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Narrative in First-Year COmpostion

The Story of How Boring Met Engaging

Once upon a time…

Boring was crowned king of the English classroom. He’d always been nobility, but with the people focusing more and more on the national GDP (Grammar Decency Project), his ascension became inevitable.

His first decrees were certain to meet his subjects’ (and the Houses of Objects’ and Predicates’) expectations: tax benefits for national worksheets, standardized testing incentives, and tariffs on anything that seemed unrelated to growing the GDP. Unfortunately, this created a trade war with other nations’ story imports, resulting in the gradual loss of narrative materials in Boring’s kingdom.

Undeterred, Boring signed a number of decrees into law under the guidance of Sir Edward L. Thorndike, giving Behaviorism the official title Authority On Learning. But the people rebelled against the limited view of knowledge Behaviorism enforced with his Red Pen Guard, causing a great unrest to befall the kingdom. It was then that the whispers of Lady Engaging began. 

Narrative as Pedagogy in FYC

The Power and Importance of Narrative

It’s only fair for an argument about narrative’s usefulness in pedagogy to be in story form. Sadly, it is a story most composition instructors know too well, a ‘true myth’ of American higher education in English writing classrooms (for a fuller rendition, consider Thomas Miller’s Evolution of College English). However, the rebellion has begun! A number of factions have arisen to aid Lady Engaging’s cause in the college classroom.

The Mythicists

The first group to bring story tools to Lady Engaging’s mission was also the oldest: the Mythicists. These included scholars like Stephen Peters, who argues “Make no mistake, it’s the storytelling that makes the difference at any level.”1 He believes this because “the energy and immediacy of a told story helps to motivate students” unlike anything else, just as nothing else has as much impact on the way we live: “we learn, understand, heal, change, grieve, love, hate, and exclude based on story”2,3. Others noted “One who studies the history of learning recognizes that story is one of the oldest and most elemental forms of knowing”4. Whether because of personal experience or anthropological awareness, these citizens of Boring’s kingdom opposed the devaluation of story. As John Countryman states, “Narrative is the primary means by which human experience is rendered meaningful. Facts do not speak for themselves, do not organize themselves.”5 The Mythicists, as we dub them in our tale, rallied around the mythic power of narrative for human growth and learning composition strategies.

The Neurocognitivists

The second group to pledge fealty to Lady Engaging came from an unexpected province: Scienceshire. Though many had parents related to the Mythicists, these citizens followed a different path to arrive at a similar conclusion. Professor Sarah-Jane Murray notes that we are “twenty-two-times more likely to remember stories than fact alone” in her TEDx Talk. She discusses the effects of stories on neural coupling and brain chemistry, elaborating further in another TEDx Talk about “Oxytocin, cortisol, dopamine – the OCD of insanely great storytelling.” She is joined by Phillip Harris and Donovan Walling, who oppose Sir Thorndike’s behaviorism model with cognitivism and neuroscience, arguing “Learning is a multidimensional process that creates a changed state in the brain”6. Though the cognitivism began in the 1950s, most medical equipment would not reach the state of technological advancement required for empirical support until after the new millennium. 


The Experientials and Pragmatists

Scores of loyal teachers in Boring’s system of decreed education grew dissatisfied with their classrooms. They found themselves unable to stomach the GDP curriculum, longing to interest their students just as much as their students longed to be interested. These formed groups around banners that differed in color, perhaps, but held much in common. Many were followers of John Dewey, or at least believers in his idea of experience’s value in education. These included Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly, who campaigned for narrative inquiry’s validity as a research method. They write “People live stories, and in the telling of these stories, reaffirm them, modify them, and create new ones. Stories lived and told educate the self and others, including the young and those such as researchers who are new to their communities”7. As crowds gathered in great camps around the tent of Lady Engaging, members of each faction began to visit other camps. Glenda Gunter, Robert Kenny, and Samantha Junkin combined their mythicists views with those of the experientials, arguing that “Situating what is to be learned in terms of story helps learners select, arrange, and organize things in manageable chunks. Because story requires one to suspend his or her beliefs in order to buy into a premise, a learner is already conditioned to accept change – a necessary precondition to learning”8. It was also at this point that the Lady’s supporters began to write their nation’s history in light of their combined knowledge.


American education did not begin by equating children and adolescents with Pavlov’s dogs, but it’s hard to deny this is where we’ve arrived. Boring’s kingdom was in a similar state of affairs, largely due to the work of Sir John Thorndike, the “measurement-oriented psychologist who popularized the idea of a science of education based on the observation and numerical representation of behavior”9. In addition to Thorndike’s counsel, King Boring was influenced by the advice of his gardener, Blooming Ben, who “developed a taxonomy of educational objectives built on observable, classifiable behaviors”10. Bloom’s mistake was observing the flowers in his garden and believing their lived behaviors were universally true, regardless of sunlight levels, soil composition, or color combinations. The Lady’s followers realized that if behavior is understood as “expressions of an individual’s stories within a particular context at a particular time,” then it becomes easier to understand why “the idea that ends and means could be easily separated… is conceptually flawed”11. Giving teachers curriculum and the command to achieve preset learning outcomes was essentially giving them a bell and expecting them to have all students salivate at its tone by semester’s end. 

Intrinsic vs Instrumental Learning

At this point some of the mythicists in Boring’s kingdom remembered hearing of a country where learning was for the purpose of creating responsible citizens. Harris and Walling argue this “notion of shaping character and fostering citizenship proceeds from an interiorized, or intrinsic, definition of learning – that is, learning is the acquisition of knowledge and understandings that shapes how the learner thinks and lives.”12 In this view, learning is linked to lived experience. Learning creates change in the learned, often the observable kind of change resulting in different actions, but also unobservable changes in thought. This was not King Boring’s understanding of learning as “a means to attain knowledge that changes the learner’s behaviors in specific ways,” or what some call instrumental learning13.

What if the Brain is Where Learning Takes Place?

The neurocognitivists cried out in glee. Their machines capable of “noninvasive brain imaging” had already managed to “move the threshold of evidence [for learning] to an earlier point in the learning process,” that of brain activity.14 Learning did not have to be defined by how students performed on Behaviorism’s blank circle sheets. Learning was really “a multidimensional process that creates a changed state in the brain,” and as such, it warranted tools best suited to affecting such change15. Never before in King Boring’s reign was there such a scene of giddy merriment as when the groups surrounding Lady Engaging’s tent discovered they all unpacked the same rare, precious materials for crafting their tools of wonder: stories. 

“Today’s commonly accepted definition of learning remains locked to the demonstration of observable phenomena, which skews education decisions made on this basis, leading to policies and procedures that, in fact, may actually limit learning.”16

How Stories Facilitate Learning

A defining of terms is in order. Narratology has nuanced words like “narrative,” “story,” and “plot” in ways that are beyond the scope of this discussion. Gunter et al. “suggest that one agrees with the idea that a story is not a ‘thing’ but a process – a way of thinking, internalizing, and eventually learning” (7). I have used “story” and “narrative” interchangeably at times so far, but here we will understand “story” as both a particular sequence of events described in terms of time and space and a way of making meaning from particular events, i.e. the process of Gunter et al. “Narrative” is, for me here, an indefinite, umbrella term describing the idea of story, the collective of an infinite number of particular stories, and a generalized method of meaning-making.

When narrative is viewed as a mode of thought, the ability of stories to develop logical reasoning skills becomes evident. Gunter et al. connect the psychological idea of schemata, or patterns of thought providing the framework for interpreting information and experience, with causal chain analysis. They define causal chain analysis as “a predictable outcome that is based on the principles/elements of nature or circumstances,” a process in which everyone engages whenever they try to predict a story’s ending or solve the who-dun-it mystery before the movie’s over (10). Whenever an audience affirms or challenges a story’s sequence of events based on evaluations of causes and their likely effects, they are engaging in causal chain analysis. It’s worth noting, particularly for teachers with STEM-heavy classes, that “in many disciplines causal chain analysis correlates to critical thinking or brainstorming” (Gunter et al. 10). Narrative is particularly well-suited for this form of reasoning because every story creates constraints on its characters. Video game programmers recognize the freedom of player choice is bound by character personality and ability, resulting in limited “allowable action” (9). This gives narrative the predictability it needs to become “a teaching engine” without removing the mystery and novelty of each new story (9). The potential is quite vast – Gunter et al. give an example of how the story of a Great Depression construction worker can fit into an engineering course (13-14).

In Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind, David Herman lists five ways that stories give structure to our actions. The first is what he calls chunking experience, a “process by which intelligent agents segment the stream of experience into units that are bounded, classifiable, and thus more readily recognized and remembered” (232-233). This segmentation is an arbitrary allocation of origins, durations, and ends to various aspects of our lives. Story “affords ways of addressing the problem of how to chunk the ongoing stream of experience into (more or less sharply) bounded and thus manipulable structures” (233). In the university, the tale of two semesters is a good example. How often do students and teachers interpret an academic year based on summative stories of the Fall and Spring as two distinct seasons of life? We know we exist in Dewey’s “continuity,” and would likely all agree both that our “experiences grow out of other experiences, and experiences lead to further experiences” (Clandinin and Connelly 2). Yet we use narrative to carve life into manageable chunks so we can make sense of it relative to other chunks, past or imagined future. This is in part because “narrative is a resource for closure. Any particular telling of a narrative has to end… and in coming to a conclusion tellings mark even the most painful or disturbing experiences as endurable because finite” (Herman 233). Sometimes, semester chunk or college chunk narratives are necessary for all of us to keep perspective.

As teachers, it is crucial to remember “as we think about a child’s learning, a school, or a particular policy, there is always a history, it is always changing, and it is always going somewhere” (2). Our chunk of class time with students is not independent of other chunks, but it can be better understood through an awareness of how it might be retold in their life story down the line. Regardless of which angle we take, we know narrative’s utility as a tool for segmenting life facilitates understanding life experiences, and this is surely key to learning.

The second aspect of narrative on Herman’s list is the ability of stories to impute causal relations. The reason narrative develops causal chain analysis is in part because stories “are rooted in an overall cognitive preference to read events as actions – that is, to construe events or happenings in a storyworld as goal-directed actions that unfold in a larger context of prior, conditioning actions and reactions” (237). Stories do not operate in a vacuum. Narrative cannot afford to be ignorant of a story’s past events, present cultural values, or a protagonist’s potential consequences. Narrative also assumes agency, motive, and means. In the first-year composition classroom we call this set of presuppositions by a number of names: using rhetorical awareness, entering the academic/cultural conversation, surveying the research landscape, etc. A certain parlor and the endless debate within come to mind… We have recognized the need for something, no matter the label, that equips students to analyze context, positionality, and the like. Narrative does this by its very nature.

The third way Herman believes narrative builds infrastructure for learning is problem raising and problem solving. Narrative does this through typification: “balancing expectations against outcomes, general patterns against particular instances – in short, the typical against the actual” (239). Typification is akin to psychology’s schemata in that its purpose is to quickly process information into predetermined categories through presuppositions about the world. Typification’s value lies in providing “strategies for anticipating and thereby structuring the not-yet-encountered via the already-experienced” (240). If we hear the story of how a man saved his friend from a poisonous snakebite, we may be able to use that information in either an identical situation or one in which the solution is transferable (i.e. ‘he kept him calm to slow his heartrate and blood flow’ might help us slow a wound’s blood loss). However, anyone who’s heard the joke about the snakebit guy in the outdoors and his friend who leaves to find a cure knows stories can teach ad ignorantium, or from what is lacking. Herman describes this as “problem raising” that manages to “throw into relief ways in which situations and events depart from the typical or expected” (240). The problem raising aspect of narrative operates through contrasts between the norm (or typical) and a specific actual event. Conversely, narrative becomes a tool for solving problems when “received stories about the world provide a context of typicality in terms of which unexpected occurrences can be interpreted” (240). If the blue dragon landing outside a character’s door is normal, then the problem to be solved is when it doesn’t come to his backyard. However, if the dragon’s landing is abnormal, then this raises the problem of what to do with an unexpected draconic guest.

Herman’s fourth way is narrative’s role in sequencing actions. A story requires a character “figuring out exactly what one should do, where, when, and in what order” (243). We often teach research and composition methods as stories in our classrooms: begin with reading, write an outline, revise for content before grammar. Our students need these stories – however we choose to structure them – to make sense of the tasks before them. If, in our quest for empowering student choice and agency, our instructions and pedagogy lose all sense of sequence, we run the risk of handing students a plot, characters, and a handful of description and expecting an award-winning story. This might be ideal, and is more often the case the further one goes in higher education, but I think freshman benefit more from an open narrative than its separate components.

Distributing intelligence is the fifth and final way Herman sees narrative scaffolding learning. He uses this phrase to describe the ability of a story to communicate knowledge across time and space. This is a “socially distributed intelligence, which is enabled by the shared construction and revision of stories” (249). This connects to neurocognitive support for narrative as a pedagogical method, a mythic view of narrative as vehicle for knowledge, and experiential/pragmatic arguments for narrative’s value in daily life. After granting narrative this ability, we must recognize this “also eventuates in the (collaborative) fashioning and refashioning of accounts of how the world is, might be, or should be” (249). Stories can teach us how their tellers see the world in any or all of these respects.



Here we step away from the tale of King Boring and Lady Engaging for a brief intermission. I have arranged a number of theoretical definitions and arguments for the value of narrative as a pedagogical tool. Each of these will be evidenced (explicitly or implicitly) in the sample classroom activities below.

Design Learning WIth Narrative

Michael T. Matthews argues for a more imaginative approach to course design. What would first-year composition look like if we approached the semester’s tasks “as sequences of experiences to be staged and executed with as much style and imagination as Disney Imagineers” (251)?

This is not to say that we teachers can guarantee a specific experience or outcome. Realistically, “The most that an ‘experience designer’” can attempt is “activities that, when carried out in context, contain the possibilities for the kind of participant interpretation and lived experience the designer intended in the first place” (251). 



Instead of organizing curriculum “based on the movement from simple-to-complex,” Matthews recommends thinking in terms of the “temporal and experiential” because “a learner’s experience of a course of instruction is an event-in-time that takes place over time” (253). This plays out in Patrick Parrish’s narrative sequencing of the syllabus and assignments: disruptive beginnings, middles that increase conflict and tension through complication, and ends culminating in course resolution or coherence (253-4). 

“If our learners can experience a real journey through a course… they will be more deeply engaged, and their understanding can be transformed because of the critical thinking required to truly go on such a journey.”

– Michael Matthews (254)

Chapter’s End

The Rise of Lady Engaging

Where were we? Oh, yes! We left the camp of Lady Engaging while her supporters worked furiously to build tools from the raw story they’d brought. Amid the flurry, trumpets sounded. The people stopped and fell to one knee as the lovely Lady Engaging left her tent and faced the crowds. Sadly, her exact words were so enchanting that none could agree on their exact phrasing. All left, however, in agreement over three main ideas: King Boring was not to be hated, as he only wanted the best for his people. The tools crafted from story were of great value, but Lady Engaging could use other tools as well. And the Lady was no tyrant – she would go where she was sought and aid those who respected her virtues.

The people cheered in acquiescence and gathered their things. The time to march on the capital had come. 

To Teachers

I have tried to articulate the value of narrative as a pedagogical instrument in the first-year composition classroom through my own writing method, external research, and personal understanding. As my fable hopefully communicates, there are other powerful, valuable instruments for teaching at our disposal. Narrative is but one, and though I stand among those who champion its necessity, I do not think we should ignore other successful methods for engaging students.

I highly recommend Liz Prather’s Story Matters as a practical starting-point for further resources on incorporating narrative into your classroom’s instruction and assignments.  She observes that “Professional writers approach writing tasks with all modes at their disposal. They may dip into any text type if it helps them say what they want to say” (4). We should equip our students with as many skillsets as we can in order to give them a similar ability. 

The Next Step

I know these conversations can be tricky to navigate. Narrative, even with its long history and acknowledged place in the curriculum, is often given less respect than other modes of written discourse. From a rhetorical point of view, I think Prather sums it up well: “A student writer should understand how to use the modes of argument, narration, and information, not as discrete arrangements exclusive of other patterns, but as a smorgasbord of delivery methods used in the service of communication” (4). If we need a serious name for credibility, consider Prather’s “narrative nonfiction” to avoid any potential “creative nonfiction” baggage. 

The neuroscience is clear, and from all I’ve read, there is far more to gain than lose by building a story-path for Lady Engaging to enter our classrooms. After all, “Stories are the cornerstone of all human communication, and for a student who sets out to write a compelling argument or an interesting informational piece, that foundation can be narrative” (Prather 27). The next chapter is ours to write. 

Sample Narrative Activities for FYC Classrooms

Narrative Sequence Course Design

The first activity is for you! Begin by asking what assumptions your students will bring to each unit. In a unit on narrative inquiry, my students assumed that narrative was personal, less academically rigorous, and easy to write.

Next, find ways to turn these assumptions upside down (based on Parrish's narrative sequence). I could ask my students to write the stories of other people to answer their inquiry question. I could also give/have them find examples of mentor texts heavily reliant on narrative. And I could have them identify the presence/absence and use of narrative techniques in their writing (imagery, sounds, smells, dialogue, etc.). Markers and highlighters work well for this part.

Then raise the tension. In a research inquiry unit, I might complicate source credibility and student ideas of objectivity.

Conclude with an end that ties together your semester's content, goals, and experiences. Consider asking students to explain any choices they made on their final assignment in terms of the semester as their story. This would function as a narrative-based metacognition/reflection component.

Student's Progress

Yes, this is a reference to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Have students write where they started the semester. What did they think, feel, and see?

Then ask them to make these allegorical. You may have to explain you want a landscape and characters comprised of what they described. Give questions to prompt further reflection: What did they go through? Overcome? What helped or hindered them? Where are they now on their journey? What tools do they have with them? The key here is encouraging the freedom to personify everything and have fun. You may be surprised by their creative honesty.

Causal Chain Analysis

You can substitute whatever details you prefer to make this activity suit your audience and occasion. The basic idea is asking students to write through various "if this, then this" situations. 

Set the scene if possible. I might describe an island and ask them to write as if they were marooned on it, alone, with only their diary. Next, I'd tell them about the food and water nearby and ask them to write about learning to survive. Then I'd give a sparse description of a figure in the distance - they aren't alone! Have them describe meeting this other person. Finally, give them a boat or a plane so they can write about going home.

The first reactions to these situations will likely only be suitable for a personal diary, but that's alright. Ask them to write some or all of these events for different contexts - a letter to family, an interview with a journalist, or even a speech to the nation about sailing. Spend some time exploring the difference changed mediums and audiences make on text composition, and then let students rewrite their story with a new sequence of events. What if they met the stranger on day one? Or saw them stranded as they flew away on the plane?

Causal Relations

The previous activity looks at what impact events have on the student as protagonist. This activity asks them to consider how one event might be described by the various characters in its related story. 

There are lots of choices here. You can ask them to rewrite a Disney movie as if the villain were telling it, or a random background character they think was irrelevant to the plot. Or have them write a previously-read text as the author's parent, sibling, child, etc. One goal for this is for students to evaluate how the context of the storyteller shapes the description of a story's events.

Raising and Solving Problems

This aspect of narrative functions inductively and deductively. The goal is to use a particular person, place, thing, or idea to reason in both directions. Start with norms to analyze singular abnormalities and/or with abnormalities to critique norms.

In an ethnographic inquiry unit, I could have students study the reputation of a group among various other groups of people. I might ask students to write what problems this reputation raises for the group, its aspiring members, or its opponents. They could also write about what problems there might be in a society that does not take issue with the group in other, unquestioned ways (its existence, rules, actions, or methods).

Sequencing Events

This activity encourages students to reflect on past challenges and plan for future academic success.

Have your students write two stories. The first is how they would ideally write a paper or complete an assignment. How long would it take? What steps would it take in what order and without what disruptions? Then have them write a different version detailing how the writing process actually went. What steps changed? What was present in the second account that was absent in the first? Finish by asking them to explain their opinion on the viability of the first and what they would change on the second.


1. Peters 1
2. Ibid. 2
3. Ibid. 3
4. Gunter et. al 6
5. Countryman 20
6. Harris & Walling 287
7. Clandinin & Connelly xxvi
8. Gunter et. al 6-7
9. Clandinin & Connelly 22
10. Ibid
11. Ibid 25, 28
12. Harris & Walling 286
13. Ibid
14. Ibid 287
15. Ibid
16. Ibid 286


Works Cited

Clandinin, D. Jean, and F. Michael Connelly. Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research. 1st ed., Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000.

Countryman, John. “Academic Narratives: What’s the Story?” Journal of the Association for Communication Administration, vol. 1, 1995, pp. 18-27.

Harris, Phillip, and Donovan R. Walling. “Changing the Narrative of School: Toward a Neuro-cognitive Redefinition of Learning.” Educational Technology and Narrative: Story and Instructional Design, edited by Brad Hokanson et al., Springer, 2018, pp. 283-293.

Herman, David. Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind. The MIT Press, 2017.

Hokanson, Brad, et al., editors. Educational Technology and Narrative: Story and Instructional Design. Springer, 2018.

Gunter, Glenda A., et al. “The Narrative Imperative: Creating a Storytelling Culture in the Classroom.” Educational Technology and Narrative: Story and Instructional Design, edited by Brad Hokanson et al., Springer, 2018, pp. 5-20.

Matthews, Michael T. “Designing for Narrative-Like Learning Experiences.” Educational Technology and Narrative: Story and Instructional Design, edited by Brad Hokanson et al., Springer, 2018, pp. 249-258.

Peters, Stephen. “The Spirit of Storytelling.” Educational Technology and Narrative: Story and Instructional Design, edited by Brad Hokanson et al., Springer, 2018, pp. 1–4.

Prather, Liz. Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform. Heinemann, 2019.