Telling a story for every lesson

Themes, foreshadowing, and storyline are teaching elements essential to any English class. But what about incorporating them into math, science, or any other school subject?

In their article, “Every Lesson Needs a Storyline,” educators Bradley Ermeling and Genevieve Graff-Ermeling illustrate the importance of developing a lesson storyline in every subject. They argue for coherence and constant reflection when teachers plan their classes.

The duo spent over a decade in elementary and secondary school classrooms across the United States and discovered a common trend—many teachers rely on activities to engage students without incorporating these activities into a cohesive learning structure.

As a result, students are left without a fundamental understanding of certain concepts while teachers spend little time reflecting on the effectiveness of their own teaching methods.

“We want to make sure teachers are very intentional in their teaching and consistently engage in self-reflection,” says Graff-Ermeling, assistant head of school for teaching and learning at Concordia International School in Shanghai.

“Every instructional choice should have a rationale. We want them to ask, ‘Why are we doing this? What does the student need? How does this fit with the student’s needs? How are we going to implement this so the student learns what they need to? How does it support a larger story?’”

Ermeling and Graff-Ermeling worked with teachers to plan lessons that emphasized developing a progression of elements to form this storyline, rather than emphasizing activities to engage students. Lesson storylines ensured students achieved specific learning goals.

“This doesn’t mean activities are bad,” says Graff-Ermeling. “We want there to be more intentional planning. Having a storyline positions activities as learning opportunities, not activities for the sake of having activities. Each part of the story has a place, so if it’s misplaced, then it’s not as effective. Some kids can be engaged in an activity, but don’t completely understand the concept.”

Curriculum and assessment coordinator at Concordia, Sarah Donovan, learned the value of self-reflection and lesson-crafting early in her teaching career. Faced with a class of high school math students, Donovan was a bit shaky on a particular concept.

By the end of the lesson, she felt she had taught it correctly and had almost every student saying they understood—albeit, not with very much confidence. When she went home to work on the lesson, she discovered she had taught it all wrong.

“It was a humbling experience when you go in front of high schoolers and have to say, ‘Guys, I’m really sorry, but I was wrong,’” says Donovan. “But it’s important to be transparent and build that trust. By the end of Day 2, every student had a noticeably deeper understanding. They left confident and I left confident.”

When observing a Grade 4 math class in Japan, Graff-Ermeling saw first-hand innovative teaching methods in practice. She watched how effectively the teacher would use the classroom and the chalkboard.

“There was an intentional use of everything,” she says. “The chalkboard illustrated the storyline. It started with a theme, a bit of foreshadowing showing the students what they were going to learn. Each space on the board was organized to help shape the emerging story and key ideas. Then they’d reflect on it after learning it. I was able to see how the teacher fleshed out these concepts and built upon them over the course of a lesson.

“He introduced struggle, that rise and fall, challenging students to work things out on their own, but then guiding them so they achieved realistic goals and remained confident.”

To create coherent lesson storylines and intentional teaching, there needs to be a setting where teachers focus on how they craft their lessons.

In their article, published in the October issue of Educational Leadership, Ermeling and Graff-Ermeling emphasize key topics that should be addressed in teacher teams, or professional learning communities (PLCs). They encourage teachers to move beyond the limited focus of assessment and intervention and towards planning, observing, and reflecting as a team.

Their article includes specific questions for teachers to ask each other to accomplish this, such as: What do we want students to understand or be able to do at the end of this lesson? What evidence will we collect during and after the lesson to help us evaluate student progress and study the relationship between teaching and learning? What prior knowledge will students bring to this lesson?

“If you don’t understand a lesson deeply, you don’t understand where to position key concepts and the type of learning you want to foster within your kids,” says Graff-Ermeling. “Take the time to reflect, understanding the ‘why’ behind every lesson element and where it fits into the overall story.”

Their ideas extend beyond the international school system as well. Graff-Ermeling spent a year working in an inner-city school district in the United States.

The project was unique in that the local university partnered with the school district to effectively teach science to K-6 grade students.

“You don’t need a lot of money or resources to teach effectively,” she says. “There were some brilliant ideas produced. Resources matter in some ways, but when a teacher connects with those kids, builds that trust, and spends time reflecting on instruction, there’s going to be some good, effective learning happening.”

“We need to open our eyes to self-reflection and being transparent with the kids,” adds Donovan. “If you’re constantly reflecting on your story and how to make it better—once teachers grasp this power of reflection—it makes a huge difference, and it didn’t cost me anything. We look at the bright and shiny and expensive, when really crafting the story is free.”

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