Link your stories to students’ lives

Through LinkedIn, I met a graduate student who coordinates the Gerontology Student Association meetings at the University of Southern California. She was intrigued that I am writing books about nursing home visiting and thought other students would also be interested in my experience and perspectives. She invited me to talk to the group via Zoom this past Tuesday.

I organized my presentation in terms of three historical periods—the Baby Boom era of 1945-1970, the Vietnam Era of 1970-1995, and what I call “the Angry Era,” 1995-2020—and the newly-launched Epidemic Era, which will last longer than I will.

The online session was a vivid reminder why I miss teaching college students. On Zoom, I could see them processing what I was saying: it was almost as if students’ skulls were transparent.

What made their eyes light up with an “oh, yeah, I see that” expression were stories about what people did in response to historical events.

As teachers, I fear we often forget that ever since there have been people, those people have learned through stories about their world, how it functions, and how other people in it are likely to behave. People forget facts; they rarely forget how facts affected them. The affect of facts become the stories of a person’s life.

I revisit my teaching in terms of stories.

As I think back on my teaching experiences, I remember stories.

I remember the little boy in the class of multiply handicapped children who banged his leg braces on the floor and yelled with glee, “See what Wuss dooze!” as his hyperactive buddy named Russell, whose birth defect that prevented him from speaking but didn’t keep him from exploring, investigated every aspect of the classroom.

I remember the college freshman who literally broke into a sweat and shook when he was faced with a blank piece of paper. And I remember the story I concocted to get him to write without letting any of the other students notice he had a problem. The class was at 4 p.m. and most students were coming from work so I had the entire class write at the beginning of each class about whatever was on their minds for one minute without stopping , starting with 3×5-inch pieces of paper.

Like me, you also probably remember stories about students you taught far better than your remember their names.

As you prepare to teach future classes, keep alert to opportunities to tell students stories that will fix some important aspect of your material in students’ minds so it can’t readily shake loose. Your students will remember stories you used as teaching tools far better than they will remember facts you tried to drill into their noggins.

I’m going to remember the story Yingxue, my USC gerontology student hostess, told me about how the Chinese traditionally make a peach-shaped, steamed cake with red bean paste for older adults as a birthday gift. For my birthday, which happened to fall on the day of my presentation, Yingxue, drew me this cartoon representation of the Chinese god of longevity, 寿星 (Shou Xing), who holds a peach.

That’s a story and a gift I’m not likely to forget soon.

©2022 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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