Why Narrative?

Simply put, narrative is generally a culturally universal way of knowing (Bruner, 1986, 1990). Stories are common to all people, all cultures, and occur in all countries around the world. We can tell stories orally, physically, through song and music, written, through art, media and even scuplture. We live our lives through stories and the way we story ourselves reflects our beliefs, assumptions and ideas about the world. Most everyone enjoys stories - children especially enjoy reading stories and listening to them. As adults we enjoy books, theatre, movies, gossip, news, and the list goes on. This is because stories are a common thread among us all, it makes sense to employ this resource in our classrooms.

Why are learner narratives a valuable contribution to the language learning classroom?

Building Community and Breaking Down Barriers
In today’s classrooms, we have learners coming from all over the globe, speaking numerous languages, and having a plethora of experiences. With such a vast array of languages in any given class, racism and discrimination can develop. Using learner stories provides an opportunity for learners to share, explain and celebrate their uniqueness while fostering a sense of community in the classroom (Weinstein, 1999). Ignorance is often the root of racism, and learner narratives will provide classmates the opportunity to share and educate each other, limiting the likelihood that racicsm should occur. Bell (2002) asserts this idea, stating that "a key way of coming to understand the assumptions held by learners from other cultures is to examine their stories and become aware of the underlying assumptions that they embody" (pg. 207). Awareness of the stories of one's peers ultimately creates compassion and understanding for one another. This can create bonds in a class and positively affects the learning environment of all.

According to Wajnryb (2003), using learner stories as part of class curriculum can develop interpersonal and intrapersonal connections which accommodates and addresses the social impulse to interact. This interaction is essential for the language classroom, as language learning is enhanced by opportunities to practice and communicate with one another. Getting students to talk is often a challenge, so such a tool that addresses the social impulse to interact is extremely useful!

Negotiating Identity
Our learners often have more than one identity when they walk into our classrooms. With each of the languages they speak and the cultures in which they include themselves, there is an identity. Using a new language in a new culture is demanding on an individual and requires an outlet for one to reflect on the process. This process has been documented in such memoirs as Ariel Dorfman's (1998)"Heading South, Looking north: A bilingual journey" where he expresses the experience of living in a new language and a new culture as an opportunity to reinvent oneself. This idea is reaffirmed in Pavlenko's (2001) analysis of a variety of learner narratives as she states that "for many authors, written texts, such as diaries, journals, or memoirs, represent uniquely safe spaces in which new identities can be invented and new voices "tried on."" In this way, publically or privately, language learners can work through the emotional and confusing transition of creating a new identity for themselves. This learner created narrative empowers the author to manifest how they want to be understood (Bamberg, 1997b).

Creating Third Spaces
The idea of a "third space" comes from the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha (1994). The notion of a third space is the place where knowledge from one's first space; their homes, communities or personal networks combines or interacts with thier second space; formalized institutions such as work, school, or church to create a new understanding or Discourse (Moje et al, 2004). Having learners create their own narratives and encouraging them to do so in a way that is familiar to them using their own linguistic and cultural knowledge, creates this third space where they can hybridize these knowleges. Creating opportunities for third spaces are essential in the language classroom as we want our learners to have agency in creating or modifying their new identity in their new language. By giving agency to our students, they can feel a sense of ownership of the new language instead of occupied by it.

Understanding our Learners
Having learners create narratives enables teachers to have a deeper understanding of who our learners really are. It allows us to see them as more than just a name on an attendance sheet, or as a student that is sucessful. We can find out about the knowledge they already have, the knowledge they want to find out, what motivates them, what demotivates them, their strengths, their weaknesses, and the list goes on. People generally like to talk about themselves and where they come from. As teachers, we need to use this as a tool to find out what our students need from us.

Bamberg, M.G. (1997b). Positioning between structure and performance. Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7 (1-4), 335-342.

Bell, J. (2002). Narrative inquiry: More than just telling stories. TESOL Quarterly, 36(2), 207-213.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dorfman, A. (1998). Heading south, Looking north: A bilingual journey. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Moje, E.B, et al. (2004). Working toward a third space in content area literacy: An examination of everyday funds of knowledge and discourse. Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 1, 38-70.

Pavlenko, A (2011). In the world of tradition I was unimagined: Negotiation of identities in cross-cultural autobigoraphies. The International Journal of Bilingualism, 5, 317-344.

Silliman, E. R., & Champion, T. (2002). Three dilemmas in cross cultural narrative analysis: Introduction to the special issue. Linguistics and Education, 13(2), 143-150.

Wajnryb, R. (2003). Stories: Narrative activities in the language classroom.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weinstein, G. (Ed.). (1999). Learners’ lives as curriculum: Six journeys to immigrant literacy. McHenry, IL & Washington, DC: Delta Systems and the Center for Applied Linguistics.