Split storytelling: One technique for enhancing the “joyful” factor in the classroom

In The Courage to Teach, Palmer (2007) writes, “I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy… But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused—and I am so powerless to do anything about it—that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham.” (p. 1–2). Naturally, we teachers prefer to have more of the former kinds of experiences, as do our students. Towards that end it is worth asking: how can we create more joyful learning experiences for our students and ourselves? Among several other factors, the specific techniques that we use, coupled with an appreciation for how our students are perceiving them, can have a large impact.

One specific technique that has proven to be consistently effective is called split storytelling. In split storytelling, a story is told and then stopped at a highly interesting transition point to create a moment of suspense. Only later is the story concluded. In this paper, I will first provide an example of a split story. Then I will provide a brief background and rationale for its usage. This is followed by written student feedback that was coded to illustrate how students are meaningfully connecting to split stories. Finally, I discuss ways that split storytelling can be seen as a way to enhance the “joyful” factor through creating more mutually rewarding learning moments for students and teachers.

The Beautiful Blue Butterfly:
Split Story Part 1

Once upon a time there was a young boy and his little sister who were very curious. They were always asking their parents questions and their parents got very tired of it. So, one summer they sent the two children up a mountain to live with a wise old man. The man knew the answers to everything and for a while the children were happy. But they were also mischievous and they wanted to find a question that the wise old man would get wrong. One day the little girl ran up to her brother while cupping her hands. She then opened them a bit saying, “Look, I have a beautiful blue butterfly (BBB). Let’s go to the old man and tell him we have a BBB in our hands and ask: “Is it alive or is it dead?” She then said to her older brother: “If he says it’s dead, I will open my hands and it will fly away. If he says it’s alive, I will squeeze it real quick and it will be dead.” The children were very excited, and so they went to the old man and said: “We have a BBB in our hands. Is it alive or is it dead?” The man looked at the children, paused carefully while scratching his head, and then said: “The answer is….”


Split storytelling originated from the work of the famous hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson (see Bandler & Grinder, 1975; Grinder, DeLozier & Bandler, 1977; Rosen, 1983). While working with his clients, Erickson would begin one metaphor and then at a transition point he would smoothly shift into another metaphor. This pattern would often continue for several metaphors before Erickson concluded each metaphor one by one. In between starting and concluding these metaphors, the client would unconsciously discover their own answers to a problem or a question that was posed. Erickson’s technique of telling metaphors helped clients to get into a more resourceful state while opening their minds to various possibilities for resolving some situation.

As a language learning tool, split storytelling is also a particularly useful technique for helping students to get into a more resourceful state for learning, such as a state of relaxation, curiosity, or focused attention. Split storytelling provides students with opportunities to listen to comprehensible input while remaining free from the pressure of a follow-up task, for instance, that involves a right or wrong answer and that might interfere with their ability to relax and enjoy the story. Ur (1984) says, “When the material itself is so interesting or pleasure-giving that it holds students’ attention and demands their understanding for its own sake, the setting of a task becomes superfluous or even harmful. Such material may be contained in a good story” (p. 29). Simply inviting students to share their own story endings at the split mark, hence giving them agency, is enough of a task to still allow for the maintenance of this “pleasure-giving” factor that Ur mentions.

In order to appreciate the meanings that students are forming through their learning experiences, it is important to both encourage and listen to their voices (Bailey & Nunan, 1996). Inviting student feedback can be an opportunity for them to exercise agency; in particular, this occurs when teachers tap into their students as a valuable resource to shape what transpires within themselves and their classrooms.

Student Feedback on Split Storytelling

This section will illustrate how student feedback helped to validate the presence of the “joyful” factor through the medium of split storytelling. I report the feedback of a group of 18 freshmen English majors who were attending a required English Oral Communication course at a private university in Nagoya, Japan.

During a recent course, I invited students to share written feedback on the following open-ended questions:

  1. What is useful and interesting for you in this class?
  2. How can this class be improved?

The aim for this paper was to uncover the commonalties that students were forming specific to the split-story technique, in particular. In other words, I don’t consider feedback on other activities and aspects of the class not connected to split stories. A total of 16 out of the 18 students commented on split stories (referred to as ‘stories’) in their feedback (pseudonyms are used here to protect the anonymity of participants). Common themes using thematic analysis were uncovered and coded using Grounded Theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). I noticed three main commonalties that fell under the following headings: technique, learning states, and community.


Several comments focused on the actual technique itself. Student comments showed that the technique, or style, of telling split stories engaged them more in their learning. For example, Yuki said, “the way you tell stories absorbs us very much.” Koji commented, “since you always didn’t tell the whole story until the end of class or next week, we had to use lots of imagination and, you know, that was fun!” Kaori shared the feeling of being “hooked” by the technique as follows: “I can’t believe that you got us hooked by not telling us the ending of your story! It was really interesting and your way of teaching keeps us interested!” Several other comments showed likewise that students both notice the storytelling technique itself and really enjoy this way of hearing a story in split fashion.

Learning States

In addition to words such as absorbed, fun, hooked, and interesting, as seen above, student comments revealed other positive learning states. Mariko said, “I wonder about the ending! Oh-, I want to know that answer as soon as possible or I can’t sleep today!!! Please!” Clearly, she was curious to know the conclusion to the story (Note: Sometimes when telling split stories, I continue them in future lessons rather than within the same lesson. Students often ask me for the story ending to start the next class). Hiroki mentions feeling excited as well when he says, “I like your stories where you didn’t tell the continuation. I got excited because you didn’t tell us quickly.” Other words that reflected the states that students were in while listening to the stories included amazed, focused, and happy.


A number of student comments showed a greater appreciation for the learning community they were in while engaging in split stories. Kento said, “when you stopped in today’s stories and asked us to think of an answer, my partner said, “dot dot dot.” Then I thought, what a funny idea she had, I’ve never thought that way so that idea was really fresh for me.” Valuing what their partners had to offer was mentioned often. In a similar way, Miki comments, “I thought that talking with my partner was most useful between stories because we could share our ideas.” While these comments reflect an appreciation for the learning community in connection with valuing their peers, other comments demonstrated feeling good in the community itself. Yukiko shares, “I really like the stories that don’t end and they make me feel happy to be in this class.” In addition, Yoshihiro says, “I am always interested in the stories and that makes me like to come to our class each time.” The student’s comments showed that split stories, or rather their engagement with split stories, helped them to value and enjoy being in our learning community.


So, what does all this mean and how does it connect to the “joyful” factor that Palmer referred to in the quotation at the beginning of this paper? Students are deeply impacted by split stories as demonstrated by their comments on the technique itself, the facilitative learning states they report being in, and their positive associations with being in their classroom community. As a teacher, I share their sentiments and feel a greater sense of rapport with them especially during split storytelling. Does this mean that it is the technique of split storytelling itself that makes this feeling possible? To be fair, techniques such as split storytelling don’t necessarily “work” in and of themselves; rather, people work. It’s been my finding in over 20 years of teaching that split stories are one of the most effective and consistent mediums through which I’ve experienced the “joyful” factor in the classroom. This conclusion was validated further by the positive student feedback specific to the split stories that was shown here.

In this paper, I’ve been exploring the importance of split storytelling as a medium through which I’ve experienced longitudinal resonance with what I’ve termed the “joyful” factor in the classroom. I feel motivated to tell the stories and students are intrinsically motivated to listen and share, too. Raffini (1996) has shown that intrinsic motivation can be seen as connected to the five psychodynamic needs of autonomy, competence, self-esteem, belong/relatedness, and enjoyment. This need to enjoy learning is evident in student comments on split storytelling. Among other resourceful states, I find myself getting into a curious learning state about how students will connect to these stories, and this helps me to feel more connected to them, as well. For me, their comments help to validate even more the intuitive feeling of rapport that I have when in the split storytelling moment.

Having read this far you may now be interested to try the split storytelling technique to notice what happens within you, your students, and the energy within your classrooms. Many of the best stories come from our own lives and you might be curious to notice how much fun it can be to share them through the split story medium. Several other resources that can easily be adapted into split stories can be found in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, books specifically on metaphors (i.e. Burns, 2001; Malhotra, 2013), or online (i.e. Cullen, 2017).


This article has focused on split storytelling as a technique for enhancing the “joyful” factor in the classroom. It’s a technique that offers intrinsically motivating content where students can exercise agency to determine what personal relevance these stories have for themselves. To that end, one of the most effective follow-up tasks that we can set for our students is to sit back and enjoy listening as they share their own meaningful interpretations of our split stories. The student voices in this paper showed several ways that students both enjoyably and meaningfully participated in split stories and how this validated my assumption that the technique resonates deeply for us both. So, how will you enjoy using split stories in your classrooms? Well, that reminds me of a story…

The Beautiful Blue Butterfly:
Split Story Part 2

So, there were the two children holding this BBB. The children almost could not contain their curiosity with what the wise old man would say. Finally, after a long pause he looked at them carefully and with a glint in his gentle eyes he said, “The answer is … in your hands.” (Story adaptation provided by Tim Murphey).


Bailey, K. M., & Nunan, D. (1996). Voices from the language classroom: Qualitative research in second language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1975). Patterns of the hypnotic techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Vol. 1. Cupertino, California: Meta Publications.

Burns, G. (2001). 101 healing stories: Using metaphors in therapy. New York: John Wiley.

Cullen, B. (2017). Retrieved on 3 Feb. 2017 from http://www.briancullen.net/stories/

Grinder, J., Delozier, J., & Bandler, R. (1977). Patterns of the hypnotic techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Vol. 2. Portland, Oregon: Meta Publications.

Malhotra, H. (2013). Metaphors of healing: Playful language in psychotherapy and everyday life. Maryland: Hamilton Books.

Palmer, P. J., Jackson, M., & Tucker, E. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Raffini, J.P. (1996). 150 ways to increase intrinsic motivation in the classroom. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Rosen, S. (1983). My voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton. H. Erickson, M.D. New York: Norton.

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research (Vol. 15). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Ur, P. (1984). Teaching listening comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Listening, Reading
Published In:
Contact Spring 2017

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