Unlock the Magic and Mystery of Storytelling

Travel back in time with your students to revisit history through storytelling.

By Bethany Bodenhamer

once upon a time

At its very core, history is the telling of stories—stories of people, societies, cultures, events, disasters, creations, and endings. People, by nature, enjoy both listening to and telling stories, so what better way to teach history than through the narratives, accounts, and anecdotes of the very ones who lived through, experienced, and witnessed such events? Depending on who is telling the story—the victor or the loser, the oppressor or the oppressed—the version may be very different.

Preparing Your Pupils

Before you engage in teaching history through stories, you will need to prepare your historians. They must be knowledgeable of the advantages and disadvantages to learning this way. While more engaging, memorable, and interesting, stories also come with an innate bias depending on who is doing the telling. Limitations exist when only hearing one side of the story, or a skewed version. Students must be able to identify such instances of bias and perspectives when hearing a translation of a certain event and analyze its impact on the story being told. After teaching your class how to identify authors’ and speakers’ values and opinions through their words, tones, and subtleties, storytelling is an excellent medium to teach history. 

Different Ways to Tell a Story

At its most basic form, telling a story is as simple and easy, or as involved and complex as you want to make it. Here are four ideas:

1. Tell a Story

  • Have your students (regardless of age) sit on the ground in a circle for story time. Tell the anecdote as though you were around a campfire—the more emotions, the better.
  • Create suspense. Pause throughout and ask your pupils what they hypothesize is about to happen. 
  • Bring in a guest speaker who was a witness, victim, or participant in an event being taught. Whether a Holocaust survivor, war veteran, or former civil rights activist, kids love hearing from adults other than their teachers. Utilize your students’ networks in finding such speakers. Ask for suggestions or recommendations from their own friends and families. You never know what stories their own grandparents might have to tell! 

2. Read a Story

Use existing books to teach a concept or event. Some of my favorites include:

  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, to teach the concept of appeasement. This is a great intro activity into the causes of World War I. 
  • The Butter Battle, by Dr. Seuss, to exemplify the parallel silliness and seriousness of the Cold War arms race. 

3. Act Out a Story

  • Have props and costumes! Dress the part and act in character throughout the entire lesson. Whether a woman disguised as a male soldier in the Revolutionary War, or a scientist in the Manhattan Project, the more into character you get, the more your students will be engaged. 
  • Turn your classroom into the setting of your event. Create an industrial-era factory or a shantytown to give your pupils the feel of the environment. 
  • Include the help of colleagues! Your class will be pleasantly surprised if they have not just one, but two or three actors delivering the message. 

4. Create a Story

  • A fun way to assess learning at the end of a unit is to have students create their own fictional story, based off the event(s) just studied. Have them create a children's book on the Industrial era, requiring the inclusion of a minimum of 10-15 historical facts. This is a great way to get their creativity flowing while testing their knowledge at the same time. 

Other Lesson Planet Resources:

Storytelling: Oral Traditions

One of the oldest forms of teaching history, the art of oral traditions, is heavily significant when teaching stories. Use this lesson plan to teach the importance of oral histories, along with the accompanying limitations. Train your class to identify advantages and disadvantages when listening to oral stories. 

History Personified

A fun and culminating activity for a unit is to have your class create their own fictional stories based off of historical events. This lesson plan includes writing both a factual research paper and a historically based fictional story based on the same event. Use this project to conclude your unit and assess your pupils’ knowledge. Plan a fun day in which your class gets to share their stories aloud! 

Understanding Bias 

An important precursor to teaching via stories is to teach your class the basics and significance of bias. Use this worksheet to walk your pupils through what bias is and how to detect it in authors’ stories. After every story told, discuss the bias and perspective your historians found and how it impacts their perception of the event.