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Storying their lives (Part 2)

Jerry J. Wellik and Francis E. Kazemek

This is the final o f two articles describing how students at risk, teachers, and elders are using stories and other forms of written and oral expression to connect across generations. The goal o f these activities is to foster belonging, creativity, competence, and self-expression. (You can read Part 1 here)

Favourites and choices
C hoice. How much choice do students have who struggle in school or who have been labeled and placed in special programs? If prescribed curricula are any indication, then students have little choice when it comes to the kinds of things they read and write. Yet we know that choice in reading and writing is vital if children and young adults are to develop into skilled and creative readers and writers (see, for example, Krashen, 2004). As adults and avid readers and writers, we know that we choose the kinds of things we read and write.

We always begin each new writing group with several questions: What kinds of things do you like to read? What do you like to write? What sorts of things have you written? Moreover, we also share with the students the kinds of things that we like to read and write. Invariably, we discover that adolescent students are writing poetry. In a recent group, for example, John proudly told us he had several poems published in different magazines. Ilene also had a poem published in a little journal. Pat told us she had poems published in her “regular” school newspaper. Then together we and the students brainstorm ideas for the kinds of things we might do during each weekly gathering. A recent group of students in an Alternative Learning Center told us that they would like to write a wide variety of things, forms of discourse that they seldom have opportunities to explore in their regular curriculum; for example, different kinds of poetry, stories about relationships, reviews of movies and CDs, and brief fictional sketches.

Modeling risk-taking
After we explore with students different possibilities, we then always share some of our own writing. This is the key to making the process work. We must be willing to be open and vulnerable if we want students to do the same; such vulnerability allows us to develop empathy. Modeling on our part is central; it invites students to share their own experiences, stories, and ideas. By taking risks with students, we establish the basic premise of our approach, which is to share our own needs for validation, feedback, approval, and belonging. We never cease to be surprised at the exchange that occurs when the students or we share some particularly emotion-charged experience or story. Such surprises are vital and, alas, seldom occur in the teacher-directed or highly touted “best practices” curricula. For as Robert Frost quipped, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” (Frost, 1960, p. 32).

We usually engage students in a simple piece of poetry writing during our first meeting. Form poems of various kinds work best. We want something at which all members of the group will be successful and, at the same time, will encourage them to express their uniqueness. The lune is a variant on the haiku and is much more “natural” to write since it does not involve the counting of syllables. It is a three-line poem of eleven words with three words in the first line, five in the second, and three words in the third. A lune can be about anything. Some examples from various adolescent groups include:

Your shimmery hair
The smell of your perfume
I love you

The war begins
All hell has begun destroying
What’s the point?

My little girl
With white dress pink flower
A baby angel!

Pink elephants fly
Moby Dick takes Ritalin daily
Toddler beats Bush!

These lune poems also work well when writing about pictures or photographs.

Surprising others and ourselves
We discussed previously the biographical or bio poem we typically use when we first meet a group of students. Oftentimes these little poems reveal things about students that we might not learn through other means, that is, their dreams, desires, hopes, interests, and perceptions of themselves. Raymond’s poem cited in the first half of this article (I want to be a top mechanic... Wellik & Kazemek, 2008, p. 57) is a typical example. At first Raymond did not want to share his poem, so one of us asked if we might read it. He agreed and we read it a couple of times. There were immediate appreciations from the students; they were surprised over the depth of his poem. Indeed, they saw that Raymond was not a “dumb hick.” At that moment there was a new appreciation of who Raymond really is, both on the part of the students and Raymond himself. He was a writer who had something to say and share. This poetic moment of surprise opened our hearts and gave all of us insights into something deeper and richer. Raymond discovered that he knew a lot more than he knew that he knew.

This energy of creativity flourished with Raymond during subsequent meetings. He continued to surprise himself and us with his insights and writing. Success bred success. Raymond was more open to sharing his personal experiences on the farm. When we wrote about seeing the world through the eyes of an animal or inanimate object, Raymond wrote this wonderful prose poem about a calf being born:

I Am

Going through a tight hole, it’s cold out here. I can’t hear the thump anymore. Trying to stand, something is drying me off. I can stand now. Mom is cleaning me. Who is picking me up? Where is Mom? I am hungry. What are they doing to my Mom? Why are they locking me up? What are they putting in my mouth? I am not hungry for they just fed me. Is Mom okay or not? Why are they moving Jane? Mom is close yet so far away. I can see her now. I can talk too. That is new! What is this soft, fluffy stuff I am standing in?

We focused on the content of Raymond’s wonderful little personification sketch and not on his spelling and grammar (which, to say the least, were nonstandard). The appreciations the other students gave him about this piece caused him to beam with delight. We all learned something new about Raymond and his world, and we all learned something about farm life and calves being born. What we pay attention to as educators is vital. We can give our attention to externals such as spelling, grammar, appearance, and so on, but this only gives us a surface view of who a student is. By putting these externals into a more comprehensive context, we can begin to see a student for his or her deeper worth. This, in turn, helps us all develop a sense of belonging and fosters community.

Who are we really?
Raymond’s bio poem cited above is an example of what we found time and again when we asked students to write such poems. Regardless of the age or particular situation, the students almost always affirmed their inner selves. We also used other simple form poems and photography to help students explore and express themselves. The acrostic, or name poem, was especially viable with a group of troubled students. After they had taken photographs of one another, each one created a poster that included one or more photographs of herself or himself a bio poem, and an acrostic poem. For example:


Talented & creative
Interesting & funny
Master builder
Happy & serious


Educated & Eminem fan

Photographs and bio and acrostic poems help us learn more about one another. They allow students to understand better how they story their lives and see how those stories can be changed. More importantly as educators, we get to see how students perceive themselves, and this enhances our ability to relate to them on a deeper and more visceral level: we now are able to see students through the eyes of our hearts and not merely with the eyes of our minds.

Curiosity and generosity of spirit
In a brief tribute to our great oral historian Studs Terkel on his ninety-fifth birthday, Calvin Trillin (2007) observed that Studs’ accomplishments as a pre-eminent listener are all the more remarkable since he happens to be a prodigious talker. Trillin recounts his various travels with Studs and how Studs was able to almost immediately connect with people of every kind; he was able to gather “the thoughts of ordinary people on their struggles and their daily labor and even their deaths” (Trillin, 2007, p. 7). As a pre-eminent listener, Studs is in touch with others’ stories and inner lives because he is in touch with his own. As Trillin concludes, Studs’ “curiosity and his generosity of spirit embraced everyone, without regard to rank or station. They recognized him as a monument to much more than simply restraint” (p. 7).

How do we as educators follow in the footsteps of Studs Terkel? How do we listen to our students with our hearts and a sense of curiosity and generosity? How might we become monuments to joy, intention, and meaningful purpose and not monuments to “best practices,” data-based measurement, and other externals that are touted as answers?

Terri was a seventeen-year-old, charming young woman who attended classes at the center with her older sister. At the beginning of the school year, the two of them always came to our writing sessions but were not very open and were reluctant to share. Indeed, though they always wrote, Terri was wary of us and our motives for being there. Her wariness lasted well into January. Our persistence, authentic appreciations of their work, and commitment to the students and their self-expression through stories and writing, however, finally persuaded Terri that we “were for real.” She became more open, in fact at times ebullient, and her writing flourished.

When we suggested that students try phoetry, that is, write poems about photographs, Terri and her sister spent a day at a rural cemetery. They took many pictures of the headstones and wrote accompanying poems and prose vignettes. One of Terri’s photographs and poems was selected as the front piece of a brochure for a reception that we held to honor the work of students in grades 1-12 from surrounding schools:


The stone says older
Funny how we didn’t get there
Twenty years apart
But take a closer look
Twenty-one and one
Their lives ended too young
All the memories they have
Are lying under a stone
Eliz and Carlos, a mother and a son
Holding her son as close as she can
Their hearts as cold as stone

Into the interior
Terri looked at the gravestone of a mother and son and imaginatively entered into their lives that ended many years ago. This act of imagination and empathy can serve as a touchstone for us as educators. Do we try to draw out what our students see, feel, think, and imagine, or do we simply impose an external template on their experiences? For example, there is a world of difference between quantifying students’ behaviors and going inside into the heart of their particular experiences or stories. The former focuses on our attempts to change the individuals while the latter encourages us to model and grow with students, leading them on to more productive paths and alternative relationships.

In Notebooks o f the Mind: Explorations o f Thinking, Vera John-Steiner (1997) explores what fosters and sustains creative and intellectual endeavors. She observes that in all fields, “the personal interest of a caring and knowledgeable adult is critical, just as it is in encouraging youngsters to reach for their potential” (p. 37). As a particular example of this adult caring, we can look at the Power Writers after-school literacy program for urban Latino and African-American students that Maisha T. Fisher describes. In this community context, “once students realized that they had the respect and encouragement of their teachers, they believed their words and ideas were valuable and worthy of being committed to paper” (Fisher, 2007, p. 92).

In The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence o f the American Worker, Mike Rose (2005) describes the time he spent observing and talking with teachers and students in alternative high school settings. From a cursory view, the students in these programs often seemed detached or troublesome. However, by spending time with them, Rose began to understand the relationships between teachers and students and how the teachers encouraged meaningful learning and growth in the young adults. For example, Dwayne was a “mix of nonchalance and confrontation, ... boastful, funny, quick-witted, out on you for a response or a cigarette, charming in a boyish, street-smart way” (p. 63). But Rose saw that Dwayne’s teacher, Mr. Guthier, modeled and fostered in Dwayne a sense of workmanship and competence. He accomplished this by sticking with Dwayne for a long period of time. As Rose observes, “Settle in with Dwayne long enough, and you begin to see Dwayne learning...” (p. 64).

All of the teachers observed by Rose in the various trades classes (plumbing, carpentry, electrical) respected the potential and competence of all their students, no matter how dysfunctional they might at first glance appear. They saw in the students what they might be and helped them become what they might be. They did this by going inside the students’ experiences and not by trying to measure and manipulate them. Most importantly, they stuck with the students. Rose observes,

I find not a single instance where Jon Guthier, or Jerry Devries, or Jim Padilla is talking to his students, or to me, in a way that suggests some kids have got it and some don’t. There is not talk of innate talents or of deficits versus giftedness. (p. 111)

All of the students were invited into the class community and onto paths of productivity.

Whatever else it means to be human, we know beyond doubt it means to be relational.... One of the deepest of all human longings is the longing to belong, to be a part of things, to be invited in. We want to be a part o f the fellowship. (Eldredge, 2004, pp. 22-23)

Where someone knows your name
Childhood and adolescence are not always easy. In today’s world, children and young adults face a great many challenges. Sometimes those challenges can seem or be overwhelming. In various supportive contexts, young people have become less wary of adults and have made meaningful connections with them through writing, storytelling, photography, and other creative activities. Our primary purpose is to provide a possible model for others on how to foster a strength-based philosophy.

We believe that we must learn how to understand how young people story their lives. How do we gain a glimpse into their inner lives and the way they see the world and their place in it? An undergraduate student of ours was working recently with a class of teens who had been labeled as emotionally and behaviorally disturbed. One of the students was especially difficult, using abusive language and refusing to participate in the lesson. When the young man causing the disturbance asked, “Why are we here, dude?” the undergrad stopped and realized that she was more concerned with the lesson than the students. She then started to write down what the students were saying and encouraged them to begin writing bio poems themselves. Once the student causing the disruption realized that she was truly interested in what he had to say, he became focused and began to write several bio poems himself. In fact, at the end of the class period, he did not want to stop or leave.

Our undergraduate student demonstrated the kind of insight, concern, and joy that Jonathan Kozol describes in his book on education for some of the poorest children in New York:

Wonderful teachers, and especially the teachers of young children, have much more, I think, than what technicians might refer to as “proficiency.” Their calling, when it’s filled with merriment and beauty, makes me think of joyful priests in Sunday robes when they prepare to give communion.... Teaching children of this age, when it’s done right, is more than a craft; it’s also partly ministry and partly poetry. (Kozol, 2000, p. 277)

Merriment. Beauty. Partly ministry. Partly poetry. These should be the qualities and practices we keep in mind as we attempt to answer the young man who asked, “Why are we here, dude?”


Eldredge, J. (2004). Epic: The story God is telling and the role that is yours to play. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books.

Fisher, M. T (2007). Writing in rhythm: Spoken word poetry in urban classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.

Frost, R. (1960). Robert Frost: The art of poetry no. 2. Interview by Richard Poirier. The Paris Review, 24 (Summer-Fall). pp. 1-34.

John-Steiner, V. (1997). Notebooks of the mind: Explorations of thinking (Rev. Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kozol, J. (2000). Ordinary resurrections: Children in the years of hope. New York: Perennial.

Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading, 2nd ed.: Insights from the research. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rose, M. (2005). The mind at work: Valuing the intelligence o f the American worker. New York: Penguin.

Trillin, C. (2007). Studs Terkel, listener. The Nation, (May 28, 2007). p. 7.

Wellik, J.J. and Kazemek, F. E. (2008). How young people story their lives, Pt. 1. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 16,4. pp. 55-59.


This feature: Wellik, J.J. and Kazemek, F.E. (2008). Storying their lives, Part 2. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17, 1. pp. 31-35.