Deirdre Moore | March 2013

Teaching Nonfiction Content Through the Art of Story

Storytelling is an art. Good stories stay with us.

They touch our hearts, fire our imagination, transport us to another world or help us make sense of our own world.  Because stories are so powerful, they are an effective teaching tool.  But stories don’t just belong in language arts and history classes.  They can be just as effective when used with the content of science or other nonfiction content to help make new concepts more personal, more memorable, more meaningful.

In using storytelling or story writing, a teacher can be the yarn spinner or the audience/reader depending on the purpose.  Anytime a process or concept needs to be taught if it is told in story, that concept may be easier to remember.  In teaching the water cycle, for example, a teacher could weave a tale of a water droplet, Drippy, caught in a vast sea of droplets and longing for adventure.  Drippy might one day evaporate and transport to a whole new world up in the clouds.  Perhaps he thinks he found paradise in the ability to float over the world with all of his new friends. But then, to his dismay, the cloud becomes crowded and dark.

Just when Drippy thinks he has it made up in the clouds, he begins to fall back down to Earth!  However, this time he falls into a pond in a totally new environment and loves getting to know a new place and meet new creatures.  Of course we know what happens to Drippy; he evaporates once again.  Over the course of the story Drippy may come to understand this water cycle of which he is an integral part and he can learn to enjoy the ride!  The concept of this story took me about 2 minutes to create.

You would be amazed at what you can conjure when you have a concept to teach and you decide to try teaching it through story!

Stories can also be used as a means of assessment of content or a way to practice or explore content and story structure.  If your class is studying fairy tales or pourquoi stories, for instance, you can have each student create a story in that genre using content learned in science.  I had a class of fifth graders who wrote some amazing super hero tales of Magnet Man which included some required science vocabulary words and demonstrated an understanding of certain attributes of magnets while utilizing the elements of a great super hero story.  I really enjoyed correcting that assignment. And, it became a writing assignment/science assessment the students enjoyed too!

What is so great about assessing through story is how deeply the students need to understand the concept to craft the tale and how personal that concept can become through the process.  I have a special place in my heart for butterflies ever since I created a unit on transformation.  For this unit, I wrote a story of self-discovery, a caterpillar trying to find her niche in the world, to teach the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.  Little did I know that I was actually writing about myself.  Ah, art!  How revealing it can be!

But that’s a topic for another day….

So, try your hand at fictional story writing for non-fiction content and challenge your students to do the same.  You may all learn much more than you could have anticipated and chances are you’ll have a great time doing it!

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.