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Ken Burns – Telling stories and manipulating your kids

One of my earliest memories of useful discipline-specific staff development was not organized by my school district or building. It wasn’t organized by my building or department chair.

It was designed by Ken Burns. Yeah. That Ken Burns.

The guy who directed and produced the awesome Civil War documentary that first aired in 1990.

I learned more about the Civil War and how to teach about the Civil War by watching that nine part series. Ken used amazing images, poetry, oral history, biography, and music to tell an incredibly interesting story. I began to realize that a big part of being a highly effective teacher of history is the ability to tell a great story. And more importantly, I realized that a big part of my job was to help my kids learn how to tell their own stories.

A recent article highlights a video that has Ken describing a bit about the process of telling great stories. It’s a sweet five minutes. Two things that stood out for me.

1. Ken says that a great story is the same as a mathematical equation. One plus one equals three: 1+1=3. A great story is greater than the sum of its parts.

2. Ken also uses a word that I’ve been using for years. And it’s a word that bothers some teachers. The word is manipulate. I love that word and I think we need to use it more when we talk about teaching and learning.

I starting thinking about manipulating the brains of history students several years ago while reading a great book by James Zull titled The Art of Changing the Brain. Zull suggests that a teacher’s job is to re-wire the brains of students so that new learning takes place. One way to do that is through positive manipulation of emotion.

So when I heard Ken Burns talking about using really good stories to manipulate how people respond to content, I got this deja vu / heard this before sort of moment.

The video is a nice reminder of what teachers can be working on between now and the start of school next fall – researching and perfecting great stories. Creating an emotional connection between content and kids so that their brains are re-wired.

Manipulation. It’s not always a bad thing.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for sharing this! Ken Burns really is a masterful storyteller. In addition to the Civil War series, I really liked the one he did on Frank Lloyd Wright. He really excels at bringing together the history of place and people and the very personal.

    May 31, 2012
  2. Barb #

    I think the emotional connection is key to student learning. Manipulating ideas is important for the student thought process. Love Ken Burns and how he brings history to life. That’s the kind of story telling I want my students to replicate.

    May 31, 2012
  3. Great Post! Being able not just to tell the story but to convey an emotional attachment to that story is what makes the storyteller. If every history teacher was a great storyteller and each student wanting to be one history would teach itslelf.

    June 6, 2012

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