Why you can’t fool students with a bare story = red alert for lazy lesson planners

I like to understand and explain the world through metaphors. They may be more ambiguous than crisp definitions but they leave more room for creative interpretation and open new, unexpected avenues of understanding. Sorry if you are a fan of more squeaky clean prose. This may be a bit too wordy for you but … diversity is the spice of life 😉

A good story-sharing experience needs 3 key players: narrative, story, and plot. And they must be working together. If you understand what they are, you will figure out how to use them. If you know how to use them to design your classroom stories, your story-rich lessons will be way better. Whenever we read, watch, listen to or are immersed in (what we tend to call) a story, we are taken on a journey. Think of story-sharing in the classroom as a journey.

Narrative structure is your experience and memory of a story-sharing moment. Narrative is how your entire experience of a journey is created. Narrative is how the memory of the trip comes about.

One part of narrative is story – the content, the entire set of raw ingredients or building blocks. Story reveals the WHAT, WHO and WHERE. Story would be the collection of places you visit, people you encounter, food you taste, smells you inhale, views you take in – everything you come across on your way.

The other part of narrative is plot – the format, pattern, structure used to tell the story and arrange the events in time. Plot reveals the HOW and WHEN. It shows how the events relate to each other. To create a plot, you make decisions about what info to select, what to add, what to leave out, what to slow-release, what to throw explicitly at the audience and how to arrange the elements in a new sequence – all of that done for maximum effect. Plot is the itinerary of your journey, the well-designed sequence that you follow when visiting respective places. Plot also defines how this design affects your experience, how things unfold with each new place you arrive at – to build up the drama.

This is one of my favourite visual explanation of the storyplot contrast: a freeze frame from the Future of Storytelling MOOC video.

story plot story barrio

Story and plot blend together to create the meaning (via the resulting narrative) just as you are reading, watching, listening to or getting immersed in a story.

Story is about trying to determine the key conflicts, main characters, setting, and events. Plot is about how, and at what stages, the key conflicts are set up and resolved.”

Visual Storytelling and Narrative Structure Film Study Guide

While plot is seen as static – like a template or blueprint, narrative is the dynamic, unique outcome of the story-sharing experience. This is how Claro Clark explain it:

Plot is what happens. Narrative is what the reader sees and hears of what happens – and how he sees and hears it.”

David Bordwell explains the contrast with reference to film:

Narration is designed to shape our itinerary through the film. It’s a complex array of cues that guide us in building up the story. (…) Narration creates on-line, moment-by-moment pickup; as viewers, we go with the flow. (…) The plot is more architectural, a sort of static anatomy of the film as a whole.”

When creating your narrative, you are free to add elements from outside of the story:

Narratives may involve a reordering of the events of a story. The story’s events can be set out of chronological order; be combined with elements from outside of the story to better tell the consumer what is going on; or to build dramatic effect. Sometimes a narrative may draw attention to things or events the story lacks because the contrast is interesting.”

Click here: Hacktext.com

„A new event order means you have a new narrative of the same story. (…) Narrative is therefore responsible for how the recipient perceives the story. (…) Story, like truth, is an illusion created by narrative.”

Click here: Beemgee.com

Now, once we get the three definitions right, how does all this apply to lesson design?

When we create classroom stories inspired by authentic stories, we may be tempted to take shortcuts and never go beyond the bare story stage. Just raw ingredients. No dramatic effect, no effort, no real engagement, no memorable experience for us or students. Isn’t that a bit lazy on our part? Mind you, students catch out lazy teachers just as easily as we teachers catch out lazy teacher trainers or coursebook authors 😉

So how about this instead:

  1. Spot a bare story (text, song lyrics, video clip, image, etc.): define the WHO, WHAT and WHERE.
  2. Create the plot: re-construct the story, focussing on the HOW and WHEN.
  3. Thus, conjure up your unique narrative for the classroom: a compelling story-sharing experience – memorable both for yourself (hell yeah, be selfish!) and your students.

Have fun 🙂

PS: Enjoy reading “Love at first Sprite” a story which illustrates this post.

Photo: Denys Nevozhai (unsplash.com)



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