Why Teachers Need Plot, Emotion and Story

By Michael - 4 minute read

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Students like stories. Teachers know that stories keep their interest. But plot, emotion, character, conflict and theme – the tools of a fiction writer – can be power tools for educators as well.

Having an attitude in class

Learning theorists have taught that students learn when they feel the need to; that in a sense, they create their own learning. Because emotion and character come from who we are, a lesson with a story motivates students to learn. When a problem is part of a story – when it involves people – finding a solution feels more urgent. When a California textbook talks about California earthquakes, California students pay attention. When two geological plates slip past each other and the earth quakes under the ocean, that’s interesting to some students. But when it causes a tsunami and destroys people’s homes, that introduces conflict, plot, and emotion.

Students remember information better in a story form. It helps me remember that Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia was unsuccessful when I imagine how he must have felt afterwards. For one thing, he must have felt cold – which helps me remember the invasion ended in winter.

Even math teachers need plot, emotion, and story. Children can understand a word problem better when there is a story line to it. I may not remember the exact answer to a mathematical word problem about John preparing dinner in the kitchen, but I might remember or estimate whether John ends up with too much or too little. Will John get his fill with two cups of food, or must he squeeze by on only half a cup? When the plot (and a hungry boy) depend on the answer, children are more likely to want to understand it. The story makes the problem more interesting to the student.

If the teacher or textbook takes no attitude toward the subject, students may not bother to take one either, or even pay any attention. The lecturer ends up sounding like a washing machine, and students can tell he or she is probably not trying very hard.

Using emotion to get into college

I remember new vocabulary words because I categorize them according to how they make me feel. I may not know the exact definition of equanimity but I know it’s a happy word. I’m not sure I can define opprobrium either, but I know it’s not a happy word. I didn’t learn either word from a dictionary but from my reading, where I have gathered their general meaning by repeatedly seeing them either in happy or unhappy contexts.

This technique of finding emotion is at the center of the strategy I teach for taking standardized college entrance exams such as the SAT. It works because many verbal test questions are little stories, with plot and emotion.

14. Though many Americans in late 1864 viewed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation with opprobrium, they greeted the capture of Atlanta with _______________.

a. indifference
b. elation
c. derision
d. trepidation

As long as I have the feeling that opprobrium is not a happy word, I can answer that question correctly even if I hardly understand anything else. I don’t have to know the history of the American Civil War, the role of President Abraham Lincoln, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or even what, who, or where Atlanta is. I just need to imagine a crowd of Americans in 1864 hearing the latest news.

The key to understanding this class of question is the conjunctive adverb though, which always tells us that the second clause carries a different emotion than the first clause.

Now I know that the answer in the second clause must be a happy word, because the first clause has an unhappy word. So to answer the question correctly, I simply need to choose the happy word from the list. Again, I don’t need to be able to define any of the words in the list, only to recognize whether they are happy words or not. To make the process simple, I mentally translate the question into:

Though the first thingamabob was [not happy], the second thingamabob was __________.

a. not happy
b. happy
c. not happy
d. not happy

I could use the same simplification technique with the conjunction but, as in “The first thingamabob was [attractive, safe, whatever], but the second thingamabob was [the opposite].”

The construction not only… but tells us the opposite of though, that the second clause is giving us more of the same emotion as in the first clause: “Not only was the thingamabob [useful], but it was [very useful, essential].”

I use the slang word thingamabob to mean that it doesn’t even matter what the thing actually is. What matters is the emotion in the clauses. It may sound like a vague technique, but by using it, I have achieved almost perfect scores on similar test sections in the PSAT, SAT, and GRE.

Why tell stories?

History is one of my favorite subjects. Even in elementary school, I would read ahead in my history book – it had stories, after all. But at an earlier point in my life, I didn’t appreciate history. History can be boring when teachers don’t relate facts to human nature. I remember asking a teacher why we needed to study it. I wondered why we needed to learn about events that happened to other people long ago.

My teacher explained that the stories of others can help us when we’re in similar situations. I read about a doctor who never expected to use what he had learned in his History of Medicine class, until he found himself in a prison camp without modern tools and treatments. In times of prosperity, we can draw lessons from other prosperous societies. When hard times come, it’s useful to know how other generations weathered hard times before us.

A story is not just a way to make a lesson more interesting. A story can be the lesson itself. In December 1948, Israeli troops found the main road blocked to the central Egyptian garrison in the Negev desert. But Israeli general Yigael Yadin, an archaeologist by training, knew where a second road was. It had been abandoned thousands of years before, but with a little work, his troops made it through – because their general knew old stories.

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