The Power of Storytelling

Photo by NiseriN

Everyone loves a good story. For generations, people of all ages and backgrounds have entertained one other with their exploits and adventures, sometimes fanciful, sometimes not. Stories can be told over dinner, sung in a song, enacted on stage, painted on canvas, or printed in a book. They can be long, short, sad, uplifting, serious or funny. You don’t need much to create a story, other than a couple of ideas and a voice or pen and paper. And yet, for such a simple tool, its benefits are prolific.

For example, my 85-year-old mother reads to me from her diaries. She can no longer follow the plot of a television show, a book, or even a conversation, but she sure can recount a day in her life as a teenaged girl in small-town Ontario. As she reads, she does a few eye rolls, embellishes, gestures, and intones her words with relish. Her vivid portrayals allow me to see her, to feel her, as though I’m watching an old 1950s movie reel, but in full colour.

The rewards for both of us are remarkable. My mom gets to relive her past and, at least for a while, transition from the anxieties of not remembering to remembering in extraordinary detail. She also takes delight in sharing her memories with me. As for me, I get to see a whole different side of my mom, to learn about her experiences, hopes and insecurities as a young person, and to get a real glimpse of what life was like back then. The absolute best thing, though, is how the experience brings us closer together.

One afternoon, as I drove home from one of these visits with my mom, I pledged to myself that I would integrate more storytelling in the classroom. Think about the outcomes. Students can integrate elements we’ve been working on in class – from narration and description to grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. They can enhance their digital skills through voiceovers, illustrations, and animations. And the beauty of storytelling is in the breadth of modalities. Students can pick an option that works best for them, be it print, audio or video.

In my twelve years of teaching, I have seen lots of changes, but there are constants too. And one is the love of sharing stories, whether it be through a class conversation, an online chat, a discussion post, or email. It makes sense, too. After all, many of our students are newcomers to Canada and have powerful stories to tell about the challenges they’ve encountered back home, the difficulties adapting to their lives here, or the feelings of loss after leaving their families or losing relatives to war. And, of course, they are eager to share their excitement about their new lives and pride in their homelands.

The power of storytelling for immigrants has been recognized by various immigration centres in Canada. One in particular caught my attention: a Toronto-based non-profit organization called the Department of Imaginary Affairs, created in 2022. Their Stories of Us initiative is a collection of short stories created by newcomers in 15 different languages accompanied by English translations. According to CEO Jennifer Chan, the project was motivated by the dearth of interesting and appropriate materials for adult immigrants to read. The stories are posted in the organization’s ESL library and prepared for different levels of comprehension in line with the Canadian Language benchmark standards. In addition, they come with ready-made lesson plans for each level. See examples by browsing their library here.

I have used digital storytelling assignments in the past. In each case, I had students incorporate writing and grammar structures that we were working on, such as “showing versus telling,” subordinate clauses, and different tenses. I had them create stories about their lives back home and incorporate images and voiceovers. Then they posted their work to the class library, where I asked them to read and comment on at least six of their peers’ creations.

Just as my mom finds reading her stories validating and cathartic, so do the students. When I asked them for feedback about their digital story project, the number one response was how much they enjoyed learning about each other’s lives and cultures. And they didn’t even notice that they met some course outcomes along the way. What can be better than that?

I’m Jennifer Hutchison and I teach EAP and communications at George Brown College in Toronto. I have also taught courses in sociolinguistics in the English Foundation Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. In my spare time, I write short stories, read, exercise, and bake (the last two are codependent). Teaching English is my passion. I am curious about the world around me and feel fortunate to have that world brought to me every day in the classroom. Nevertheless, I took a circuitous route to discover this passion. After my undergraduate degree in French and translation, I worked as a translator and then veered off into writing and editing, which I did from home while I raised my children (four of them!). In none of these positions (except, possibly, childrearing) was I helping anybody, so I returned to school, launched my ESL career, and have never looked back. I look forward to working with you and sharing experiences and strategies on the Blog!


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