Unlock Student Life Stories

How to Unlock Student Life Stories

Student life stories have always been important to me as a teacher. This year though students have taken them to another level. Here’s that powerful moment and the teaching strategies I used to get there.

All eyes turns toward her as she stands up, nervously casting a glance my way.

She stops to compose herself – her hands and voice shaking.

As she struggles to say a word, overcome by nerves, her classmates whisper it to her.

And as they push through their nerves, sharing their creations, there’s grins all-round and loud applause. 

It’s Student Showcase Day in my class.

We’re sharing our favourite videos and stories that we’ve created this semester – with my Language Department Managers (the ‘big bosses’ to my students) and another class.

To say this is a big moment – for my students – is an understatement.

And amidst the buzz, the euphoria, I can’t help but think about the power of my students’ life-stories. 

We’ve been practising for a week for this Showcase. Students have committed to it like nothing else.

They’re recruiting their children to help them – to check that their speaking is clear and interesting – and to help them with pronunciation. 

There’s a pride here that’s incredibly moving. There’s a sense of community that’s like nothing else I’ve felt – as we will each of our classmates to succeed. 

There’s such joy at seeing the growth in confidence in classmates they’ve studied with for years. 

One of the managers later writes to my students saying she can’t shake their stories, they’ve stayed with her all week. 

Another who has known my students for years – is impressed at the growth in the students’ confidence and speaking skills. 

In the time since, I’ve been wracking my brain thinking: what made this special moment what it was? Why did it work so well.

Here’s my take on those questionsThe power of student life-stories

Life Stories Lessons

Unlock and see the shifts

I’ve long been convinced of the value of digital storytelling but this year there were moments that really hit me.

Inspired by a bunch of Hawthorn Footy Club ‘Getting To Know Us’  videos – we created our own version to open our showcase. 

One of the questions, ‘What’s one thing people don’t know about you?’ took us deep into students’ village lives, and their often horrific tales of escape to Australia – many years ago.

As I worked my way around the classroom, assisting them with their responses, I was struck at how the stories just poured from them.

Once unlocked – even students who’d often struggle to freely communicate – were determinedly seeking the words to express what had happened to them.

And as the stories of their peers began to circulate the room – it was lighting a fire of inspiration – with more tales emerging. 

I couldn’t wait. I had to get them speaking on video right away. There was a confidence here, a sureness, a fluency I’d not often seen from so many of my students. 

Build Community & See Students in a Different Light

As I mentioned, many of my students had studied with each other for years but they really knew so little about each other’s lives. 

What was crucial here was the sense of community we actively created – so that students felt safe, respected, and always able to withdraw from participation if they wished to. 

Alongside this was a fierce desire to celebrate progress, a willingness to give it a go, and being YOU with all your quirks.

This included me as a writing, video-making teacher – sharing my stories with them.  

I also made it a priority of the highest order – to highlight improvements I’d seen and heard – and encouraged my class to do likewise.

This honoring of student achievements made a tangible difference. I saw them hold themselves differently. I saw them commit to improving even more, and a greater willingness to take a chance on things that made them nervous. 

Structures aren’t everything

I’ve always firmly believed in the power of scaffolds to support students’ writing. The most powerful writing and speaking moments this year however occurred when we ditched the scaffolds.

Now don’t get me wrong – scaffolds certainly served their purpose in many writing tasks this year.

But when we were talking about their lives and what really mattered to them, scaffolds too often resulted in soul-less, impersonal writing or speaking.

Wide, open questions and follow-up queries to elicit more detail proved far more effective.

I often found myself astounded at what was  pouring out of the students. It was like a new student sitting or standing in front of me.

I often had to stop myself saying ‘where have you been hiding?’
[Then I got thinking about how many of our class structures can encourage students to stay tightly wrapped up, giving little of themselves.]

Not surprisingly, hearing the rich emotive tales of their peers also inspired the class like nothing else. And question after question was posed. 

This certainly wasn’t the first time they’d shared their life stories (in an English class) but what was different here was the depth of revelation – leading to them seeing each other in quite a different light. 

Video creation is crucial to building skills and confidence

I saw tremendous shifts in students’ skills and confidence when they participated in making videos. 

We used an interview process for each video, brainstormed and wrote answers beforehand, rehearsed, then filmed.

Students weren’t allowed cue cards – despite their efforts to get classmates to hold up cards out of my eyesight! This was crucial. 

They didn’t have to get it all right. What they needed to be – in their speaking – was clear so that their audience would understand them. 

There was a bit of resistance initially to the lack of cue cards but with continued encouragement they became more willing to take the risk and put themselves out there.

They soon realized however nothing bad was going to happen. Rather they were progressing in so many areas of English. Not surprisingly therefore their resistance melted away.   

After each recording, they’d ask me to replay it, and if it wasn’t right they were keen to have another go. Knowing their video would be critically reviewed in class was important here. 

We’d established a really supportive review process that focused on:

  • speaking clearly (pronunciation);
  • speaking in an interesting way (use of intonation);
  • speaking sufficiently loud;
  • showing our personality.

The last aspect ‘personality’ was especially critical to focus on. Whenever students showed their quirks, dared to giggle or smile, or perhaps used their hands demonstratively – I encouraged them.

Whatever it was that made them different, I wanted them to own it and feel confident showing it in the video.  

And wow! What a difference these splashes of personality made – drawing people into their videos – as they connected to the humanity on screen.

Audience, audience, audience

Knowing that their creations – whether videos, voice-recordings or story books – were to be viewed, listened to, and read by more than just their teacher was essential. 

Whether that was our class, my adult pre-service teacher education class, other classes, or our Language Department Managers – an audience who engaged with their work and provided them with feedback really changed the game. It gave students incentive and motivation.  

Seeing the reactions from my students – as the Language Department Managers gave them specific feedback in person – or as they read the letters my pre-service teachers wrote to them – was utterly priceless.

Their life stories mattered, and were of interest to others. They provoked connections and moved people.

And that made for a mighty fine celebration in our little ole class community. Here’s to stepping it up even further in my next year of teaching. Stay Tuned. 


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  1. Raegina Taylor January 31, 2017
    • Greg Curran February 1, 2017