Classroom Culture: Learning through Storytelling

Miriam Körner, the author of the young adult novel Yellow Dog, says, “There is a power that comes from personal story, and that power is strongest when it is shared through storytelling.” Körner lives in Canada with her husband, who grew up in northern Saskatchewan. The novel demonstrates the power of learning through storytelling as a teenage boy learns how to train and mush dogs from his grandfather. 

While I was on the Iditarod trail this month, I listened to a lot of stories. Many of the stories were shared with me by other volunteers and comprised their life experiences or pivotal moments. Other stories concerned what was currently happening with the race. I wrote a post that described how I would often elicit stories by asking questions. Stories emerge when you seek connection. This year’s Iditarod is full of rich stories that could only have happened in that time and place. Being on the Iditarod Trail while hearing the stories cemented them better in my memory and instilled curiosity to research and learn more.  

Aero, the winner of the Golden Harness Award in 2024. Photo: K. Newmyer

I love to tell stories in my classroom. I’ve spoken before of how I always have a photo on my screen of an Iditarod person, experience, or dog, and the students want to know what the photograph is about. I tell them about it in the form of a story. I also often start my U.S. history lessons with the statement, “Once upon a time…” I will also stop class every once in a while to tell my students a story. Telling your students stories makes them feel special. You are giving your extra special attention to them.  

I’ve really been enjoying sharing this year’s stories from the Iditarod trail with my students. One of the stories I have already shared with my class is getting to meet teenage musher and author Ellen Redington.  Ellen competed in the Jr. Iditarod this year and earned 5th place. She visited the Iditarod Winter Education Conference and brought her two books, Wiley Wants to Win and North to Nome, which she wrote and illustrated.  Ellen shares the stories of her own sled dogs, with photos included. Each book has a powerful message for kids of all ages about teamwork, and about friendship.  

With Ellen Redington, author and musher. Photo: L. Fenton

Körner goes on to say, “Although Jeremy [the main character in Yellow Dog] learns about traditional knowledge in school, he does not connect with it in the same way he does when the old man passes his skills on to him. It’s the context that matters, and Jeremy learns the skills where he will use them—in the bush or on the lake, not in the institution of school.”  This statement really grabbed me. When you make the knowledge relevant and immediate, students will become more engaged and will remember their learning.  They will also form a bond of shared knowledge.  

Even if we can’t get away from our classrooms all the time, we can make our students’ learning more contextual and relevant through storytelling. You can do this for any subject. When I was in school, I always wanted to know the story behind the math problems I was doing. I still ask my son, who is currently in Calculus, what certain types of problems are used for. I find it much more purposeful to imagine myself planning a city park when doing geometry or personifying mountains when studying geology. It may seem silly, but students will remember better through relevant storytelling.   

Iditarod stories help contextualize learning. For example, help students learn math by sharing the story of Aero, Dallas Seavey’s Golden Harness Award winning lead dog. For Aero, “every mile is the best day ever,” Dallas says. Let students get to know Aero, or other sled dogs, through stories, so students will be more engaged in math or science. How much force does Aero exert when banging in the harness at the start of a race? How much conservation of energy does Aero have when the sled is moving? Dallas Seavey won his record-breaking sixth victory, due in part to engineering. Share this video of Dallas talking about the boots he designed for the 2024 Iditarod. Students can be inspired to use Dallas’s out-of-the-box thinking to solve real-world problems. Another great storytelling opportunity is Jeff Reid’s final push to complete the 2024 Iditarod as the Red Lantern winner. How does Jeff Reid’s perseverance relate to the same idea in works of literature?  

Jeff Reid takes his Red Lantern. Photo: Iditarod Media

Finally, Körner says, “When I realized what a gift these stories were, I made more of an attempt to seek out Elders and find answers to the day-to-day life questions the history books could not answer.”  Let students close their eyes, hear a good story, and connect their learning to it. 

How do you use stories to engage students in learning? Email me at