Stories in fact: narrative non-fiction

Usha Raman

books When I think about what I remember from my school lessons, some of the information that stand out have to do with vivid word pictures that were painted by teachers of chemistry, history, and mathematics. I remember, for instance, that famous serpentine dream where Kekulé was inspired to posit the structure of Benzene, and Archimedes jumping out of the bath yelling “Eureka!” It’s another matter that these anecdotes were not substantiated with references and dates, but they certainly helped me remember C6H6 and something of hydraulic principles!

Once in a while, it may be a good idea for high school teachers to set aside the textbooks and share a story or two with the class, whatever the subject. We tend to relegate stories to junior school, and if they make an appearance at all in middle or high school, it is only in language classes, where the joy of telling and listening to stories is systematically destroyed by the focus on learning for the purpose of testing.

Suppose you tell your students, instead, to close their books, and just listen to you as you talk about the stories behind discoveries and concepts, the imaginative journeys that explorers and inventors undertook, the struggles to introduce legislative or social change? Suppose you allowed them to play these stories out in their heads as they listen to you, enhancing the facts you relay with their own mental images? And then follow these storytelling sessions with focused discussion about the concepts and ideas themselves? You’ll probably find that their interest in and their recall of the material is far better than if you had taught the lesson in a routine fashion, from text to Q&A to exercises and homework. Of course, this implies that you have to do a bit of homework yourself, to find out the stories behind the concepts. It’s homework that needs to be done only once, though, and just brushed up every now and then.

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