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134 APRIL 2010
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How young people story their lives: “Why are we here dude?” (Part 1)

(You can read Part 2 here)

Jerry J. Wellik and Francis E. Kazemek

This is the first of two articles which will explore how written personal stories promote creativity, competence, belonging, self-expression, and a sense of purpose among students who, for a variety of reasons, have been labeled “at risk” or “delinquent.” They present scenarios of students, teachers, elders, and others working together and samples of the stories, poetry, and other forms of written and oral expression that bound together these diverse groups. They propose that this “student first,” competency focused, emphasis should shape the curriculum and offer suggestions for specific approaches to construct a person first curriculum.

“The presence of a strong sense of belonging makes young people more receptive to guidance from other community members” – (Brendtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern, 2002, p. 47).

How do we as educators, parents, and community members foster a sense of belonging among all of our students, both those who are experiencing success in school and those who are encountering difficulties of one kind or another? All too often in our culture there is a tendency to focus unduly upon the problems, upon what is wrong and needs to be “fixed.” Educators and others tend to see students through the lens of deficiency and not through that of competency. This resilience was not the focus of the pioneers who worked with and advocated on the behalf of troubled youth, however.

Pioneers in youth work utilized Pygmalion-like optimism and achieved astonishing results. Many contemporary approaches focus on deviance and pathology and are bogged down with futility and cynicism (Brendtro and Ness, 1983). These early advocates, including August Aichhorn, Jane Addams, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, and Maria Montessori, stressed the importance of identifying and promoting a sense of purpose, competency, and a perspective of joy among all youth, both well-adjusted and those alienated or troubled.

Cornerstone stories
We all have stories of incidents, encounters, or events, usually early in our lives, that are impossible to forget; they are seemingly burned into our memories. The way we story these experiences helps shape our lives. These “persistent memories” are laden with great emotional weight; they are drawn out by an attentive and empathic listener who helps bring them to life. Sarah was a thirteen-year-old student in a facility for students identified with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities (EBD). Here is her cornerstone story:

Once when I was very young, my life was torn apart. One day some people came and I had no clue who they were. They talked to my Mom and the next thing I knew I wasn’t at my Mom’s side anymore. That really scared me because I loved her so much.

When I turned three, a whole bunch of people kept coming and going all the time, and by that point I was crying because I kept hoping and praying that one of them was my Mom. But... she never came to get me. That is when I was taken to a different family. They were all right, but I wished I was with my Mom.

Two years later when I was five years old, I was told that a family wanted to adopt me. Well, I bet you could guess what my reaction was when they told me. They said they wanted a little girl, and that I would meet them at my foster sister’s volleyball game.

So I waited until that day, and when I was bouncing around... I stopped... looked at the window and saw that my adoptive parents were standing right behind the glass. I said to my foster mom that my new Mom and Dad were here.

My new Mom stared at me, and I saw tears in her eyes. She was crying. So I went up to her and asked her why she was crying. She said the most amazing thing I had ever heard someone (say. She said, “I have been waiting for you forever!” She smiled at me and then she started to cry even harder than ever.

Sarah told pieces of this story several times in our storytelling and writing sessions with the other students in her day treatment program. We listened carefully without interruption and encouraged her to explore and express her experience. We created a space for Sarah’s story by giving her feedback through our rapt attention, facial gestures, and inviting postures. In a
sense, we were co-creators of the story. Our repetitive modeling for the other students helped them to become more attentive and empathetic listeners as well.

We also modeled for them how to give “appreciations” for the stories they heard, that is, something specific that they liked about the story or how the story affected them. A surprising result of this storytelling and story listening was that the students quickly began to offer insightful, specific, and often compassionate appreciations or feedback to their peers. They helped to build a welcoming community in which the life experiences of all members were honored.

We expanded this sense of community by connecting the students to a group of elders with whom they shared both oral and written stories. This vital connection gave the students an authentic audience for their storytelling and writing. Sarah, for example, told her story of adoption to a mixed group of elders and young people ranging in age from ninety-two to eight. There were few dry eyes after she told her story, and several of the elders offered her appreciations that connected her story to their own lives. Our videotape of this sharing session highlights the importance of the listeners' role in helping Sarah bring her story to life.

Moreover, this intergenerational sharing session and the attendant appreciations resulted in stories from many of the adults. Sarah’s story of her adoption triggered one in particular. A visitor from Nigeria was moved to remember and recount the story of his little sister who died during the civil war in his country when he was a child. After he told the story in a heightened emotional state and received appreciations from both adults and young people, he commented, “You know, I never told this story in public before, and I want to thank all of you for listening.” Indeed, he later related that it was the atmosphere of non-judgmental acceptance that enabled him to share the story.

Re-storying our lives
How do people see us? How do we see ourselves? How do we help students who have been labeled in a variety of negative ways begin to see themselves in a new light? How do we help them begin to re-story their lives? How do we honor the uniqueness or “weird-ability” (Freeman, Epston and Lobovits, 1997) of each individual? When we as teachers and adults are willing to hold up the mirror to our own lives, when we are willing to take risks by sharing how we see ourselves and how we think others see us, then students are more willing to take risks themselves.

We have developed and used extensively a particular biographical poem based on the ideas of the poet Kenneth Koch (1970). This little form poem helps students express images of themselves that unfortunately others do not see. For example, Raymond, a seventeen-year-old farm boy wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and “rodeo” belt buckle in an Alternative Learning Center for adolescents who were not successful in a traditional setting, wrote:

I want to be a top mechanic
I dreamed of going to Vo-Tech
But to pay for it I would have to join the military
Now I can’t because I screwed up
I look at life differently now
I see the little things that make it so special
People that I talk to think I am the biggest
Dumb hick in the world
But I am smarter than they think

During our subsequent sharing and appreciations, several students acknowledged Raymond's imaginative view of himself. “That’s a good poem; it’s good to hear about your dreams. You know, we all have them,” one student commented.

Other students labeled as EBD expressed a constant theme in all of their poems: their inherent goodness, an interior view of themselves quite often not seen by adults. For example, here is Cheryl's:

I wish I were a unicorn.
I’d dream about shooting cold fire
And blue stars out of my horn.
I used to be naughty,
But now I’m good.
I used to lie,
But now I don't.
Some people think I’m mean,
But I’m really nice.

Almost all of the students' poems end with a plea for an understanding of who they really are or who they want to be. Jim’s ends: “Sometimes I’m naughty/ But I really want to be nice.” Dan's: “I seem to be mean/But I am really nice.” John's: “People think I’m shy and quiet/But I’m really quite a riot.” David's: “I seem to be mean to other kids/But I’m really very nice.” Jerry’s: “I seem to be a computer geek/But I could climb the tallest peak.”

This type of poetry writing helped the students make meaningful connections with elders in a senior citizen center and also with their own teachers and paraprofessionals. During regular storytelling and writing sessions, the different generations were able to inform and educate each other. One senior citizen wrote:

I was scared when I was 6 years old in 1930
There were 30 kids or more in my class
I sat at a desk in the back of the room
A girl that didn’t like me sat next to me
She said I stole her small pencil sharpener

One of the students comforted the elder with her appreciation of “That’s unfair!”

Special, secret, or best place

My favorite place is my mind. It is a wondrous place. It greets me with thoughts of heroism and fantasy. It also resounds with horrific images of pain, suffering and injustice.

Thus began John's description of his “Favorite Place.” He went on to elaborate the ways in which he explored pressing issues that he wrestled with as a teenager in a special summer program. John was one of many in this particular program and in various other programs in which we used this storytelling and writing strategy to help students express parts of themselves that were not revealed in more “typical” classroom settings.

We all have special, secret, or best places to which we go, especially in times of difficulty or when we need to be alone to reflect upon or meditate on some particular issue or simply on life in general. Helping students talk and write about these places helps them to reveal the richness of their interior lives. It allows us to see in a new light adolescents and children who might be misunderstood; it gives us a deeper appreciation for who they are.

Mark, for example, appeared to be a “hard case,” wiseacre, and perhaps even a druggie. After several meetings in which he was able to tell and write other types of stories and poems for which he received appreciations from the other students, the regular teacher, and us, he opened up when we all wrote about our special or best places.

Last year in July I went to Sonshine Festival in Minnesota. It’s my favorite place since the atmosphere there is so positive. I had a chance to meet one of my heroes and mentors. He is part of a [Christian] band called Mortal Treason. So I met him and told him that his lines changed my life in so many ways ...

Discovering that Mark was a spiritual young man concerned with the way he lived his life allowed us to appreciate him in a new manner. The shell that at first he kept around himself began to dissipate as soon as we knew his story.

In some cases it was through this favorite place writing activity that we learned about the talents or special interests of students, talents and interests that they were reluctant to share in other settings. Cal’s piece, for example, highlighted aspects of his life about which we knew little:

I love sitting in my bedroom just sitting around listening to music with my girlfriend. The stereo’s real loud. I like listening to instrumentals so I can write my lyrics. It’s the only place I can get away from all this b---s ...

Unfortunately, it seems that Cal had limited opportunities during his school career to share his song writing talents.

Anthony, a nine-year-old student with whom we worked weekly in a storytelling and writing project, silently resisted our attempts to draw him out through stories and writing. The other students in the day treatment facility actively participated while Anthony remained unengaged with the activities and the other students. We all gave him space while encouraging him in a non-threatening manner to participate.

A major project during the six months in which we worked with this group of students involved several meetings with elders at a senior citizen center. The students interviewed the elders for brief oral history sketches, shared stories with them, and engaged in some joint writing. During our preparation for the first meeting with the elders, Anthony demonstrated little interest and remained locked in his own private world.

We met the elders on a warm spring morning. The lead teacher in this EBD program paired Anthony and another student with Sister Frances, a nun from a local religious community, and another woman. Sister Frances was originally from Japan and brought with her the lyrics to a traditional song that children sang in her hometown. She handed out the lyrics in both Japanese and English and sang them a couple of times while dancing in a small circle. She then asked the two students and the other woman to sing with her. Her enthusiasm lit a spark in Anthony. He quickly caught on to the Japanese lyrics while the other student and woman stumbled over them. He joined Sister Frances in singing the little song and encouraged his classmate to do the same. It was the first time we saw Anthony smiling, engaged, and taking a leadership role.

We were surprised, and we think Anthony surprised himself, by his reaction to Sister Frances and her singing. It was not only music that drew him out, but also the fact that the nun had no preconceived notions about him or how he would respond. He was not an “EBD student” to Sister Frances; instead, he was a boy with whom she wanted to share part of her past. It was the singing and subsequent writing about the elders that helped Anthony learn appropriate social and academic skills. His peers began to accept and support him. Within a few short weeks Anthony was back in his home school. It was his encounter with Sister Frances and the other elders that helped him return to a less restricted environment.

Uncovered stories
In another exercise, students wrote apology poems based loosely on William Carlos Williams' poem “This Is Just to Say” (Williams, 1986, p. 372) which helped uncover stories and experiences that heretofore they were unwilling or unable to share, stories that indeed might have been out of their awareness. Such unexpressed stories often fester and contribute to the alienation that young people sometimes suffer. In the process of writing about difficult experiences, students are able to give a shape to those experiences, and begin to realize that they are authors of their own stories, their own lives.

Sam, for example, wrote about her tattoo, something that her mother forbade:

I got a tattoo
Even though you said, No
It’s almost unnoticeable
It’s not that bad
I’m sorry I did it
I blame the peer pressure
The need to fit in

It was the structure of the poem, the container as it were, that helped Sam explore and express the fact that, although peer influence played a role, it was ultimately her own decision to get the tattoo.

Reframing the stories of our lives is not limited to students. When adults are open and willing to take risks and reflect on their own uncovered stories, they model the process for students to do the same. A vivid example of this occurred during a summer program in which we wrote with a group of high school students who were placed in an alternative setting. A colleague who worked with us was a retired nun who had limited experience with contemporary teens. During one of our first meetings with the class, we broke into small groups and wrote both collaborative and individual poems. It was not a pleasant experience for Sister Jean; she felt excluded and dismissed as an “old lady” She wrote this poem while the students were writing theirs, and titled it “My Unsettling Encounter":

My mind wanders
My sense of community lost
I’m not here!

They don’t want
Me in their group obviously
I'll take off!

Each a world
Many light years apart
Where are you?

What is it...
No sharing what-so-ever
I don’t understand

I can’t relate
I guess there’s no desire
Theirs or mine

Sister Jean shared her poem with us and described her sense of alienation from the students. As we empathetically listened to her story, we offered her both alternative interpretations of the event and supported her as she reframed the story. Thus, instead of placing the onus solely on the students, she now questioned her own responsibility for the lack of connection. When we returned for subsequent sessions of collaborative writing, Sister Jean took risks and reached out to the students, and they responded in kind. Her new poem reflected this change:

Apology Poem

I let you down
white-haired, too straight nun.

I let you down too
wild, wooly youth.

I am sorry
I need another chance.

I'll look for you
will you be waiting?

And the students indeed were waiting as they enthusiastically responded to her writing, especially her prose poem about learning how she finally learned to drive a car at fifty.


Brendtro, L. K., Brokenleg, M. and Van Bockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Brendtro, L. K. and Ness, A. E. (1983). Re-educating troubled youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Freeman, J. C., Epston, D. and Lobovits, D. (1997). Playful approaches to serious problems: Narrative therapy with children and their families. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Koch, K. (1970). Wishes, lies, and dreams: Teaching children how to write poetry. New York: Random House.

Williams, W. C. (1986). This is just to say. In The collected poems of William Carlos Williams Volume 1, 1909 – 1939, p. 372. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp.

This feature: Wellik, J.J., and Kazemek, F.E. (2008). How young people story their lives: “Why are we here dude?”. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16, 4. pp. 55-59.

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