Storytelling in Memory

 Storytelling: Memories of our Past; Key to our Future

This lovely picture of a path between two rows of birch trees could be part of a story.  It  reminds us, here, that we are looking at storytelling as one of the many pathways to memory.

A pathway passes between two rows of birch tress against blue sky.Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind, quotes Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams .” If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.
— p. 114.

One reason we study history is to  learn the stories of how our countries began and the difficulties we went through. Without these stories, we wouldn’t have such a clear picture of who we are. This is true for all countries. To understand people of a different culture, people with a different history, we need to learn their stories, what it means to them to be a part of their own history.

Most fields of study begin with the stories we tell about those great men and women who first explored the fields. In Math, we should know about Euclid and Pythagoras. In Science it is Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and so many more.

As a Science teacher, I sometimes told my students they could close their textbooks, that it was time for a story. Even my high school seniors looked forward to story time like any eager preschool child. They leaned back in their desks and relaxed. We all understand that storytime is something we enjoy. And, like any good story teller, I always began with the magic words, “Once upon a time.

Of course, I wasn’t telling the usual children’s stories. Mine were stories of science. My favorites were about Galileo and Isaac Newton.  “Once upon a time there was a young man named Isaac. ” I share how terrifying it must have been to have to leave London because of the Plague, of how young Isaac, not much older than they were,  moved to his uncle’s farm out in the country because people on farms were least likely to get sick. I told them how, in the years Isaac spent on the farm,  Isaac had time to think and began work on all his major discoveries.” My students would have forgotten all of this if I taught this in a lecture. But they remembered it because it was a story. We all remember stories.

You might ask what storytelling has to do with memory. Will storytelling help us remember the material we are reading?  It should be a great help, but only if we know or can create a great story related to that content.

I mentioned telling science stories. If you are learning about DNA, you should take time to read the story of Watson, Crick, Rosalind Franklin, and the many other scientists who were in a race to discover the structure of the DNA molecule. The story will stay with you much longer than a list of facts. And the story will carry the facts along with it.

History as OUR STORY

The study of history is not simply who did what in such and such a year. Historians are those brave souls that study the facts and then interpret them. That’s why, if you read the story of the American Revolution, you should really read one account written by an American, and another written by someone in Great Britain. Reading histories of the war written soon after the war would be very different from those written in recent years. It would be interesting to study how the interpretations changed. You might even find descriptions from historians in other countries. The Frenchman might discuss it in terms of their own Revolution. Someone in India or Africa or China might have an entirely different interpretation.

“But,” you object, “There aren’t many stories in my history book.” That may be true. Textbooks often take an interesting subject. The author, by trying to pack the book full of “important” often leaves out the most important parts, the great stories.

I would suggest that, as you study history, you might read other books about that part of history. Read a history of  one of the great figures of the time. If studying the American Civil War, read a book about Lincoln, for example.

Fiction can also be helpful. I have learned more about Victorian England by reading a series of mysteries set in that time than I ever learned in a history class. These stories will make you history textbook come alive.

You probably remember events in your past because either your parents retold the stories, or you told the story. I don’t have any real memories of the time before I started kindergarten, but I remember many stories my parents told. Many of these stories were accompanied by photos that made my apparent memory even more vivid. I don’t  remember the children I played with but I know what they looked like and what I looked like because of the pictures.

How do we use storytelling to improve our memory?

We can use stories for something as simple as learning vocabulary words. If someone didn’t know the meaning of “Prodigal”, the New Testament parable of “The Prodigal Son” would make them remember that word forever.  It might take a little extra time, but creating stories about terms that are especially hard to understand or very important, would help us remember. Retelling the story occasionally would help you remember even longer. Perhaps our teachers, when they told us to write new vocabulary words in sentences were on the right path but didn’t take it far enough to be much help.

We can turn past events into stories to tell ourselves or share with others. These stories help us remember.  These stories could come from the history of your town or world history. They could come from the history of  science or math.  You might do what Brother Blue did, taking the literature you are studying and rewrite it so a five-year-old could understand it  and find the story exciting.

Try science fiction. Imagine that you had a time machine and could go back and visit each of the geological ages.  You would see the trilobites in the oceans. You would watch all the different dinosaurs, perhaps as they attacked and ate another dinosaur.

Perhaps you are interested in political science. You might study the stories used by and about former presidents or other leaders. You might try to create a story that could help people understand the current political situation and, perhaps, help people decide to do something to make the situation better.

Could you create an interesting story about the creation of the United Nations and the work they do?

As you learn public speaking or teaching methods, you need to learn and use relevant stories to get your point across.

When I was taking a class on teaching English as a  second language, we discussed the politicians’ debate on cutting out all transitional classes to help children in their own language while teaching them English. We were asked to write an essay supporting our view of the problem.

My response was a kind of story. I took the name of the key politician who supported the “English only” position. Using him as my main character I told how he’d been selected to travel to Buenos Aires to attend a six-week workshop on political strategies. There were also many social events planned.

He was excited of course. But when he got to the workshop, he discovered that it was run completely in Spanish and that there was nobody in the class who spoke any English. He called his sponsor and asked them to hire a translator.

“Why would you need a translator” the spokesman asked. “We believe in you. We are confident you can learn Spanish while  learning the political strategies in the workshop. You said children could learn English, learn to read, and learn their other subjects by the immersion method. Certainly, if a child can do this without instruction, you can do it easily. We are looking forward to your report on what you learned.”

Storytelling is not pure invention, a series of lies. It is a way to tell important truths, in a way that is easy to remember.

Let’s take one final story, the miracle story of Edward Hughes who goes from mediocre student to one of the best students ever, because he learned a new method of learning.  Yes, like you, I really hope the story is historically true. It would be encouraging to know a person could change his life so radically.

But even if the story was exaggerated greatly, even if the story was created from someone’s imagination, the story is still true. And this is why I tell the story. We hear the story and learn from the methods he used. They really work. We read what he accomplished, and we believe we could do the same thing, After all, we were good students in high school. This story helps us remember our own potential. We can make top grades, we can do great things in life, if we will only commit ourselves completely to the task.

We might say it’s a parable. Many religions use parables to communicate important ideas.  Are they historically true? Probably no,t but it doesn’t matter. If that parable helps us understand and remember how we should live our lives and treat other people, it is true. In fact, it is more true than the everyday events in your life.

Links to other pathways of memory:

Practical Memory                          Rote Memory                     Mnemonics (memory tricks)

Visual Memory                              Auditory Memory                             Kinesthetic Memory

Relational Memory                      Emotional Memory

Multiple Pathways                       Scheduled Reviews             research: Processing Memory

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