An anecdote or journal entry about events or people encountered along the way

Teen identities are shaped by narrative environment

Wherever a story comes from, whether it is a familiar myth or a private memory, the retelling exemplifies the making of a connection from one pattern to another…. Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.
—Mary Catherine Bateson (Peripheral Visions)

Our identity is inseparable from our life story. According to Dan McAdams, adolescents are adopting an autobiographical perspective on life, understanding in ways that younger children do not that their beliefs and character traits are formed by the experiences they have. They are learning that we “author” the moral stances that define us by the way respond to the narrative flow of our experience.

As young people proceed through adolescence, the stories they hear around them become increasingly internalized, forming the basis of their own sense of who they are. The work of being an adolescent is often the work of digesting and interpreting experiences and putting together out of diverse influences a life story that’s more or less coherent. Teenagers are in the process of becoming a story they tell themselves about who they are.

It’s not a story they learn to tell by themselves, though. As noted by Theodore Sarbin and David Hermans, it’s a story they learn in dialogue with others. Adolecents are surrounded by perspectives--or voices--that influence them. Often, the voices of friends and parents are important, but as Robert Coles showed, voices found in literature can also be profoundly helpful. One needn’t be overly perceptive watching young movie-goers adopt the swagger, catch phrases, and fashion sense of a Hollywood star to see that their sense of possible identities is also shaped by movies and other modern media. Vygotsky argued that we develop into mature thinkers by incorporating voices from the society around us into our own psychology. He suggested that this is why adults experience thought as a conversation between “inner voices.”

And this is why the narrative environment that surrounds teenagers is of supreme importance. Adults, and not just teachers, have a responsibility to ensure that young people grow up in communities where civilizing values are given clear, certain, and powerful voice. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative environment of teenagers includes expectations and opportunties for them to tell stories that are well-crafted, integrating facts, values, and differing perspectives into coherent wholes.

Developing the capacity to tell such stories is much of the way young people grow from a the diffuse and unsettled identity of late childhood into the integrated and coherent identity of successful adulthood.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/23 at 06:14 AM
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©2007 Montana Heritage Project

Black Rage--WWII Montana

Black Rage. Contributors: Price M. Cobbs - author, William H. Grier - author. Publisher: Basic Books. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1968. Page Number: 33.

An ex-serviceman recalled an incident. During World War II he was stationed in rural Montana.On a weekend he visited a nearby town. When he arrived he was the object of much wonder. No one in town had ever . seen a black man before.

He went into a restaurant. The manager was polite and friendly. He passed the time of day and allowed as how this was the first Negro he had ever laid eyes on. He talked about the town and the generous nature of its people and then told the unfortunate brother that the restaurant had a policy against serving Negroes.

White citizens have grown up with the identity of an American and, with that, the unresolved conflicts of the slaveholder. White Americans are born into a culture which contains the hatred of blacks as an integral part. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/25 at 09:12 PM
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©2004 Montana Heritage Project

Heritage Project Helps Family Dealing With Grief

Early in August (2004) I received a phone call from an acquaintance of mine who said that a friend of her family’s was dying.  The wife of the man dying asked her to begin the process of writing his obituary that would probably be needed soon.  Much information was gleaned from family members but what she was missing was dates and eras in his work history. 

His job for many years was personnel director at the local mill, and many people in town remember him as the man who hired them when they began working for the mill.  So she typed his name and the lumber company’s name in Google to search for anything that might be out there.  The first “hit” turned out to be a list of oral history interviews conducted by students at Libby High School in 1999, and “Frank” was one of the interview subjects.  She called me to see if I knew anything about the interview and if she could get a copy.  The next day when I handed her a photocopy of the typed transcript she was extremely thankful and appreciative for the missing information needed to complete the story of his life.

Beyond the satisfaction a person gets from helping a person in ways that no other person can, I felt a strong sense of relief that the stories and words of this extraordinary man were preserved.  Much too often, time passes before the defining events of a person’s life are recorded for those people who come after them.  What a gift those two senior students gave that family back in 1999 when they sat down and encouraged a man to talk about his life!

Posted by Jeff Gruber on 09/15 at 08:53 PM
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©2004 Montana Heritage Project
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