‘I’ poems – a story telling method or a different kind of case study (Jan 2017)

‘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.  You can find a summary of the Guide at the end of this article. 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 within my doctoral study to focus in on the story of one individual to examine their experience of an impactful situation at one moment and then 4 months later. I also used the approach to analyse my reflexive journal to review my doctoral journey.

What does an ‘I’ poem look like?

Making a good start

Introduction – ‘Julie’ is a 17-year-old who has Down’s syndrome. This was her first residential leader training weekend that she has attended and below is a diary of her experience as an ‘I’ poem.

 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 

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.

The diary shows that Julie 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.

Using ‘I’ poems in training and evaluation

It seems to me that there are potential uses for this narrative approach in our work as experiential educators, facilitators, researchers and evaluators such as:

  • To enhance self-awareness during a programme.
  • To make learning more transferable – how does this relate to my work?
  • To create a different type of case study, co-working with the subject.
  • To reflect on change over time.
  • To enable people to articulate their voice.
  • Evaluation – thinking at the end of a programme, experience/impact data.

‘I’ poems workshop

This short article is based on a workshop that I facilitated during the EEE (Experiential Educators in Europe) conference in 2016 and 2017. My workshop introduced how this narrative method works, participants tried it out on experiences of their own and explored how it might be used within their work contexts.

Participants used a voice recorder app via their mobile phone to record their experiences. I was aware that in the workshop I was asking people to share personal experiences, so issues of sensitivity, confidentiality and choice were important. What helped was that the workshop was towards the end of a 4-day conference and participants new each other well. They felt comfortable to participate.

What happened in the workshop was that following the very practical tasks of sharing experiences, recording and shared analysis, we came together to see the results. Participants chose to read out their poem or their partner’s poem. At this point, the workshop flipped from practical methods to deep emotional expression. Reading out their individual ‘I’ poems generated a new level of reflection and appreciation of learning from their experiences.

The Listening Guide involves four ‘readings’ or listening stages:

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.

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’.

Reading for relationships

  • How does he/she experience themselves in relation to other characters within the story?

Context – Social, cultural and political

  • What are the social structures, cultural norms and expectations?
  • Does gender, age, disability and/or race influence the narrative?


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