Why We Should Embrace Personal Stories in Our Teaching


It seems that maturing the human heart depends on developing our insight into other people’s situations; their challenges, sensitivities and talents.

A reasonable hypothesis is that our most fundamental values are motivated by our drive to serve all living systems. This perspective and the healing actions flowing from it are a core instinct for the healthy development of humanity. The quality of our lives, and even our survival, calls upon us to live in intimate appreciation, humility and empathy — empathy for others and for ourselves.

From TED Talks to This American Life and Story Corps, telling our personal stories creates a deep understanding of the person who has lived through the details of their story — from difficult circumstances, temptations and dangers, to redemption by living with struggle, courage, patience, friendship, grace, and transcendence — to name some strategies for traveling the path to personal growth through authentic problem solving.

Oprah, when speaking about her work as a storyteller, begins by saying that she views all of her work as being in-service. Perhaps this realization of living a life in-service is the guiding principle when our hearts speak.

Our school curriculum would benefit by becoming more deeply acquainted with this use of personal narrative to help students to grow their insight and commitment to self-knowledge, friendship, and social and environmental justice as well as other concerns and themes that are drivers for a sustainable and just society.

Surely we can see the failure of this service-instinct at the core of the failure of our institutions — from families to the Capital Dome and the Oval Office. While the architecture is well rounded in the latter two, the decision-making is linear, shortsighted, and selfish, grasping for power at the expense of truth, mercy, and understanding.

In days of not-so-old (the 1960’s) there was a literacy approach called Language Experience. It believed that reading and writing should grow from children’s personal narratives. It’s slogan was “If I (the child) can think and feel it, I can say it; and if I can say it, I can write it;, and if I write it, I can read it.”

This notion of enabling children to understand literacy as self-expression, and a process of discovery of how feelings and thoughts become speech that turns into writing and reading, was very successful when it was applied. In all cases, that application was before the Internet and all the more “modern” reasons for writing that people have today.

We would be wise to ask what would happen if we used learner’s own language, their own experiences and stories, to enable them to begin to map the relationship between language, identity, literacy, and service.

Jon Madian is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. He founded Humanities Software with his wife, Karen Jostad, in 1983 — sold to Renaissance Learning in 1999. Jon also founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project in the Inner City of Los Angeles (1976–1979). Foundation, state, and federal grants capitalized R&D to create one of the first learner-centered, computer-assisted curriculum design programs. A consultant for Apple, IBM, Capstone, and Microsoft and for schools and curriculum publishers, Jon is also a psychologist and children’s book author. He helped developed over 100 reading and writing software programs and has written extensively on technology, curriculum, and school reform.

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