Last year, I asked my middle schoolers to reflect on the question “Who am I?” Their responses were simple, biographical in nature and basic. “I am a twelve-year-old boy. I am obsessed with Fortnite.” And “I like playing the drums and my favourite sport is basketball.” These students, otherwise savvy in their interactions, displayed a naivety about a question so pivotal and charged with possibility. My immediate reaction was to probe these students by asking, “How would you describe yourself?” and “What are three words your friends would use to describe you?” yet a superficial and vague understanding of their personal brand remained. I continued to engage my students in various conversations about identity. While students attempted to participate in the discussion, their inability to critically reflect was a barrier to understanding their personal identity.
It became clear to me that I needed to shift my professional practice. After years of reading and thinking about narrative inquiry, it was time to put the theory to the test. I committed to creating an intentional space for my students to become storytellers whereby their personal narratives would be used as a tool for identity formation. Would the students buy in? Will I have time to do this work? Would it make a difference? I had no idea, but I knew it was worth a try.
The following is a summary of an action research project completed through the International Boys School Coalition, with participants from Crescent School in Toronto.
Enter Generation Z
While creating a personal identity has long been one of the major tasks of adolescence, today’s cohort of young adults born between 1995 and 2012— Generation Z—are thinking about their “self” in response to what they read, see, and experience online. More traditional forms of identity development— including critical self-reflection, value propositions, assessing cultural norms and the sharing of lived experiences—are outside of the norm for this cohort.
Experts note that Gen Zers have never known a world in which they could not instantly connect and have information and communication channels at their fingertips (Schwigerd and Ladwig, 2018). Many individuals in this cohort prefer socializing online rather than face-to-face, a change which is both positively and negatively affecting society (Schwigerd and Ladwig, 2018). The implication for this shift on identity formation is clear; Gen Zers’ understanding of self is constructed through the lens of an augmented reality. The understanding of one’s self is curated through various social media platforms such as Instagram, SnapChat, and YouTube. Gen Zers measure their self-worth by the number of followers or likes they receive on any given post.
Generation Z is consumed with technology and lives in the absence of exposure to traditional self-reflection where authentic human experiences are critically analyzed to derive meaning. For this cohort, identity, in its most authentic form, has become lost in “the cloud.”
The Why Behind the Action
Autobiographical or personal narratives are a collection of memories defined as a vivid recollection of past events that have significance to one’s self. Experts note narrative meaning-making is especially important during adolescence as developmentally, individuals become more cognitively able to engage in higher-order thinking and analysis (Habermas and Haiboglu, 2014). Adolescents are able to understand and integrate various perspectives and they are capable of understanding self-concept. This new way of understanding through narratives of self opens the door to how adolescents understand experiences in a larger social context. As well, they can use their lived experiences to understand themselves and their emotions.
Now more than ever before, educators must challenge notions of identity for Gen Zers. Simple yet intentional changes in practice can yield tremendous results. School administrators, teachers, mentors, coaches, and parents can reframe how they approach identity construction using a simple and versatile narrative framework. At the heart of this work is valuing the power of storytelling. Challenging our students to become narrators of their own life stories can have a profound impact on identity formation.
Based on existing research, the action for this project examined identity formation via the analysis of life story memories. Each student answered the question “Who am I?” as a baseline assessment. Following this pre-data activity, each participant created a personal narrative portfolio, including accounts of critical life story events. Students chose to build their personal narratives as a reflective journal, a timeline using programs such as Prezi or Google Slides, or a social media display using Instagram or Facebook. Over the course of eight weeks, portfolios were populated with personal reflections of six critical life story events. The memories were a combination of two high-point, two low-point, and two turning-point memories. Following each submission, I met with each student for a one-on-one discussion to promote the development of narrative coherence. Conversations included asking questions that challenged each student to reflect more deeply to make connections between their lived experiences and how they understand themselves. This action required a significant shift in our current advisory model as students were intentionally given the time and space to focus on identity formation.
The Importance of Double Listening
As the facilitator, I probed the students in their reflection and narrative analysis. In doing so, I was listening for clues embedded within their stories, which also led to starting points for alternative or preferred stories.
For example, I listened for clues about:
• What the student’s hopes and dreams are
• What the student values or deems important
• What the student has done to cope with, endure, or get through a tough time
• The students’ knowledge, skills, and personal agency
I used these prompts to engage the students in conversation:
• Tell me more about…
• How does it feel to tell this story?
• Was the outcome one you expected?
• How does this connect to your story about…
• What does this story say about what you value? What you hope for?
Implementing an intentional framework for the process of identity development made a significant impact on how students viewed themselves and their personal experiences, and prompted their journey of self-exploration. To adopt this work effectively, the following three components are necessary.
1. The Importance of Trust
Despite starting the process with a high-point memory, it was clear a trusting relationship needed to be established. When it was time for the students to write about a low-point memory, many were uncomfortable with the disclosure. One student commented, “I don’t really know what to write. I have had bad things happen to me, but I’m not sure I want to tell you about them.” Another student said, “I’m not used to talking about my feelings. At my old school we didn’t do this sort of thing and if I tell you something, you could tell someone else.”
To embody a professional practice where students are comfortable with sharing and interpreting their personal story, trust must be established. Taking on the work of identity construction with adolescent students is most effective when a positive student-teacher relationship has been previously developed. Sharing a personal narrative or critical life story event challenges students to demonstrate vulnerability and courage. Whether a positive or negative experience is shared, the student must feel valued and appreciated. One of the most effective ways to build trust is by modelling how to tell a story. When the teacher takes on the role of the narrator, students are exposed to the story, as well as the ability of how to interpret the story and make connections between other critical events. Modelling the process of meaning-making allows students to adopt behaviours and connect to the action. Trust is also displayed as the adult validates the student-teacher relationship by sharing his/her human experiences and construction of identity.
2. A Shift in Self-Awareness
Throughout the project, the students relied on feedback from narrative submissions and one-on-one discussion to make meaning of their life story events. A shift in self-awareness and the beginning stages of identity development emerged consistently among group members when narrative submissions challenged them to answer the question
“Who am I?” Autobiographical reasoning became more evident as student responses reflected greater depth and the ability to more accurately identify their personal attributes and explain how they had come to understand themselves. One student noted, “I would describe myself as adaptable. I moved to Toronto from Connecticut and it was scary but exciting to move to a completely different school in a new country. It didn’t take me long to make friends, engage in my school community and think of Toronto as home.” Another student reflected, “I am a very understanding person. When my mom is feeling stressed because she is busy with work, I don’t bother her because I understand that she has a lot on her mind.” Upon reflecting on a low-point memory, another student said, “I started thinking about myself as a person and I realized I won’t get anywhere in life if I don’t control my anger.” Similarly, another student bravely noted, “I am a very sensitive person and at times, it can make me feel lonely. I grew up in a family where it is strange to see people cry.” Thinking and reflecting about various critical moments in their life story clearly affected the student’s ability to create meaning. The narration of life stories became an anchor for the construction of their identity.
3. A Place to Pause
Students frequently commented on the novelty of this project. They said, “I’ve never stopped to think about myself,” “No one has ever asked me to think about myself like this before,” and “It feels a little bit weird. This is the first time I’m going deep down and talking and thinking about who I am.” Engaging in this process was initially challenging for some participants as they were unfamiliar with how to pause and think critically about themselves. The entire group needed guidance and prompting to make connections between their critical life story event and their identity. On more than one occasion, I challenged the students to think about themselves as the “character in their life story” and suggested that, just as they would complete a character analysis from a text in their English course, they needed to think deeply about their own story.
Overall, the post-action results were overwhelmingly positive and demonstrated that taking a pause allowed the students to work toward the development of identity purposefully. I recognized that students needed to think of identity through an intentional practice. For example, one student noted, “I liked this project because otherwise I would never stop [to] think about myself.” Another student said, “In the beginning I didn’t think this project was going to be worthwhile, but then I saw my pre-action activity and I couldn’t believe how much my answers changed.” He added, “I like this project because it has allowed me to get to know myself ten times more than I would have if I did not do this project.”
While this action research reflected a small shift in my practice, it is clear that analysing critical life stories provided students with a forum to begin thinking about their authentic self. “I have learned that I have to think about myself more often and try to understand what I am doing. I also learned that I have to release my negative feelings about myself and tell people what I am feeling. That way I am not keeping it inside of me,” noted one student at the end of the project. Another student who found the action personally challenging highlighted, “I found it really difficult to write my personal narratives. I don’t like telling people how I feel and I just keep it inside. It is hard for me to find the words to match my emotions. Now, that I have done this work, I know I need to work on being more vulnerable.”
Adolescence is marked as a rapid time of physical and emotional development. Challenging Gen Zers to use the richest source of data— their personal narratives—as a platform for self-discovery reflects powerful shift in pedagogy. I encourage fellow educators to think critically about providing an intentional space to build student’s self-awareness and guide them in developing their authentic “self.”
Life is a story, what does yours say? – Anonymous
1. Dana Schwieger and Christine Ladwig, “Reading and Retaining the Next Generation: Adapting to the Expectations of Gen Z in the Classroom”, Information Systems Education Journal, 16 (3) 2018; ISSN:1545-679X
2. Munevver Cetin and Meral Halisdemir, “School Administrators and Generation Z Students’ Perspectives for a Better Educational Setting”, Journal of Education and Training Studies, Vol. 7, no. 2 (2019); online at http://redfame.com/journal/index.php/jets/article/ view/3773
3. Habermas, Tilmann and Nese Haiboglu. “Contextualizing the Self: The Emergence of a Biographical Understanding in Adolescence”. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, (2014), 145, 29-41. DOI: 10.1002/cas.20065
4. Grysman, Azriel and Judith A. Hudson. “Abstracting and Extracting: Causal Coherence and the Development of the Life Story. Psychology Press (2010) 18(6), 565-580. https://doi.org/10.1 080/09658211.2010.493890.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patricia Alviano has been the Middle School Learning Support Specialist at Crescent School since 2016. In this capacity, Patricia is responsible for planning and integrating specialized academic support for students and professional learning pathways for teachers.
This article appears in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2020 issue.