Teaching with Stories to Cultivate the Soul

Trisha Detrick explains how great stories can train the affections.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis says that education is more than filling the mind and training behaviors. It must also cultivate the soul. He maintains that ancients – such as Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine – sought to train the affections of their students by teaching them to love what was good and hate what was bad. According to Lewis, education that omits exploration of truth, beauty, and goodness creates men who are ruled either by their intellect (“cerebral man”) or those who are ruled by their desires (“visceral man”). He categorizes these men as “men without chests” – beings without moral governance or a sense of humanity.

How then do we as educators seek to educate more than the segmented mind or spirit and to unite the whole being of the child? How did Jesus Christ, God incarnate, engage people? One method was telling stories. Because His stories employed relatable scenarios such as farming, money, marriage, nature, and animals, both the well- educated and the simple-minded alike could understand them. Through each story, the Messiah sought to make a personal connection to the listener. People could easily identify with the characters and place themselves inside the story. This allowed each listener to engage completely and to gain a deeper meaning and application from the parable. These narratives become timeless, allowing readers for thousands of years to experience the same stories again and again and to connect with new insights each time. These stories are carried in the soul of the learner and are continually reflected upon long after the specific context of the lesson has been forgotten. So, like Jesus, our lessons in the classroom must be purposefully crafted as well. There is a valuable place for questioning, explanation, independent work, exploration, lecture, and note taking, but we should also tell stories whenever possible.

Excellent stories are crucial for training the affections of our students. Reading and discussing imaginative literature with our students will lead them to recognize good as good and bad as bad. Teachers need to teach students that there is conflict and sin in the world. Teachers can use good children’s literature as a tool to show the power of temptation and the ability to overcome it. Students should be encouraged to cheer for righteous decisions by characters, and they should be taught that godliness will triumph in the end. As children age, parents and teachers must be aware of what children and teens are reading. Popular literature that coerces young readers to applaud infidelity, dishonesty, and disregard for God’s law should tear at the trained affections of our children and be seen as a repulsive offense against God’s order. If proper training is given early to teach children to love what is good and hate what is evil, the stories that stir their souls will be stories that proclaim God’s truth, beauty, and goodness.

Not only should we read good stories to our children, but we ought also to tell vivid stories. If we want to engage students and cultivate a love of learning, our lessons must be vibrant stories within themselves. Students should see narrative subjects such as history and the Bible as one exciting story after another, with each culminating lesson capturing the imagination and leaving the students marveling at a great and mighty God. Young eyes ought to be filled with anticipation and mouths left hanging agape as the students become fully absorbed in our lessons. As the lesson ends, the students should yearn for more and retell the stories at home. These are the outwards signs that allow teachers to see that students have been stirred to the core. These moments clearly tell teachers that they have engaged and influenced the mind, body, and spirit of their students.

The teacher should not skim a lesson in a textbook and hope to produce these kinds of dramatic moments. Storytelling requires extra effort on the part of the teacher. A response of delighted abandonment requires research, study, and practice. The teacher must internalize a story before she can expect such connection. This requires studying a lesson from multiple sources and reading from a variety of perspectives. It is helpful to include background information on people and places to give the characters depth and relevance within the story.

These details may not be recorded directly but may need to be inferred and added to the story: What were the people doing? What did they see, smell, taste, hear or feel? What were they thinking? What did they look like? How did they interact with one another?) Young students need to have these scenarios fleshed out so that the characters and events become real and personal. Gathering details takes time and effort, but the clearer the image is in the teacher’s mind, the more colorful a story she will present.

When a teacher feels that she has studied the lesson adequately, it is crucial that she rehearse the story out loud. The story can be told to a family member, colleague, or even the mirror. This kind of practice allows the teacher to identify gaps in the narrative that will require further study and to practice dramatic expression. Simple techniques such as speaking softly, suddenly getting louder, speaking slowly, using facial expressions, moving around the classroom, using props, or repeating a word or phrase can dramatically enhance a story. The more frequently a story is told in preparation, the more effective and polished the narrative will be when presented in the classroom.

With the amount of preparation required to tell vivid stories, it is unrealistic to think that all lessons should be presented in this manner. We should not, however, discount storytelling because it’s difficult. Begin with one subject at a time. Choose lessons from your curriculum—such as historical events, biographical information, Bible narratives, science explanations, and grammatical concepts—that could be developed into colorful stories. Study them, rehearse them, and polish them. Make detailed notes so that the story can be created with less effort the following year. Share the oral narrative with colleagues, and discuss its impact in the classroom. Ask one another for feedback, and encourage one another. Build anticipation in your students before and after the lesson by asking leading questions and showing excitement for the story. Finally, enjoy the story as you tell it to your students. Be vulnerable in the story before your students. Commit to it fully, and relish the response from your students.

God created man in His own image – mind, body, and spirit. It is the stirring of the soul that distinguishes man from the rest of creation and draws us to truth, beauty, and goodness; and it is this connection to the soul that brings a lesson to life. Using stories in our classrooms to train the affections of our students will allow us to cultivate students in mind, body, and spirit.

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