Engagement: Teaching as Storytelling (Part 1)

By Paul Dunbar, IB Literature and Theory of Knowledge Teacher

Time and space are the dimensions we live in.

As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. Place is the performance space the characters will occupy.

All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?


In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?

But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page.

And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.


So is teaching a kind of storytelling?

Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.

If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)

The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to take the idea forward in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.

I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:

How will I handle time?

How will I create space?


  1. sherrattsam

    Thanks, Paul.

    Each day in class is, or should be, a story in itself. It’s an interesting way to reflect isn’t it… “what were the events in today’s story? Who were the main characters? Was it an interesting story? Why? Why not?”. It’s almost as if we should think that if the students don’t have an interesting story to tell about their time at school… what exactly did they do?

    I also like to think of the authorship changing as a unit progresses. The teacher provides the introduction, sets the scene, establishes the context. However, his/her job after that is to seek out ways to help students to create much of the following narrative.

    • Paul Dunbar

      Yes – it’s a crucial point to make: a storyteller never tells the whole story. Why? Because you can’t. A good storyteller knows this and doesn’t even try. Modern narratology understands narrating as a creative collaboration. The storyteller creates spaces into which the reader sends an avatar. I’ll have more to say about gap theory or ‘mental space semiotics’ (eugh!) in my next post – but this is where teaching-as-storytelling meets a constructivist approach in education.

  2. lsackerl

    How opportune this post is! This weekend I have been absorbed in reading “The Storyteller’s Way” by Ashley Ramsden and Sue Hollingsworth. One delightful teacher i work with mentioned she had done a storytelling course in the UK … and I was hooked. I have found myself tuning into the stories around me and the stories i create through all my senses as i read this book. I have been listening to story tellers, watching, what they do and how they do it. (there are a whole inspired raft of them on you tube) I have moved beyond the bare bones of the story to all of the “other” things we experience. : capturing the mood, visualizing, bringing in the senses.(elements that I saw in your practice Sam) Paul, I am not too sure how I will bring this into my teaching and learning BUT what a wonderful metaphor for learning. .

    • Paul Dunbar

      When I talk about storytelling, I use the term very widely, to mean narrating in any medium. The skills of a storyteller, as in a live, face-to-face oral performer (storyteller, comedian, spoken word poet, actor) are all very relevant – but the narrative(s) will arise in a number of different forms. Thanks for the pointers – I’ll go to Youtube!

  3. kath Murdoch

    What a thoughtful post – thank you!! I like to think of the journey students embark on as inquirers as much like a story..a powerful inquiry has a narrative ‘arc’ – driven by a question, with a pervasive theme and a lovely sense of possibility/uncertainty as to where it might all end up. I often say to students that part of their challenge as learners is to be able to ‘tell the story’ of their inquiry or their learning journey…and when it is positioned as a narrative , it helps them see that this is much more than a series of ‘activities’ (scenes?) but something that builds through time. So the students become the story tellers as the inquiry unfolds. Lovely stuff – thanks for the good read.

    • Paul Dunbar

      Yes! Very well put. Narrative is driven by uncertainty and possibility (are these synonyms?). The challenge I set myself a few years ago was to create a year-long course on narrative, with both a coherent conceptual framework and also wide open spaces that could provoke an inexhaustible range of arising inquiries. I build a significant gap into the course – and tell the students that I don’t yet know what we will be doing at that point in the year, it all depends what happens. I want the course to be like a narrative itself, driven by plot dynamics, not routine.

      I like your idea – that the teacher is looking to hand off the job of telling the story to the students at every opportunity. Good storytellers understand that they’re engaged in a creative collaboration with their audience. Reading or listening to a story is not a passive process. I like what the novelist Paul Auster says somewhere – why describe in any detail the physical appearance of a character? You know the reader is only going to substitute the face of someone they’ve seen, a movie actor perhaps, or someone they passed in the street. And as for telling the reader what the story means – that would be going far beyond your role.

  4. Desiree Finestone

    Paul, I like how you compare us teachers to storytellers – ‘creating a world for our students to enter’ and looking forward to the follow- up part of the series…..the plot thickens…. Great!

      • Paul Dunbar

        The latter, I say. The reader/listener/student constructs meaning in their own mind. As a storyteller, you must use your reader’s imagination, not just your own.

      • Fleurp (@maritakirby)

        Hi there, I think that first we ‘help them’ learn to narrate their world. When we are genuinely interested in their stories – then we can offer them some of ours. A mutual respect is required. I guess Sam’s idea is about more than constructing during literacy though, it is about how we use storytelling to present ourselves more effectively across the curriculum? That would extend to all interactions throughout our lives wouldn’t it?

      • sherrattsam

        I might just use this idea – it would be interesting for teachers to distinguish between the two and consider the different effect each of them would have on learning.

  5. Fleurp (@maritakirby)

    A dear mentor of mine had this storytelling gift. (Not a dementor…as in life sucking parasite from Potterville, which compared to the aforementioned case would be the antonym, the complete opposite of this leader). He’d figured it out over his many years of teaching, the art of absolute engagement. He was the ‘Beautiful Mind’ that De Bono talks about in his book, he could make almost any topic interesting given the chance. Sure the kids moaned from time to time that he went on, and yet there they would be, totally transfixed, forgetting to put up their learning barriers and allowing new thought provoking material in. I know which sort of educator I would rather learn from personally.

    • Paul Dunbar

      Me too. But I’m not just talking about telling stories in class. (Though students tell me that most teachers these days don’t talk enough.) Where I’m going with this is the idea of the course itself aspiring to the condition of narrative… more on that in my next post.

  6. Pingback: Teaching as storytelling (1): Time and Space | thinkREthink [education]

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