Tell Me More: How Storytelling and Teaching Goes Hand in Hand

When I was at Butler, my freshmen English teacher had us write an essay on character development for a book we were reading. When the professor handed back the essays, I had gotten an A. Of course, I was happy, but the professor had also left me a note asking if I would stay after class to talk to him.


So I stay after and walk into the professor’s office, I was a little nervous, but figured I had just gotten an A, so I had nothing to worry about right? When I entered the office, he was just sitting there staring at me. After what seemed like an eternity I said: “you wanted to talk to me, professor?”




Was the first thing out of the professor’s mouth, this blew my mind, and also scared the shit out of me. I had never gotten in trouble throughout high school. And I without a doubt had never been cussed at by a teacher.


He then started to explain to me that the essay I had handed in was perfect. That he could put this in a textbook or sell it, you’ve got your introduction, thesis, a great quote, great transitions, and a great conclusion. He had no choice but to give me an A on the paper.


The professor asked me how long it took me to write the essay. Although it had taken me a few hours; he seemed to think I had fired it off in about an hour. His point was although the essay was textbook perfect, that it looked like I chose the easiest thing for me to write.


I didn’t challenge myself, he knew I could do more than this, he wanted me to extend myself, to get uncomfortable. My professor wanted me to take risks, and he was aware of what I wasn’t, that I was capable of doing much more than the status quo.


This story is something my friend Ryan Scanlan tells his students at North Central High School every year to ignite further engagement and empower their creativity. It’s one of the many ideas and uses of storytelling that Ryan employs that parallels my work in marketing.


To say a simple story can be a powerful element of motivation and communication is an understatement. A narrative that is compelling and exciting can teach more than a textbook any day. Storytelling humanizes learning and can connect the characters and their principles to your life. Stories let us see the world from another perspective, and learn something that otherwise might not have been possible.


I recently sat down with Ryan to find out how he uses storytelling and other tactics that we commonly talk about in the marketing world.



What classes do you teach at North Central?


Ryan – I teach only 12th graders now, so recently I have taught English 12, Genres of Literature, Creative Writing, Expository Writing, Etymology, W131 (IU freshmen English) and L202 (IU Sophomore Literature).


So how do you use storytelling in your classroom?


Ryan – Well one way I use storytelling is for classroom management. I try and find out the kid’s backstory, where they come from, what issues outside of school they may be facing. All of these factors educates me on the kid and what possible issues I will be facing with them throughout the year. Knowing these kids stories also lets me craft lessons for them on a more individual basis when I can.


Brandon – So you look into student’s persona’s when thinking about crafting lessons?


Ryan – Yea, I look into their history, and interests, their background, and their culture. Their socioeconomic background also can come into play. I attempt to know them on a much more personal basis for anything I am teaching to be effective. The students own story helps me teach them better.


Brandon – We do similar research for clients, knowing our client’s pain points and what issues they face as a business helps us formulate a strategy for their marketing and branding efforts, it also helps me put their story as a company into words.


Are there certain stories that work better with your kids?


Ryan – Anything Shakespeare, although they are immediately turned off by the language. They think it’s too wordy, too flowery, and they always ask why it isn’t simpler. So one of my challenges as a teacher is to get them past the language, I always tell them that you would love these stories, there is sex, violence, and drugs, everything you love about modern movies and television.


I teach Othello to my English 12 students. Before we begin, I start by comparing rap lyrics to poetry. Last year we looked at Macklemore songs, and I had them paraphrase the lyrics of a song. Afterward, I have them look at what they wrote and compare that to the original and see which they like better. Of course, they like the original with the use of illusions, metaphors, and storytelling that Macklemore uses in his songs.


Brandon – This is something our clients struggle with as well. They have trouble understanding why we do certain things in marketing, like why they need to figure out what their brand story is, or why it’s in their best interest to have a blog or sometimes why they even need a website. I need to figure out a Macklemore example to show our clients.


Ryan – For sure, when we get to Othello I have students think of personal stories that relate to what’s happening in the story they are reading, the comparison helps them connect with Othello and the characters better.


So do you use modern examples to make the material more relatable as well?


Ryan – For the regular English 12 students we will bring in graphic novel versions of Othello where the language is tamed down. Especially the dialogue is simplified. The company that makes the graphic novels also have different versions that gradually get closer to the straight version.


Brandon – So you use different materials for kids at the various stages of learning?


Yea for the college level courses, we use more straight versions, because we are looking for deeper understanding and analysis of the characters and plot. Where the lower classes are getting simplified versions so, they can grasp the story. Students who are struggling with the material, are provided with different material like SparkNotes that will help them understand it better.


We also show a couple of different film versions of Othello like the one with Laurence Fishburne, and then we also use cd versions so they can hear the material being read with the correct tone and inflection. In the end, we show “O” which is a modern version they can connect and relate to more than some of the older versions.


Brandon – This is something we try to do as well. We use different types of materials, depending on where people are in their customer journey with us. Just like the kids hearing about Shakespeare for the first time, you want to introduce them to the material in a different way. Individually tailoring your content to where people are in their journey is super important.


Ryan – Yea we are pushing lately for more individualized learning for students, that fits exactly where the student in his education, not just teach to the middle.


Are there any stories, or subjects you enjoy teaching?


Ryan – I always try to bring in personal stories that relatable, whether it’s a story of me in high school or something I went to through.
With my w131 class we are trying to get kids out of their comfort zone, so they can write and hand in an excellent essay, and not just hand in a boring 5 paragraph essay that they have been trained to write up until this point.


So we push them to come up with new and original ideas, and go past the surface level points, and to take risks. To do this, I like to tell them a story from when I was a freshman at Butler (Story at the top of the page).


It’s all about voice, we teach kids to take their voice out of their papers throughout school, and then they get to their senior year, and we ask for them to put that voice back in, and some kids struggle with that.



Educators use stories to reach and connect with their students better. These stories will stay with these students much longer than facts or statistics. The better storytellers we become, the better we can all be in our professions. Whether we work in marketing or are shaping young minds, it’s a skill we can’t afford to ignore.


Storytelling is so much more than telling stories to promote your business. It is an essential marketing technique that has a crucial place in your sales strategy. This strategic approach focuses on creating engaging and exciting stories that make the customers come to you and not the other way around.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.