Storytelling in my Classroom

Adrian Neibauer
6 min readJan 22, 2023
Photo by Elliot Sloman on Unsplash

It is standard practice that Elementary-aged students write personal narratives in school. Every year, from Kindergarten through the fifth grade, students recount memories from their childhoods: trips to the Emergency Room, vacations, pets, siblings, etc. I have read so many stories that begin, “When I was six…

Unfortunately, students are not rewarded for telling a good story. They are graded on certain elements of a personal narrative: introduction, plot, characters, setting, and conflict (conflict and resolution are assessed more in middle and high school). If students can fill out a graphic organizer, include chronological details from a memory, and write a story with a beginning, middle, and end, they get a good grade.

This is not storytelling.

This is “faux-writing” as described by John Warner, author and writing teacher, in his book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018) and The Writer’s Practice (2019). Faux writing has the appearance of writing, but lacks the real composition that actual writers do. Ask any teacher. When students are required to write a personal narrative, how many raise their hands and ask to write about what they wrote about last year? At least half of my students always ask because they found a topic that fits with their fourth-grade teacher’s expectations and earned them a passing grade. They want to finish the assignment as quickly as possible move onto something else (preferably not writing).

This is not storytelling. This is assignment completion.

All kids inevitably hurt themselves between the ages of 0 and 10. Most students will have experienced some sort of family event with which they can write about in school. However, these prompts don’t tell me much about my students’ lives. These assignments don’t tell me about their inner strengths and weaknesses. These faux-stories don’t tell me about who my students really are as complex and beautiful humans.

There is rarely emotion in their accounts. Students recall a list of facts, sprinkle in some transition words and maybe even add some dialogue for extra credit. Great stories are told; not read. Or as Jenn Maer, Design Director at IDEO states:

“Great stories tell us something about what it means to be human.”

The Moth is a non-profit group based in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Since 1997, they have hosted thousands of theme-based storytelling events across the United States, as well as created amazing educational resources for teachers and students. The Moth Education Program works with young people and educators to build community through storytelling workshops, performances and innovative resources.

The Moth has three core values:

We believe that processing experience through narrative can provide insight and agency.

We believe that listening to stories can widen our perspective and help us realize what we have in common.

We believe that a community is strengthened when its members share stories with one another.

I cannot afford to attend one of The Moth’s workshops, but that has not stopped me from incorporating these beliefs into my classroom. I want my students to be vulnerable with their storytelling. I want my students to feel that their story matters. I want my students to connect with each other through the stories they tell.

So, using an online curriculum created in collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy, I begin each year introducing my students to the art of storytelling and character development from Pixar directors and story artists. Students analyze Pixar shorts and identify important plot structures. We look at character development, world creation and emotionality.

This first story, using Pixar in a Box as our guide, is a palate cleanser for my students. I want them to question their ideas of what it means to write a personal narrative for a teacher. Can they develop their characters (usually family members) in a way that makes them as memorable as Gerri from Geri’s Game? Can they communicate deep emotions (think Finding Nemo) to the audience? How might they use a personal experience to create a story that is as engaging as Toy Story or WALL-E?

After this introduction and initial narrative draft, I double-down on storytelling as an act of agency, perspective and community. Everyone has a story and every story has value. Using the Story Spine by playwright Kenn Adams, students structure their next stories into three acts: inciting incident, midpoint, climax.

I then use the Moth Story Slam as a backdrop to the culmination of our storytelling learning experience. I call it our Moth Story Slam Learning Experience. It’s time for students to get up on stage and tell their stories!

Each year, I recreate the look and feel of a live storytelling event like The Moth does on stages throughout the country. I want my students to feel instead of just think. Together, we spend weeks watching and analyzing Moth stories from high school students, taking notes on pacing, voice inflection, emotionality, and storytelling.

Telling great stories is what connects us as humans. Storytelling allows us to digest information more easily because it connects information to our emotions. Storytelling is important because it is effective at teaching in a way that people can easily remember, and at helping people relate to one another. When my students listen to other high school students tell about their experiences in authentic and emotional ways, they feel pulled into the story. They learn about love, loss and resolving conflict; navigating first days of school and first dates; getting new pets and bad haircuts and maybe even getting into trouble. They connect to each story. They connect to the storyteller.

When students tell their stories in front of their peers, they learn how the narrative process helps them gain insight and agency. This is no longer just a personal narrative that gets turned in for a grade. When students tell their stories on stage behind a microphone, they expand their perspectives and better understand points of view. They feel how telling their story moves the audience. We don’t judge the stories. We listen. This is no longer just an assignment. When I record students telling their stories, they connect with one another and form a stronger classroom community.

This is storytelling.



Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.