Stories that make up who we are (not): How children and young people navigate their lives through stories

We are all surrounded by stories- multiple narratives that make up the fabric of the world around us and through which we are able to make sense of our place in it. We tell stories, to inform ourselves about where we are from, where we are going, and who we are along the way. We come know of ourselves through stories.

For children and young people stories are at the heart of their personal and social development. In early years children narrate their lives in multimodal ways: through body language, play, songs, drawing and speech (Anning & Ring, 2004). Childhood is absorbed by the creativity and imagination that stories offer; the ability to challenge the limits of the ‘real’ or the ‘possible’. Children from an early age are storytellers.

And as a child grows into their adolescent years, this process of storytelling remains ongoing and the stories they create about themselves, continue to be embedded within the social, familial, and cultural contexts within which their development occurs. These stories serve not only as a venue for self-expression and communication with others, but also as a means of creating meaning out of lived experiences. At this stage of development stories and other forms of social interactions are the means by which young people become socialised, form group memberships and feel a sense of belonging, or in some cases, not belonging.

The social, cultural, and historical context in which a child is raised significantly affects the types of stories, and experiences that are available to the child, and the stories and experiences that are marginalised or silenced. My PhD research focused on the school experiences of young Black men in particular and the ways in which they navigate these experiences through stories. As part of this research I asked the young men to construct accounts of their school experiences through multimodal forms of storytelling. The artefacts constructed ranged from short stories, to drawings and poems; each tied to a particular experience and each shared for a particular purpose.

Throughout our lives we learn about ourselves through the stories that we tell to others about ourselves and through the stories that we hear about ourselves from others. We cannot therefore look at the stories children and young people share in isolation, away from the dominant stories that surround them. Stories have the power to build and break and in this research these young men were positioned to simultaneously do both. The young men in the research narrated stories of choice, of resistance; of celebration and of silence. They shared stories on racism, Islamaphobia, contested masculinities and citizenship but the central theme in each of these stories was representation.

An example from the research is a story by Ahmed, a 14 year old young man who chose to use drawings to talk about the representation and performance of race/racism in the classroom. Ahmed’s story explored the role of literature in education and the lack of visibility. Ahmed spoke of his primary and secondary education as “not for me” going on to say “the only time I see people that look like me in books is in history, and even then it’s not our proper history you know”. In his story, Ahmed goes on to think about how literature informs his understanding of schooling and society as a whole asserting that “it’s like I’m not meant to be here”.

Stories offer insights into lived experiences as well as the social, cultural and political contexts in which they are told. As educators and researchers stories of silence and marginalisation raise important questions for us consider.

What are the stories we make visible/ available through the curriculum?

Which stories are silenced/ marginalised?

What opportunities do we offer students to share/ construct their stories?


Muna Abdi is a Lecturer in Psychology Education at Sheffield Institute of Education

Muna Abdi






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