Story Based Learning

In a room of nearly 30 students, you’re not just dealing with 30 different learning styles, but also 30 different political persuasions, 30 different socioeconomic backgrounds, 30 different walks of faith, 30 different stories, 30 different people. Teaching a curriculum, meeting course objectives, and moving on pace with the rest of the department is the daunting task of every teacher. As move and grove from one lesson to the next, it is abundantly easy to leave the straggling students in the dust. “Sorry, you should have studied harder.” “Try harder on the next test.” “Sorry, I don’t have time to go back and review the material.” Each teacher has heard it, probably got it said to them at one point, and without admitting it, probably said it themselves under the pressure of departmental expectations. 

Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore suggests that there might be a new method to teaching by taking an incarnational approach. “Incarnational teaching is teaching that expects God’s revelation in the world,” Moore writes that this method, “respects the preciousness of life wherever it is found.”1 By leaning into this method, Moore emphasis the importance of storytelling as a means for teaching the material. As I reflect on my own experience, I recognize the importance of how a story might establish a human connection to the material. 

With the 2016 Presidential Election just a few months away, I was tasked with teaching high school juniors the Catholic Social Teaching position on immigrants and refugees. The political climate was tense to say the least, and in this predominantly white upper-middle class all-male high school, many of the students were not receptive of any narrative that didn’t paint immigrants or refugees in a negative light. Standing amongst the classroom, I was pulling at straws to try and make this topic more than just rote memorization they would simply dismiss after the test and not open their hearts and minds to new possibilities.

Looking around the room, one student caught my eyes. This young man, like several of his peers, attended an immersion retreat experience during his sophomore year. On this retreat, the students spend time getting to know and eating meals with “people on the margins.” Having had the chance to attend retreat with this particular student, I remember he had a rather moving experience with one man who had recently moved to Louisville from Somalia with refugee status, so I invited him to share that experience. As he unfolded that story, other students began to also share their experiences from that retreat. “We need to seek out the poor and marginalized as sources of authority and means of grace,” as Moore challenges, and bring their stories to the surface in our education.2 The concept that was once political and distant became personal and real.

Like the incarnate God, the voices and stories of those men and women came alive in our classroom and we were afforded the grace to re-member ourselves to one another. In hearing the stories of the refugees and immigrants that the students had met, their peers were able to cut through the political noise and listen clearly to a new perspective. Not all opinions in the classroom changed, but the distant abstract theories of Catholic Social Teaching entered the conversation in concrete and digestible stories from peers. By listening to one anther each young man was afforded the grace to understand that “everything is holy… can reveal meaning … that everything is interconnected in a web of meaning.”3

  1.  Moore, M. E., & Moore, M. E. (1991). Incarnational Teaching. In Teaching from the Heart: Theology and Educational Method (p. 92). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  2.  Moore, (p. 117).
  3.  Moore, (p. 93).

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