Telling personal stories creates powerful learning experiences
Tissues in hand, her eyes damp with unshed tears, faculty member Petra Schulz tells a class of nursing students about her youngest son, Danny. She’s comfortable at the front of a classroom—she’s been teaching in MacEwan’s Faculty of Health and Community Studies for well over a decade—but that day she wasn’t a teacher. She was simply Danny’s mom.
Petra’s life changed forever on April 30, 2014 when she and her husband discovered Danny’s body on the bathroom floor of his apartment. He had injected what he believed to be oxycodone, but what turned out to be a deadly dose of the then little-known drug called fentanyl. The family decided to be candid about the cause of Danny’s death, and a few months later when 10 people died of fentanyl overdoses on the Blood reserve south of Calgary, Petra knew she needed to speak out publicly.
The journey that would eventually lead her to become an advocate for harm reduction began by talking about Danny with students in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. The hesitation Petra initially felt about blurring the lines between her personal and professional lives melted away when she saw how students responded.
“ By the time we found Danny, it was too late to donate his organs, so I like to think that we are donating his story instead.” Petra Schulz
There’s no trace of the usual classroom shuffling and chatting on the day of Petra’s visit. Laptops and smartphones are long forgotten, and you can hear a pin drop as she shows photos on the big screen and talks about her talented, sensitive, big-hearted son and his three-year struggle with opioid addiction.
“By the time we found Danny, it was too late to donate his organs, so I like to think that we are donating his story instead,” says Petra. “It’s deeply personal, but I’m comfortable telling it here at MacEwan because these are my classrooms and they feel like home. Speaking about Danny in this place, and in this way, has made a big difference for me.”
It’s also making a big difference for those nursing students.
“When I listened to Petra talk about Danny’s experience with addiction and how it affected their whole family, I realized that this could happen to anyone,” explains Gina Jang, a second-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing student. “Her story reminds me to look at my patients and clients as someone’s loved ones, and to see them as whole people rather than just their condition or symptoms.”
That Danny’s story would stay with these future nurses throughout their careers was exactly what Petra hoped for when she first decided that her grieving would happen publicly rather than privately.
“I want them to be able look beyond the addiction itself and see the person,” Petra says. “That they will remember Danny and what he meant to our family. That they think about what a person with an addiction goes through—what their family goes through. And that those things will help them inject compassion into their work and inform their practice.”
Personal stories like Petra’s are powerful learning tools, says Faculty Development Coordinator Paul Martin—they not only connect what might seem like narrow or abstract ideas to real life, but also drive student engagement.
“Often as profs, we draw examples from the media or people in the community, but stories are particularly effective when they’re drawn from our own personal experiences,” says Paul. “‘The truth about stories is, that that’s all we are,’ is how Thomas King introduced his 2003 Massey Lecture. Stories are how we understand the world. They’re how we learn.”
Not every faculty member is comfortable sharing their personal life—and that’s okay, says Paul—but if faculty evaluations are any indication, students appreciate profs who choose to share in a way that is authentic, connects the dots for students and helps them find links to their own experience.
“Students often say in their evaluations that they liked a faculty member’s stories, or that they could relate to a faculty member because of the stories they shared,” he says. “Stories help to humanize the person at the front of the room. Students see that their faculty member isn’t just an expert responsible for dispensing information and determining their final grade. They see a real person who has feelings, interests, history and a life outside of teaching. Students become more interested, more engaged and more likely to show up for class.”
“ Stories help to humanize the person at the front of the room.” Paul Martin
Making that kind of connection is one of the first experiences students have in the Social Work program. “Story Day”— an opportunity for faculty members, including Assistant Professor Sandra Alton, to talk about what brought them to social work.
“I was born in Edmonton, but I grew up in a working class family in Ontario,” says Sandra. “When I was in Grade 12, my friend’s family adopted a little boy who was indigenous. I was 17 years old, so I wasn’t very sophisticated, but I was very interested in the notion that this family had enough money that they wanted to support another child, and I was fascinated by the idea of someone from another culture coming into a different family. It made me wonder, who gets to do that? Who gets to put a family together?”
When she was working on a class project a year later, Sandra interviewed a group of social workers.
“When I went home and told my parents that I wanted to be a social worker, they didn’t even know what that was,” she says. “I came from a conservative home, so I struggled with some of the foundational issues when I started out in my social work program, but it gave me a way to understand something I had always seen, but didn’t know how to articulate—social injustice.”
For Sandra, social work is more than her profession, it’s a way of life.
“This work invited me into a way of thinking and relating to people that has created such richness in my life—joy balanced with sadness.”
“Students tell us that Story Day is one of their favourite class moments—and one they remember,” says Kathaleen Quinn, chair of the Social Work program. “Story is the nature of social work. Our humanity is in telling our story and having someone hear it—the sorrow and trauma, or the joy and celebration. It’s that point when people share their story and are truly heard that you often see healing begin to happen.”
So faculty members are careful to embed story throughout the Social Work program.
“Of course we need to teach the theory, but when you combine theory with someone’s personal life experience, it brings that theory to life, has a deep impact on students and fast-tracks their learning,” says Kathaleen.
The same kind of storytelling is happening in Business 201. Speakers in the course’s NextUp series don’t stand behind lecterns spouting business advice. Instead, they sit talk-show style in comfy chairs at the front of the class, telling personal stories that are touching, inspiring and occasionally downright raw.
“A lot of business schools have speakers in their courses, but not like this,” says Assistant Professor Leo Wong. “Students see speakers every single class—three times a week—and those personal stories bring our teaching materials to life.”
Interviewers are careful to check in advance to avoid topics that are out-of-bounds, says Leo, but the questions they ask speakers are very specific, directed and personal.
“We ask them to go back to the point they were at when they were around our students’ age and talk about how they made decisions about school, how they got their first job, the opportunities they had and the challenges they faced.”
Jesse Kupina, a bar and nightclub owner, and member of Avenue Magazine’s 2015 Top 40 Under 40, talks about how riding his BMX bike to a fast-food chain restaurant and making $4 an hour gave him a first taste of the hospitality industry that stuck with him. “I always wanted to own my own restaurant or bar and I opened my first one in Leduc when I was 21 years old. It was a miserable failure—a year and eight months of aggravation and stress—but a good learning experience.”
Len Rhodes (right) speaks with students in Business 201 as part of the NextUp series.
Len Rhodes, president and CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos, shares what it felt like when he decided to speak publicly about growing up in a household with domestic abuse. “It took me 51 years,” says Len, who spent his childhood seeing his father physically and verbally abuse his mother. “I was embarrassed by the whole thing. But to bring about real change I’ve got to talk about it.”
“ It took me 51 years. I was embarrassed by the whole thing. But to bring about real change, I've got to talk about it.” Len Rhodes
That difficult experience led Len to become a staunch supporter of women’s initiatives, and demonstrates how responsible managers can have an impact on their communities outside their organizations. “Now we have a great program called Leading Change where professional football players go to schools and talk to junior football players about what it means to be a real man—someone who treats women with the same respect they want to be given.”
When speakers like Len and Jesse open up—especially about their struggles—students listen.
“These speakers help students see that, although the easy path is tempting, sometimes it’s not the most rewarding,” he says. “Life for the successful business leaders and entrepreneurs they see in the news isn’t as easy as it might seem. Some speakers talk about how they’ve been in business for 10 years and struggled for those entire 10 years. That they’ve been acknowledged as an entrepreneur or a community leader, but have had points where they wanted to quit.”
It can be difficult for an 18- or 19-year-old to translate exactly what these talks will mean to them in the future, but Leo says they do eventually make those connections.
“I don’t want to be naive and think that every student will connect with every speaker,” says Leo. “It’s not at the end of the semester when we necessarily get the best feedback. It’s a year or two later when students tell us they’ve changed their plans or majors because something a speaker said.”
Leo plans to keep looking for ways to make sure those personal stories resonate with students. Kathaleen knows that storytelling will continue to be a key ingredient of the Social Work program. And Petra will continue sharing Danny’s story with future nurses— at least for now.
“You go through different stages of grieving. I don’t think that giving these talks is something I want to do forever—at some point I might decide to become a ‘retired’ addictions advocate,” she says. “But for the moment, I feel grateful when I can see how meaningful Danny’s story is to these students, how they absorb the information. I have a feeling that they will take what they have learned into their practice and be guided by that. And that’s too good an opportunity to miss.”
This is the final installment of our first season of Clock Radio—a series of stories and podcasts about what makes us tick at MacEwan University.
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