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Stories as Teaching Tools

From a childhood experience to a unique on-the-job encounter, we all have a few stories to tell, many of them with important humane messages. Stories are an ideal means of educating and inspiring others to help solve animal-related problems. A universal and highly effective teaching method dating back to ancient times, storytelling is one powerful humane education tool we all have right at hand. What makes storytelling so powerful?

All of us have been captivated by a story in one form or another: a Harry Potter book, a good movie, or the simple recounting of a personal experience by someone who is skillful in depicting a scene, place, or event. The experience of being transported to another realm and the feelings that go along with it are at the heart of the teaching power of stories. Unlike a recitation of facts or a formal lecture, a good story draws us into the lives, emotions, and actions of others (the characters) in what can only be described as a vicarious experience. As a result, we learn—and feel—things we otherwise might not.

Black Beauty generated widespread public sympathy for horses that spilled over into support for the newly formed MSPCA, ASPCA, and American Humane Association. Today, Sewell is recognized as one of the most important influences on the early animal protection movement.

Professional storyteller Susan Strauss explains it this way: "A good story shows what it wants to tell." Stories set scenes, describe events, and provide characters, circumstances, tension and resolution—all of which help bring abstract concepts to life. While the humane messages we want to convey are often abstract, stories drive home the meaning of concepts through descriptive details, emotion, and suspense.

The implications of storytelling for humane education are profound: through poignant narratives, we can give children insight into the lives of animals and the trials they face, instilling not only knowledge, but empathy as well. This can be especially useful in reaching children who have never known the company of animals.

One thing that can result from the empathy prompted by a good story is a sudden realization, or "light bulb moment," that makes the moral or meaning of the story crystal-clear. When you combine such understanding with strong feelings of empathy, it’s not that unusual to see people inspired to action.

One famous example of a story that inspired compassionate action is Black Beauty, by British author Anna Sewell, which depicts the grueling life of a carriage horse in nineteenth century England. Widely distributed in America from 1890-1892 by Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founder George Angell, the book generated widespread public sympathy for horses that spilled over into support for the newly formed MSPCA, ASPCA, and American Humane Association. Today, Sewell is recognized as one of the most important influences on the early animal protection movement.

Using Stories in Humane Education

The teaching power of stories and your own moving, real-life experience is a winning combination when it comes to educating children about issues affecting animals. Starting a classroom presentation with a brief story about yourself, for example, is a great ice-breaker and will create an instant bond between you and your audience. You’ll also grab children’s attention and spark discussion; don’t be surprised if you see enthusiastic, empathetic responses from children, some of whom may immediately want to tell stories of their own! Using short anecdotes throughout a presentation will help illustrate points and keep children focused.

Another useful strategy is to organize "story times" for groups of children at schools, libraries, and community centers. You might also want to consider holding collections to donate children’s books with humane themes to schools and libraries. And if you’re ambitious, you can follow the lead of several humane organizations that have published storybooks about adopted pets, which can be great fundraisers and educational vehicles.

Telling Your Story

Spinning a good yarn comes more naturally for some than for others, but most of us need a little preparation and practice. The first thing to keep in mind is not to memorize a story and then try to recite it word for word. While it's certainly important to know the story you want to tell, the charm of oral storytelling is that it is an art characterized by telling the story in one's own words.

If you’re not ready to tell your own tales, don’t worry. Humane Society Youth can help you incorporate storytelling into your youth education efforts. Resources include:

Troubadour’s Tales: A Collection of Short Stories About Kindness

"Humane Education and the Magic of Story" online course

"Story Mountain" at KIND News Online

KIND News classroom newspaper


Copeland, M.W. & O’Brien, H. 2003. Toward Biophilia: The Role of Children’s Literature in the Development of Empathy and Compassion. In: The State of the Animals II. Washington, DC: Humane Society Press.

Strauss, S. 1996. The Passionate Fact: Storytelling in Natural History and Cultural Interpretation. Golden, CO: North American Press.

O'Brien, H. "Special Animals: Their Stories as Teaching Tools." NACA News. Jan/Feb 2004.

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