Engaging students through narratives (by Emmanouela Tisizi)

This semester has been particularly hectic for me. I’ve been juggling two jobs while also being a full-time PhD student. I teach an undergraduate course on second language learning at McGill University, where I work with a group of 76 students, most of whom are perfectly bilingual (or multilingual!) and come from diverse ethnolinguistic backgrounds. At the same time, every Saturday I teach Greek language and culture to a small group of 16-year-old students of Greek heritage. Most of these students go to French immersion schools on the weekdays, so their opportunities to use the Greek language are limited to their interactions with their family and these Saturday classes, which are organized by the Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal.

As a teacher, a student, and a language enthusiast, I feel that this semester has been the most educative one for me. Working with two groups of students who differ on so many levels – first and foremost their age, but also their backgrounds and interests- has been both very interesting and challenging. Whether we focus on theories of second language acquisition, practical applications of these theories, or Greek customs and traditions, my priority is to create safe environments, where students feel they belong and where they are encouraged to take risks, ask questions, challenge textbooks and widely held views. And I find that narratives are the ideal tool to achieve these goals.

Whether by actually reading someone’s narrative, watching a video that tells a story, or by encouraging students to make connections between what we have been discussing in class and their personal experiences, I try to introduce students to storytelling. I find that stories can be powerful and can help students process new information. I try to encourage undergraduate students to talk and write about their experiences as novice teachers and as experienced language learners when they answer reflection questions for our course. And I prompt my high school students to share personal stories in class or to talk with their parents and grandparents about Greek traditions, and then return to class and compare these stories to the ones gathered by their peers, and to the ones presented in the textbook. When students write or tell (their) stories, it is evident that they connect with one another. What they are learning becomes relevant to their realities, and so they engage in the learning process.

And yet, when the time comes for them to write an essay or submit a paper, the problem surrounding narratives is revealed. Students wonder: “Is it really ok to talk about my experiences here?”. And students get puzzled – “My story differs from other stories. Which one should I write about?”. As April Passi also observed, students are skeptical of narratives’ appropriateness when it comes to formal writing.

Narratives are by no means a new way of thinking about, constructing and communicating one’s experiences. It is rightly argued that “Human beings have lived out and told stories about that living for as long as we could talk. And then we have talked about the stories we tell for almost as long. These lived and told stories and the talk about the stories are one of the ways that we fill our world with meaning and enlist one another’s assistance in building lives and communities” (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007, p. 35). Indeed, narrative thinking is universal in that it has always allowed people to construct stories that allow them to make sense of their lived experiences and those of others (Polkinghorne, 1988).

So why this questioning of narratives when it comes to using them in formal contexts? I believe that the answer to this question lies in the assumption that there can be such a thing as a single truth and that the way to discover this single truth is through evidence and facts. Hence, it is believed, teaching and learning (and research) should be based on solid facts – not stories. And, as a consequence, the single story that is supported by the most facts (or the one that is repeated the most) must be the correct one; or at least, more correct than the other ones. This positivist understanding of acquiring knowledge has been prevalent. And, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains, it has also been perilous. The legitimization of using narratives in formal contexts –including teaching, academic writing, and research- is fairly recent and, as would be expected, storytelling has met with skepticism. However, stories, and rather multiple stories, do matter, and it is our responsibility as educators to introduce students to them and to help them see themselves in what it is we are teaching.


Clandinin, D. J. and Rosiek, J. (2007). Mapping a landscape of narrative inquiry: Borderland spaces and tensions. In Clandinin, D. J. (ed.), Handbook of narrative inquiry: Mapping a methodology (pp 35-75). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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