My initial interest in the use of students’ narrative as a teaching strategy was in the area of how it could support the learning of class content. Through this research, I witnessed numerous examples of how it did that. When the use of students’ personal narratives was introduced into an upgrading English classroom, learning was positively affected on the topics of essay writing, symbolism, role and value of text, application of prior knowledge and basic communication skills.
I used the student personal narrative technique early in the semester to introduce the students to the various components of an essay before they began to prepare their first essay assignment. In this course, the essay components that I want students familiar with include such things as an understanding of the purpose and importance of a clear thesis statement, the significance of unity or staying on topic, the necessity for strong points to support the thesis, the role of quotations from other sources or authorities and the overall value of organization.
I asked each student to tell a story about a time he or she tried to convince somebody of something. In doing this and then sharing some of the stories with the rest of the class, the students named many of the components of essay writing I was about to teach. In each story it was apparent to everyone just exactly what the student was trying to convince somebody of. The students, often humorously, related how the person they were trying to convince would attempt to sidetrack the discussion but how the students refused to let them get away with that. They also demonstrated by their stories, how necessary it was to have more than one argument for convincing the other person. They even ‘quoted’ friends and others as proof that what they wanted was valid. The technique was most successful in raising relevant essay writing points:
When the stories were completed I led the class through a discussion of how the skills they had exhibited in “trying to convince somebody of something” were the same skills that are required to write an essay. A clear, single focus is mandatory and in each of the stories discussed that focus was obvious. Each of the support points must be on topic and prove your case. Sometimes experts are quoted (the parents who went along with the false pregnancy claim). Sometimes, in order to prove a point, you raise and de-bunk the opposite point of view. These and other important writing skills were illustrated in the students’ personal narratives. It was easy and exhilarating to highlight these connections to the students (Field notes, November 2004).