Podcast S2. Ep. 27: Storytelling In The Classroom: Using Stories & Telling Stories As An Educator - Esteban Gast

Character Strong · November 15, 2019

Esteban Gast is Colombian, grew up in Puerto Rico and Illinois, and currently lives in LA. He toured as a comedian at the age of 23, taught creativity and design thinking at the college level, co-authored a book on creativity, and was President of a sustainability-focused institute in Panama. He is co-founder of Scriptd, a script database and story platform that elevates underrepresented creators. Most recently, he was the star of the tv show Jungletown, airing on VICELAND. He’s been profiled in WBEZ, Huffington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Brooklyn Magazine and others. With his background in comedy and his years in the classroom, Esteban is a gifted communicator who loves breaking down complex issues. He has spoken at middle schools, high schools, colleges, corporations, and conferences all over the world about the power of kindness, the importance of storytelling, and how to create a more connected and empathetic world.

We talk with Esteban about why storytelling matters in education, how we can use stories from pop culture, and he shares about the Hero's Journey tool.


“...I think if you look at all of the research on how students learn and how our brains remember, it's like we're hardwired for stories. Our brains are hardwired, even to think as simple as like a beginning, middle and end. Even in the school year, right, it's like that was the beginning, middle and end. And we remember things with stories.”

Esteban Gast

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to The CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Esteban Gast. Esteban is Colombian, grew up in Puerto Rico and Illinois, and currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He toured as a comedian at the age of 23, taught creatively and design thinking at the collegiate level, co-authored a book on creativity, and was president of a sustainability focused institute in Panama. He is co-founder of Scripted, a script database and story platform that elevates underrepresented creators. Most recently, he was the star of the TV show Jungletown airing on Viceland. He's been profiled in WBEZ, Huffington Post, The Hollywood Reporter, Brooklyn Magazine, and others.
  • John: With his background in comedy and his years in the classroom, Esteban is a gifted communicator who loves breaking down complex issues. He has spoken at middle schools, high schools, colleges, corporations, and conferences all over the world about the power of kindness, the importance of storytelling, and how to create a more connected and empathetic world. Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Esteban Gast.
  • John: All right. I am absolutely thrilled to have Esteban Gast with us today on the CharacterStrong Podcast. How are you today, my friend?
  • Esteban: Oh my goodness, this is exciting. Listen, long time lover of the show. First time calling in. This is a big deal. No, I love it. I'm thrilled to be here.
  • John: That's awesome, man. Well, first of all, it is a true gift to be able to partner with you in this great work. You do so many amazing things, that this podcast will not be able to highlight every one of them. That's why I think it would be awesome to have you as a regular on the show. We could just talk about all sorts of different things.
  • John: But one of the things that you do powerfully is you present at schools. You do staff trainings connected to the work that CharacterStrong's doing, you work with students as a member of our speaker squad and do student assemblies and workshops. And so having you on today kind of talking about that connection to school climate and culture, is I really wanted to get you digging in today. We really believe in cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. So, I know that you're a huge believer in storytelling, and I just want to set you up today to talk about storytelling in the classroom, the idea of using stories and telling stories as an educator. Let's dig into that today.
  • Esteban: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. Thanks so much. Yeah, I mean, storytelling is so big. I was sort of thinking of breaking it up into three sections. And I know we've got limited time, so we'll get straight to it. But the three sections are sort of like as educators, I think encouraging educators to tell stories, and I'll talk a little bit about why that matters. And then I think secondly the stories in pop culture, using those. And third is we'll talk about hero's journey and how we can use that in the classroom or even as a tool to manage people and motivate people.
  • Esteban: But the first thing is sort of telling stories in the classroom, and I think if you look at all of the research on how students learn and how our brains remember, it's like we're hardwired for stories. Our brains are hardwired, even to think as simple as like a beginning, middle and end. Even in the school year, right, it's like that was the beginning, middle and end. And we remember things with stories. We're the storytelling animals. So I think with that, sometimes I'll go to schools or whatever and people will be like, "Oh man, I wish I could tell a story like you," and I'm like, "Gosh, I'm not doing anything different. Of course, you can tell stories in that." So I think some of the things... Sort of like things that we can do in the classroom I guess is instead of saying... and these are the best way I've heard rules explained are even with stories, right?
  • Esteban: So instead of saying, "We don't do this. Full stop." Great. Next rule, "We do this." I think saying, "We don't do this because one time this happened, or because I'm worried about this, or this is the story." The story that we tell ourselves, the story that may be... The story that may sort of get in the way. I don't know, I'm not explaining that too well. But I guess it's even if I was in a classroom and a teacher was saying instead of like, "Hey listen, because it's important and respectful. Listen because you need to." They said, "Hey you guys remember that time that I told you when I really needed someone to listen, and just someone making eye contact and listening, and that changed everything?" It's like which one do you think students are actually going to listen more? Listen because you need to, or do you remember that time where that friend listened to me? Can we all try to be like that friend?
  • John: So good. That's so practical too. And although simple, not easy. But something you could totally pick up and be practicing today. And even on the rules piece, I think about there are times when it's like the don't do, but then the power obviously of and this is why, which is really what you're doing with that story. But even I love it because there's so much research on that focusing on if we're going to do rules, let's focus on the positive. Like this is what we do and here is why we do it, and using story on the positive side because it's connected to who you are either as a classroom culture, school wide culture, community piece.
  • John: But I love that, because I mean that got me thinking immediately about all the times in my classroom where I wasn't utilizing that and I felt like I was a storyteller. Right? Like I could have been far more intentional in the area that you just shared.
  • Esteban: Yeah. And I think that's the thing that people... I think sometimes people put it into buckets. They go, "Now I'm going to tell a story," or something like that where they go, "Oh, I don't have props and characters." And I'm someone who has too much energy on stage and in real life. So they're like, "Oh, I'm not walking around and doing these things." And I'm like, "No, no, no." First off, I think it's finding your style of communicating that. And stories... Stories are how we attach meaning to things. So if anything, you need a more profound why or meaning. Boom, that's a story. And a story doesn't have to be like, hey everyone, listen up. Gather round the campfire.
  • John: Get on the carpet, 12th graders. Find your square.
  • Esteban: Exactly. It can be as simple as, hey, I want to tell you about a speech that I gave and no one listened and it ruined it. I felt like dirt. And then I want to tell you about a speech where no one was really listening, but there were two people and they made great eye contact and they smiled throughout the whole speech. And I felt great.
  • Esteban: So as we move into speeches, as we move into your fellow students presenting, let's just remember that. Such a better way to say the same thing that we want to say instead of like respect, golden rule, you guys. It's like, hey, here is why it's important. That may not be the first thing, and here's a quick tip because people are like, "How do we start?" I think it's just like keeping a journal of stories or thoughts and I found modeling this to students and is really important because I read this quote and it's so true. I'm super lucky and blessed in that I get to work as a writer on different things, and I've written some stuff for SoulPancake and different things and I saw this quote and it's like the only difference between a writer and everyone else is that the writer writes things down. It's such a simple quote, and I'm like, "Oh, I suppose I also write."
  • Esteban: But also I think when I'm inspired or I yesterday had a fun moment where a stranger helped someone else. I can either have that moment and go, "Okay, cool," and keep walking. Or I wrote it down in my phone in my notes and I go, "Wow, that was really beautiful." And it was a teenager helping someone that was elderly, just walk upstairs and they didn't seem to know each other. Maybe I'll use that.
  • John: That's great. Very practical.

“...how do we incorporate pop culture in a really intentional, thoughtful way that students have the opportunity to learn through sort of the mediums that they're using?.”

Esteban Gast


  • Esteban: Yeah, maybe I'll use it, maybe I won't. But I think the fact that I'm writing things down and observing is that the next time. If I'm somewhere and they go, "Oh, teens," or whatever, or "Intergenerational people aren't helping each other." I go, "Actually, yesterday I was this," right. So even just writing it down. So I think that's the only thing of like, how do you start? I think write down stories and thoughts that you have and then share them in whatever way feels natural to you.
  • John: And educators have great stories because we're in it every day. All of these different relational beings that we're interacting with and we've got the joyful ones and the hard ones and you can protect names, but still you have stories there. And so let's transition then into like staying with it, the second bucket. I think you talked about what? Using stories in pop culture?
  • Esteban: Yes.
  • John: So tell me a little bit about that.
  • Esteban: Yeah, that's exactly right. I think one of the most powerful things of students, and if you're in the classroom you've seen this any time that you're like, "We're going to watch a movie," or anything. Like students are overjoyed, right? So I think there's something interesting of where are students learning? Like where are students absorbing stories and meeting students where they're at. Right? And I think with that it's like how do we incorporate pop culture in a really intentional, thoughtful way that students have the opportunity to learn through sort of the mediums that they're using?
  • Esteban: And I think one example is, I was just at a school literally last week, and I was talking to a student and we were talking about... Or I'm sorry, I was talking to an educator and we're talking about documentaries. There's this great documentary called American Facts on Netflix. We were actually talking about that one. And they go, "Oh, students aren't watching documentaries. They're watching Tik Tok. There's nothing good on Tik Tok." I was like, actually, I agree. I'm also rolling my eyes at Tik Tok. I write movies. I'm also scared at six second attention spans.
  • Esteban: But on Tik Tok, one of my friends, her name is Liz Plank, and I can send you all the links, she's actually made Tik Toks with members of Congress and members of Congress are explaining things or parts of their job in six seconds or less. Right? And I think that illustrates that just about anywhere you go, if it's YouTube, if it's TV shows, if it's podcasts, there are people doing such interesting, beautiful work, right? So on YouTube, there's PBS digital studios, there's SoulPancake, there's Ted Ed, which is for teachers. There's even things that aren't explicitly for teachers, like a yes theory, which is a really positive YouTube channel.
  • Esteban: And I think podcasts, students aren't listening to too many podcasts, but if they are, the number one student podcast or number one podcast for young people is this guy Logan Paul, maybe not the best role model. But how awesome to give students opportunities to access to other podcasts. I talked at a high school and he said his teacher had assigned This American Life, this really beautiful, awesome, well done podcast. Because I mentioned I think, oh, one of my heroes was Ira Glass, and I was saying, "Oh he's this podcaster, maybe you know him." And this guy was like, "Oh, I listen to This American Life because a teacher assigned This American Life." I was like how cool, how life changing to instead of saying there's school and there's pop culture, how beautiful to say pop culture can educate and inspire and we're giving students access to things they probably wouldn't... There's no 14-year-old I think that on their own finds This American Life.
  • John: There's at least one, but I'm with you. Yes, absolutely.
  • Esteban: That's true, that's true. But there's few. So it's like how can we create bridges to these really wonderful pieces of content and entertainment? I work in entertainment and I'm passionate about this, that I'm like now more than ever, I think storytellers are aware of their responsibility and there's incredible resources that wherever a student is at, wherever a young person is at, there is Twitter that is ridiculously educational, there is Instagram that is uplifting and educational, there's YouTube and Tik Tok and whatever it is, there's someone there telling really good stories.
  • John: And we just need to help them to navigate that, right? Because we get so focused on like the potential not good that's there, but it could also be used and is in many areas being used for such good.
  • John: Well how about this, the time always goes so fast and we're kind of near the end of this time, but I want to do this before we go. I always want to leave people like, one, right around that time and wanting more and going "That was good." Just talking about the importance of telling stories, connecting it to pop culture, but give us a little teaser of that last one and then let's do another show together. But the using the hero's journey as a tool to help students learn their own journey.
  • Esteban: Yeah, I love that. I know, I'm sorry. I also probably spoke and rambled too much.
  • John: Not at all. Love it.
  • Esteban: And probably me talking about the fact that I spoke too much is also eating.
  • John: That's why we love you man. That's why we love you.
  • Esteban: Oh the irony. Yeah, well I think the hero's journey is this incredible thing. Joseph Campbell looked at all these stores throughout time from like a long time ago, like religious stories to popular sort of newer stories, and he found this thread. A hero's journey is an individual who goes on this quest for something bigger than themselves and they have difficulties and they fall and they get back up and they have mentors.
  • Esteban: And I think hero's journey, and like we said, yeah, we'll talk a lot more about this is this really wonderful anchor point for young people. So, when I was teaching, I was in the classroom for a little bit. We talked about here as journey, even though it wasn't relevant. I wasn't teaching writing and language arts. I was actually teaching public speaking and these other things, so it would be this anchor point where I'd say, "Remember when Katniss struggled? And then what did she do? She reached out to mentors and she overcame that and she reframed difficult problems. Remember how Harry Potter didn't go at it alone? He had Hermione and Ron." And what we see is that any incredible hero, anyone in the hero's journey has people who help them. They have mentors, they have difficulties. They sort of have to examine themselves to overcome these things.
  • Esteban: So I think it just is this beautiful anchor point that literally every story from Hunger Games to Harry Potter to Rocky to literally every single story, I'm trying to think what's popular, to Twilight. I mean anything there uses this. So it's a tool for you and your students, you and the people that you're wanting to reach, this common language that's ridiculously profound. It's a common language on how to become a better human.
  • Esteban: And it's sort of this hack for social emotional learning. How can we chat about them in this way that's accessible and I just think that's really powerful, really cool. We'll probably talk a lot more about it, but I encourage educators to think about hero's journey and how to use that as an anchor point with the people that they're wanting to reach.
  • John: And I love it. And I think just to wrap up today, just I love the line you shared at the beginning of that we're hardwired for stories and we're also hardwired for relationships and the connection that I'd love to talk with you on the next one would be, and how that specifically even connects to the work that schools are doing around culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Because you're talking about it throughout this, but we could even talk deeper about that and the connection that stories have to that and how we can help students to learn using that.
  • John: So thank you for being with us today and I do look forward to that next conversation and thanks for being in schools all across this country speaking and really getting the message out there when we bring that community together and go, how are we using stories to inspire, to connect, and to put a focus on the whole child? So grateful for you, my friend.
  • Esteban: Oh my goodness, I'm so grateful for you and all of CharacterStrong. It's such a gift to even be a tiny drop in the bucket of all the work that you're doing.
  • John: Well let's keep doing that work together. Take care, buddy.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening and make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.