5 Steps to Empower Students with the Skills They Need to Change the World Through Story

5 Steps to Empower Students with the Skills They Need to Change the World Through Story

By Joseph Fatheree

The innate desire in humans to tell stories may be the single most powerful tool a teacher has to help motivate students and empower them with the skills they need to find success in the 21st Century. The yearning to tell a narrative through song, pictures, and prose has evolved over time to the point that it is now hardwired into the human genome. Nowhere is that more apparent than in today’s youth. Children born in Generation Z have been connected to technology and had access to story since birth. A 2010 study by the Kaiser Foundation showed that children between ages 8 and 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day with digital media. The big question is what happens when those students come to school? For a Gen Z student, an hour of lecture in a traditional classroom is like living in the middle of a barren desert.

My classroom is just the opposite. It is a space filled with energy as students are challenged to bring their ideas to life. It is an oasis where students come to step outside their comfort zones and seek to transform dreams into reality. Story is the centerpiece of instruction and is used to help students unlock the doors of creativity and empower them with the ski1lls they need to become change agents on the global stage. Students in the program have been invited to speak at the International Summit on Human Rights hosted by the United Nations at UNESCO in Paris, France. Their work has literally shown in every country on the Earth as part of the work they produced for a feature film.  They have published books, produced countless numbers of short films, written and performed original music, and hosted one of the nation’s largest student operated film festivals.  No matter what the medium, story is the always the focus.

Students in the program are challenged to develop complex ideas and bring them to life through multiple forms of technology. In our world, story, not technology, drives the project. One student may decide to use Sway to tell a story about how she overcame her anxiety disorder, while another uses a 3D printer to create an Ironman helmet.  Story motivates my students to collaborate with one another and promotes critical thinking at a level that would make Benjamin Bloom blush.

We use the following steps to promote student success through the use of story. The process will work in any grade level or subject matter. I have shared a few examples from my classroom to show the potential story has to impact students and motivate them to overcome a wide array of challenges in order to find success.

Create a culture that promotes storytelling

The need to develop a culture that promotes creativity is one of the most important steps that a teacher can take during the course of the school year, a2nd unfortunately, is one of the last priorities for most educators. Take time out to discuss your students’ dreams. Let them share their ideas with the class. This can be done in a variety of different ways. We like to use pitch sessions where students have the opportunity to collaborate with one another and receive critical feedback. Brainstorming is another great technique to use. During these session, nothing is off limits. We encourage the students to dream big and help them develop scaffolding systems to make those dreams a reality. For example, a couple of years ago a student came up with a big idea for producing a show for the school Veteran’s Day assembly. He wanted to thank the veterans for their sacrifice and illustrate the impact it has on the families of those who serve.  He chose live action silhouette as the medium.

Unfortunately, we had never done anything like that before. The potential for the project to go awry in front of over 1,000 people was great. It would have been easy for me to have told my students to pick another project, something that was safe. However, that’s not how the class operates. One of the most exciting things that happens in a classroom culture where students feel safe to express themselves is their ability to make magic happen. The students wrote the script, created all of the backdrops, learned how to manufacture a 50-foot-long portable screen, set up a rear projection system using multiple projectors, built the props, choreographed and directed the entire show that included live singing with several novice actors. Their dream became a reality. It was one that brought an entire audience to tears as the last scene unfolded.  Culture has the ability to open the doors of creativity.

Let them lead

One of the hardest things for a classroom teacher to do is to step away from the front of the room and let the students lead. I am sure some of you are wondering what does this have to do with storytelling and how does it apply to student motivation.  Remember, we use story to teach our students a wide array of different skills including motivation. I have discovered, over the course of my career, that all of my students have a desire to become leaders. Most of them have just not been given the opportunity to do so.  Story is the perfect tool to help inspire student leadership in a safe nonthreatening way. Students are passionate about their stories in ways that most adults don’t understand. I have watched some of my most reluctant students become incredible leaders during the course of a project. It is during those times that I have the opportunity to meet with those students to discuss techniques that will strengthen their leadership skills and help bring the project they care so much about to life.

For example, we had a student who used the spiritual world of a Native American tribal chief who was charged with raising his son as a metaphor for the life cycle of an idea. The story li3ne was beautiful, but complex. The live action skit was performed in full body suits that were decorated with glow paint. The entire set was lit with black lights.

Something resonated in that story with a student, who up until that point in time, was struggling to find success at school. The project lit a fire under him. He took on a leadership role and helped make a series of very important decisions that never would would have occurred to me. The best thing I did was get out of his way and let him lead.

Failure is inevitable:  learn from it

In class, we talk about the first 95% of a project is the easiest to accomplish. The willingness to polish the last 5% is what separates the good from the great. That requires us to acknowledge the fact that failure is inevitable. The best thing we can do is learn from it. Stories are funny. When writing, characters never seem to do what you want them to do, plot lines shift, and a good ending can be hard to find. If you are not careful, students can become easily frustrated and want to quit a project. However, they are less likely to do so if you discuss failure from the onset. Quite often, I have my students brainstorm a list of problems they may be forced to overcome during the course of a project. That way they are prepared to to take on any challenge.4

Last year, two of my students wrote a song called, Lonely You-Worried Me. I got goose bumps the first time I heard it and knew the story was the perfect fit for our Veteran’s Day assembly. The song featured a young wife and her POW husband singing to one another about the pain and suffering of being separated. One of the students thought it would be a great idea to Photoshop out the image of the solider on the POW*MIA image and rear project that image onto a screen in the assembly. The male vocalist would sit in a chair between the projector and the screen. His silhouette would show in the logo which would enable it to come to life during the song. What initially sounded like an easy visual effect to create turned sour. My students ran into one issue after another. It would have been very easy for them to have just thrown in the towel and quit.  However, due to the practice of embracing each failure as a new learning opportunity, quitting was never an option. They discovered a workable solution just in time for the lights to dim. The audience was filled with emotion when the POW raised his head and sang a love song to his wife thousands of miles away.

Make learning fun

Like the rest of you, I teach in a test happy, standards driven, student data world. However, I don’t let that spoil my students’ fun. In fact, I use fun to help address the afore mentioned areas. M5y students have written some incredibly strange stories. One of my favorites was Bananatanic, which featured a young gorilla who had just won a trip on the U.S.S Bananatanic and fell in love with a beautiful banana before tragedy struck.

That film led to another one where a gorilla chased a banana, which inspired an animated film where 3 bananas joined the space program. Honestly, I never quite figured out my students’ love for bananas. However, I marveled at hard they worked to bring those projects to life. Over the years, I found out that I can still teach story structure, grammar, and innovative practices no matter what topic my students choose to explore. I work very hard to provide my students with the opportunity to tell their stories.  Laughter is truly the best medicine and it can go along way towards motivating students.

Celebrate success

One of the most important things I do during the course of the year is to look for new ways to celebrate student success. My students work really hard and its important that I acknowledge those efforts. To students, celebrations of success validate all of the blood, sweat, and tears they pour into projects. As a nation, we do a great job of celebrating the work our students do on the football field or the basketball court. However, when was the last time you went to an upscale event that celebrated the academic achievement of students? What kind of message are we sending our children? To me, it means we care more about the efforts on the athletic field than we do in the classroom. I left the coaching ranks several years ago to try to change that perception at my school.

I created a student film festival to showcase the work my students did during the course of year. What started out at as a small event in our local theater quickly transformed into one of the largest student operated events in the country. We sold out over 1,500 tickets in a matter of minutes. People would often line up 2 hours prior to the opening of the doors so they could get a good seat. Think about the last time you saw anyone do that to see student homework. Consider how it feels to a student as waves of adulation sweep across the auditorium when the entire audience rises in unison to applaud your work.


What would America’s schools look like if every student had that type of support? You can create the same type of environment for your students. Start small, but search for new ways to celebrate your students’ work. Better yet, let them help plan the event.

Story has the ability to transform your classroom and make it the most exciting space on campus. Look for new ways to integrate the process into your classroom and be prepared for the students who are motivated to change the world to follow.


Joe Fatheree is an award winning author, educator, and filmmaker. He has received numerous educational awards, including being recognized as a Top 10 Finalist for the 2016 Global Teacher Prize, Illinois Teacher of the Year and the NEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence. He currently serves as the Director of Strategic Projects for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year in Washington, D.C. and is the instructor of creativity and innovation at Effingham High School in Illinois.



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