Using the power of stories to engage, challenge, and inspire students

by Luke Foley

Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12


I believe that giving students a chance to create and share their own story makes it possible for them to develop the reflection and self-awareness they need to better move forward in their lives with confidence and competence.

My students often come to my class feeling like their voice isn’t being heard; many struggle to engage in class. I ask them write on subjects they are comfortable and familiar with and to share their own personal stories. Doing so engages, challenges, and inspires them; helps them to establish the confidence they will need to share candid, human, and authentic conversations with each other; and makes it possible for them better succeed in their other academic subjects.

I ask students to write a lot, and to find ways that authentically capture and share who they. In my class they:

–Write life stories and share those with one another, or to take on a “mask” assignment in which they create a mask that they show the world and another mask that they keep for themselves,

–Think and share their ideas metacognitively, for example by talking about how they relate to their peers and by describing their own personal skills and challenges.

–Take part in reflective journaling and in assignments that ask them to use their stories to explore both their struggles and their successes.

I find that these strategies help students to produce their own more balanced and nuanced portrait of who they are. The more often students tell a story, the more it becomes their identity. By giving them an opportunity to reflect how they learn, and to share they ways in which they are successful, we can help them change the way they seem themselves and their futures.


What I did well…

Anytime that I can integrate a personal story into an assignment, I think that I get better results from my students.  Since I am asking them to be vulnerable with their responses, I can help set the tone by starting the lesson from a personal place.  Also, this level of personal sharing helps set the tone for the type of learning environment I want to cultivate.

The reading selection was really spot on for where my students were at for this time of year.  This is one of my ‘go-tos’, but it has to be timed well.  The dynamics and needs within the group happened to be perfect for pulling this out and getting the type of introspection I was looking for.

What I would do more of, better or differently…

Wait time… As teachers, we have to be okay with silence.  I know that we often perceive silence as an absence of learning, but some students need a lot more time to process, especially when asked reflective questions, such as the ones I modeled in the video.  By jumping in often and frequently, perhaps I didn’t allow students the full time that they needed in order to process what I was asking of them.

Also, I would consider doing a “Think, Pair, Share” style approach if I had these same students and was using this particular reading.  Some of the students were not as vocal in our group discussion as I had hoped.  By having them share with a partner before putting their voice out for the whole group, I might have eased their process of sharing.

I still want to grow in this practice by…

Many of my students struggle with establishing their voice in the classroom.  We work on this constantly throughout the year, but I recognize, in watching my video, that I am the predominant voice in the conversation.  So how do we turn classroom discussions over to our students?  That is always a goal of mine, and I get a new opportunity to take it on each year, with each new group of students.


About Luke Foley

Luke Foley, the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, runs the Experiential Learning Center at Northfield High School in Northfield, Vermont. Mr....

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