Another incredible session that I attended at the TYCA-West conference Friday and Saturday was Sherry Rankins-Robertson and Duane Roen’s “Writing about Family History in the Basic Writing Classroom.”

What a cool idea!

Especially when Sherry described to us that “family” could mean so many things. If your high school football team felt like a family to you, you could write about that. If your family is losing health insurance right now, you could write arguments about health reform.Chris and Silva Wedding

I have a student this semester writing about his brother-in-law’s battle with Friedreich’s Ataxia, and it’s been incredible to read the comments from his other family members and friends responding to the conversation that’s been opened for them through this writing project.

I think Sherry and Duane have hit on something vital, which is that the more our writing means to us, the more invested we will be in the presentation of it. I love it when students choose topics they are passionate about, and I think using the idea of “family” as a way of centering them is valuable.

For me, family history stories have shaped me so much as a person that they’ve taught me the value of all of our stories and voices.

The couple pictured here are my great-great grandparents, Silva and Chris. Silva was orphaned as a teenager, and taken in by Chris’s parents, and then Chris had to leave her for three years right after their honeymoon, and came home to find he had a three-year-old daughter. Incredible! And sometimes I think, if my great-great grandmother could endure that—the loss of her parents, then raising a baby and toddler alone—I have zero things to complain about.

Willard Huish

The soldier is my great grandfather Willard. He fought in France in World War I. A bullet went all the way through his chest, and he was left for dead on the battlefield. My great grandmother Martha, his sweetheart back home in Arizona, didn’t hear from him for over a month. It turned out the bullet had pierced a hole in his lungs. Air was coming out his back. But Willard soon came home and married Martha. He attributed his survival to God watching out for him, and I often think of that too, realizing that if God could pull Willard through that, He can cause much simpler miracles in my life.

There are so many other stories like these in my family, and they have all shaped my identity. I always had their genes in my DNA, but now I have their stories in my head, and I think, “We are the kind of people who persevere, who do what needs to be done, who find ways to survive and be happy and triumph over adversity. We are not the kind of people who give up.”

Stories mean those kinds of things, and I think that allowing students to pursue issues that matter to their family—whatever definition of family they choose to use—would allow writing to be not only meaningful but identity-building as well.

What stories have shaped you? Funny ones? Serious ones? Embarrassing ones? Your own stories or stories of the people who are important to you? Share a story in the comments if you have a minute!

Leave a comment!

5 thoughts on “Identity Stories

  1. Family stories sound like a great focus for a class! If nothing else it could inspire people like me to take a greater interest in family history.

    I really have no idea what adventures my ancestors have been through. About all I know is that I’ve got Japanese blood. This has prompted me to learn more about Japan and even live there for a few years. So I guess it’s shaped my personality a fair bit. The experience of being an illiterate minority was especially eye opening.

    I can confidently say Japan has shaped my story telling though. My comic is very influenced by manga techniques. I like iconic characters, showing various aspects of a scene, and struggle with the limitations of English sound effects. Since I never read western comics growing up, I have to catch up now! There are surely techniques there I could be utilizing.


  2. Nikki,
    Thanks for attending the session. I am happy to share any of my teaching assignments with you—just email me.

    Family (history) writing is such an interesting and exciting topic to teach. Most importantly my students are engaged in the production (and concerned about the quality) of their projects because they are composing for an audience beyond the classroom.

    All Best,


    1. Thanks for visiting the blog! I hope I did justice to your ideas.

      And I completely agree about the importance of an audience beyond the classroom. My students create websites about their topic, which is what allowed the family dealing with Friedreich’s Ataxia to all read and comment on the writing that student is doing with it.

      Thanks again!


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