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Vail Valley Voices: ‘ Tell me a story’

DAVE NIEWOONDER
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –Every year at parent- teacher confer-ences, I hear the same question: ” What can I do to help my son or daughter be more successful at school?”

When my son, Paul, was in school, I asked the same question twice a year for 12 years to half a dozen teachers. Most of the answers were similar: ” Make sure he does his homework, gets enough rest, focuses on the task at hand, organizes his notebook, doesn’t spend all night on computer games, etc., etc., ad infinitum.” I dutifully carried out their instructions, and Paul received this assistance with about as much enthusiasm as you would expect and have probably experienced: eye rolls, unintelligible sounds from somewhere deep in his throat, body lan-guage that signaled anything but cooper-ation and not much improvement in his academic performance. Our relationship was not helped by this interaction, and life at home was anything but pleasant.

Then I learned these four magic words from Ken Davis, Paul’s Advanced Placement Amer-ican history teacher – ” Tell me a story” – and our life changed. Volumes of academic research verify what most of us intuitive-ly know – the best way to really under-stand a concept or idea is to explain it to someone else. Each time we are confront-ed with a new concept or idea, new neu-ral pathways are created in our brains as we attach that concept to what we already know and understand.



In order to increase our understanding of the new concept, we must increase the number of pathways between what we know and what we are trying to learn. Nothing seems to help build more path-ways quicker than forcing our brains to translate the idea into something that someone else can attach to their under-standing. The ” magic” is in the retelling, and each time we explain the concept, we are required to create new pathways in order to make the concept understand-able to someone else’s frame of reference. All of this theory is very well and good but not very practical advice for daily use. Forcing your children to recite their les-sons back to you doesn’t make for very pleasant evenings at home. However, if you change your approach just slightly, you will have a powerful tool to help your children master the concepts they are learning in the classroom.

” Tell me a story about the French Rev-olution” is a completely different request from ” Explain the French Revolution.” Stories are fun and exciting. They are organized with a beginning, middle and end. They have a plot, interesting charac-ters and a theme or moral lesson. If they’re really good, they hook you at the beginning with a compelling question or a hint of mystery. They build to a point of peak interest or conflict or discovery and then settle you in a new place with a new perspective.



Stories are creative expressions that develop an emotional rather than intel-lectual connection to the new concept. By asking your child to translate academ-ic material into an emotional experience, you are asking them to create powerful new brain pathways that actually make meaning out of words, facts, numbers, dates, pictures, etc. “Tell me a story” can unlock that knowl-edge that’s sitting in your children’s heads, and it might actually provide you with a new way to communicate with them. Here are some final pointers to help ensure your success: • This works at any age. First-graders tell some of the best stories I’ve ever heard. The earlier you start this dialog, the easier it is to keep it going.

• This works with any subject. If your child is learning to multiply, how much fun is it to make the numbers characters and make their activities revolve around some sort of a plot? “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street” taught a lot of us just that way.

• Try to stay current with the topics your student is studying each week. Communi-cate with teachers ahead of time so your sto-ry requests are already on point. I know it’s a lot to ask, but in my experience, the pay-off has been well worth the effort.



• Make your response to the story about the story, not the general topic. Ask about a particular character, their motivations and their background. Ask about the setting and what it looked like or felt like to be there. Ask why they chose that story. Avoid asking them to recite facts. Remember: You’re after the emotional connections.

• Be sincere. Don’t ask for a story until you’re ready to listen, and be sure to listen with your undivided attention. We ask that from your kids every day.

• Expect some resistance at first, but smile and be persistent.

• Don’t be afraid to tell a story of your own. Each time your child is forced to examine the concept with a new twist, the concept is fur-ther cemented into their understanding.

As with any advice I give to parents, I’m only asking you to give this a try. It certainly isn’t a cure-all, fix-all magic bullet, but it made a big difference in my family. Besides, you may actually pick up a few good stories that you can retell to your friends.

“Once upon a time, there was this guy named Bill, and he lived in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill. … “

Dave Niewoonder teaches social studies at Battle Mountain High School. E-mail him at dave.niewoonder@eagleschools.net.


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