In a recent blog post entitled "Five tips on getting language learners to write a family story," I described a family story project I created and used with upper level young adult English language learners at the college level. In researching and devising the project, I discovered that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
The family story project entailed three components: doing an interview with a family member, giving an oral presentation, and writing a nonfiction narrative. Interestingly, learners tended to interview either their grandmothers or their parents. Some students, on the other hand, interviewed their sisters.
Initially, the students had many questions about how the project worked, as is only normal. Once students understood what they had to do, they jumped in 100%. When learners completed the project, I was blown away by their creativity, their use of authentic language, and their emotional engagement. What struck me, in particular, were the values and life lessons that students came away with in doing the family story project, something I have rarely experienced in the language classroom.
In reflecting on the project, one student, Eleonore, remarked, "I thought that the family story project was really interesting. I learnt about my classmates and, as someone interested in the people surrounding me, I thought this was amazing. I also learnt that everyone has a story and that you should never judge a book by its cover."
Seeing the success of the family story project, I couldn't miss the opportunity to ask learners to share what they learned about a family member. Two students prepared short videos, while other learners wrote about how the family story project affected them. As you will see in reading their comments below, the project had a enormous impact on learners, and it is something they will remember for a long time.
What Students Learned about their Grandmother
Mathilde talked about the life lessons she came away with.
Zhu discovered how important it is to talk about the past, especially when emigrating to a new country.
Sonalie came away feeling fulfilled:
I found this project really interesting, I helped me get to know my grandmother so much better. She told me things I now know she had never talked about with her grandchildren, and she was really happy that I chose to talk about her. I feel fulfilled to have made my granny happy, but also lucky to have the chance to really get to know her background and understand who she is better.
Alice learned something new about her Grandma.
I was really happy to have the chance to do this. I never knew that my Grandma was such a badass. I will forever look up to her from now on.
Sarah discovered that life in the past was not easy:
Thanks to the Family Project, I learned a lot more about where my family comes from, what they have been through, especially regarding my grandmother. I had no clue how difficult her childhood was. It is definitely impressive to see how far she has come and how hard she has worked to now have the beautiful family she has dreamed of. She is living proof that even if you get a "bad start" in life, you decide how your future will be; you either feel bad your whole life about it or you make the best out of the time you have.
Malen spoke about the emotional challenges his grandmother faced:
I learned that every member of a family had something to share, that those who looks the calmest are the ones with the greatest stories to tell. I learned a lot about my grandmother like how losing my grandfather affected her and how she overcame this loss with the help of those who loved her. I also learned a lot about my grandfather, his life, his character, his job but also his death. I learned a lot about my mother's childhood, how she had to struggle in school, how losing her father destroyed her and how she came to be my mother. Finally, I learned a lot about Mauritius. I learned how women were treated, how widows were seen, how marriages were decided and how much it changed today. This project helped me understand those who surround me in a way I never thought I could.
What Students Learned about their Parents
Blanche discovered things about herself as well as her family:
Considering I decided to interview my parents, I got to learn more about their past, but also my past. Our old lifestyle isn't something we often talk about considering it was hard financially and thus psychologically. But I got to dig in deeper into my childhood and actually get a grasp of how they went through all of that. The memories I had were those of a child, therefore my reality was much different than theirs. I didn't have to work, I didn't have to worry about our financial stability or what would end up on our table at the end of the day. But they did, and actually hearing about how they perceive their jobs, their decision to go back to school and what is was actually like to be a parent at such a young age made me understand better why they acted a certain way and why they thought me certain values.
Keenan spoke philosophically about his Dad:
I think the main thing I learned in my project is strength. Not physical strength, but inner strength. The one that really makes you stand out. I'm trying to conceptualize the definition of inner strength right now but it is quite difficult to put it in perspective. I think the best way to explain it is to explain its antithesis. In the way I see things, there are two kinds of people: the submitted and the submitters. Statistically, I think that 99% of the people I know are submitted, the betas. listening blindly to false promises of a better life and are still latching on their broken dreams when they discover 30 years have gone by and they've missed the starting gun. In parallel, the submitters, the alphas, are the ones that had the chance, the means or simply those who were "born in the purple." Consequently, those are the ones we often see on top of our social hierarchies, controlling our resources, economies, and political power.
But I believe my dad differs from them: he's neither an alpha nor a beta, but I guess you could say he's a neutrino flying at subliminal speed through the quantum realm, a loner in a crowded universe based on fluctuations. But I diverge from the subject: what I really learned about myself and the particular energy of our family is that my father is an outsider, for the best and for the worst. Indeed, I'm probably the one who'll be acknowledging most of his faults he committed since I know him and the flaws he still lives with, but I also have the utmost respect for him, for the choice he made not to be different, but to be above everything, not in a belligerent way, but in a carefree one.
Gabrielle discovered new anecdotes about her parents, who emigrated from a war-torn country:
I learned a lot about my family by doing the family story project. I already knew a lot about my parents and their war experience, I grew up hearing the same three stories and knowing the repercussions war can have on a person (or two people). With this project, I was able to learn about small facts or anecdotes, that were sometimes more light-hearted and it made me appreciate my parents a lot more than I already did.
Solange realized new things about her family:
During this project, I was able to step out of my comfort zone and ask about things I always felt shy about previously. My family is extremely big. And complicated. My dad may or may not have done some mistakes in this whole parenting situation and we still feel the repercussions of his acts. But I would not trade my " not so traditional" family for anything else in this world as I love them with all my heart.
In all my years of teaching, I have rarely reached this level of learner authenticity and emotional engagement.