Personal Life Stories A Strategy for Empowerment

Linda J. McKinney, Pamela G. Fry

[Empowerment is] the process through which students learn to critically appropriate knowledge existing outside their immediate experience in order to broaden their understanding of themselves, the world, and the possibilities for transforming the taken-for-granted assumptions about the way we live. (McLaren, 1989, p. 186)
The strategy proposed in this article, sharing the life stories of teachers and students, is a means to promote self-understanding by examining one’s life experiences. In addition, life stories are a strategy for empowerment—validating students’ experiences
as valuable and meaningful, acknowledging students’ nondominant language as a valuable means of communication, and developing tolerance for and appreciation of various cultures as stories are shared with others. This article describes a college course where teachers create personal life stories and use these life stories with children in their classrooms.

The Creation of Teacher’s Personal Life Stories

Believing in the importance of multicultural children’s literature as a vehicle for empowerment, the elementary language arts faculty at the University of Oklahoma offered an intense, 4-week graduate multicultural children’s literature course during a recent summer session. Enrolled in this class were 20 ethnically diverse elementary school teachers. Approximately half of the participants taught in an urban setting with a significant number of non-English speaking students.
The summer session was designed as a literature-based writing experience with the major assignment being the creation of a personal life story. Crawford’s (1993, p. 232) guidelines, based on a multicultural approach to literacy learning, structured the course:

• Immerse students in quality multicultural literature across a wide range of genre. Multicultural children’s literature can help all children learn about new worlds, ideas, and alternate ways of doing things (Rasinski & Padak, 1990). The inclusion of multicultural children’s literature can affirm and empower children and the culture they represent (Ramirez & Ramirez, 1994). “Children can derive pleasure and pride from hearing and reading...and seeing illustrations of characters who look as if they stepped out of their homes and communities” (Martinez & Nash, 1990, p. 599). It also allows parents and teachers to become familiar with the cultural background of all students within a classroom.

The summer class specifically focused on numerous life stories for primary level students. A life story was broadly defined as a biography, an autobiography, or a fictionalized account of one’s life. Furthermore, these selections represented culturally conscious literature (Sims, 1982) which accurately reflects a group’s culture, language, history, and values. An in-class collection of the latest and best examples of multicultural children’s literature was provided, shared orally through various strategies such as readers’ theater, and assigned as novel studies.

• Develop a purpose or reason for writing and focus writing on the message, not the form. The teachers were asked to write their life stories with the intention of providing a model for their students in the fall. At first, some were uncomfortable with the idea of sharing themselves. To ease these anxieties, the instructor shared her personal life story which focused on her reasons for becoming a teacher. With this in mind, the teachers began planning which elements of their lives they felt appropriate to share with their peers and ultimately with their students. Some decided to choose one aspect of their lives, for example, the development of a special talent.

• Develop a sense of ownership in writing. It is imperative for learners, adult and children, to write for themselves if they are to have a sense of ownership. An example of a sense of ownership is the case of Julie, a teacher who used her considerable artistic talents to illustrate the story of how her ancestors settled in America. Illustrations from My Life Story by Julie Daz Fletcher are pictured throughout this article. Many teachers, including Julie, reported that their life stories became a family project and a tremendous source of pride.

• Provide a work time, space, materials, and a supportive environment. Teachers were given time to write each day and had access to materials for binding their projects. They were also encouraged to collaborate with peers during revision and editing.

• Provide opportunities for developing writers to share their authoring efforts with other developing authors. The class of teachers met to share their life stories. The following example demonstrates the powerful impact this experience had on the group. Up to this point, Joanna had failed to become an active and accepted part of this “community of learners.” Her lack of commonality with the younger, more vivacious personalities had seemingly relegated her to a nonparticipant in the class. However, as the poignant story of Joanna’s young, harsh life on a farm with 10 younger siblings began to unfold, she became the center of attention. Her peers sat mesmerized at the recounting of her life story. This story and others brought tears to their eyes. Verbal and written comments by the participants described shifts in their awareness of others as well as themselves. For example, one person wrote:

From this one experience (creating a life story), I see myself differently. [I have] more respect for myself and where I’ve been. I also saw others in the class with increased sensitivity. I think I will act differently, teach differently.

This summer course concluded with planning how to create life stories with primary students. Most teachers decided to adapt Crawford’s guidelines to their classrooms as well.

Creating Life Stories With Children

A follow-up discussion with 12 of the 20 teachers who had participated in the course confirmed the value of personal life stories to promote the understanding of self, others, and society. These teachers reported gains in three areas as a result of sharing and creating personal life stories with students.
• Mutual respect increased between teachers and students. One urban fifth-grade teacher had anxiously read her story to her students expecting a less than hearty response, and to her amazement they wanted to hear more! She read the book repeatedly, and the students requested its placement in the classroom library. Others in the discussion group reported similar experiences.
• The self-esteem of students increased. The writing process itself required constant decision making regarding what to include in one’s composition. Teachers described the care that students took in planning their stories. Children practiced social skills by participating in informal revision and editing groups. Ultimately, children gained an increased sense of self-importance.
• Sensitivity and understanding among students increased. Similar to the teachers’ experience in the summer course, children gained new insights and understanding of each other’s cultures. All teachers in the discussion group stated that the creation of life stories with children would remain an integral part of their curriculum.

In conclusion, if one believes the heart of the educational process is in the interaction between teachers and students (Gollnick & Chinn, 1994), the writing and sharing of life stories can serve as a means toward empowerment in our culturally diverse classrooms. The sharing of lives in the supportive environment of the classroom community might lead one step closer to equity and social justice in the larger societal context as well.

Crawford, L. W. (1993). Language and literacy learning in multicultural classrooms. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Gollnick, D. M., & Chinn, P. C. (1994). Multicultural education in a pluralistic society (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Martinez, M., & Nash, M. F. (1990). Bookalogues: Talking about children’s literature. Language Arts, 67, 599-606.
McLaren, P. (1989). Life in schools. New York: Longman.
Ramirez, G., & Ramirez, J. L. (1994). Multiethnic children’s literature. New York: Delmar.
Rasinski, T., & Padak, N. D. (1990). Multicultural learning through children’s literature. Language Arts, 67, 576-580.
Sims, R. (1982). Shadows and substance. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

About the Authors
Linda J. McKinney and Pamela G. Fry are Assistant Professors of Elementary Education and Language Arts on the faculty of Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK.