There is something incredibly compelling about a well-told story. In fact, it is one of the most powerful tools we possess. For most of human history, oral stories were the primary way that knowledge and tradition were passed down through generations. But the modern classroom is often devoid of stories. Information is most often delivered through bland lectures and textbooks, only to be discarded.

As a high school history and English teacher in Michigan, I am always trying to connect my students’ learning to stories outside the classroom. I teach using many elements of project-based learning, but try to fuse the elements of a story into the subject matter of every unit. Every story must have an exposition, a beginning that starts the adventure.

Finding the Spark

When I met a refugee named Danysa through a local social-work agency several years ago, I asked if she would be willing to share her story with my students. I wanted them to learn more about Danysa’s experience and see what they could do to help refugees like her assimilate to the city they now call home.

Danysa was forced to escape to a refugee camp in Kenya during the Rwandan genocide, and lived there for years on rice and corn. When she arrived in Grand Rapids more than a decade later, she had never heard of snow. She’d never used a light switch or a microwave. For many refugees who come to the United States, struggling to adapt to the modern technological world is very common.

My students were moved by Danysa’s tale of survival. Her experience left them unsettled, introducing a conflict that disrupted their ordinary world and set them on a journey to solve it.

And as their teacher, I provided them with a space to do so. My classroom was no longer four walls where they learned history and language arts. Instead, it became a setting for a plot to unfold. The plight of local refugees and their struggles became much more real to them—so much so that they decided to take action.