Engaging historical empathy through Storyline

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I love walking with my kids to and from school.  The rhythm of walking, breathing in fresh air and the changing environment, leads to all sorts of conversations.  We’ve talked about the size of galaxies and the plot twists of tv shows, the nature of pathogens and the character of different professions.  Often, it’s a time for Olive and Theo to bring up things that are frustrating them.

“I’m mad at the king,” Theo told me on the way home Monday.  “When I was a messenger during the war, he didn’t care about us colonists.  Then, he made it so we can’t move west.  Now, I have to pay every time I turn in papers to Jan.”  In quick step, my ten year old son had reflected on the colonial experience of the French and Indian War, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and the Stamp Act.  He had done so with a motivating sense of historical empathy and imagination, gifts endowed with deft elegance by his teacher, Jan Zuckerman, using the Storyline approach.

Jan has long been using Storyline to lead students to this kind of depth of understanding across disciplinary lines.  Her use of the approach results in students caring about the past.  In her hands, Storyline is immersive, engaging students wholly, drawing them in using multiple access points: emotional, intelletual, visual, auditory, artistic… 

Students develop characters, based on primary and secondary sources.  They build a world in which those characters interact. Things happen in that world:  Royal dictates, crises, and conflicts that keep students thinking about multiple perspectives, options and consequences.  The landscape of their learning is guided by the world they’ve created, represented on one of the classroom walls (pictured above.)  Their imaginary land is guided by historical sources that give them room to respond independently and analytically while developing insights into the past. 

I strongly encourage teachers to think about using Storyline – I’ve seen it effectively employed with students as young as kindergarten through high school, and across disciplinary lines.  If you’d like to discuss my experiences with Storyline, drop me a line!

Links to learn more: 


3 responses to “Engaging historical empathy through Storyline

  1. Matt,
    I stumbled upon this blog last night, and have been seeking information about Storyline ever since! I discovered I had Jeff Creswell’s book, and read half of it last night. (He actually came to a workshop I was attending a few years ago, and I forgot that I had the book until I saw your links.) I would love to know more about the Storyline depicted above in your son’s classroom. Is there any chance of learning more about his teacher’s plan . . . a book I can purchase or something?

  2. Hi, Sandi –
    Thanks for visiting the blog and leaving the comment. Jeff’s book is a great place to start. In it, he provides a conceptual framework for the work and a structure for planning Storyline, which is organized around “Episodes” – like chapters of a book or acts of a play – and guiding questions that inspire student response. To further understand the approach and connect with a community that will keep you moving forward, Storyline Design offers classes in the Portland/Vancouver area regularly for teachers at all stages of experience.
    There are very few Storyline “units” freely available online. Storyline Design sells several packets: titles are posted here. Jan Zuckerman has offered to share the unit you requested; I’ll mail it to you separately.
    If you’d like to explore Storyline further, let me know: I’m happy to come out to your school and work with you!

  3. I just received this message from teacher Sandi Babbitt. I’m hoping her courage and enthusiasm is contagious!

    An update on the Storyline: We are finally landed, and the town is built! The kids are doing a fantastic job of writing with voice as their character in their journals. I have a boy who hates to write suddenly writing a full page almost daily and it’s great!

    Last Wednesday I had the honor of having the school superintendent and two other district personnel watch and learn as the kids learned further about the French and Indian war and the impact the war had on the American colonists. They really impressed the visitors with their engagement and involvement in trying to answer the focus question about the impact on them as they are coming to American in 1760. It was fanatastic! I used dozens of pictures and text from various sources I found either in books or the web.

    At our staff meeting yesterday, Judi (our principal) asked me to share and then she spoke to the staff about how energized our visitors were visiting our classroom. It was pretty cool!

    Today King George III is being crowned, and tomorrow we swoop ahead to the Proclamation of 1763. Then we will be hitting the various acts and taxes, but I don’t want to go beyond Lexington/Concord until I return from Boston. (I’m planning on learning a few new things myself!)

    I can’t thank you enough for energizing me, and in turn, lighting a fire in my kids about how exciting history is!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s