Helping students build the audiences they need

I enjoyed the chance to talk with Britney Maddox when we taped her reading her essay about her “oma” earlier this week. One of the things that struck me was the conviction in her voice when we asked her why she chose her grandmother’s story as her research topic. “She deserved to have her story told,” Britney said.

Her grandmother’s story is important--her family was dislocated and her brother was killed under Hitler during the war in Europe. It matters.

Lots of problems in education begin to untangle themselves when we attempt to do work that matters. Classes of high school students can create books that matter, like the one students in Harlowton wrote about the neighboring Hutterite colonies, building bridges between cultures. They can place buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, as students did in Chester, doing the research that preserves the struggles and achievements of those who made the town a better place in the past. They can reimagine the lives of young men who built the northwest through hard lives at logging camps, as students are doing in Libby.

Several things happen in such projects. Students learn the expected academic skills of research, writing, and presenting, of course. But they also create an audience for their work. They find themselves talking about what really matters to interested audiences--Hutterites, elders, archaeologists, ranchers. In telling the stories they find in their neighborhoods, they create the audience for their scholarship.

This is critically important. We know that young people figure out how to live their lives by forming a narrative identity--a life story that links what they have experienced in the past and what they perceive in the present with what they anticipate in the future--and that they model this life story upon the stories they find in the narrative environment that surrounds them. What is less often understood is that the narrative environment consists not just of the stories we hear, but it also includes the audiences that exist for the stories we tell.

In his important book The Redemptive Self, Dan McAdams cites research that people who tell stories to friends who appear not to be listening can’t remember those stories themselves a few weeks later. When the friends appeared to be interested, on the other hands, people remembered the stories they told vividly.

When we find appreciative audiences for stories we tell about good character and striving for good causes, even though we found those stories in the lives of other people, we are changed by telling them.

I found myself very engaged in the story Britney told me. At the end, she quoted her grandmother, and I imagined I heard the German Lutheran inflections enter her voice as she said, “I get a little disgusted with these people who bellyache about the war. .  .I had to see it when I was awfully young: the bullets flying around, the houses bombed. And then we had to go and pick up the dead soldiers. All those people who complain here, well, they need to go see it themselves. It’s a mess.”

When Britney began speaking her oma’s words, she stood up straighter and spoke with a firmness and conviction I hadn’t heard earlier in the paper. Then she shifted into her own voice. The firmness and conviction stayed: “Her story means a lot to me,” said Britney. “It has helped me better understand my own history and where I come from. And, it has shown me what things are worth fighting for, what things we should fight against, and that ultimately, there is always hope.”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/18 at 03:43 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project