Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Helping Students Live Better Stories - A review and thoughts for lessons based on Donald Miller's Storyline

I can’t say enough good about Storyline by Donald Miller.  It's not too much to say it has been life changing and I am working on ways to integrate the principles with classroom activities.  

I’ll elaborate on the book, in the way of a review, before addressing those activities at the end of this post.

I've been a fan of Donald Miller's books for about four years now.  I started with Blue Like Jazz since that was the one everyone was talking about.  It was Searching for God Knows What that really caught my attention, though.  I read it the summer before a job change pulled me from the high school classroom and I found myself working with professionals at all levels in the school district.  The book was very timely and it changed the way I saw the purpose of my work.

Our Lives as Stories

Recently one of the themes of Miller's writing has been that the things that make great stories also make for more meaningful lives.  He tells how he came upon those truths in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  That book was a birthday gift the year I turned forty.  Once again his thoughts were timely.  I read it again a few months ago and I found it even more helpful the second time through.

Miller started doing Storyline conferences a couple years ago.  Over the course of a few days attendees work through a process of viewing their lives as part of a larger story.  He also draws heavily from Viktor Frankl's logotherapy--a "therapeutic process" based on the idea that humans are not so much seeking pleasure or power, but meaning.  

As for the power of stories, there’s nothing terribly fresh there.  From our PowerPoint presentations to our company websites, we have been told that a strong story speaks to the heart.  But the beauty of Storyline is how Miller combines the essence of a great story (a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it) and this idea that we can find meaning in suffering into a simple process that infuses those potent ideas into one’s daily choices.  

Much of Miller’s other writing actually speaks against any X-step process for self-help, so I don’t want to make this sound easy to actually live out.  It’s not.  It is easy to see the truth he is onto, though, and I will personally attest to it's potential for making vital change..

The Book

Near the end of 2012 Storyline was published as a stand alone workbook for the process he presented at the conferences.  The book was, again,a gift for my birthday.  Even with all the space for recording the exercises it is a short book of less than 100 pages, but it took about six weeks for me to read it through.  I still have not completed all the exercises even as a draft yet, but I have made enough progress to greatly appreciate the message he’s telling.

It bears mentioning that Miller's writing is always unashamedly Christian.  When he talks about finding your story in the scheme of God’s larger story he refers repeatedly to the Bible.  That might turn some away, but his good intentions are always clear.  From his books to his blog and his speaking (and even his film), I've never heard anyone outside of the faith accuse him of being offensive in his approach.  I'm sure people of all faiths and even those who would claim none have found some benefit to the ideas he presents in the Storyline book and conferences.

The Storyline process starts by reflecting on the positive and negative turns throughout one’s life.  These are the events that forever changed the way the reader sees himself or life.  From there the task is to identify a life theme which encompasses where one fits in the overall story.  According to Miller, we all fit in God’s story of saving many lives.  For example, my own theme (which will likely be rephrased over time) is “always teaching, always learning”.  (It took about two minutes to realize if I'm going to do anything important it will have to happen through my work in education. I remain hopeful.)

It is the next step that I found most helpful so far.  Drawing from logotherapy, the reader is encouraged to find ways in which God can redeem the negative turns in life by working through them to help others.  This is a deeply personal affair beyond the scope of my usual work on this blog, but the activities opened my eyes in ways nothing else has. I have found and been motivated by a renewed sense of purpose in the weeks since I have started working through the book.

In the remaining chapters we get back to what makes a better story also makes a better life.  Roles are identified (spiritual being, parent, co-worker, etc.) and within each of those roles the reader makes some clear plans.  This is all phrased within the concept of story--ambitions, inciting incidents and climatic scenes.  While I have only finished a few stages of this for a couple of my identified roles, I love the approach.  As Miller claims, the process leads to clarity and there is a deep sense of satisfaction in taking steps toward those climactic scenes.

Besides just the book and the conference there is a website devoted to the process-MySubplot.com.  Users can create an account there and track their stories with the simple organizational tools.  Some social network features also allow for comments and sharing if one chooses to make their profile public.

After finishing the book and seeing the benefit of the exercises I bought copies for a few family members. My wife is working through the book now too and, while it can be painful at times, she agrees it is a valuable experience.  

Plans for the Classroom

Another teacher, a friend of my parents, found the book at their house while we were visiting.  Having devoted much of his life to middle school students through P.E. and English classes and his passion of coaching wrestling, he was amazed by the content of Storyline.  Page after page he was taken back at how Miller was putting into words the things he felt for decades.  

That experience confirmed my plans for me the need to develop some classroom activities based on the book.  It will take more time than I’d like to try this out because I do not have my own classes.  As with most of my work, I have to wait until I find another teacher who is able to fit my ideas into her plans.  Just last week I arranged something (at some unspecified time in the future) with a middle school Language Arts teacher.  She sees the value of my ideas in terms of educational standards we can cover, but she also knows it goes beyond subject matter and test scores.  It’s about reaching young people.  

She already planned to do a journal project along the lines of Erin Gruwell’s work with The Freedom Writers Foundation.  We agreed it should be easy to to integrate the Storyline concepts within that and I am very excited to see where it leads.

Obviously, since I work in the public schools I plan to rephrase a lot of the Storyline content so that it doesn’t sound like I'm teaching Sunday school.  In the past when I work in classes that involve personal reflection or lessons about success it has been my practice to make it clear students can express their religious beliefs or matters of faith.  I don't require this of course, but at the same time it seems like a shame to leave a vital part of the human experience out of the picture.  From what I’ve seen in their work, many have been grateful for the opportunity to openly express themselves. 

(Almost all students have been positive about my sometimes deeply introspective assignments.  I’ve received many thanks from some for the work I’ve done.  I find it’s still hard for me to reach those guys coming from Auto Mechanics at the Skill Center, though.  I get no hate from them, but I have accepted we come at life from very different paths.)

As for the classroom activiites, here is the basic outline of what I want to cover in the classroom:

  • What makes a good story? - Through discussion and other activities, we’ll determine which elements are present in the most popular books and movies.
  • Viewing our lives as stories, what would be the theme?  - I will probably bring in the Three Movie Exercise (See step 2 of this blog post.) I often use when we talk about our passions.
  • If our stories are about helping others, who do we think we could help?  - Here is where I want to bring out the idea of finding a redemptive purpose in our suffering.  I plan to talk about logotherapy to some extent and it is here that we can tie in the Freedom Writers and Anne Frank’s story.
  • What are our ambitions and what steps can we take to realize them? - Students will set goals, some of which they can achieve by the end of the school year.  
  • How can we tell our stories? - I’m most excited about how we will use blogs, podcasts and video to present the results of our work so others can be inspired to do the same.

From the educational standpoint, the reading, writing and presentation skills involved in each stage will be very beneficial.  We’ll have no trouble covering the bases as far as content standards go.  I’m also confident that students will be motivated to complete the work simply because it connects with their lives in a way that most school work does not.  And beyond our own classroom, as we perfect the project I look forward to presenting results that can inspire other students and teachers.

Obviously this is just a plan at this point, but it’s probably also apparent it is part of my own exercise in the Storyline process.  I am very grateful for Miller’s work with Storyline as it has opened my eyes to a potential blending of my work with technology, education and my passion to help others reach their potential.  I will continue to mark my progress here as I see the results.


  1. Awesome, Mike! I've linked your post to some of my blogs. Readers of this post who are looking for other ideas for using Donald Miller in the classroom might want to check out:
    Called to Teach - http://calledtoteach.ning.com
    Freshman Transition Network - http://freshmantransition.ning.com

  2. I am really encouraged to read your post. I teach ninth grade English at Scott's school and have been using A Million Miles In a Thousand Years in my class room for a couple years. The teacher on the other ninth grade team uses it as well to teach students how to live a great story. My son, who is a pastor, uses the Storyline materials in a class he teaches, and he says it is the best resource material he has used. While I use the book and attended the Storyline conference, I have not used the Storyline materials yet in class. It looks like it is time to move in that direction. Thanks.