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Help Students Find Their Identity Through Personal Narratives

Dr. Stephanie Speicher believes in the power of personal storytelling to give context to complex cultural factors, such as gender and social justice.

Educator

Stephanie Speicher, PhD

Assistant Professor of Teacher Education, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah

PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, MEd in Educational Leadership, BS in Social Sciences/Secondary Education

Before moving to Utah to teach at Weber State University, Dr. Stephanie Speicher was a K–9 school principal in Utah. After the 2012 Newtown school shootings in Connecticut, she found herself helping to relocate a family whose first-grade daughter had been killed. “The news and the aftermath had a deeply sobering effect on me as a mother and as an educator,” Speicher says. “Writing a personal narrative about the experience felt cathartic and surprisingly therapeutic.”

Years later, Speicher wove personal narratives into her courses as a form of self-reflective research, which is part of an approach known as autoethnography. “Autoethnography is about creating lenses to experience the world,” Speicher says. “Its aim is to help us understand our identity intersectionality impact, or how all the facets of our identity intersect with each other, within our context of self and society, and the impact that these intersectionalities have on our daily lives, experiences, and encounters with others.”

Speicher has found personal narratives to be a powerful tool in two of her courses in particular: Introduction to Women and Gender Studies and Curriculum Design and Assessment. In the former, a student once shared the experience of finding and helping a woman who had just been raped in a park. In the latter, a grad student described the poverty and alcoholism that had affected her as a child—and ultimately led her to become a teacher.

Below, Speicher shares guidelines for educators seeking to elicit and inspire similar insights, in their class or in themselves.

Challenge

Students are unaware of how society has shaped them

“The ever-growing shift in the responsibility of educators to teach for equity, justice, identity, and community within classrooms is an urgent need,” says Speicher. People entering fields such as healthcare, social work, and politics will also need to look at others through a more objective lens. The problem: Many students have not thought deeply about their own personal lived experience, which makes it difficult for them to understand anyone else’s.

Innovation

Ask students “What is your story?”

To provide students with a gateway to understanding social justice from various viewpoints, Speicher employs the use of personal narrative. By writing about their own sensitive and impactful memories, students gain insight into how societal and cultural norms have helped shape their own personality. This then prepares them for ethnography studies—the exploration of the outside influences that shape the lives of other people.

Context

“Using personal stories, students can begin to answer the bigger questions of how direct experiences shape our own identity, intersectionality, and their impact on our lives today as we create our future paths in life.”

— Stephanie Speicher, PhD

Course: WGS 1500 Introduction to Women and Gender Studies

Course description: An introduction to the discipline of Women and Gender studies using multicultural sources based on current feminist scholarship. In this course, we will examine the diversity of women’s experiences, perspectives, critiques, and theories across the categories of race, ethnicity, class, and gender.

See resources shared by Stephanie Speicher, PhD

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Lesson: 7 tips for eliciting powerful personal narratives

The assignment outlined below is meant to guide the creation of a personal narrative, one step at a time. Speicher created this scaffolded approach because the stories and memories that this exercise evokes can be challenging for students to process. She also has made sure to build in plenty of practice in writing—including prewriting, revising, editing, and citing—all of which are skills that will serve students entering any career.

Begin by building trust and community

At the beginning of the semester, Speicher engages the class in experiential group activities both inside and outside the classroom, such as playing Traffic Jam or going for hikes, rock climbing, or paddling in the local reservoir. “Students have to trust each other before they will feel comfortable opening up to receive feedback and sharing a vulnerable part of themselves,” she says. “This is an important part of the personal narrative experience.”

Give general direction in story selection

Ask students to choose a compelling incident that has happened in their life (no fiction allowed). She recommends they select something that:

  • Happened to you at any time in your life (not just during childhood)
  • Helped shape your identity
  • Helped define who you are and who you are becoming within the context of gender identity, societal norms, and the world at large
Explain the options for story structure

A personal narrative serves two purposes, says Speicher: to tell a story and to interpret it. Students have a few options for handling these separate dimensions in their writing. They may:

  • First tell the story, then interpret it
  • Tell the story, interpreting it as it unfolds

In either case, she encourages her students to infuse each narrative with “suggestive details, colors, sounds, and imagery so that its meaning shines out.”

Do a prewriting exercise

A personal narrative should create an emotional connection between the reader and the story. To do this, the writing needs to be descriptive and specific so that readers feel as if they are part of the action. Speicher has students answer several of the following questions so that they can collect details before they begin drafting:

  • What event will you be describing?
  • Why is the event important to you?
  • What did you learn about your identity from this event?
  • What did you learn about how the intersectionality of all the features of your identity affected this experience?
  • How did you change as a result of this event?

Speicher adds that students should be encouraged to be brave in their writing and to rewrite often: It takes practice for students to capture their voice and write in an “evocative” way.

Pose questions about justice and gender

Speicher asks students to keep the following “essential questions” in mind to connect their stories to overarching social issues such as social justice:

  • How do assumptions about race, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and physical ability intersect in our lives today?
  • How might we be unconsciously complicit in the very institutions that benefit only some lives at the expense of others?
  • Is there the possibility of a future in which we largely ignore gender or envision gender and sexuality in more expansive, fluid, or egalitarian ways?
Expect the conventions of academic writing

Even though this is a personal narrative and not a research paper, Speicher asks students to use the conventions of academic writing to reinforce their abilities in that area. This means:

  • Papers must be typed.
  • Attention should be given to correct grammar and spelling.
  • Direct quotes and references must be cited using the rules of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed). (For this, she refers them to the Purdue Online Writing Lab.)
Have students edit each other’s papers

Speicher helps students learn to critique each other’s writing by teaching them these guidelines:

  • Tell the author what you like about the paper.
  • Point out places where you identified or learned something about your own life.
  • Edit for punctuation, grammar, and word usage.
  • Delete unnecessary words or sentences.
  • Edit dialogue for realism and punctuation.
  • Suggest paragraph organization within the paper and sentence organization within the paragraphs.
  • Comment on the narrative flow: Does the paper have a beginning, middle, and end? Does the paper tell an interesting or evocative story? Does the beginning dovetail with the ending?

This exercise, says Speicher, provides a framework for receiving constructive criticism and strengthening the mechanics and content of these papers. It pays off to have built trust among students early on in the course so that at this stage they can receive feedback about stories that are often deeply personal. Speicher reviews the stories if a student asks her to, and she will often listen in and provide any needed feedback during the peer review sessions. But she leaves it to the students to provide formal edits of each other’s work.

Outcomes

Teaching personal narrative alongside history develops plenty of useful skills, says Speicher. The exercise enables students to apply concepts, theories, and methods they are learning in class to a particular issue. Second, they gain diverse perspectives. Third, they learn more about themselves so that they can decide whether who they are is who they want to be—and, if not, take steps to change. “Using personal stories,” says Speicher, “students can begin to answer the bigger questions of how direct experiences shape our own identity and intersectionality, and their impact on our lives today as we create our future paths in life.”

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