks in my memory is the voice of Miss Alexander (later, Mrs. Mitchell) my 2nd grade teacher reading Br’er Rabbit stories. She would tell us, “If you get all your work done, I’ll read you a story.” We got aaalll our work done fast! She had a big oversized book of tales. She would pull out her teacher’s chair, open that big book and transport us to the world of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox, Sis’ Coon and the crew. The first oral presentation I gave as a 6 year-old was a poem by African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar and a comedic monologue my father wrote for me to learn and deliver. Later, as an adult – teaching kindergarten at the time – the first story I told was the Ashanti story Who’s in Rabbit’s House. My students presented it as a skit in an assembly program.


  1. How was the seed of storytelling planted in your life?

The seed of storytelling was planted by my Dad. My mother was a musician. She was the organist – pipe organ – at our church. She accompanied choirs, soloists, played for funerals, weddings and social events in the community. My dad had NO musical talent but was gifted with words. As a child, I would sit quietly near him when he was trying to find time to write in a private space away from his 5 kids! I loved being around my dad. Eventually he began reading out loud to me some of what he was reading or writing. Then he gave me the complete poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar and selected poems for me to read. I read them over and over and quickly memorized several. I think when he saw how good my memory was, a light bulb went on in his head and he started writing monologues for me to learn and ‘recite’ as well. Much later, as an adult and while I was still a classroom teacher, I learned of a newly formed storytelling guild in Philadelphia. Patchwork was formed in the late 70’s. I went to a storytelling event they sponsored. I heard the first storyteller and my heart was Home!


  1. Where does storytelling grow from here? How do you want see storytelling influencing society?

I believe storytelling allows us to see each other – not as Democrat, Republican, Protestant, Baha’i,’ethnic minorities’ or ‘ethnic majorities – but as people; fellow humans all on the same planet, on the same human journey with far more common human experience than uncommon. Storytelling allows you to see a reflection of yourself, of your humanity – through the stories we share. Stories are manifestations of the compilation of human experience throughout our existence on the planet. Embodied within them are distillations of the range of human experience and wisdom gained through the ages – wisdom that still speaks to us today. Despite the all-pervading presence of digital communication devices, I believe as long as human beings exist and can speak, they will tell stories – whether it is the five-year-old at the dinner table sharing her school day, the minister bringing to life a sacred teaching, a patient educating a physician through her personal health narrative, the family elder recounting family history and genealogy at a family reunion, or the lawyer advocating for his client, storytelling with always be with us and will always serve as a medium for substantive and meaningful reflection. It is my hope that the gathering together of ‘the village’ to hear and share OUR human stories will continue in both formal and informal ways in communities across the country.


  1. If you needed to start a dance party, what song would you lead with?


I’m a child of the sixties so the first song that comes to mind from my house party days is Heatwave by Martha and the Vandellas. It still gets my friends and me on our feet for a bit of a Twist dance revival! Also, almost anything by the ‘Godfather of Soul’ – James Brown! Otherwise, just about anything from Motown artists” The Four Tops, The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Junior Walker and the All Stars… Let’s Party!!


Be sure to catch Charlotte Blake Alston during this year’s Festival. For more information visit https://timpfest.org/events/28th-annual-timpanogos-storytelling-festival.


Charlotte closes her emails with these powerful words that we thought would be an appropriate ending here as well: Words have power – use them thoughtfully.

505x218 Charlotte Blake Alston

Getting to Know Sam Payne

Getting to Know Sam Payne

Sam Payne 1Sam Payne, hailing from right here in Utah, is a stellar teller of stories and songs. Each time I hear him I am impressed with his skill and abilities.  A writer, teller, teacher, and radio personality we are happy to have him with us at the festival again this year to share his unique performances with us.


1. What is the first story you remember hearing and/or the first story you remember telling?

The first story I remember hearing was Danny Kaye’s musical version of “The Ugly Duckling” from the soundtrack to the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. I must have listened to it a thousand times. When I was six, in the middle of a bout of stage fright over serving as the ring bearer at my aunt’s wedding, my mom put her hands on my shoulders in the church cloakroom and said I’d be fine as long as I remembered to walk down the aisle like the swan at the end of the Ugly Duckling story I loved, “…with his head so noble and high.” I survived my gig as the ring bearer. That may be when I learned what good medicine stories can be.

The first story I remember telling was an original crime noir piece about a big-city gumshoe on the trail of an international criminal named Bordeaux. I wrote it when I was eight or nine. My mom brought home an old thrift-store typewriter for us bored kids to take apart one summer afternoon. Instead I began a novel. I got through two-and-a-half typewritten pages before I conked out. Some people carry good-luck charms of one kind or another. I carry those two-and-a-half typewritten pages. If you see me with my shoulder bag, ask me. They’re in there.

2. How was the seed of storytelling planted in your life?

My folks shipped my brother and me off to my grandparents’ house in the Bay Area for three weeks one summer when we were small. Every night of that visit, after my grandmother tucked us into bed, my grandfather sat in a chair and read to us from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I love my grandfather, but he’s a crotchety, disapproving, dictatorial old Greek, and there was an enormous gulf between him and us kids. The nightly reading of Huckleberry Finn drew us out in love for one another. Later, when I was in high school, he mailed me a VHS copy of Igor Stravinski’s strange and wonderful work “The Soldier’s Tale,” animated by R. O. Blechman, and it happened again. I think it was through those rare exchanges with my grandfather that I learned how stories can help people find their way to each other.

3. Where does storytelling grow from here? How do you want to see storytelling influencing society?

Fueled by the incredible experiences that people continue to have at festivals like Timpanogos, people are going home and inviting loved ones together to share stories in smaller, more intimate spaces. It’s the era of coffee house storytelling shows and living-room storytelling parties. It’s an era in which prisons and hospitals and churches and at-risk youth programs are trusting storytelling to do the heavy lifting in their incredibly important work. There’s a phrase I like to use: “Never be afraid to think small.” It comes from observing the career of my father, a folksinger who, in the early 1970’s, made record albums of his own music and sold them from door to door. While other artists were working on opportunities to play stadiums, my dad hung on for years to an artistic lifestyle that allowed him to look into the eyes of just about everyone who heard a song or bought an album. What a wonderful thing it is that the storytelling revival of the last half-century has built the kind of bonfire from which people are carrying away embers and lighting fires of their own, across which they can look into the very eyes of the people who are listening.

4. If you needed to start a dance party, what song would you lead with?

Oh my. Much to my chagrin I’m the guy who, just when people are hankering for “Dancing Queen,” suggests “Grapefruit Moon” by Tom Waits. I don’t get invited to a lot of dance parties. Maybe “Magdalena” by Brandon Flowers. I’m listening to it right now. That song just kills me.

Don’t miss out on seeing Sam at this year’s Festival. For more information about Sam’s schedule and the Festival, visit: https://timpfest.org/events/28th-annual-timpanogos-storytelling-festival.

Getting to Know Catherine Conant

Catherine Conant grew up in a large Italian family in New Jersey where she learned to stitch together the things of family and of imagination to create powerful and beautiful stories about the world around her. Funny and poignant, you are sure to fall in love with Catherine!

1. What is the first story you remember hearing and/or the first story you remember telling?

The first story I told was one I found when I moved to a new town.  I asked longtime residents what were their favorite stories about the place where they lived. The one they loved best was about a man who lived many years ago.  His name was Bill Baker and he had teams of oxen.  People hired him to plow farms and haul freight as well as any other odd job. (They even had a postcard of him standing with his team!) This is a favorite because it introduced me to the history of my town.

2. How was the seed of storytelling planted in your life?

I had had many different occupations but was still searching for the one I felt spoke to my heart. Twenty-five years ago, I attended a Connecticut Storytelling Festival in New London, Connecticut, and witnessed a storyteller captivate an audience as she told an African folktale. I suddenly realized I had found what I had been searching for and never looked back.

3. Where does storytelling grow from here? How do you want to see storytelling influencing society?

Much of my current work is helping groups and organizations become acquainted with the idea of using stories to create stronger and more vibrant neighborhoods and communities. It is exciting to watch people embrace the use of stories to instill understanding, connection and shared vision.  I believe it is the most effective way to support the meaningful change we need and want.  Stories that help us understand our past are essential for shaping our future.  Stories tell us who we are.

4. If you needed to start a dance party, what song would you lead with?

Hey You (I Love You) Michael Franti and Spearhead

Don’t miss out on seeing Catherine at this year’s Festival. For more information about Sam’s schedule and the Festival, visit: https://timpfest.org/events/28th-annual-timpanogos-storytelling-festival.


Timpanogos Storytelling Institute
957 East 70 South
Lindon, UT 84042

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