Finding Understanding through Storytelling

by Deborah Alvarez

I realized the importance of storytelling as I spent two years studying the effects of Hurricane Katrina on writing literacy in New Orleans, where I examined how secondary teachers and students were using writing in and out of school. Since then, I have been conducting research on the effects of the Haitian earthquake upon literacy by collecting stories from a group of young Haitian English teachers.

The stories we live in and create every day are the ways we find meaning and understanding in trauma, tragedy, discovery and comedy. They paint a picture of our lives. The act of telling a story about a personal event, even in its most simple form, is the most important way to discover meaning and find transformative resolution in daily experiences and tragic or traumatic events.

Think about it. we can use storytelling:

  • to record our lives
  • to create intimate spaces
  • to be entertained
  • to learn through the fog of stresses
  • to make meaning of seemingly unrelated events and situations that happen to us.

Through these story telling acts, we learn. Whether our narratives are shared around the table or in writing, telling a story is essential for discovering what is important. Additionally, the medical and psychological evidence is mounting that storytelling, especially after a traumatic event, has a positive impact upon our mental and physical health. My own research with adolescents and writing testifies to the psychological benefits of telling stories about critical life events and the need for “Writing to Survive,” even when this it is not sponsored by any curricula in school.

Photo reads, "Heal."

Photo by Steve Snodgrass

I found benefits of storytelling not only in my research, but also in teaching. In the course Narrative Writing: Trauma and Tragedy to Story, I used Gabrielle Lusser Rico’s book The Power of Story to show students how to bring their own stories into a written narrative. My students and I read additional texts that mirrored what we were trying to write: Into Thin Air, Infidel, 1 Dead in the Attic, The Wild Truth and Paula, as well as a piece by a student who witnessed the collapse of the towers on 9/11. When we read this piece in class, another of my students cried. She told us that she was sitting in a 6th grade classroom in Manhattan when the towers collapsed. She lost her uncle that day. This revelation helped us to create a storytelling environment where we could tell, write, and reflect upon some of our most sensitive and critical life events.  We would use them to open new avenues for communicating and learn to tell our stories with greater power and effect by naming what we had experienced, giving it voice, shape, and sound. My student’s personal connections to another student’s story showed us that a story could change a life.

My point is that we all have stories to tell, and the telling of our daily life events is emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually relevant to our health and humanity. As parents and professionals, we need to build storytelling into our lives. Teachers of writing have to do more than just give students stories to read; we have to guide them into writing about their lives as a regular practice. Adolescence is full of traumatic experiences, and as part of making sense of these tumultuous years, narrative storytelling should be taught throughout the curriculum.

Most of my adult or adolescent writers experience a transforming moment when they read a final version of the story for an audience. It seems the struggle to put the words on the page suspends the full meaning of their words until a moment of sharing brings release and understanding. The writers often let go of the powerful emotions that fueled the story or discover release in a new understanding of the events that guided that story. The description of tragedy, along with the naming of powerful feelings, fosters the crucial intersection of awareness and personal power over the events in the stories.

It amazes me how little space exists in our world for telling about the powerful events, and sometimes not so obvious powerful events, that shape our lives.  When my students have the space to write and tell without blame or shame, they can find a mature understanding of those tragic and emotional situations and discover a personal resiliency that seems to allow them to move beyond the crisis event.  

So, when you are around the family dinner table, ask questions and listen to stories about the events in our lives, no matter how small. Encourage and welcome these stories and recognize their importance in each person’s life. It exists in the questions we often take for granted. Mean it when you ask someone, “How are you?”  “What’s happening? “or  “Are you OK? “These small inquiries can precipitate storytelling opportunities that help make learning and meaning of the crazy life events manageable and transformative, and a little less lonely.

Listen to stories others tell.  Write your own stories. Teach students to write narratives that analyze a life event, or explore a personal tragedy. Narration at its best teaches the very things we want students to learn about organizing ideas, using better word choice, and finding complex meanings. With a dual purpose and effect, they learn the very things about writing that empty essay writing has never been able to teach them.  Telling and writing stories has the power to change a life.



Prof. Deborah Alvarez teaches at the University of Delaware, where she teaches methods of teaching writing, grammar, narrative and expository composition courses. Her research frames how disaster, violence and abuse crises affect the literacy practices of adolescents and pedagogical practices of teachers in English Language Arts. She has created a handout for interested readers that shares tips for teaching narrative.

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2 thoughts on “Finding Understanding through Storytelling

  1. Thanks for this, Deborah. I just received an email from a visiting scholar who participated in our Summer Institute at the National Writing Project site that I direct. Two months later, back in her home county, she is still marveling at the power of writing about her life. Being able to write the story of her time in the U.S., and her transition back home, is helping her make sense of both places in ways she did not expect. It is not just adolescents, nor it is just dramatic experiences, that need storytelling. Stories are how we understand the world. Our minds are made for stories, to paraphrase (& slightly misquote) Tom Newkirk’s great book.

    • I read Tom’s book, and yes, I agree our mind’s are made for stories. I am just amazed how this form has been subjugated to the expository forms. I understand why and how, but getting to word out teachers at all levels not to negate this genre is teaching the necessary components of communicating effectively and personally.

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