The Power of Personal Stories

Spring 2014

By Marta Fuchs

“People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being,” said Studs Terkel, the consummate storyteller best known for his oral histories of everyday Americans. Storytelling is an age-old tradition of passing on individual, family, and cultural experiences. A story about an experience that touched your heart has the power to touch someone else’s heart as well. Stories connect us deeply to each other and foster empathy. Stories can challenge our assumptions and create new ways of perceiving, and ultimately serve as catalysts for new ways of acting.

For nearly three decades, I have been sharing my family’s Holocaust history in a variety of venues in order to inspire others to make a difference in everyday life. At a California Association of Independent Schools conference last year, I gave a workshop using my new book Legacy of Rescue: A Daughter’s Tribute. It’s about my father and the Hungarian Army officer who defied Nazi orders and saved him and more than 100 other Hungarian Jews in a forced labor battalion. Teachers were riveted by the story of rescue and its aftermath; the research, documentation, and perseverance it took to have my father’s rescuer, Zoltán Kubinyi, honored as a Righteous Gentile. They were moved to hear I found and met Kubinyi’s son who was just an infant when his father went off to war, never to return, dying of typhus in a Siberian labor camp a year after he was captured as a POW by the liberating Russian Army. They were heartened to hear how my father and some of the other men, upon returning to their destroyed families and communities, scraped together to send monthly care packages to Kubinyi’s young wife and infant son living in Budapest, “for life was hard for everyone after the war,” my father said. They were inspired to hear that I took my children and my brother’s children to meet Kubinyi’s son and his family, including the great grandchildren of Zoltán Kubinyi. Remarks about history repeating itself and questions about the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary today, as in other parts of the world, were punctuated by outrage and renewed commitment to teach tolerance and urge students to speak up in the face of injustice.

Teachers quickly began to share their own family histories of war, displacement, and the experiences of parents and grandparents coming to America. My childhood recollections of escaping from Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Revolution resonated with them as a universal story of immigration to a new world filled with hope and promise. Many also mentioned that they often use family or personal stories in the classroom. A Spanish teacher said he shared his family’s history when teaching about the Disappeared of Argentina. An ethics teacher said he shared his Holocaust history to engage students in discussions of moral and ethical dilemmas.

I recently asked colleagues about the kinds of experiences they shared in the classroom and why. Reasons ranged from using personal stories to build trust and strengthen the teacher-student relationship, to helping students see teachers as “real people,” to encouraging student engagement and giving students permission to share more authentically themselves. Some teachers use stories of personal mishap to inject humor and normalize teen behavior. Many teachers believe personal stories help students see the relevance of what they’re teaching because students hear a real life situation that illustrates what they’re learning.

Catarina Meyers, who teaches biology and environmental science, remarked:

I generally find that students respond very noticeably to my telling of personal and family stories as a connection to the topic at hand. I also have distinct memories of my high school and college instructors telling personal stories. In fact, it strikes me that I remember little else in terms of specifics from my high school classes. This makes me wonder if that neural connection – empathy? emotional intelligence? – makes things stick?

Matt Zealand, high school Spanish teacher, spoke at length about what he shares with his students and why:

As a non-native speaker of the language I teach, I have found it useful to tell my language-learning story in class. My students always find it humorous that I grew up in probably "the last place in the United States without a single native Spanish speaker," as I like to call my hometown of Cumberland in rural Western Maryland.

I believe it is useful for their "growth mindset" to hear I've gone through the same difficulties they are having with the language and that I made the same errors they are making on my way to speaking the language as well as I do now. I always remind them that they are much stronger at this point in their Spanish-speaking career than I was at their age. I'll often make remarks like, "that always tripped me up as well when I was studying Spanish" or "this word took me forever to learn how to pronounce, but, eventually, I got it."

My students also enjoy hearing the extremely embarrassing missteps I have had on my own language-learning journey – false cognate classics are always good for a laugh and students tend to never forget these vocabulary items once they have heard such a story.

Lastly, I always share my two "eureka" moments of when I realized how amazing it was to communicate in another language: my first communication in Spanish with a native speaker from Argentina who had come to my tiny town to study abroad and, while studying abroad in Spain, the way Spanish suddenly slowed down for me as I began to automatically decode the language without consciously translating what I was hearing.

Nancy Coffee, an elementary school special education resource specialist, also shares with her students her personal educational struggles in order to validate theirs:

I think I've been connecting with children through my own learning process and personal reflection of experiences since I was a teenager. When I began working in classrooms, my connections with students became more academically based. Kids quickly picked up that I make mistakes (spelling, grammar, forgotten words in sentences, math errors, reading errors), am a little forgetful at times, and become easily side-tracked. I openly talk about how adults make mistakes, too, and that it's okay to help out in an appropriate and kind way. After all, we all make mistakes, but we still have feelings! I often ask kids to "double check my work to make sure I didn't make a mistake" and "if we get distracted, help me remember to get back on track."

Of course, sometimes I make mistakes on purpose to see of they are awake, and if not, I often joke around that I made the mistake on purpose to test them.

I give them permission to remind me of certain activities/rewards/privileges I have promised them or they have earned. I have some third-graders who love to erase the board for me, but I can never remember whose turn it is, so they quickly learned how to remember on their own.

I am horrible at remembering what homework I’ve assigned and what homework needs to be returned, so I put a stamp or note on things and offer a ticket (school-wide token reward system) for returning it. Since a lot of my kids don't earn tickets very often, this is an incentive. Since I don’t put a timeline in it, they don't have to feel bad about turning something in late. They are rewarded for positive behavior only; the consequence is not earning the ticket.

I would like to think I use these strategies because my four-day-a-week job is crazy: I work with six grade levels each with groups three to four times per week for 30 minutes — a total of 30-40 students seen weekly. Perhaps a job this scattered and demanding taxes the memory and attention, but I see the real culprit as my ADHD. Perhaps it is a benefit that I have a short attention span, can attend to multiple things at once, and crave novelty! Either way, being a resource specialist puts me in contact with students struggling to figure out how to cope with their own learning challenges. It provides me daily opportunities to validate the challenges the kids are having and work with them to find strategies that work for each specific need, because there is no one quick fix.

In my work as a librarian, I teach information literacy skills, helping students navigate and evaluate the plethora of print and online sources of information. Students invariably bring up Wikipedia, most of them applauding its merits while bemoaning that most teachers won’t allow including it on bibliographies. I welcome the opportunity to discuss both the merits and the deficits of Wikipedia and how best to utilize it. And depending on time and level of attention, sometimes I strategically ask, “Do you want to hear my Wikipedia horror story?” “I love horror stories!” a student recently exclaimed. So I launch into the story of my experience last year in the hospital when a head nurse who said she had never heard about my condition (which I didn’t share with the students so as not to burden them) grabbed her smartphone and started spouting authoritatively from Wikipedia. “I’m sure you could see my blood pressure skyrocket!” Students laugh.

I tell them that the night before while languishing in my hospital bed, I actually had read that Wikipedia article which, not surprisingly, was the first hit, and it had a big warning at the top that it was incomplete and asking for help in researching it. Then I tell them that every other hit on the first Google page was an article from a medical journal or respected medical website. Clearly, this medical professional had not been trained well, as they were being trained, in information literacy. So I ask my students: “Promise me one thing, that at least for medical information, you won’t rely on Wikipedia.”

While many teachers I spoke with said they use common sense to decide whether to share something personal or not with their students, others said they weren’t so sure where to draw the line. The following guidelines from my work as a psychotherapist may help you decide whether or not to disclose personal information and what to keep in mind when doing so:

  • Have a purpose, goal, objective in mind that you wish to accomplish with telling your story.
  • Be selective and discerning, consciously selecting stories that will illustrate the lesson, make real world connections.
  • Be mindful of what is developmentally appropriate and what students are able to understand at their age and maturity level.
  • Know your motivation and whose needs you are trying to meet — yours or the students.
  • Keep professional boundaries and remember your students are not your peers, that no matter how mature they might be, they are still children/young adults who you are teaching.
  • Be careful not to burden students with personal information that might cause them to feel sorry for you, worry about you, make them want to take care of you.
  • Stop if you start feeling emotionally overwhelmed and losing your focus.
  • With many students in the room, be aware that your story could be interpreted and internalized in a variety of ways.
  • When asked personal questions that you don’t want to answer or realize would be inappropriate to answer, ask the students, “How is that important to you?” Often when they are asking something like “Do you have kids?” what they are really wanting to know is “Will you be able to understand me and my struggles?” which then could lead to meaningful conversations.
  • Be sure the focus remains on the lesson and the students, not on you.

Using personal stories strategically and mindfully can be a powerful way to engage and inspire students. My friend and colleague, Jon Herzenberg, reminded me that the online nonprofit Kiva organization demonstrates the power of stories to be transformational. Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending as little as $25 in order to alleviate poverty around the world. “We’re inspired to contribute based on the human story,” Herzenberg explains. “We connect to people’s aspirations. We trust a global stranger whose story moves us to act.” So we should remember that the stories we carefully share with our students may end up making a significant difference in their lives for years to come.

Marta Fuchs

Marta Fuchs, MLS, MFT is director of Library Services at Drew School (California). She is also a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Albany, CA.