• Scott Cameron

Where to Find Real Stories on the Web

Updated: Jul 5

We’re finishing up a unit on Exit West by Mohsin Hamid this week so I’m asking my students to listen to a personal narrative of choice. In order to bring the text to life, many of the narratives come from refugees but I mostly want them to hear how extraordinary stories sound in real life.


When someone writes, something happens. Sometimes our academic voice emerges to take over our actual voice. We have the opportunity to think heavily about what we want to communicate and logically arrange our arguments and evidence so that they can be read and understood with ease. We revise our words and the structure of our sentences. It’s a lot less spontaneous than thinking or speaking out loud, even if Wordsworth might disagree. We delete the digressions and ditch the colloquialisms. We lose a little bit of what makes us, us.


I’m not ragging on writing. It enables us to deliberately play around with sound devices and more complicated techniques like similes and metaphors. Unlike a first person narrator in real life, a third person narrator in fiction can enter the consciousness of anyone in the room. We can arrange the parts of a sentence so that it moves and progresses along with the image it depicts. Sentences and paragraphs can rise and fall or turn a corner to reveal a surprising twist of events. They convey ideas through language patterns and organization.


But when we listen to someone tell a story, we listen to an honest explanation of what happened. Memory takes over and the words we speak contain the emotion of the experience as we remember it. We laugh and sometimes make random sounds that seek to articulate the internal emotion of the moment. We unconsciously use our eyes and our hands to communicate what happened and how we felt.


Listening to this storytelling voice, the one in our head or in the words we speak out loud, helps us discover who we are. It’s like the difference between reading Shakespeare on a page and watching a performance of one of his plays. We easily understand the spoken words, the performance, and then later, can dissect the words on the page.


If we want students to connect to people with different experiences, we can of course assign texts that allow them to enter those imaginary worlds. But we should also give them an authentic, immediate, intimate, and emotional way of connecting to the speaker, by simply listening to their voice. It’s the same feeling when we tell stories around a fire at night.


First person storytelling enables us to encounter everyday stories that are not published on a page or performed for an audience. Because of the internet, anyone from anywhere can tell or record a story.


Here are some of my favorite places to find audio, video, or text of personal narratives:


PBS American Portrait

Ear Hustle

Invisibilia

PBS Finding Your Roots

Humans of New York

Radio Diaries

Road Trips Project

This American Life

This I Believe

MSF – Refugees around the world – stories of survival

Time – Undocumented Americans

The Guardian First Person + Refugees

First Days Project

Oxfam – How does it feel to be a refugee?


Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers