When I began this research project it was English content outcomes that I was interested in exploring through the use of student personal narratives. I learned that the technique is a useful one that can facilitate the learning and development of a variety of English skills. However, I also learned that this technique has some other positive effects in the classroom besides that of specifically covering course content. One of the most obvious is in the area of student engagement.
According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, to engage means “to induce to participate or to hold the attention of” (1974, p. 378). Both of these definitions describe the behaviours of the students involved in this research project. I observed, and the students talked about, their engagement with course content, with the activity itself, with one another and with the course as a whole.
The telling of personal narratives facilitated student engagement with the course content. This was demonstrated in an accidental comparison that happened between two classes I had in the semester prior to the actual research project. The research proposal had been submitted and while I waited to formally begin, I experimented with the use of student personal narrative in my classes that were currently in progress. The role that this teaching technique had in enhancing students’ engagement with course content was made obvious.
I had brought a newspaper article for the students to read. I was interested in the students dealing with both the issues and themes in the article (death and grieving) as well as the form (essay structure):
I began the class by asking the students to think about death in their own lives. I had hoped that this use of narrative in the classroom would result in some of the issues/concepts that would be raised in the article, being raised in the personal narratives. These could be probed/discussed/examined and then connected to the points raised by the intern in the article as he writes about his encounter with his first death as a doctor (Journal entry, March 2004).
In hindsight, I would not repeat this activity. Painful emotions were raised for some students and I should have been more cognizant that that would happen. However, when students shared their personal narratives with the whole class I was aware that their engagement with the material was profound. As for the rest of the class, we had a very earnest, respectful, subdued discussion about many of the questions and issues (Journal entry, March 2004).