As painful and ill-thought-out as the sharing of personal stories about death was, the use of the technique did promote intense engagement with the topic and as a consequence a more thorough exploration of various themes and issues. This increased engagement with the course content seemed to last beyond the particular exercise as well. In the class that had shared their personal narratives, several students chose to further explore the topic:
And INTERESTINGLY…the students have now begun to work on a research assignment in the class. They may pick their own topics and four of the students in my day class have chosen to do research on death/grieving/ritual in other countries….Nobody in my night class has chosen the topic (E-mail to RiPP team members, March 24, 2004).
Having students begin the examination of course content by sharing related personal narratives definitely heightened involvement with the topic. When students were more deeply involved in a topic, the depth of discussion and quality of written work were positively affected.
Prior to each use of personal narratives in the classroom, I worried that the teaching strategy would not work. However, right from the outset students seemed highly engaged. After I had named and played the piece of music I would call my theme song and told the story of why it was my theme song, I asked the rest of the class to take turns volunteering to come to the front of the class and do the same thing. Engagement in the activity was demonstrated right away:
I did tell my story and play my music first and then asked for a volunteer to go next. Someone volunteered immediately. People continued to volunteer readily until everyone had had a turn (Field notes, September 2004).
The activity itself seemed to be one that caught the students’ interest and which they were willing to participate in. Over the course of my teaching career, students have regularly expressed to me their fear of speaking in front of the class. Getting up to talk in front of the class, at any time in the semester, can be a frightening event for students but to do it on the second full day of classes can be even more threatening; therefore, I was excited by the immediate response given by the students to this activity.