Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Once upon a…

A teacher in China reading to her students after completing LEAPAsia's reading aloud workshop.by Aliel Cunningham

When I was exploring career options in college, teaching was not my first choice. My love was for stories. Stories formed the fabric for my picture of the world — its wonders and dangers, its possibilities and purpose. It is also through stories where I first encountered the Master Teacher. The stories He told and the stories told about Him fascinated me from an early age. Later on when I become more interested in writing my own stories, I began to explore what made stories “stick”. How did some stories captivate the imagination and others were forgettable? One crucial combination seemed to emerge – community and surprise.

When I started teaching, I found the same elements that drew me to good storytelling were also hallmarks of my favorite moments in the classroom. Learning in community and delighting in surprise. The Master Teacher gives wonderful examples of how storytelling can open the door to learning through these key components. One of my favorite parables is the one often called “The Great Banquet” (Luke 14:15-24). The context for telling this story is actually a banquet itself. The setting and situation He describes in the introduction of the story invites all of the hearers to put themselves into the story. There is an invitation to participate as the story unfolds.

In teaching I have learned how powerful this element of invitation is in using story or narrative in the classroom. There is usually more than one point of invitation, but this first one invites the students to recognize themselves in the context of the story. One way I have used this in my classes is to use the framing of imagined role play – where you ask the students to put themselves into a hypothetical situation. “Have you ever been lost in a country where you don’t know the language?” or “Have you ever lost something really important and found it later?” Both of these questions can be invitations to participate in the story right from the start.

I have found that this sharing of our own stories in the classroom goes a long way toward building a community of trust. In Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis is portrayed as saying, “We read to know we are not alone.” This same sense of connection is developed through hearing stories that are similar to our own. I want my students to feel invited into a larger community of shared symbols and experiences. However, the use of stories in my classroom does not end there. I want them also to experience that pivotal moment of surprise. When the Master Teacher is telling the story of the Great Banquet, He surprises His listeners by the response of those who have been invited to the feast. In a culture where hospitality is greatly esteemed it is a grave insult to decline such a generous invitation and the excuses for doing so are also shocking in their insincerity.

One thing that surprise does for us as learners is that it gives us an opportunity to consider something we thought familiar from a completely different angle. The Master Teacher told stories in a way that startled the listener into active thinking. This is crucial to good teaching as well. The stories we share in class can be a springboard for challenging assumed paradigms, a space for self-examination, and an opportunity for deepening of understanding.

The story of the “Great Banquet” ends with the host of the banquet sending out his servant to invite the poor, the crippled, and the homeless. To the listeners, these would have been considered unacceptable in social settings, but in a startling twist of the story the despised and overlooked and forgotten ones are now the honored guests! Surprise invites us to look again and see anew. Following the Master Teacher’s lead, I want to invite my students to share their own stories as well as discover new perspectives in that moment of surprise when a good story is told.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

  • What are some of your favorite stories? Can you think of stories that would create moments of surprise?
  • What kind of stories do you think your students are bringing with them to class?
  • What kind of stories could be shared that would build community within your class?

Post Author

AlielAliel Cunningham, PhD is an Associate Professor in TESOL at LCC International University in Lithuania. Aliel has experience teaching ESL/EFL in a number of contexts over the past 14 years including Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois in the United States, and England, Kazakhstan, China, and Lithuania. In her free time, she enjoys taking walks, drinking tea with friends, and learning to play the hammer dulcimer.

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This entry was posted on August 20, 2015 by in Aliel Cunningham, this i teach.

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Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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