'I' poems - a story telling method or a different kind of case study

‘I’ poems are a tool for relating individual stories about big experiences, life changing events, issues and problems for example: the impact of an experiential learning course. The technique is based on the narrative analysis method developed by Doucet and Mauthner (2008)  called the Listening Guide.

In the following workshop I introduced how this method works, tried it out on experiences and explored how it might be used within different work contexts. Participants used a voice recorder via their mobile phone, tablet or laptop.

How are stories important or used within your work? Brief introductory round.
Overview of workshop
Work in pairs (someone you have not had much interaction with so far)
- share an experience that made a big impact on you/ a life changing moment
- talk about what happened, how it made you feel, and in the end what the outcome was.
If you are happy to, please record your stories. Good idea to test your recording device before you start. Aim for 5-10 mins of recording per person.

Handout, flip chart showing 4 steps/readings, an example, questions

Choose one of your stories that you feel would work best using this method.
Listening 1 – listen through the recording for the context – what is the story about?
- Give your poem a title/ subtitle which highlights the context for the poem
Listening 2 – listen for the voice of ‘I’ although this may also be ‘we’ or ‘me’. There may also be an emerging ‘it’ that is important to your story.
- Use a flip chart to record the voice of ‘I’ as you hear it through the story e.g. listen and note down the start of the sentences where the speaker says ‘I …..’

Share ‘I’ poems by going round to read each other’s poems.
Invite individuals/pairs to explain poems that you want to know more about.
What has been the effect of focusing on the ‘I’ voice as evidenced in our poems?
How could ‘I’ poems be useful in your work?

Using the Listener’s Guide to reflect on experience

Four readings or listening stages
1. Overall plot and our response to the story
- Listen to the overall story to get a sense of what is happening and the events which unfold.
- Note the who, what, when, where and why of the narrative.
- Particular questions to think about:
  Are there any recurring words?
  Is there a central metaphor?
  Are there contradictions in the story?
- Reflect on our own response to the story – in what ways do we identify with or distance ourselves from the person? In what ways are our experiences similar or different?
- Use a summary from this reading to introduce or set the scene for the narrative.

2. The voice of ‘I’
- This reading focuses on the active voice of ‘I’ or the person telling the story.
- How do they experience, feel and speak about her/himself?
- Do they use alternative active voices such as ‘we’ or ‘me’?
- Sometimes there seems to be a recurring ‘it’.

3.  Reading for relationships
- How does he/she experience themselves in relation to other characters within the story?

4. Context – Social, cultural and political
- What are the social structures, cultural norms and expectations?
- Does gender, age, disability and/or race influence the narrative?

Uses of the Listening Guide method

This is a narrative analysis method used most often in problematic individual situations where perhaps the person has some difficulty in communicating about themselves and their wishes. For example, someone suffering from dementia, a young person with learning difficulties. What this approach does is it removes extra, confusing and distracting dialogue to focus in on how the person talks about themselves. It brings to our attention the voice of ‘I’.
I have been exploring how this approach can be used in different situations. For example, focusing in on how a young person reflects on their experiences such as participating in a leadership training course. I also used this approach to focus in on the story of one individual to examine their experience of an impactful situation, and I used it to review my experiences through my doctoral studies.

It seems to me that there are potential uses in our work as experiential educators such as:
- To enhance self-awareness during a programme.
- To make learning more transferable – how does this relate to my work?
- To reflect on change over time.
- To enable people to articulate their voice.
- Evaluation – thinking at the end of a programme, experience/impact data.

What does an ‘I’ poem look like?

Making a good start
Introduction – Gina (not her real name) is a 17-year-old who has Down’s syndrome. This was her first Young Leader Training Weekend that she has attended and below is a diary of her experience.

I wanted to go …
I wanted to learn to help …
I wanted to learn about being a good leader.
I remember …
it was nice being helped.
it sounded like fun.

I went with a new friend …
we had a good time doing things together
discussing things together. 
I shared a room with her ...
I chatted with my new friend ...
It felt very cosy and very fun.

We did some outdoor activities ...
I felt nervous ...
I have been on a flying fox before but the idea of falling in the pond really scared me.
I didn’t go on the zip line.
I really enjoyed going to the shop …
I really enjoyed the singing outside … in the night …
it was magical.  

I learnt about different ways to ...
What was most difficult for me was ...
I did make some new friends.
I was trying to be helpful ...
I enjoyed the weekend very much.

Conclusion – The diary shows that Gina participated in most of the activities over the weekend, and felt comfortable and supported with her peers. She talks about herself in positive ways ‘wanting to …’ but also shows her awareness of less comfortable feelings like fear and uncertainty. She clearly enjoyed her time and learnt a great deal. She was able to build her skills as a young leader, build self-confidence and make new friends.

Doucet, A. and Mauthner, N.S. What can be known and how? Narrated subjects and the Listening Guide, Qualitative Research 2008; 8; 399-409.
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