GEM AutoBiography Course
1.1 Historical outline
1.2 The autobiographical model in didactics
1.3 Tools to manage the autobiographical method
1.4 Starting from oneself to develop learning: the autobiography for students
1.5 Rethinking oneself in training: autobiography for teachers
1.6 The teacher biographer: functions and training techniques
1.7 The story: a series of arbitrary punctuations
1.8 Logical thinking and narrative thinking
1.9 The biographical method for psychological well-being
1.10 Narrative transformations
1.11 Tips for using the autobiographical method in schools
1.12 Techniques and exercises to adopt the autobiographical method
MODULE 1. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MODEL
1.1 Historical outline
The world is full of stories, curious circumstances and situations just waiting to be told. (H. Arendt)
The autobiographical story has always been present in human history. In any cultural era the human being feels the need to set some stages of their personal development, their experience, in order to lastingly outline their past.
Experience in storytelling and in telling about ourselves is part of us as human beings having the desire and ability to communicate with ourselves and with others. (human beings wishing and able to communicate with ourselves and with others).
By writing about themselves each individual can communicate their memory, understand which direction their personal existential adventure is taking, leave a trace of themselves beyond time, investigate who we and others are, the place where we live and the time that created us.
Not by chance, many writers, poets, philosophers, human and social sciences scholars, elected autobiography as tool and mean to look for the truth, by investigating their and other people's life.
If we recall ancient history, the first work speaking about narrative writing is Plato's Phaedrus.
The history of the autobiographical tale is long; from Ancient Greece to the present day human beings have told themselves[i]
The influence of Christianity on the autobiographical genre has been undoubtedly decisive above all in claiming the intrinsic value of every human life, in guidingthe discourse upon oneself towards an interior analysis, in shaping a conception of life as a dynamic and dramatic process subject to changes and developments.
Saint Augustine, in his original “autobiography”, launches a modern way to do autobiography[ii], focused on self-supervision of the individual on himself, but in his work subjectivity is perceived as a bond to what transcends and embraces it, namely God. He performs an act of self-accusation rather than of self-defense. For this reason, Augustine's Confessions are an outstanding work. His autobiographical path from sin to grace, besides dealing with the religious errors, provides an extremely modern psychological analysis especially in describing childhood and adolescence experiences[iii].
Following the concerns of the Middle Ages, autobiographical storytelling arises according to the faith experience that is to say according to the story of the mystical union with God[iv].
Among the autobiographical works of the Renaissance it must be remembered Petrarch's Secretum. In the famous letter to Dionigi di Borgo from San Sepolcro (Familiares, IV, I) he mentions, not by chance, just a passage from St. Augustine's Confessions which reveals to the poet the need for an inner investigation.[v]
At the end of the Seventeenth Century, Pietism, a religious trend developed within the Protestant Church, places emphasis on an completely inner spirituality and a relationship of close intimacy with the divine.
The strictly individual interior religiousness gives rise to the practice of self-observation, often becoming an actual self-dissection, which fostered the emergence of a number of diaries and consequently also of many pietistic autobiographies.
In the Eighteen Century autobiography arises in the literature just as we know it today. Before this century autobiographies were only those of prestigious people such as rulers, leaders, saints, renowned scholars, and they were written in the form of a praise of the mighty from whom they had receive room and board. The innovation in the Eighteen Century lies in the idea that anyone can write his own autobiography without being a king or a saint or a genius, provided that their path has a meaning within the society they live in.
However it is only at the end of the Eighteen Century that autobiography establishes itself as a genre (Herder was the first speaking of “Selbstbiographie”), and for the first time it is used the term derived from Greek made up of those three elements (self; life; writing) which, put together, denote a genre including confessions, diaries and memories.
The Eighteenth Century is cultural era characterized by a strong affirmation of independence of the individual ego and by a great curiosity for travel journals, especially those of famous personalities. This is the Century when also the development itself of the genre reaches its highest degree, then continuing throughout the Nineteenth Century and then fading away, at least in part, or changing in form and meaning during the Twentieth Century.
With the triumph of bourgeois raison and of the critic modeled by Rousseau, a narrating self is outlined, being in constant research anxiety, confessing, epically narrating itself or wondering about the intellectual and moral issues of the Enlightenment.
Rousseau, like St. Augustine, “confess”, but not before God any more: he writes about himself in order to analyse and let emerge, in all the hidden and secret recesses, the authenticity of his individual, unique and absolute self. He confesses to justify himself and to eliminate the transcendental dimension identifying it with the self, thus carrying out the first great modern attempt to rewrite the autobiographical path starting from memory, that is to say starting not from “things” but rather from “the images of things”. Rousseu's work, based on the centrality of the self and the memory recover, gives an impulse to the reconstruction of individual past, to the recover of childhood and to the topic of memory[vi].
In his inner biography Rousseau gives himself a task: searching for thee truth of his nature, by stating the value of knowing one's own self in a world dominated by the gap between being and appearance. Given the opacity and the artificiality characterizing the relationships between different people and between every individual and himself, heart transparency and sincerity are not a fact but rather the goal of an exemplary path to be completed.
Starting from Rousseau French culture is full of contribution to the autobiographical literary genre, in both the direct form and the critical and theoretical studies.
The reasons for this primacy must be sought in the evolutionary history of thought going through time and space of this Country, from Enlightenment to the Revolution, from Romanticism to Naturalism and Decadence[vii].
Such a rich narrative production loses its interest in the Nineteenth Century, a period when political and civil heroes prevail and, therefore, literature reshapes the autobiographical genre; the central topic is not the self-world dialectic relationship but rather the representation of the historical and political situation of the time.
Goethe, for example, provides a very wide overview of the the main historical events and personalities of his time with whom he came in contact. In Goethe's autobiography we find a rich portraits gallery describing Basedow, Lenz, Merck, Wagner, Jacobi. Though he doesn't speak either about himself or his work for long stretches, his account nonetheless evokes the feeling that a whole era and an entire nation of writers and thinkers ultimately existed just have an influence on his personality and therefore to create that specific incomparable work and above all that unique self.
On the contrary, the two books Meine kinderjahre (1893) and Von Zwanzig bis Dreißig 1895) by Theodor Fontane (1818-1898) are an example of an actual autobiography in the strict sense. As a matter of fact, these two works can be considered a document of the transition from the autobiographical tradition of the Eighteen Century to the more modern forms of the autobiographical representations. On one side he recalls Goethe's opposition between “poetry and truth”, acknowledging the nature of poetic fiction of any autobiographical work, even when it is devoted to the most absolute veracity.
Unlike Goethe, however, Fontane doesn't put his self at the centre of an entire era, as a kind of catalyst and symbol for the major trends of the era itself, but he rather focuses on his child-self's single and limited experiences.
From this basic setting also derive other substantial differences with respect to the Goethean autobiography. As a matter of fact, while this latter has theological structure and evolution and ends up with a decisive step for Goethe's development as man and artist, Fontane's autobiography doesn't aim at any turning and proceeds by single anecdotes. The perspective is essentially that of memory and the tone of the work is conversational and digressive.
Between the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century autobiographical narrative loses its naïve trust of representing personality of the individual in his dialectic relationship with the external circumstances. On one side, firstly with Nietzsche and then with Freud, confidence in the unity of that subject which should be the main subject of this genre fails; on the other side, and at the same time, the deep linguistic nature of this subject, which is not given before the language but is built through it, is more and more perceived.
Gabriele D'Annunzio, influenced by Nietzsche and his Ecce Homo, expresses the anxieties, the disjointed fragments of a problematic, suffering, complex and in a deep and constant crisis self through a self-referential writing.
On another side, S. Freud gives to autobiography a new role by facing the problem of analysing himself, a challenge never attempted before with such a rigour. His self-analysis, made in the letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, brings the autobiographical adventure to its extreme limits. Freud, through the rigorous analysis of dreams and free associations, invented a particular form to give a new intensity to to the autobiographical language. His theory of the unconscious allowed Freud to found a new way to speak of the Self, thus giving an impulse to the progress of human knowledge.
Introspection, in St. Augustine's examination of conscience, and even more Freud's self-analysis, have the merit of having shifted the focus on an intra-psychic world based on unconscious processes.
Contemporary subject seems to be loaded with autobiographical need because by now he is marked from a narrative condition in his self: as a matter of fact people are what they can re-elaborate of themselves and their image, they are what our self-analytical observation reveals in the play of an autobiographical interpretation.
Contemporary human being has a “thirst” for storytelling because in storytelling he finds space and time for their life again.
Around Twenties and Thirties the interest in life stories arises together with the developing of many researches on slums in New Deal America made by the Chicago School whose procedure was carried out through the collection of autobiographies relating to the urban distress, in order to allow communication between different cultures and subcultures. The search for a social urban ecology is supported by interviews, testimonies, autobiographical sheets.
Sociologists from the Chicago School, involved in the fieldwork, considered spontaneous conversation as one of the essential techniques of the anthropological approach in the field of Sociology. Especially at the beginning of their search work, banal conversations were very useful because through them they could extract some valuable information for their work.
Chicago School also gave many importance to conversation as a form of interaction. Thanks to their contribution the biographical sociological model becomes a bright guiding light for the many methodologies concerning Self-narration and diaries writing.
As a matter of fact, in the first manual by the sociologists of the Chicago School, V. Palmer states that conversation, though not structured, is developed by the researcher on the base of a pre-established plot. Chicago School distinguishes three kinds of conversation:
a) conversation aimed at collecting a life story (sociological autobiography);
b) conversation aimed at knowing some events and actions not directly observable;
c) conversation partially substituting or supporting a participating observation in order to collect a great deal of information in relatively short time, that is to say to integrate the data derived from observation.
Moreover, D.H. Zimmermenn and D.L. Wieder invented a technique to increase the effectiveness of the conversation. The people you want to have a conversation with are asked to write a diary for about a week. After the researcher has read this diary, he will proceed with the interview. The aim is to know better their interlocutors in order to ask them questions appropriate in both the content and the way of asking them.
The autobiographical model is taken up in the Seventies after a period of decline, when self-narration was overlooked and in some cases completely forgotten.
In particular, it begins to develop as an educational trend, in situations of great existential poverty and misery, around the figure of the scholar Paulo Freire, who was creating a new social pedagogy, a “street pedagogy”, by collecting and using the tragic life stories from the campesinos in the brazilian favelas (slums).
In Italy between the end of the Eighties and Nineties, we observe the proliferation of techniques aiming at considering narration evolutive aspects: one of these techniques is the the narration as care of one's self, which became more and more successful especially through the method of autobiography in the field of the education for adults.
1.2 The autobiographical model in didactics
The autobiographical method in educational practices identifies the person as the author of their own reality; personal history becomes, thanks to the narrative, a process of reflection and learning at the same time allowing the narrator to think about some of the events of their life.
Furthermore, labels attributed to this method vary according to the geographical area in which they are used by different authors or groups of scholars:
1 - In French-speaking areas, they talk about “life stories” and prefere as research subjects no longer marginal individuals, but the workers and artisans and their families[viii].
Many authors, researchers, educators that make us enter, one way or another, in the world of «developing life stories». But what are the goals and components involved in this process? In the first place, we have to determine the way in which we shaped ourselves: the process of individual constitution, the way in which individuals become individuals.
And we have to try answering the questions: Who am I? Why and how came I today to ask myself the question about my identity. . What are my relationships? In who do I identify myself? Influences, representations, heroes? What are my socio-historical, geographical and cultural ties? What learning processes did I experience and what did I learn from them?
Biographical research in education can help to formulate answers to the questions on identity we ask ourselves and this path can help us to make progress, each of us in our own uniqueness. It will be our biographical ability to enter again in that process of training through the observation of our life path and it will be the way in which we will narrate it to trace the thread of our story. The elements contributing in building our own biographical competence and our aptitude to the biographical research, will be our ability to establish links between our experiences, our memories of the past, our present way of living and our projecting ourselves into the future.
As Laura Tussi explains, "life stories" of the Francophone School have a very significant self-training sense: every individual, with their own more or less mature, more or less numerous or qualified experiences, through their own existence, constitutes and returns to the educator “a capital of concrete sleeping knowledge" (Pineau, Le Grand, 1993) that should be valued in educational modes and strategies, creative an recreational, in order to avoid the risk of not being properly exploited and addressed to noble ends, namely creative and constructive ends. With the awareness of their own range of experiences, which is a store of knowledge explainable through a recognition of their self-training potential, by recalling their experiences heritage, the narrator learner will discover he learned by himself, he self-trained, thus strengthening in self-training knowledge by himself. Autobiographical narrative becomes occasion to invest on one's own person and to self-determine thus making it evident one's personal responsibility with respect to one's educational and training path as well as one's path of growth and evolutionary change.
The expansion of the boundaries of one's knowledge can be estimated by remembering and telling one's own path of growth or one's lack of progress, observation that leads to a constant use of energy in the training project that the subject protagonist of their own learning and personal growth provides for himself.
2 - The British use the term "autobiography".
3- The Northern Europeans call it "biographical and narrative approach"
4- In Italy, thanks to Duccio Demetrio and his continued dedication and study of this subject, it is called "autobiographical method".
Demetrio and his group of EDA (adult condition and training processes) from the University of Milan, have developed a systemic-relational model. According to Demetrio autobiography is a highly respectable humanistic and activistic methodology. It is linked to the ancient and contemporary pedagogical tradition which privileged direct contact with things and others, learning from experience, not the simulated but the real dialogue.
The group of EDA works in a training/educational direction, primarily with adults but it is also aimed at young people, to give an opportunity to the person to rediscover and reclaim its capacity for self-training. With the autobiographical method one is put in front of a white sheet by filling it with one's own words having as protagonists oneself, trying to be as honest as possible in writing: positive events or failures, mistakes, more or less dramatic events of one's life. It 'a work of meta-cognition, that is to say of reworking and transformation of lived experiences, and this inner work let arise new meaning. This process has value for both the writer and the reader.
Demetrio distinguishes three moments in the analysis of one's own story:
1. retrospection: it is about the glances at the past
2. interpretation: it is the reconstruction of an experience, made by correlating events, causes and possible consequences through an interpretive perspective from which new interpretations arise. Narrative thinking does not delimit, or crystallizes, human experience and action in explanatory models but allows to give them back and recall them in their richness and complexity, to enrich them with meanings thus allowing, from time to time, new interpretations.
3. creation: it is the story about ourselves made up of our hopes and desires which, through the telling of our experiences, can bring to light creative energies aimed at change, in the belief that the future is still manageable and adjustble by us ourselves. “This is just the most amazing surprise. We learn from the analysis of our story, we learn by learning from ourselves”. Reading Demetrio's quote we can observe astonishment emerge with respect to the huge potential inherent in the act of being allowed to learn from one's own story. According to the author, from autobiographyan educational project may stem, in where the centre is self-education; from the aforementioned three moments an intellectual and creative independence can emerge.
Demetrio also speaks of three premises for autobiography:
a) First premise: a great memory and self-reconstruction effort is carried out. “Memory is the guarantor of everyone's identity both in the systemic and introspectional sense. Memory is the guardian of every link between past and future, it governs conscious and unconscious present, it is the credentials showed in every human encounter, and it is its becoming a fascinating story about lived experiences the element which often opens up us to social acceptability and success. Communicating with one's own memory, with one's rememberings, means realising its fertility and being alarmed by risky self-exclusions: its pedagogy alwais is self-pedagogy” (D.Demetrio).
“And when they will ask us what are we doing, you can answer them: We are remembering” (R. Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
b) Second premise: a work of re-elaboration and attribution of meaning and significance on our past actions is done. In this direction Duccio Demetrio explains what arises by putting oneself front of one's own story: “Meanwhile we represent ourselves and reconstruct ourselves, we see ourselves in slow motion we take ourselves in our hands”. We take care of ourselves and we take responsibility for everything we have been. In the here and now memory and present meet: “Having to tell myself I am forced to make a selection of the most significant educational, professional, existential events, and through this process I give substance to my self-perception of identity with the elements which, perhaps, I hadn't ever dwelt” (Batini). Autobiography brings a therapeutic, but above all educational effect, it helps to look onto the future with greater awareness and to take further steps in one's private, social and professional life.
c) Third premise: through the awareness acquired through writing, it is possible to lay the groundwork for giving back in the hands of the learning subject their own training, leading to a self-directed learning because telling oneself is vital, it builds our "narrative identities" (P.Ricoeur), it “helps living” (R. Tonelli). “It is – as E. Biemmi writes – a precious way to take care of oneself. It is the most humane mode to 'shape oneself' and to 'keep fit', constantly shaping and reshaping the features of that personal face of which we are the creators and directors”.
Although for adults the autobiographical practice as an exercise aimed at rebuilding and designing themselves while for adolescents it is an exercise to approximate adulthood, in both cases there is a single educational and self-educational transformation purpose, for every person who wants to become aware of themselves on a perceptive, emotional and intellectual plan.
In this perspective, Demetrio's thinking goes well with what was claimed by Raffaele Mantegazza in proposing a pedagogical approach that places formative telling about oneself, shared narrative and telling stories to each other at the center of the educational relationship: “Without narration and active listening, or more simply without collective narrative I can hardly imagine an educational relationship that pays attention to the idea of cooperation. And without exploring cooperation and conflict, a classroom becomes a Roman jail: from the outside might even seem it dashes straight, but on the wings of a speed that doesn't break any chain”.
Telling oneself means undertaking a liberating journey, a personal self-education and self-training path; through the writing the individual becomes their own subject, creates a constantly reversible relationship between ego and alter and puts in place a meta-reflective process on the ways in which his own experience has been acted. Through autobiography, adults, children and adolescents see themselves compared with their memories in a permanent and open self-educational process. As a matter of fact, it happens to:
a) experience the feeling of learning from our past life, because writing “forces us” to reflect on the meaning of what we have done and are doing in the present.
b) become aware of the moral significance of some experiences;
c) practice to connect facts together and get over them;
d) feel increasing desire to read and curiosity about other people's stories and the surrounding world;
e) finally, metaphorically dipping the pen in one's life, everyone becomes creative, even with few available resources and abilities, because they have to translate what they concretely experienced into sensible sentences, into attractive stories, into poetic transfiguration.
Since memory teaches us to become the custodians of memory, for young people school is the place par excellence of pedagogical farsightedness, where those memory practices soliciting introspection and self-reflection and developing a memory culture full of history and relatedness are or should be put in action. School is an actual reference point for new generations, the most important and, often, isolated place where the memories are retrieved and communicated thus favoring the development of a civil and aware community. Today it emerges the need to shift shared narrative within one's own familiar story but, paradoxically, we also tend to look for outside stories, even in a soap opera. “Therefore saying and not saying, within the family, should be placed within the plot, because it is right in the transition from saying to telling that educational and training events are created. We need autobiographical narration (shared) within our family in order to avoid discovering stories in post-mortem diaries hurting our soul and becoming a resource but also great regret. We need to protect education and tell beyond the dilemma between saying and not saying. Storytelling differs from the dilemma of saying or not saying just because it arises with the aim of giving meaning, allowing others to interpret things and explain themselves” (Demetrio).
Let us therefore question ourselves on the use of autobiographical metaphor, on how our personal history, our family history, can regain a sense, a direction, the pace of the plot, the storyline, which we often escape.
As Demetrio suggests, at least 3 modern ways of escape from the planet of questions should be deepened:
- the escape from the invisible into the visible
- the search for what is touchable and visible
- the escape from self-knowledge
They all feature an escape from silence which, instead, represents the real possibility, the real innovation.
According to Demetrio it is precisely from the school and in the school that we can promote a culture of memory and at the same time stimulate young people's ability to think themselves, to narrate themselves and to listen to other people's stories. Promoting school as a place producing an indelible experience in the lives of those who experience it and as driving force for personal and relational development for a future characterised by autobiographical awareness and intelligence, is a responsibility concerning not only teachers or educators but also all people being part of a thinking civilized community.
According to Demetrio, the effects of applying narrative practices in education and training are:
1- hetero-esteem effect present in the relational moment of the encounter between who is the protagonist of a story and someone who shows himself interested in the story itself: the narrator feels recognized and confirmed by the availability of a glance, by encouraging words, by the provided time. Even chronologically, this is the first result that we aim to achieve.
2- self-esteem effect during the narrative process, which demonstrates to the speaker or writer he is able to tell a story and that he is provided with chances to let him express himself better: the narrator is helped in finding their subjectivity again through the rediscovering their life story, with the pleasure of being allowed to regain the dignity of the use of the first person. Through this it is intended to let people regain their lost or never arisen primary narcissism.
3- exo-esteem effect at the end of the encounters, when the narrator is proposed again with their stories so that, alone or again with help, he can clarify and enrich through other languages (graphical, visual, photo language) what he had said: autobiographers can be recognised from what they create and produce.
Pedagogy thus finds, in the autobiographical practice, a new method of approaching adult youth and children education that can place at the center the subjects themselves in their problematic nature; a training method that encourages people in unveiling their own stories and supports them in making life a permanent search for meaning, getting used to live the future. This exercise helps people living continual transitions, abandoning some certainties without fear to embark on new and unexplored areas, eliminating what is unnecessary to concentrate on what is essential, living grief for new births. Narrating oneself is one of the highest training actions.
Therefore, on one side we as autobiography goal its power of giving meaning to things and organize even those more complicated and painful situations: “Any pain is bearable if you put them in a story” (I. Dinesen). On the other side, the transformational aspect of writing, a narration is not an end in itself but is used to know each other better, to review one's experiences and set oneself new course, to let arise from one's own story and from the listening of other people's one some useful information to one's professional and non professional life, new teachings, in essence learning: “Don't cry over your story, change your course” (B. Spinosa).
If the training function, in the new perspective of a continuous training, is given a value of empowerment and individual resilience, implementation of one's abilities to reduce complexities or at least to manage complexity itself. If it is true that, as D. Taylor claims, everyone is the product of their heard, lived and also of non experienced stories, it is then inevitable in training context finding storytelling some space as object, tool and subject of this process.
“You are your own stories. You are the product of all the stories you heard and experienced, and of the many stories you never heard. They shaped your view on yourself, your world view and the view on the place you have in the world” (Daniel Taylor, Stories taking us by hand).
In conclusion, if the crisis of the modern and post-modern subject and the discovery of its fragility/existential fragmentation could make fear a decline or perhaps even the disappearance of the autobiographical genre, the many works that are on the market today and the incredible success attained by some of them in recent years, demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that this genre is far from a crisis.
Today, in fact, autobiographical narrative knows a new success, due to a greater theoretical and practical processing as well as its diffusion in social and educational and in clinical and therapeutical work, without exclusion of areas and recipients.
In particular, in the training path for educators narration is used to bring out the problems that the educator daily meets while assisting young people or adults in distress, with severe disabilities, people with problems, and to help reflect on the difficulties of educational work in this area (Tomisich, Confalonieri).
Listening to the stories of families and people assisted allows parents and educators to enable reflection on their educational and welfare commitment, triggering intense communication and reflection processes with the team of educators or care providers. (Moletto, Zucchi).
In this perspective, school, hospital, community services, street education, prevention initiatives and, moreover, children, adolescents, adults and the elderly, are now respectively the places and protagonists of what has become a real method able to bring concrete results in terms of rehabilitation, change and new planning.
1.3 Tools to manage the autobiographical method
Autobiography is a real training methodology that, before letting people develop some knowledge and competences about something, aims at making people develop a self-knowledge. Today it is therefore more and more used in training paths for adults involved in formal and/or non-formal education processes, within those educational contexts very different depending on target audience, purposes, structure (university, school, work place, promotion of local local and wealth cultures, and so on....).
Telling themselves allows adults to discover they have a story, to clarify to themselves and therefore re-learn the reasons of their personal and professional path, of their successes and failures and realize that everything they have experienced, consciously or unconsciously , influenced their attitude, their way of acting, thinking, behaving This forces those involved in this path to look for the meaning and importance of their present being in the reconstruction of their past. Such a reconstruction process is not as simple and natural, but it often causes personal and human pain and strain because it bares unanswered questions, pending choices.
But it is precisely this kind of effort to produce results in terms of education of the person, pedagogy favourite subject. As a matter of fact, people, by recalling their story, take possession of it, become aware of what they need, of their limits and their educational/training needs.
Within the field of a training course, therefore, even before contents come into play, it is the autobiographical path itself which is educational because it immerse a person in their maturity indicated by Demetro as self-growth with respect to one's personal story and one's inner improvement. That's why, according to the author, autobiographical method declines training in education.
In this perspective writing about oneself, built through the reshuffling of the "fragments" related to different autobiographical levels, is an invitation to reconstruct the learning paths which, better than any other educational strategy, let adults discover themselves as actors and directors of their own learning and acting, thus subtracting them from the disorientation inevitably deriving from the destruction of their complex life experience. Knowing themselves in order to build their own personality and their own learning, this is the autobiographical education goal.
Therefore, from a strictly training/professional point of view, autobiography is useful to let adults develop an attitude in reflecting on their personal way of creating an handling their competences and their awareness about their ability to manage, combine and choose them. Such strengthening in the perception of their professional competence, allows the subjects involved in a training/professional path to regain or consolidate confidence in their potentialities and reassess the importance of their human, as well as professional, role within their professional context in which they work thus causing an improvement of their motivation and dedication to their job.
This promotes the development and the ability to manage situations, activate methodologies. Through the autobiographical method, therefore, while the vocational value of training as an area of acquisition of knowledge and skills is confirmed, it is also true that being in training becomes a way to take care of oneself between reason, emotions and feelings of existing and being there in order then to set up in a different way also the relationship with others as well as with oneself.
The aspect that most interests us here is thus, in particular, the pedagogical insert that this practice produces, right through the device of the "self-care". . It was precisely adult education to reassert, with the "self-care" the value of autobiography as a training method assigning it a pivotal role in the constitution of every personal "adulthood" (we are subjects-people if we become aware of ourselves, therefore of our experienced life story, therefore of our autobiographical path, which we have to re-think auto-biographically) and also in the training of trainers, that is to say those subjects who, as their profession, have to “take care” of other subjects, exerting “power” on them through “knowledge” and acting and who have to be freed as much as possible (and as far as possible) from prejudice, constraints and so on, which stem from one's personal experience and often, too often, act as “unthought” elements (dogmas, certainties, norms) in trainers conscience.
But precisely because of these characteristics the autobiographical method is particularly useful in the school because it represents an important tool for education training not only students but also and especially teachers who in order to “take care” of their learners have to be able to put themselves into play in the relationship with their student without loosing their educators role.
1.4 Starting from oneself to develop learning: the autobiography for students
Applied to the school context, the autobiographical method, breaks up the typical model of doing training at school, a model that identifies only the trainer as the holder of knowledge, promoting on the other hand a rebalancing of knowledge-power within the educational process. The teacher must in fact assume that the student has an expendable knowledge which is the knowledge about himself and must orient the training program in order to encourage the student not only to recover this knowledge, but also to live it and feel it as valid and meaningful.
This is the so-called emancipatory potential of the autobiographical method: it involves the investment on the subject self-learning opportunity so that it is the subject itself the one to carry its growth path forward. Such investment is all the more necessary at school where teacher's task is not only to convey content, but also to take care of their students personal maturity. If teachers are in fact able to adequately stimulate pupils to autobiographical work, urging them to recall their training story, they allow them to reflect on the factors (family, personal, social, environmental factors, etc.) influencing their motivation to learn, their own strategies for acquiring knowledge, their potential, resources and limits.
Autobiographical method, therefore, facilitating the reconstruction on what it has been learned, also allows to reflect on how the learner has learned in order to plan, starting from these considerations, future learning. In this way, students become masters of their own knowledge and are also able to give new meaning and new value to the particular moment of physical, psychological, cognitive growth that they experience during school time.
The experience of schooling, in fact, for children is a big change. Especially in the transition from primary school to junior high school, the student lives the dichotomy between the child he no longer is and the teenager he is not yet, and is immersed in the conflict between the desire for dependence and the search for autonomy with all the contradictions deriving from this situation. Teachers must be able to effectively enter this particular moment of their children's path of growth and change which proposes conflicts, dilemmas, oppositions, choices and therefore requires the presence of adult reference figures able to mediate and support the children and stimulate them to reflection and self-knowledge.
This mediation can not be sought by the teachers as part of their normal teaching methods or in final examination operations (marks or judgement, internal or external examination boards, which all are elements linked to the idea of school as a mere notions transmitter), which are usually used at the school level, but rather it has to be thought and articulated in the core of the making of the educational student-teacher relationship. It is a relationship that must be qualitative, that is to say characterized by mutual involvement, compromise in the human sense, understanding the dynamics of pleasure/displeasure implicit and crucial in learning.
Using autobiographical methodology is very useful in this direction, because it fosters teacher-pupil encounter not only from the point of view of cultural training but also from a personal and human point of view, thus preparing the student to open and question himself. In this way the teacher will be able to more easily stimulate their student's mind, curiosity and motivation to learn and to let him develop a meta-reflection on the contents transmitted to him and the meaning they have for him and for his future, thus transforming content in knowledge. This is the educational value of using the autobiographical method in school: to wholly enhance the student in his personality and to develop his “learning to learn” ability, that is to say develop the ability of realising a meaningful and conscious learning which is the actual goal of today school.
1.5 Rethinking oneself in training: autobiography for teachers
So far we have considered the autobiographical method as a practice to be addressed to those who access training, particularly pupils at school, identifying the characteristics of higher pedagogical significance of this methodology, characteristics that the teacher must take into account if he intends to propose it.
But, before being useful to students, autobiographical approach is particularly useful to teachers because it allows them to train themselves while training (students) and to give new meaning to their training task. Teachers are in fact required to re-shape their own personal and professional story well before than students because school training process is a story written by many hands where the stories of all the participants in this process, including trainers, integrate and influence each other. It is necessary that this be clear to teachers because they are not allowed to call themselves out from these dynamics.
“Dirtying one's hands” through the educational relationship, is an integral part of an educator's professionalism at the same time keeping one's role clear and distinct without falling into an aseptic neutrality. Political correctness, meant as taking one's distance from any disturbing and not neutral involvement, is not part of the autobiographical trainer's knowledge.
As a matter of fact, the teacher who recalls their own life story before getting involved in an autobiographical relationship with their students, is able to both give new sense and value to their personal experience and their job, and understand more easily their students' life stories by comparing experiences, points in common and elements of distinction.
If, therefore, there must be a compromise of the trainer who proposes the autobiographical method, however, it is to be considered acquired that this doesn't allow them to take on an evaluative attitude towards the life stories emerged during the autobiographical training. On the contrary, using this methodology first of all requires the epokè, that is to say judgement suspension, in order to let life stories not to be the subject of unnecessary and harmful value judgments.
Therefore, the autobiographical task of teachers must be that of analysing their students' life stories in order to stimulate them to tell themselves and help them build such stories to reflect and understand themselves both as person first and as students then. The use of the autobiographical method entails in fact that the educator is aware that training means taking care of others and of themselves. While listening to their students stories, also teachers are involved in this net of meanings and they increase its meshes by adding their own. To stay within this particular relationship and put students at ease, they must be open, must be available to talk about themselves, to recall the highlights of their past. For this reason it is appropriate that those proposing training courses based on autobiographical methods have themselves recalled their story so that they can recognise in other people's stories those concepts and essences being part of anyone's stories and can also understand all the emotions and feelings inevitably linked to memories.
It can be said, at this point, that through the use of the autobiographical method, teaching becomes a generative and restorative instance, because on one hand it gives life to a qualitative educational teacher- pupils relationship, open to the game of mutual subjectivity and able to promote personal and cultural growth of both parties involved in it, on the other hand because pupils, in the educational relationship with their students, teachers are forced to commit to an emotional work to modulate and elaborate the emotions that this educational relationship inevitably produces, coming to terms with their own prejudices and their relationship difficulties, to put themselves into play and therefore recover that part of their experience that relates to their being in training.
The task of the teacher-autobiographer is therefore that of fostering the development of a shared reflective and conversational space such that he can promote among stundents forms of individual and group experiences authentically experienced and only acted. This is an element of strong difference between autobiographical training and the training adopted by similar models (psychotherapy and so on) which also use narration but whose interpretation refers to different languages and knowledge of which the the holder is the expert and not the narrator. To recall an already expressed concept very appreciated by anthropological and ethnological research, it is about the witness-narrator's “epistemic supremacy” on the researcher/professional.
After all we all learned much more from the teachers towards whom and thanks to whom we felt the desire for an educational relationship. Without detracting anything from the indisputable cognitive propensities, we have loved or hated certain subjects, with successes and failures and growth or loss of confidence in our ability, through the filter of the image of the person who proposed them. It is further significant that of all school memories, before any reference to the more or less recognized teaching skills of the teachers we had, we let prevail details regarding their subjective modes of behaving in the tacher-pupil relationship and of listening to us.
How can teachers acquire these skills autobiographical? In fact, next to the path of reinterpretation one's own existential story, must develop in participants purely pedagogical skills such as being able to interpret the education and training needs, to investigate, observe and listen, to manage complexity, to work in team and stimulate teamwork, to be good communicators, to manage diversity and complexity.
The trainer autobiographer, in fact, must be able to encourage, in the group he manages, the independent and voluntary narrative thus developing a peaceful and propository relational atmosphere without forcing individual memories. Especially those carrying out educational professions are expected to develop such pedagogical skills because the delicate personal balance and the outcome of the training courses of other people, whether they are teenagers and adults, depend on their sensitivity, competence, sense of opportunity, flexibility and intuition.
1.6 The teacher biographer: functions and training techniques
From the considerations made so far arises the idea of teacher biographer: a figure having tutorial function who is able to facilitate students learning processes not merely making the child first and the preadolescent then adapt themselves to school by simply forcing them to expel, through the autobiographical work, those parts of themselves that hinder them, but rather who is able to help them to become aware of their limitations and difficulties in order to help them overcome them. From this point of view, the use of the autobiographical method at school is a great tool to help students to overcome scholastic difficulties.
Today, in fact, many of the manifestations of discomfort felt by students, are the inevitable side effects of a way of doing school that, in the image and likeness of the reality in which we live, institutionalizes the artificial separation between the different levels of our experience and the world. Children at school discover that the world of education and that of their life, body and mind, reason and emotion, operations and abstraction are not only organizationally distinct subject areas but also hierarchically considered.
This split, if on one hand is justified by the need for greater control and effectiveness of the lessons to teach, on the other hand helps create in students mind a representation of the evolution of the acquisition of knowledge without any organic link with the perceived complexity of their existential experience.
The teacher-biographer then, can reveal themselves as someone capable of re-establishing connections between different levels and knowledge: between felt emotions and the communicative contexts generating them, hindering them, giving them a sense, between the contents and the contexts in which they are proposed, between what the student thinks/feels and what others (teachers, family, classmates, friends, the neighborhood, etc..) think of/feel in their differences, between different kinds of knowledge showing the arbitrariness of certain separations and the validity of all knowledge and languages.
To do this, the teacher biographer should not carry out any interpretative intrusion on the story of their student, must only listen, just stressing and encouraging the use of functions and meanings, fostering the search for causal links and attributions of meaning, activating other points of view regarding the emerging contents, identifying key and conflictual moments in their relationship with mates or with the study of the disciplines itself. Everything allows the student to recognize themselves as the protagonist, then the responsible person, the one who builds and does not simply undergo their training process.
This is all the more necessary when having to deal with students who need support not only linked to a new language learning, but rather to their need to feel accepted and above all to accept the new social and cultural reality in which they are immersed. In this case, personal life stories can become, if properly stimulated, a mine of ideas and reflections on cultural diversity, conflicts and intercultural communication. Using autobiographical methodology in intercultural context is therefore particularly useful to foster foreign students opening in their relationship with mates or foreign adults opening with the new context where they live.
1.7 The story: a series of arbitrary punctuations
To better understand how storytelling have a greater weight in psychic life than objective reality, it is necessary to deepen the fundamental concept that an objective description of the world is impossible.
Such claim may bring a smile to those thinking they can describe in detail an object, be it a chair, a computer, a bottle or anything else. However it would be enough to use a very simple object to be placed under the eyes of many observers who later, asked to describe it, will provide an extremely subjective and often unique representation, emphasizing some details rather than others.
becomes more complicated when we talk about more abstract, dynamic and numerous
elements as those making up stories, which may be subject to extremely complex
transformations directly observable when trying to play the classic wireless
telephone game where in turn, from the first to the last participant, people
try to convey the sense of an initially read story (hypothetical reality) and
compare it with the last reported
version that usually is characterized by many distortions.
In this game, everyone refers the story told by the previous person, but even if everyone would read the same story at the same time, they would provide different versions which would tend to emphasize some aspects more than others.
This phenomenon was synthesized by J. Bruner (1987, 1991), who explored the relationship between experience and how it is expressed; according to the author by telling stories people arbitrarily impose a meaning on their memory flow, thus highlighting some of the causes and ignoring others.
As a result, no one has privileged access to the definition of reality and the same experience can be described and interpreted differently, resulting in different internal or external psychological attitudes. If it wouldn't be so not, our lives would be partial copies of each other and we would react in the same way to the same events. But this does not happen.
Let consider an objective social fact, consisting, for example, in a shove from a stranger while walking in a street of our city. The stories that may arise with respect to this objective event are never mere reports but are enriched by interpretations, previous personal and emotional experiences.
person could tell that the person who shoved them was distracted by his
shopping and that he have not noticed him paying little attention to respect
his space, if their previous life stories have often narrated a lack of
consideration towards them, this person will probably think that it was the
umpteenth disconfirmation of themselves.
Finally, the story of something happened to several people at once can be affected by other people's narrations. In this context act many phenomena related to group comparison, such as comliance and stereotypes, as well as transformation phenomena related to the memory feature of essentially being a reconstruction process.
What said so far allows the following conclusions:
Summary of the relationship between reality, marrations and mental life
The result of the constant description of life events is a biography characterized by a dominant story, that is to say by a central theme that is the focus of one's mental life and that can be the key of a person's suffering. In this latter case, the dominant theme becomes a crucial point limiting the continuation of a story (one's life) and the planning of the future. Sometimes the recurrence of a toxic story in one's biography is attributed to chance or bad luck, but this is often the result of the limitations imposed by the static narration, of which we become bearer, on oneself and others. For example, if a person has suffered abuse and accepts the story, more or less explicitly, according to which they has contributed to causing the aggression, such story, internally retold, will push this person to feel guilty and this could lead them to foster some attitudes entitling others to act further abuse.
In fact, storytelling, influencing one's self-perception, changes attitudes and behaviours, and may negatively affect the future. It is a process by which theory guides practice through a close relationship between narrations people's identity. The latter represents an image of themselves, produced internally but consolidated and recognized in the interaction with others, during which a constant production of cooperative narrations takes place, narration which is the basis of the so-called narrative construction of identity.
The interpretation of one's dominant story can confirm a block or make room for new narrative possibilities and for continuing one's story which unfolds around new core themes. It is possible to break through this block through the narrative method applications and thanks to the inherently ambiguous and indefinite nature of any story, as well as in relation to the chance of organising the same real elements in different ways by adopting the narrative thinking.
1.8 Logical thinking and narrative thinking
If our mind had to work only on real and present data, our whole life would be severely limited to the here and now. But human nature has the extraordinary ability to think and work on data absent from the field of perception. Thought is founded on the representative ability, an ability that according to J. Piaget (1965) develops around the 18th month of life and allows people to build a mental picture of objects and situations.
The possibility to free oneself from the contingency of reality is the basis of both the logical-paradigmatic thinking and the narrative thinking, two much studied modes of human reasoning.
Trough logical thinking people are able to mentally cancel or compensate the results of a physical action or a mental operation, an ability defined as reversibility of thought and that allows to analyze the causal connections of events.
The importance of logical thinking is not directly proportional to its everyday use which, though important and desired in certain contexts, is not as frequent as thought in the past.
From 1950 onwards, several studies have shown how, in different real daily situations, rationality often leaves the place to other forms of thinking, activated depending on the nature of a specific context.
Relational context is one of the most frequent in everyday life and tends to activate narrative thinking, which is a mental story of events with a social content essentially consisting of two categories: actions and intentions.
Concerning the first category, what is told is dynamic and moves in space and time. Furthermore, stories actions relate to a subject from whom derive beliefs and expectations (intentions); the latter are, in stories, the key linking different actions.
The main character is a human or humanized character, the only one able to keep these two categories of content alive.
J. Bruner (1969.1996) has extensively studied the characteristics of narrative thinking (shown in the table below) to which he attributes a fundamental role in the narrative construction of reality and in the organization of one's experience in the world. The author himself observes the precocity in the development of this mode of thinking, which is present in adults and children.
The nine properties of storytelling:
1. Sequentiality, for which the narrated events are organized according to a space-time sequence.
2. The peculiarity for which stories content is a specific event.
3. Intentionality, which coincides with the interest in human intentions which, supported by goals, opinions and beliefs, drive actions.
4. The referential opaqueness, which consists in the tendency (by the narrator) to describe representations of events rather than objective facts. A narration, in fact, is not required to be true, but likely, that is to say possible.
5. Hermeneutical modularity, represented by the relationship between the various parts of the story and the whole on which the provided interpretation depends.
6. Violation of canonicity, which coincides with the presence of unexpected events breaking the routine.
7. The pentadic composition, according to which any story has at least five elements: an actor who performs an action through a certain tool, to achieve a goal in a given situation.
8. Uncertainty arising from expressing one point of view of the many possible, namely the narrator's one.
9. Its belonging to a genre coinciding with a literary category that guides the way of telling contents.
In depth analysis of narrative thinking features allows us to better understand the elements making up biographies that can be transformed through the biographical method, thus calling back into question one's own interpretation of the events and rewriting one's own life stories in order to give back the flow to stories stuck around a problem.
The need to tell stories, and in particular to tell one's or to hear it told by someone else, is observable in children's great curiosity and passion about tales concerning their life and family stories. Tales and videos about the events of their biography can attract even the attention of more hyperactive and distractible children because they allow them to give continuity and meaning to their lives.
Autobiography and other people's narration about our experiences are early interwoven, proving as useful tools to construct the meaning of one's present, in the light of one's past and before one's future. The subject becomes, in this way, narrator and actor of their own Self, built as a text made up of several parts organized to the purpose of giving coherence and continuity to their own experiences.
Contact between one's and other people's stories lead to a prevalence of the latter on the first from which may stem an obscuring of their true essence by means of the acceptance of false attributions present in the stories told by others.
1.9 The biographical method for psychological well-being
The biographical method is a very useful tool for psychological well-being both in psychological counseling and in the field of psychotherapy. Variants of this method can be used in the course of special discussion and creativity experiences, led by expert guides, which can be moments to deepen one's own self-knowledge. Meetings of this type are generally held in group contexts in which, through autobiographical narration and the subsequent sharing of texts, it is possible to discover unknown resources or needs or, more simply, to share and compare emotions.
During a psychological support, the description of a problem, changing more or less radically, can generate new solutions that can be essential for mental health. In this way, a central problem can turn into a minor problem or a non-issue; other times it can be discovered as an unexpected resource.
Traditionally, narrative method starts from a person's story on one or more central themes of their autobiography (dominant story or theme). The co-construction of a new version of the same story (alternative history), operated by the patient and the psychologist or psychotherapist, acts as a central point to gain a new perspective against a problem or to activate a therapeutic change.
This new version of reality is rewritten by the professional through one or more letters, addressed to the user, aimed at summarising and reinforcing user's newly acquired knowledge on themselves.
This type of approach can also be used in the context of a sharing group of psychological problems.
In this case, as T. Vassallo says, the rewriting of participants stories is summarised by a letter addressed to each member of the group.
A new narration being too different from the previous one will not be recognised as their own and will be rejected by the protagonist. The excessive similarities may, conversely, let old beliefs recur. Consequently, a good narrative reconstruction must strive to balance old and new, positively transforming the shared text.
The last step is the testing of the new story which must be confirmed and thought as credible by others to be finally accepted by the protagonist of the rewritten biography. At this stage it is necessary to consider the difficulties caused by the natural people's reluctance to accept other people's changes made by others; it is an attitude of seeking consistency that can be faced only after a deep comparison with oneself.
1.10 Narrative transformations
Referring to the described
narrative thinking characteristics, several micro-transformative practices
have been distinguished, through which changes can be made, both in biographies
content and narrative process .
They are techniques adopted by the biographical method and their understanding is important to get a more concrete idea about the transformation process of narrative plots.
More precisely, according to C. Sluzki, the transformation of a person's biography can affect the nature of its dominant story or the narration itself.
Transformations in the nature of stories
They concern psychologically very important aspects of storytelling such as time, space, causality, interactions and values.
· Transformations in time can help move from the perception of static, immutable and chronic situations to that of behaviours that can be transformed over time and in relation to which it is possible to take action to find a solution. This type of changes in storytelling is obtained any time one can shift from a label or diagnostic category to an attitude or behaviour, as in the case of the transition from the idea of being depressed to the idea according to which one behaves like a depressed person. From a syntactical point of view, this kind of changes takes place by replacing verbs with nouns, therefore with the transition from the static to the dynamic condition. Another transformation concerning time can concern the transition from an ahistorical dimension to a dimension in which narration finds a beginning, a scenario and an evolution that can be essential to plan one's future.
· Transformations in space are mainly related to the transition from a non-contextual dimension to a dimension emphasizing the role of the environment as frame of an event. They are particularly useful for moving the focus from the event emphasizing both the conditions in which the problem becomes more manageable and the most critical situations.
· Transformations in the causality concern the possibility of tracing effects and current problems to its origin in order to work on the causes seeking a solution.
· Transformations in the interaction allow to change the position of the protagonist of the story through the transition from a description of attributes to a description of interaction models. So a person defining their spouse as stubborn could bring in the context their relationship stubbornness expressions, transforming them into something that can be faced in different situations, rather than consider them as stable personality features, unlikely to be modified or managed.
· Transformations in the values of the story concern attributes and intentions change. Examples are changing one's perspective in relation to one's good or bad intentions or with respect to the evaluation of a behavior as upright or deviant. Such evaluations can put in a new light an involved character.
They include all those transition processes from the story of a narration whose protagonist is passive and victim, to one in which the protagonist itself emerges as an actor and takes on responsibilities. In this type of change, the intersection established between the definition of the place of the problem (external or internal) and place of the agent (external or internal) is crucial. The best condition of narration seems to be the one in which the problem is defined as external and doesn't produce any fault or salvation expectation; in this case the protagonist is seen as internal and change agent who will act to find a solution.
A key strategy in this kind of transformations is represented by externalization. Proposed by White (1988/89), it consists in transforming a symptom in external features, in an autonomous character against whom a battle must be fought. Separating the person from the problem, great relief is quickly obtained because a problem, conceived as a fault or something arousing shame, can be brought out of the subject so as to reduce tension and to widen the possibilities to find a solution which, often, because of the lack of appropriate emotional distance, can not be seen. The above analysed stories transformations often intertwine and involve each other.
The biographical method strategies described so far can be useful whenever a person, reflecting on a problem for which is searching for a solution, may want to test different perspectives exploring new possibilities. The use of a diary and the autobiographical re-writing of the same event, at different times and trying to take different perspectives, are ideal for those people wanting to individually experience every narrative transformation, possible through the biographical method, and their effects. Although being a not guided comparison limited to themselves, rewriting one's most important life experiences can be a technique to improve or re-establish contact with oneself.
1.11 Tips for using the autobiographical method in schools
- First of all, it is worth remembering that teachers wanting to adopt this method as a working method in school (as well as educators wanting to adopt it for leisure or for difficult situations) should first of all make use of it themselves. Therefore they should first use on themselves at least a good part of the exercises they propose to their students. This is essential in order to use them with other people: they must have experienced it too. Everyone can choose the style of their own writing. It may be personal, but also professional, in the sense of going through their own work history (what kind of teacher am I? What was I like when I started? What were my expectations? What were my models? What worked and what did not? And so on).
- The second rule is that when using this technique it must be constantly remembered that the listener should definitely ABSTAIN FROM JUDGEMENT. Switching from one's story to gossip is very easy if you do not adopt a perspective that must be at the same time a distance (in the sense of not getting involved in first person by what you hear and therefore not judging) and a total compassionate listening perspective. The person (whatever their age) opening themselves to others should feel listened to and shared, but not judged. So it does not matter wether the listener agrees or not with what the other says. He must be able to contain any possible sense of discomfort or disgust, or whatever he could hear in the context of the story. This seems easy when you explain it, but it is very difficult to be put into practice. All the more so in the educational context, when one thinks that a younger person is always inevitably the individual to whom adults must "teach to live". teachers listening to their students or reading their students writings, without expressing personal judgments also moral, can be very hard. But this is a very important exercise also for teachers, in order to accept differences, and make sure that each student be himself. Through autobiographical writings, teachers must be able to help their students find themselves and not what they prefer for them. They can know their dreams. This method can help them to discover their talents, to overcome difficulties, to see the sun behind the clouds. But they should never try lead a non-existing way.
- Another basic rule, not always respected but essential, is THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY. When the writing about oneself is used in areas involving more than two people, it is necessary that for each activity a "contract" is defined. That is to say: it must be established who and what can be read and disclosed in public, and what not. No one should be forced to let others read their own things, and a student who writes some things thinking that they will be read only by a certain teacher, should not see this certainty betrayed. Some of the games that will be presented below may provide things that a person would not say publicly. This must be respected. If a student opens up to a teacher, writing things that the teacher is allowed to read, the teacher has the chance of knowing their student's world, his problems, his dreams, his fears, his feelings of inferiority with respect to others, perhaps even his family problems, and so on. The student, must therefore know he/she their teacher is an ally, not an examiner. At least not through this activity. Study texts, language, school subjects are different from writing about oneself. The latter creates a relationship, and the contract ruling this relationship should be clear right from the beginning.
- These rules apply not only to the teacher-student relationship, but also to the relationship between students. When we talk about personal things in front of a group, student themselves have to learn (and this activity helps them to do so) to listen in silence, without stopping, judging, laughter or irony. This type of interview is therefore extremely educational to learn to accept others for who they are, and therefore to accept the differences and even put oneself in other students' place. Understand that everyone has different reactions although in similar situations. That there is never only one way of seeing things, and there is never one only truth. This comparison helps each participant to meditate, to consider different points of view, and different choice chances also for themselves. This is therefore the more properly self-training phase for the group, because what every single participant will want to believe at the end will be arisen from their work of mutual exchange and reflection, and not from teachings given from the outside, such as ready-to-follow recipes.
Let us now turn to some considerations specific for the different types of school.
When beginning to study history and geography with children (depending on the different countries and curricula) one generally begins with their world: their space, their home, thei family, ... to gradually reach their surrounding environment: the streets around their house, their village, shops, crafts, who-does-what, their morning and evening activities, ... and then we go further: other cities, my region, my country, other countries ... Therefore, one often starts from a personal “biography”. Child's story through drawings, themes, maps drawn from the child itself, and so on.
It is very delicate work, in which children often find their first difficulties in dealing with peers, and teachers find it difficult to handle situations even just slightly complicated or problematic. Sometimes teachers, to overcome these difficulties, prefer to return to old methods and to teach history starting talking right about the primitive man to children who may not have yet acquired even the basic concepts of time and space. The fact that talking about children's stories is a difficult task, does not mean that primary school teachers “better avoid it". On the contrary. Children need to express their psychological conditions. And they need (and have the right) to find support in adults around them. Teachers task, in these case too, is first of all to give respect and - once again - not judge. Never judge. It can be a terrible wound for children hear even just one ironic observation, one critical consideration. And this wound will remain, and at that point any dialogue will be closed. The child knows that it can not trust that adult.
Children's drawings are their autobiographies. Teachers must relate to them in the same way as autobiographies. They are the mirrors of their souls. They are the tools for teachers, to understand their children's difficulties and then look for ways to support them. But they have to talk, and not avoid any topic. If a topic is avoided for fear, because the adult does not know how to deal with it, this means that the child is left alone. Teachers must try to understand the suffering that children have inside, and make sure they can express them: in this way, they will feel lighter, they will know that there is at least someone with whom they can share their suffering, and from whom they can have support.
For this reason, therefore, the use of autobiography has seen in recent years various experimentations even in primary school, especially in difficult situations: where there is a high rate of immigration, and therefore children of different nationalities, having adaptation difficulties. Children who have experienced the trauma of having been uprooted: move from one country to another, where they speak another language, where people are different from those they were used to before. Or children living social exclusion situations caused by various reasons. Writing about themselves, as already said, helps in analysing the problem and in finding solutions.
Junior high and High Schools
As for the junior high and high schools all the games and exercises that we will see later on may be used, adapting them when necessary to a given situation.
In particular, teachers have to find some topics typical of the teen-age and problems: considerations about friendship and relationships with peers, expectations with respect to studies and future, conceptions about love and the opposite sex, conceptions about life and social values such as solidarity, human rights, religious faith. Everyone must have freedom of expression, according to their own creed or atheism, environmental protection, and so on.
Autobiographical writing in high school may be part of literary subjects teaching. In this way, students will keep their works, and it will be nice as well as interesting to see - at the end of the school - into their life notebooks/diaries/books, the path they experienced and what attitude they will have towards what they will have ahead.
1.12 Techniques and exercises to adopt the autobiographical method
When talking about autobiography, we surely refer, for the most part, to storytelling. This however can in turn take place with the aid, or the addition, of various techniques and "strategies". It depends on the narrator's creativity and skills. Some autobiographies are full of photographic images, other are full of drawings, if the narrator is also good at drawing, and then he loves representing with the pencil his memories, some moments he lived, or even symbols of these moments. Then there are stories in which drawings are so important that they become almost comics. Photos and drawings alternate in such a way that eliminating them, the story would no longer be readable. Then there are also people who love putting real objects in their memories narration: a card, a flower kept in a book maybe for decades, a lock of hair, a letter, a document... As we said at the beginning, writing about oneself is such a personal and private thing, that there are not right methods and wrong methods. Everyone has the right to tell their stories and preserve their memories as they prefer!
This also applies to the narrative style. Some people write very didactically... almost like they were writing a recipe book. Some are more passionate, or more cerebral. Some are able to be ironical about and literally laughing at what they write (even when talking about tragedies!). There is certainly a women's style and a men's one, which are evident right from the start. And, generally, from style it is also possible to distinguish, broadly speaking, writer's age.
Much freedom is also given to content, or periods with which a personal biography deals. The most classic biography is the one following the chronological order of the events the author recalls. But there are some are very interesting, or funny tales, or tales about particular periods. A story may fix a particular childhood or youth period, fatherhood period, a period of illness... So, they can be vertical and horizontal, long or short biographies. People may decide to write their story not necessarily starting from their birth, but from an event that has been a "starting point" for something new: the year of their marriage, or when they changed job, or that of their graduation, or the year they took a trip... There are also biographies in which the author starts from before their birth, imagining their parents before their arrival, therefore their moving inside their mother's womb, and then imaging their pop up (joyful? traumatic? painful? ...).
Then there are autobiographies written in the form of a letter, kind of pretending to write to someone (existing or not). There are those written in the first person, but also those in which the author plays a fiction and writes their own story in the third person, as if speaking about someone else, thus emphasizing even more the distance between themselves and the "film" of their lives. And then there are stories written in a completely symbolic way, even by resorting to the magic dimension and the fairy tale. These are the most purely "healing" stories. The ones in which the author looks for a trick, a solution that satisfies their need to get out of their painful situation.
Fairy tale is used in autobiography insofar the author can not say (or is afraid to say) something that however bothers them. Then he uses symbols and the unreal both to describe and to find solution. In these situations, it is easy (for an educator, or a teacher) the risk of switching from an educational to a properly clinical dimension, which is not their responsibility. But analyzing symbols through an educational point of view is still important for what we stated above: it is important to help young (or adult) people to understand what they mean by that image, why precisely that image and not another one came to their mind, and what are the ways out which that symbol, or the magical event they put into their story, let imagine.
From autobiography to diaries.
People approaching autobiography, often find the experience so fascinating, giver of pleasure and knowledge, that then... they are no longer able to do without it! Writing down one's feelings, events, one's emotions, one's meetings, it then becomes a sort of continuous need useful to focus, to reflect, meditate on themselves and the world. Sometimes, there are people who never finish their autobiography, because they continually modify it, correcting re-correcting it, in an endless game of re-remembering, re-discovering, removing, adding, specifying, colouring... Switching from biography to diary, is a frequent path, as well as desirable, because it helps to better understand life experience, many hows and whys we forgot, choices made in past ages. But diary, which has always been more widespread among teenagers, is a good cure also for adults, to let them keep stopping and listening to themselves, even in our daily hurry.
From writing about oneself to the collection of stories.
Even this one, is another among our frequent, as well as desirable, transition. From listening to and telling themselves, to listening to and telling the others. Help others to write their own story, or help them tell it, in long conversations in which we listen, in almost total silence and, of course, in complete absence of judgment. With such exchange, both protagonists - listener and listened person – grow in knowledge, life knowledge. In short, they grow in wisdom. Educating young people to tell their life story also means educating them to listen to the others. To seek explanations between the lines, beyond appearances. To put themselves into the others' shoes. To be more tolerant, more relativists. Wiser.
The exercises suggested here are some real exercises/games, proposed by Silvia Montevecchi in her handbook "Writing about oneself. The pleasure of telling oneself". These exercises are designed to enhance the activity of remembering. Dig up distant images of one's life, to fill in a sketch that takes gradually shape, as the game is played.
Exercises to learn to remember
Each of these proposals can be carried out in complete freedom, without time limits. They may be done alone or in company, to each other, in order to know each other more deeply, between friends or even in one's family. They are suitable for different ages. The reader-writer will give each one the meaning he will feel as more relevant (or funnier!): a concrete and historical, but also symbolic or fable content.
Each exercise will represent a piece of one's life, or a certain way of looking at it.
Many of these exercises involve a written part: you can write on loose sheets, on small or ripped-up pieces of paper... If you do them all on the same great exercise-book, at the end you will automatically have in your hands... “the book of your life”.
Or, they will have helped you remember facts, people, moments, feelings ... And then you'll begin to actually write your autobiography, "from A to Z".
In any case, you can always add anything your imagination suggests: photos, drawings, postcards, tickets…
If you instead use these tips for reciprocal exchanges, verbally, with friends or family, it is good to remember that you don't have to turn them into "chats" in which "everyone express their opinion"! The listener must remain in almost total silence, and above all must absolutely abstain from any comment that could represent a judgment (be it positive or negative) for the person talking about themselves. And make sure that this person feels heard and respected and never judged in any way for what is saying, thinking and feeling.
This exercise - like most of those proposed - should be done by giving quick, instinctive, answers without thinking about them for a long time. It can be done alone, by writing, or in a group, listening to each other's answers. You can write what you want, you can skip a part.
The first time I…
- have done something important for me
- have done something important for someone
- felt a great sorrow
- experienced freedom
- fell in love
- was afraid
- discovered injustice
- discovered beauty
- felt happy
- saw something that impressed me
- discovered the existence of good and evil
- made a trip (near or far)
Again, always try to give immediate answers, without "selecting" memories.
· TASTE. The best thing that I remember I have ever eaten, or tasted. Where I was, with whom. How I felt.
· SMELL. I remember... a wonderful aroma, or a terrible odour...! A smell related to people, moments, events... Sometimes smells take us back to very strong memories, almost as if the past became present, even just for a moment.
· TOUCH. I remember when I touched, handled, brushed, pressed... (it can relate to any object, person, plant, animal…)
· SIGHT. That image I cannot forget... "Videos in my mind".
· HEARING. I remember... that sublime music, that frightening noise, the cry of an animal, a voice, a sound...
I remember when…
· I had a waking dream
· I made the most important decisions of my childhood or youth
· I had a strong argument, believing in my ideas
· I felt I had my own autonomous ideas
· I trusted somebody
· I felt guilty and I needed to apologize
Things that are tangible pieces of my life, my past or present, in short: parts of me.
Perhaps a family souvenir, or a toy when I was a child, a photograph, a dress. Or an object from which I could never be apart.
Which event is related to? Who reminds me of? What are its most important features to me? And why?
A sentence that has remained in my mind, which immediately reminds me of someone, of an affection, or of a negative situation, perhaps fear, or sweetness. It was a nursery rhyme, a song, a proverb... Who said it, when? How did I feel? And what do I feel now remembering it? (… I almost feel its presence again…)
Each of us has had many mentors along their life. People who have given us important things, perhaps without even knowing it, and maybe not even that we knew it ourselves. But if we stop to remember certain "gifts", we find out that there come to mind unexpected faces.
Even in this case, it is better to give a quick response, writing beside each sentence the names which first comes to your mind. Warning: it can also be that we received a gift by ouselves! So you will put "I, myself". In fact many things... we have built them on our own, with effort!
- The person who gave me … Fantasy … was…………………...…………………….
- The person who gave me … Strength … was…………………………..…………….
- The person who gave me … Wilfulness … was…..…………………………………...
- The person who gave me … Curiosity … was…………………………………………..
- The person who gave me … Cheerfulness … was……………………………………..
- The person who gave me … Carefulness … was……………………………………...
- The person who gave me … Courage … was………………………………………....
- The person who gave me … Change ability … was………………………................
- The person who gave me … Analysis ability … was…………………………......…..
- The person who gave me … Will to live … was………………………………............
- The person who gave me … ……………… was…………………………….............
Of course, after making this list, those who will want, could write a story about each specific "who gave me what". The situation, the time, the details of the person in question, the emotions felt at that time, or now, if it's someone you still spend time with.
This exercise, sometimes leads to a desire to communicate with one or more of the remembered people. It could be an opportunity to send a letter... (Maybe to find the courage to say what we wanted to say for a long time; a thank you, a re-established dialogue, a smile).
In our life we pass through periods of great happiness and gratification, and periods of deep abysses. Moments in which we feel like being at the bottom of a well without light or exit possibilities.
Tell/write what is or are the moments which you remember as your "top" moments or periods: the situation, the places, the people, how did you feel and why. They can be moments of success or defeat.
If you could "get out of the bottom of the well", tell also how did you get out of it, what strategies have you adopted.
It may be a long period or even just one day. Far in the past, or even occurred a few days earlier.
There are things, people, places, which have stimulated, at certain moments, our FASCINATION feelings. Perhaps feelings of great marvel. Anyway, fascination feelings. A fascination sometimes creating a deep love for those places, situations, etc..
Tell when it happened to you. Perhaps during a trip, or in front of a work of art, or a landscape, at the cinema, while listening to some specific music, while talking to someone, while reading a book ..
Our life is made of constant change, symbolic bridges that make us switch from one bank to another, from one way of being to another. Sometimes they are slow and gradual transitions, as those of an ending relationship; sometimes they are sudden, such as when one moves to another city, thus moving house, changing jobs and one's whole life. There are some rituals and institutional steps (a new school, a diploma, graduation, marriage...). There are great griefs (a divorce, the loss of a beloved person, an illness...). Random changes, and desired changes, as when one decides to change jobs, or at least the employer.
Then there are the small but significant ones: the purchase of a new machine, or an object we were desiring for a long time. Little things that, however, make us feel different people than before.
There are the deep affective and emotional changes, arisen from having made a journey, or having met people who introduced us to new worlds. Sometimes certain changes occur just by reading a book, which causes us some inner "click", and opens us new perspectives through which to view the world.
The list of examples could go on, but it is not necessary. Now, you write down on the notebook-book-novel of your life, the most important changes you remember to have experienced. How, when did they occur, and why. What were you before, and how did you feel you were after.
Try to think, and write, which are the key moments you remember in your life, putting them in chronological order, choosing if possible only one per year, beginning with the earliest memory you have (usually around 3 years of age).
You can put whatever you want: something that happened to you, or you have seen, a person you met, a fact happened to others that impressed you, a change experienced with your family... Anything you feel has been decisive in that given period.
- When I was 3 ………………………………..
- When I was 4 .……………………………….
- When I was 5 ………………………………..
- When I was 6 ………………………………..
- When I was 7 ………………………………..
Following up to the age you have now, always looking for the significant elements of one year, or a couple of years.
Not everything happening to us happens by chance or by our voluntary choice. There are times when it seems that a curious alliance between the case and will is established, as if they had agreed to come greet us, to our advantage or disadvantage.
Then there are moments when, on the contrary, although we strived to do or to avoid a given thing, it finally does not occur or it occurs anyhow.
In both cases, we therefore have the feeling that there was indeed a "destiny's plan”, an already traced path.
Try to tell, if you experienced such moments, the details. The feeling you felt and the one you feel now. What do you think and the extent to which you believe that chance, your will, and fate played a role in your life.
Draw the family tree of your family, also including the names of deceased people, or people you do not know because they live far away. If you want, put also some pictures. Or add the places where each of them lives, which can be villages, towns or countries. Sometimes we feel as being part of the family even non-consanguineous people, who of course you will put in your family tree.
Even animals are not excluded! Sometimes they accompany our life for many years, and when they pass away they leave us in a deep mourning.
Also in this exercise, feel completely free to put in who is important to us. (You do it for yourself, and you do not have to answer to anyone!). It is a very good exercise, which often leads us to "interview" our relatives to ask for people's names we do not remember, or to ask where the one is, where the other got to, how many children had that uncle in America... It can be fun , and often reveals unexpected surprises.
Our past and our daily life are made up of many "archipelagos" each in turn made up by many islands, islets, rocks with relaxing and pleasant places, or insidious places, or frustrating ones. In each of them, our role often completely changes, we play different roles.
Try to list your “archipelagos”, to describe them, to tell about their features, to say how you ended up in each of them, and how you "surf" between one archipelago to another, between one island and another.
Examples: the job archipelago; the classroom archipelago; the family archipelago; the volunteer group archipelago, the group I play theatre with; the holidays friends archipelago, and so on…
In the notebook of your life, draw a circle and write in it the name of all those people who are part of or you have met during your life journey, who are very dear to you, and who you would like to never forget.
We got to the most classic and traditional way to write one's own history: the chronological order. Those who undertake this activity ,really write "The Book" of their life. A book with an indefinite number of pages: 20, 100, 200... which, often, never ceases to be revised and corrected by its author, because he can think of other details, parts to add or remove, different perspectives, then different analysis.
You can follow the usual phases, Childhood-Youth-Maturity-Seniority, but within these you have to define some sub-phases. For example: the age of the school, relationships with parents and grandparents, games with your mates when you were a child; family, economic and relational conditions, high school or work, romances; engagement and marriage; university attendance, expecting and birth of your first child, trips... and so on.
Also try to give titles, to each chapter, defining what is important to you, something expressing your personality, in relation to the period described. It can also be a sentence written in the chapter itself.
At the end, you will need to give a title to the whole work.
Remember to feel absolutely free in choosing your style. Always keep in mind that you are not writing a book to be published, or something to be read by others who will judge your work. You are writing for yourself. You can write what you want, the way you want, also making any possible grammar mistakes: no one will give you a mark!!!
You can write in the first or the third person, you can pretend you are someone else's "the scribe", as if you were writing about another person's life. You can also write in the form of a letter, as if you addressed someone, whether this person exists or not. You can follow the chronological order but you can also “jump” from one time to another, ie go back and forth from time to time. You can write in a more didactic, almost "documentary", way or by using metaphors or even poetry. The style we adopt is extremely explanatory of our personality and our mood. For this reason, there is no right or wrong style, but everyone has to find their own, the one in which they feel better.
When your book will be finished, you decide whether, and whom, you will let read it.
It is the most difficult exercise among all those proposed. Until now you went in search of your memories, in order to put them together. Now, you have to give a description of that set of memories - that is to say of yourself - : an accurate but short and quick description.
This means not of course “going in search of the truth", which we know does not exist as such but is always changing, and everyone has their own. However, in no more than ten minutes, try to write your description, your profile.
How you see yourself, the qualities and/or shortcomings you attribute to yourself, things you love doing or you dream doing, how do you think your life has been so far.
Try to find one or more metaphors to describe your life, or different stages of it, or your current mood.
You are in the middle of the sea. You have a bottle and a piece of paper to leave the unlimited your greeting, a farewell, a snapshot speaking of you. It can be a sentence, a poem, a drawing, a vague or practical thought, a hymn. What matters is that you represent your essence and leave told to the world who you are and who you were.
Try to describe yourself through the following stages of your life:
- young adulthood (for ex. university period),
To describe yourself, in each of this stage, you have to use the following categories:
- musical instrument;
- weather event.
You can use each category only one time, attributing it to the different stages of life. As a result, every stages of life can be described with a single category!
Fill in the matrix below; you explain the reasons for your choice and the emotions that you feel in recalling memory.
At the end of the exercise, you will told about yourself, more than you can imagine.
You have 5 minutes to complete the exercise.
Categories ( musical instrument; sport, animal, weather event)
· young adulthood (university period)
[i] Among the most ancient
autobiography models we find the apology or self-defense speech, through
which the author tries to justify/explain their attitude and past life before a
court or a more o less real group of opponents. This model of “judicial” speech
is already recoverable, for example, in Plato's Apology of Socrates and Seventh
letter or also in Isokrates's Antidosis. Anyway, apology is not only
a self-defense speech but it can also be a praise speech, thus signing a
person's praises, especially for their public role and the results or successes
they have achieved. In ancient times this model can be found, for example, in
Emperor Augustus's (63 b.C –
[ii] Thanks to Saint Augustine's Confessions, autobiographical storytelling functions, for the first time, as soul history: reconstruction of moral growth and psychological and spiritual expectancy of the individual in their constant confrontation with God. From this point of view his work can be considered as the first modern autobiography and it is one of the masterpieces of world literature. As stated by Abrams (1971), Saint Augustine was the first who created a genre suitable for representing introspection in an adequate manner to publicly convey it. In his autobiographical work he reconstructs the path of his conversion in his constant confrontation with God, derived from the divine grace paving him the way to a new life. According to Saint Auustine “to confess” means not speaking to justify or self-defend oneself, it rather means speaking before God, revealing oneself in their bareness. Sit Augustine's confession is divided on three levels: the confessio fidei, or confession of faith; the confessio peccatorum, close to the confession proper to the sacrament of penance and, lastly, the confessio laudis, that is to say the praise to God because he entered human history releasing it. This last confession is the most important one, because the first two lean toward and result in the third. Through his Confessions Saint Augustine states, for the first time, the transition from the objective and closed truth of History to a subjective and impenetrable truth imbued with the dimension of the Divine. Not by chance, the highest point of the X book is an essay on those «vast places of memory, where are the treasures of the innumerable images of all sorts of things, introduced by perceptions». It is the first extraordinary dramatized phenomenology of the “memory tale”, an aspect which is often forgotten.
[iii] It must be remembered that, among Saint Augustine's drafts preceding the final outline of his Confessions, the beginning of the Beata vita stands out. This work, trough the use of an extended metaphor - namely the metaphor of a dangerous crossing of a stormy see – provides a sincere confessio. In broad terms, the Bishop of Hippo recalls his inner journey from the discovery of the philosophical vocation until his conversion in Milan: a long mist-shrouded sail without a destination. It recalls Cicero's Hortensius, the encounter with the Manichean, the adherence to the skepticism of academics, the discovery of God's and soul's immateriality in the speeches by Bishop Ambrose and Platonist Manlio Teodoro; he looks back on himself still held by women''s charm and the seduction of the honours. St. Augustine describes the decisive crisis in the form of a storm, like a severe chest pain allowing him to quit office and bring the ship, although tossed, back to the desired calm. According to St. Augustine the spiritual path, that from an initial aversio brings back to God in the conversio, is therefore tough and hard: the conversion is an practical choice needing to be reaffirmed over and over again, it is a starting point that is constantly being renewed among failures, temptations and inner struggles.
[iv] An exception to this is Petrus Abelardus's (1109-1142) autobiographical work Historia calamitatum maerum, in which the monk and scholastic philosopher recalls the story of his tragic love for Heloise in an absolutely modern awareness of his own individuality and of the creative power of the word.
[v] Petrarch, through the draft of the epistle “To posterity”, intends to describe his role as a man and as an intellectual, to hand down to posterity his extraordinary individual and poetic experience.
[vi] Furthermore, Starobinski shows in his autobiographical storytelling two different tones: one elegiac, the other picaresque. In the first one past is seen as a lost paradise, in the second one as the time of weaknesses. In other words, according to Rousseau past can now be the subject of nostalgia, now the subject of irony while present is perceived from time to time as a morally degraded or intellectually superior state.
[vii] Proust, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Yourcenar, Goethe all are examples of masterful construction of the meaning of their past hermeneutically structured within the plot of the story itself which persists in concentric movements to reflect and re-construct the self consequently activating some de-construction and interpretation formative processes.
[viii] H. Desroche in “Entreprendre d’apprendre: d’une autobiographie raisonnée aux projets d’une recherche-action” shows how the individual is permeated by and full of cultural and praxeological potential (human action) and can build a project from the materiality of an experience lived by reading the bioscopia.
Something that J. Vassileff corroborates in “La pédagogie du projet en formation” thanks to a search upon himself, the chronology of its history, the history of his parents, the situational (of education) and structural (emotional) determinants (= decisive and fundamental elements ) and the relationship with knowledge.
G. Pineau and J.L. Le Grand in “Les histoires de vie” show how these (life stories) construct meaning and produce life. A. Lainé writes: “Faire de sa vie une histoire: teorie e pratiche della storia di vita in formazione” and shows the relationships with psychotherapy, human sciences and modernity as a cultural and literary genre.
C.Josso, in “Cheminer vers soi”, writes that life story serves as rooting in any path of thinking, training and project for social integration thus contributing in establishing a new paradigm in the construction of knowledge and a concept of education centered on the recognition of our inner resources and our potential.
P. Dominicé in his work “La storia di vita come processo di formazione” (History as a training process) suggests a research and an adult training path method titled educational biography. In “Les récits de vie”, D. Bertaux helps to distinguish between the story experienced by a person and the way in which this person tell it and puts life stories in an ethno-sociological perspective. C. Delory-Momberger who wrote “Histoire de vie et recherche biographique en formation” after his work “De l’invention de soi au projet de formation”, shows a researcher's and biographical research's biography in training.