While I had always valued the technique at the literacy level, Daryl Caswell demonstrated that students’ stories could be used not only to facilitate the development of the reading and writing process but to facilitate the learning of specific course content as well.
And that excited me very much! Caswell took the story that I had told about my son and demonstrated how he would use it in his acoustics class. He would talk about the visceral effects that most jazz music has because of the decibels at which it is produced and how those effects made it easier for my deaf son to respond to the music and dance. He went on to demonstrate how he would use the other stories that had been told in the workshop to introduce various content topics of his course. The stories moved from an end in themselves, as in language experience, to a steppingstone in to the specific knowledge and skills related to a content area. My mind was racing as I watched Caswell do this. I wanted to try it. I was anxious to see if this technique could be used to facilitate the learning of English for students in my classes.
Thus my research question was born: What happens when the use of student personal narrative is introduced into an upgrading English classroom?
In this research report, I argue that the use of students’ personal narratives in the classroom is a valuable teaching strategy because it facilitates the students’ understanding of specific course content, it enhances their engagement with classmates, class activities and course content and, as well, it creates a classroom community. These developments enrich the learning experience because they allow students to be seen. Being seen means that each student is valued as an individual, that his or her culture, background, personal history and personal knowledge is acknowledged and has a place in the classroom.
Through data analysis, I identified three areas in which the use of students’ personal narratives enhanced the learning experience. The first area was that of English course content. The technique facilitated the students’ acquisition of an understanding of essay writing, symbolism, the role of text in their lives and the importance of bringing prior knowledge and experience to interpretation. The second area was that of engagement. Through the use of personal narratives, students displayed engagement with the activity itself, with one another, with the course content and with the whole course. The third area that the use of students’ personal narratives had an effect on was that of classroom community. An intimacy developed where students regularly displayed a bond with one another, respect for each other’s opinions and ideas, a comfort that allowed them to take risks in their learning and a willingness to help one another academically.