By Ayşenur Benevento, Ph.D. Candidate, The Graduate Center CUNY
Whenever you move, you move from a place. The movement could be big or small. The place you move from could be a continent, a country, a region, a city, or a neighborhood. Your experience in the new place could be drastically different or the same as before.
I moved from Turkey to the USA in 2012. When I first arrived, I lived in New Jersey, and then moved to Staten Island, New York. The countries, cities, and neighborhoods I have lived in have been drastically different from each other. In this blog post, I will not spell out what were the things that were different and educate you on my personal experiences. Instead, I will encourage you to use the narratives your students can bring to the classroom based on their own experiences of movement to create a classroom where students know each other’s unique experiences and can connect to each other on personal and professional levels. The place narrative assignment I will describe accomplishes two things: first, it encourages students to question established “facts” by bringing diverse individual perspectives together and second, it helps students hear and understand each other and, eventually, build a community where they are more aware of each other and how they can contribute to the classroom discourse.
At the College of Staten Island, I have taught a very diverse student population over the years. When I want to move away from mainstream psychology and help students critique theory and research based in the western hemisphere, I turn to my students and ask them the following questions: Is there anyone with a counterexample to what we have just described here? What would happen if we were to move the researcher/participants to somewhere else?
According to the results of a recent campus climate survey, many students lack a sense of belongingness at the college where I teach. To be fair, our campus feels far from the heart of New York City, far from anything. Most of the students commute for at least an hour to get to campus and only a small number stay in the dormitories. In order to deal with the problem of remoteness of the campus and build connection among students I thought to myself, “As teachers, how about we bring faraway places into our classrooms?”
Narratives are personal but also relational. Hearing or reading somebody else’s stories is known to increase empathy towards the narrator and the group that the narrator belongs to. With this in mind, I asked my students to write a narrative essay on their neighborhood using photographs, drawings, or maps, with at least five visuals included in their narratives. Photographs help students to organize and portray the details they write in their narratives and may help them to communicate, given the preferences they tend to have for visual and impactful media.
In the place narrative assignment, I prompt students to reflect on their neighborhood, more broadly defined as a “place.” They are instructed to not limit themselves to a few streets, and to branch out as needed to include countries, cities, or old schools, parks, other landmarks that they believe are local and important to them. By reflecting on their “place,” students are able to show their classmates something about where they are coming from. If there was a major move to/from this place they are encouraged to write about their particular experiences. They are also instructed to think about how places relate to their development.
Some of the questions I have used in this exercise include: What memories do you have around certain places in your neighborhood? What are/were your routines and rituals? Who were/are you with? How long have you lived there? How do you feel connected to these place(s)?
Think About Images:
This is not just a written reflection. I want you to use original and found images; include photos of your present or past neighborhoods, drawings, and/or maps to accompany your words. Think of this as a photo essay (similar to making a story on Instagram, but with a bit more words). The story should make sense with the images—so the words and pictures need to work together. Consider how each section relates to the other ones.
Think About Audience:
Remember, you are familiar with the place. You know it well. You are an insider. But most of your classmates who will read your essay are outsiders to that place. As you are writing your story, keep your perspective as an insider, but also adopt the perspective of an outsider in writing descriptions.
Some useful questions to consider: What details should you focus on? The placement of objects? The layout of the landscape? The weather at certain times of year? What are the smells of your place? The noises? Try to use figurative language: metaphor, simile, and personification in your descriptions.
Think About Topics We Cover:
The essays you produce are likely to involve psychological topics, such as Emotion, Memory, Human Development, Perception, and Personality. It is important to think about these topics when writing your essay.
Think About Purpose:
Ask yourself: Why am I writing about this place in particular? What do I want my classmates to understand about this place, about my life, about life in general, after they finish reading my piece?
After the essays are written and photos are added we divide the class into small groups and students share their narratives with each other. In the end, this activity helps individuals to organize their thoughts related to a place but also make them relatable to others. This activity could also be great way to ignite interest in students about each other and help them become more aware of the diversity of the community that surrounds them.