The Power of Storytelling: How to Challenge Gen Zers to Explore Their Personal Identity Without Wi-Fi

Fall 2019

By Patricia Alviano

“Who am I?” I posed that question to my middle schoolers last year. Their responses were simple, biographical in nature, and ranged from a basic “I am a 12-year-old boy,” “I am obsessed with Fortnite,” to “I like playing the drums and my favorite sport is basketball.” These students, otherwise savvy in their interactions, displayed a naiveté 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 ability to understand their identity required a deeper level of critical reflection.

It became clear to me that I needed to shift my professional practice. After years of reading and thinking about narrative inquiry, I needed 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? Would 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, Ontario. 

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 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 immediately at their fingertips. Many individuals in this cohort prefer socializing online rather than face-to-face, a change which is both positively and negatively affecting society.1
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, YouTube, and more. Many Gen Zers measure their self-worth by the number of followers or likes they receive on any given post.

Generation Zers are consumed with technology and live 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 individuals become more cognitively able to engage in higher-order thinking and analysis.2 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 the larger social context. As well, they can use their lived experiences to understand themselves and their emotions.

With the rise of social media, 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.

The Action

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 the student for a one-on-one discussion to promote the development of narrative coherence. Conversations included asking questions that challenged the students to reflect more deeply on making connections between lived experiences and how they understood 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 these aspects: 
  • 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 student’s knowledge, skills, and personal agency 
And 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? 

Results 

Implementing an intentional framework for the process of identity development made a significant impact on how students viewed themselves and their personal experiences, and this prompted their journey of self-exploration. To adopt this work effectively, the following three components are necessary: 

1. The Importance of Trust 

Sharing a personal narrative or critical life story event challenges students to demonstrate vulnerability and courage. Trust must be established first. Whether the experience shared is positive or negative, the student must feel valued and appreciated. One of the most effective ways to build trust is by modeling how to tell a story. When the teacher takes on the role of the narrator, students are exposed to the story as well as how to reflect on their own story and make connections between other important events. Modeling the process of meaning-making helps students adopt behaviors and connect to the action. Trust is also developed as the adult validates the student-teacher relationship by sharing his or her human experiences and construction of identity.

In my classroom, students initiated the action by writing a high-point memory. I assumed that by sharing a positive experience, the students would be comfortable with practicing their storytelling. However, when it was time for the students to write about a low-point memory, many were still uncomfortable with showing their vulnerability. 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.” From this I learned that it was essential in my role as the facilitator to continuously nurture the process by sharing my own stories and demonstrating that students could trust me when they shared their stories. 

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.” On 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 students’ 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.

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 10 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 analyzing critical life stories provided students with a forum to begin thinking about their authentic self. At the end of the project, one student commented:
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.

Another student who found the action personally challenging highlighted these feelings:
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 a 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 

Notes

  1. Dana Schwieger and Christine Ladwig, “Reaching and Retaining the Next Generation: Adapting to the Expectations of Gen Z in the Classroom,” Information Systems Education Journal 16 (June 2018); online at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1179303.pdf.
  2. Tilmann Habermas and Neşe Haiboǧlu, “Contextualizing the Self: The Emergence of a Biographical Understanding in Adolescence,” New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development (Fall 2014), pp. 29-41.
Patricia Alviano

Patricia Alviano (palviano@crescentschool.org) is the Middle School Learning Support Specialist at Crescent School, Toronto, Canada.