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3.03 Storytelling and Memorable Metaphors


Truth, goodness, and beauty are often felt most deeply when they are encountered in a story. Wonder is not something that you can just sprinkle on top of your scope and sequence. The myths of the ancients and the master literary works of our tradition have taught us as much. Monsters are not slain, mysteries are not unraveled, and lovers are not united on page one nor casually inserted between chapters nor displayed at intermissions. Wonder is most felt embedded in story. The best teachers are also marvelous storytellers and masters of metaphor. Jamie Smith writes in Desiring the Kingdom, “All of the work of the Christian school or college needs to be nested in the bigger story… because the story is the first language of love.”


Remember that in the 1990’s reformers gave attention to the findings of TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Stigler and Hiebert in their book The Teaching Gap noted this significant contrast between classroom lessons in Japan versus those in the United States: “In Japan, classroom lessons held a privileged place in the activities of the school. It would be exaggerating only a little to say they are sacred. They are treated much as we treat lectures in university courses or religious services in church. A great deal of attention is given to their development. They are planned as complete experiences – as stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Their meaning is found in the connections between the parts. If you stay for only the beginning, or leave before the end, you miss the point (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999).”


It is fascinating to me that certain “emerging” best practices resonate with the ancient practices of our tradition. Classical education first emerged in dominantly oral cultures wherein culture was taught and preserved through stories – the myths of antiquity. Essential questions and enduring understandings (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) were wrapped up in stories replete with fantastic imagery, metaphor, heroic journeys, tragic characters, and poetic language that recruited the imaginations of the people and formed the collective memory of the culture. In the transition from orality to literacy, the role of myth as a preserver of culture faded and an appreciation for myth as an instructional tool also waned. Now living in the wake of scientific rationalism, we teach in a culture that has lost respect for the power of myth to order and to organize thought and to convey universal principles (Levi-Strauss, 1979). Our instruction is stripped of narrative arcs, metaphors, and vivid representations. It is less memorable and because it lacks connotative language, it is less transformative (Hicks, 1981).Reviving the pedagogy of our tradition will require us to restore what author David Hicks has called a “mythopoeic pedagogy”, that is, instruction rich in story and metaphor.


For some of us this means we must do the hard work of learning the history of our discipline – a history already rich with its own stories waiting to be told and metaphors ready to be contemplated. Then we can begin to re-integrate stories of exploration, discovery, experimentation, invention, controversy, philosophical debate and revolution back into disciplines that have for too long been deemed inhumane – that is, we can re-humanize even the hard sciences.


Yet we need not wait to become historians before we begin reviving other elements, perhaps the most powerful elements, of the ancient art of teaching through story and metaphor. Our lessons can be designed to emulate those characteristics of the ancient myths that made the myths compelling and memorable. Our lessons, like great stories, should build expectations that are satisfied, create tensions and conflict to be resolved, contrast binary oppositions, be filled with action and be laced with vivid metaphors.


Let me share with you one of my more favorite mathematical metaphors and perhaps not my most brilliant moment in hosting prospective parents in my classroom. While teaching at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia, I was explaining to students, through a story, why the numerators of fractions are added together to determine the new numerator of the sum while the denominator of the sum remains the same. The story had already begun when the prospective parents were toured through my room and so there was no turning back. So I pressed on.


Students, my children convinced me to buy a dog, assuring me that they would be responsible for picking up its poop. Yet, just two weeks ago I walked out into my yard and fond a turd on the ground and then another. I carried each turd on the palm of a separate hand into the house and with a tone of frustration in my voice, said to my children, “What is this?”, as I held out one dog turd before them. They responded, “One turd.” Then I pulled the other hand out from behind my back and said, “And what is this?” They responded again, “Another turd.” I shouted, “What am I to make of this?”. They answered simply, “Two turds.” 


Then last week I found a metal fork in their sandbox and then another. My children had taken the silverware out into the yard to dig and scrape out holes in the sand.  Again, with strong and heavy steps I marched inside and said, as I held out one fork, “What is this?” They answered, “One fork.” I pulled out the other hand from behind my back and said, “And what is this?” They responded again, “Another fork.” I shouted, “What am I to make of this?” They answered calmly, “Two forks.”


And believe it or not, even after these two rebukes, just yesterday I found another turd and another fork in my backyard. I stormed inside, held out one turd on the palm of my hand and said, “I have found another turd and another fork! What am I to make of this?” With the prospective parents still at the back of the room, I mimicked holding a fork and stabbing it into the turd in my other hand to take a bite. The students reeled at the grotesqueness of this imagined morsel. I then explained to them that 1/3 plus 1/3 equals 2/3 and furthermore, that ¼ plus ¼ equals 2/4 and that we would have to save the matter of how to add 1/3 to ¼ for another time.


You might find this exemplary metaphor and imagery too bizzare or perhaps even inappropriate but I don’t think it will be forgotten. Note that in Ad Herennium, one of three ancient Latin sources for the classical art of memory, the author wishing to remember the circumstances of a murder, constructed the following image: “We shall imagine the man in question as lying ill in bed, if we know him personally. If we do not know him, we shall yet take some one to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, in his left, tablets, and on the fourth finger, a ram’s testicles. In this way we can have in memory that man who was poisoned, the witnesses, and the inheritance (Yates, 1966).”


Professor of education, Kieran Egan, has done much work to help us understand other compelling elements of story beyond just turds and testicles. In his book, Teaching as Storytelling, he writes: “A model for teaching that draws on the power of the story, then, will ensure that we set up a conflict or sense of dramatic tension at the beginning of our lessons and units. Thus we create some expectation that we will satisfy at the end. It is this rhythm of expectation and satisfaction that will give us a principle for precisely selecting content (Egan, 1986).”


Then, in a work published just this last year titled Imagination and the Engaged Learner, Egan writes: “…Good/evil, rich/poor, freedom/constraint, hope/despair, strange/familiar, and power/helplessness are binary oppositions that engage students’ emotions with the content of the story. …Abstract and affectively engaging oppositions are cognitive tools that children internalize as they learn an oral language; they are a feature of oral language itself. What this means for teachers is that this method of forming oppositions is already part of a child’s intellectual toolkit once they have learned to speak with any fluency. …Most teachers were not taught in their teacher training classes to consider the emotionally charged oppositions in the topics they teach; we certainly were not. Finding such oppositions, however, is a vital step for making the content we teach emotionally and imaginatively engaging for students, as well as making it understandable (Egan, 2016).”


The storyteller’s presentation of opposites is not intended to offer students extremes with which they can identify, but rather extremes between which their own stories exist, thereby bookending a spectrum of human emotion and experience that they can identify with and engage. Author Anthony Esolen has said that one way to destroy the imagination of a child is to make everyone a hero and as a result make nobody a hero – to flatten and equalize all characters, to leave nothing to aspire to and no spectrum within which a child’s imagination can roam and exist (Esolen, 2010). May we not flatten the heroes and villains of our curriculum.


Like Egan, other authors have also noted critical elements of story lost in the transition from orality to literacy. In his work titled The Muse Learns to Write, Eric Havelock has observed that with this transition academic language became and continues to be more concerned with static facts than dynamic stories filled with action, personification and metaphor. Havelock notes that modern translation theory reflects this shift in favoring the verb “to be” over the verb “to do.” He offers us the opening lines of Oedipus Rexas his example wherein the common English translation opens with the lines “The town is heavy with a mingled burden of sounds and smells” rather than a closer interpretation of the original Greek that might read “The city altogether bulges with incense burnings.” An atomistic grammatical structure in the English translation masks the dynamic imagery of the Greek – a city that turns itself into a pregnant woman or a packed container bulging and burning(Havelock, 1986).


In his work titled Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong describes this shift as an objectification of knowledge that depersonalizes information and removes learning from the arena of human story and struggle, thereby separating the knower from the known (Ong, 1982). Dehumanized content distances our students from our curriculum, making them objective observers rather than empathetic participants.


Compelling stories build expectations, create tensions, contrast extremes, describe human struggles and offer us memorable metaphors in the form of vivid imagery. In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle claims that “metaphor, gives style, clearness, charm, and distinction as noting else can (Aristotle, ~350 BC). Likewise in his work On Poetics, he notes that, “It is a great thing, indeed to make a proper use of the poetical forms, as also of compounds and strange words. But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor (Aristotle, ~350 BC).” 


This appreciation of metaphor is not limited to Aristotle. For all of the ancients, the practice of memorization was not one of rote recitation but instead a practice of building “memory palaces.” Memories were preserved through sequencing an imaginative collection of strikingly beautiful or ugly images representing actual ideas and experiences. Recollection was an act of journeying through a palace, stepping into rooms decorated with metaphor.


In his book Teaching and Christian Imagination, David Smith helps us re-envision our teaching, likening it unto the building of such palaces through story. He writes: “One way to think more richly about our classrooms, curricula, syllabi, and daily pedagogical decisions is to imagine that we are constructing with our students intricate story houses. Our teaching/learning encounters build a place that we inhabit together and a dynamic narrative that gives that place a particular kind of life. The shape of a class over a semester or a year takes on the dimensions of both place and story. Sometimes we think of stories simply as pleasant, direct, and efficient means to an end... A moment’s reflection, however, reminds us that the stories we best love resemble more a house with fascinating hallways and odd little rooms and a kitchen with an old Aga stove, a house where you can hide from your mother’s voice and curl up with another good book, a house that becomes its own little world. When we think of stories as houses we enter, recognizing how multi-layered and three-dimensional they are, they invite us to wander about. They surprise us, shaping our feelings and imaginations as well as our ideas and beliefs (Smith, 2011).”


May the read-aloud story time carpet circles of our grammar school classrooms not be the only place where the imaginations of our students run wild. Let me conclude this third session with my favorite lyric from a Greg Brown song. Describing himself playing with his cousins while his aunts fried chicken for the family reunion dinner, Brown sings, “It was getting dark outside, you know, adult dark but not kid dark and we were running through the woods and our imaginations all at the same time.” 



  1. ​How have you been able to capture students’ attention through stories and metaphors? Are there stories that you are not telling? Why not? Are there concepts that you are teaching that can be enhanced and made more memorable and even understandable through story or metaphor?

  2. What are the dangers of dehumanizing our curriculum and reducing our student to an objective observer of events and information?

  3. How might we restore memorization as an art of recollection rather than as an act of mechanical/robotic parrot-like recitation?

  4. When and how do we encourage students to exercise their imaginations?



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