Thursday, 26 November 2015

Where are the arts in mental health strategies?

Yesterday I attended Higher York's conference on young people's mental health, 'Everybody's Business', showing an extract of the performance 'Wormwood in the Garden' I developed with Imogen Godwin and other young people in a mental health setting).

There is clearly high awareness at every level of the need for really concerted action on mental health in children and young people.  Action that recognises that, for whatever reasons (we may suspect them but cannot prove them), we have a bit of an epidemic on our hands.  And for a different, more ecosystemic model of working in which young people don't need to jump over thresholds to 'qualify' for treatment, where all the adults working with them do feel qualified to engage with and support their wellbeing without fear.  The recent policy 'Future in Mind' is inspiring stuff in many ways.  And just seeing the full room of intensely engaged individuals coming together from such a variety of professions and institutions was equally heartening.

What still concerns me is that what is being called 'mental health' may be part of an agenda of shifting responsibility for concrete, economic, social societal issues onto individual young minds. However supportive we may learn to be of them, are we empowering (naff word but very apt here, no apologies) them to define these causes and help reshape the society we are growing up in?  If, for example, as one speaker said, the majority of Year 10 and sixth form girls are experiencing mental distress of some kind, can we not go further than lamenting the cuts to further education budgets and the increasingly competitive, individualistic employment market?  Not to mention the media-engendered body fascism, the constant requirement to perform an acceptable identity in the virtual sphere, the growing inequality gap, the precarious zero-hours contracts, the doom-laden inevitability of austerity and climate change? Don't young people need to rage, as well as conscientiously work to improve their mental wellbeing along with everything else we ask of them?

I will keep saying it til I am blue in the face, but young people need the arts.  They need them so as they have the widest possible spectrum of languages to find their own understandings of these things and decide just what needs to change.  Of course storytelling can provide this language for some.  So can theatre.  So can other artforms.  I could not find one single mention of the arts in 'Future in Mind'.  Yet eight different people, representing eight different organisations/teams, approached me after our session asking how they could get training in using storytelling and the arts in their work.  All seemed to be saying that talking 'about' young people's mental health problems with them was not enough.  Other languages are needed.  We need the big stories of our culture to help us understand where it's going and open up real dialogue.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Whose story is it?

For me as a storyteller, as for most drama practitioners I meet and read, stories are like oxygen - they are essential, help to make up the very fabric of the world, belong in some sense to everybody, can be used for all sorts of things and combined with all sorts of things.  We understand the respect we owe to their tellers, but feel entitled to be inspired by their stories and reshape them.  We inhabit their 'gaps' with our own perspectives.

But is this fluid relationship with stories actually something that most young people are ready to take on?  We might assume that everyone is postmodern these days, everyone understands that 'reality' is a complicated concept.  Yet, on several occasions recently I have worked with groups of young people whose anxiety about using the stories of others to make a piece of performance has surprised me.

In a reflective dialogue with one talented young storyteller I worked with, I asked her, 'What strikes you about storytelling, as an artform?  What potential do you see in it for yourself?'  Her reply made me realise that our methodology had been new to her: 'I like how you can take something you like and mix it up with other things that go to make the story change.  Before I thought that that was called plagiarism!'  She had been able to accept it easily because our 'source' story was an old folktale, everyone's and no-one's, and the experience she was mixing it with was largely her own.

In contrast, a youth theatre group tasked with devising a piece of theatre in response to the current refugee crisis was full of apprehension.  They felt that interviewing refugees, as well as people who had worked to support them, would give them a too-weighty responsibility for honouring painful and traumatic stories.  The lead practitioner and I explained that we would not be 'taking' those people's stories or 'twisting' them - rather we would learn from them with both our minds, hearts and bodies, use them to build an understanding of the refugee experience. We would use a myth (Dido and Aeneas, the refugee story par excellence, as in Nathaniel Dance-Holland's painting here) as our starting point, and infuse it with elements of our research into the modern-day refugee crisis.

It was not easy for the young people to understand what we meant by this, or who was giving us permission to play so fast and loose.  It turns out that other practitioners have had similar experiences. Helen Nicholson, in her excellent book 'Applied Drama - The gift of theatre', discusses an intergenerational oral history theatre project she led in which young people portrayed the experiences of elderly neighbours: 
'Because I had not introduced the students to the idea that memories are continually revised in the retelling, they were concerned to tell the stories as ‘authentically’ and ‘faithfully’ as they could.  However, I found this desire to reproduce events rather than represent them troubling…Their reluctance to experiment theatrically meant that their drama was limited by the confines of a form which, whilst it suited a rather simplistic retelling of events, did not really capture the ambiguity or emotions of memory.’ (2005, p.89)
In other words, as I often used to marvel in the first storytelling work I did with adolescents, the question 'is it a true story?' still often demands a literal answer.

Are there simple developmental factors at play here? Is it related to what David Elkind (1967) called adolescents' 'personal fable' - their belief in the uniqueness and incommunicability of their own strong emotions - and thus by extension, any one else' story or experience? Do you simply need to live for a certain length of time to develop an understanding that, while experience is not universal, all our stories draw on everyone else's stories?

Or is there also a generational factor at work?  I chatted this over with a friend who works and researches likewise with young people and in mental health. We suspected that the requirement to maintain a sophisticated performance of one's self on social media may make young people burningly aware of the value of retaining ownership of their own stories.  Danah Boyd (2014) charts the minefield this can pose and the considerable skills required to negotiate it.  For young carers I once worked with, their stories were a form of 'capital' they curated and built upon, both politically (to improve the lot of young carers) and personally (to obtain work experience, respect and contacts).  

One's story is one's life, perhaps, to a greater extent than in previous generations.  I am reminded of the Plains Indians' practice of burying their hair and nail clippings, so no-one could steal their soul.  It all presents an interesting challenge to a storytelling practice based on playing within storyworlds and celebrating the multiple possibilities they contain.  That is our understanding, from a position of relative comfort.  We certainly need to understand and respect young people's chariness of being too cavalier with The Truth.

Boyd, Danah (2014) It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Elkind, David (1967) ‘Egocentrism in Adolescence’. Child Development 38, pp.1025-34.
Nicholson, Helen (2005) Applied drama: the gift of theatre. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Young people's mental health is 'Everybody's Business'

Last night I heard a radio programme, All in the Mind on Radio 4, which was asking: is there an 'epidemic' of mental ill health among young people?  And if so, why?  The general conclusion confirmed my impressions gathered from extensive work with young people, teachers and artsworkers: though nothing so subjective can be 'proven', the pressures on young people at present seem to be qualitatively different from those faced by previous generations.  And they need more support than is currently available.  The fact is that a third of young people seeking mental health treatment are turned away - and that some parents I have met 'pray' that their child will have a 'crisis' so that they can get access to treatment.  With the current cuts to all 'early intervention' services, and further rounds planned, it seems we can't expect any change to that situation. (A sort of slow-burning anger is becoming the undertone to most of what I speak and write these days, surely a corrosive state of mind for me too!)

So what's the answer?  There are increasing calls for schools and universities to start viewing students' mental health as part of their responsibility. These are resisted by many as 'not really their job'.  I think the interesting question here is, what can schools and colleges in fact do and what can they not?  How can they start to build a culture of communication and mutual support around mental health?  And - well I would say this wouldn't I - how can they provide opportunities for young people to explore alternative narratives, different versions of themselves and different ways of forming supportive, collaborative communities? A lot of what is being called 'mental ill health' may in fact be a chronic condition of our advanced capitalist society.  The stories of economic competition, commodification, academic pressure, social judgement, physical perfection are being heard clearly enough.  How can schools and colleges help young people to take the world with a pinch (or a barrel) of salt?

I have been asked to present a little bit of something at 'Everybody's Business', an upcoming conference about mental health services for young people in York on 25th November.  Unlike most conferences it has a specific outcome in mind - to inform the council's Health and Wellbeing Committee and how they shape their future strategy.  It will bring together people from all the city's higher education providers, with health professionals and local authority decision makers, to start to build a sense of common cause around some of the questions around young people's mental health.

I am delighted that I will be speaking/performing with Imogen Godwin, a young writer and storyteller who is very eloquent on the subject of the CAMHS system.  We will show a bit of our show, Wormwood in the Garden, and talk about the value of artistic collaboration in helping young people develop and articulate their own perspectives on their wellbeing. 

You can book for the conference here.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Epic distance and the rupture in experience: Bakhtin, Benjamin and me!

For over a year I have been setting up internal ‘discussions’ between two of my main influences: Walter Benjamin (particularly his essay ‘The Storyteller’) and Mikhail Bakhtin (particularly his thoughts on ‘epic’ versus ‘novel’).  This morning I feel I can intervene in their dialogue and help sort out their differences.  WARNING: this is a long and detailed post, I am deep in my theoretical woods here, so if you're feeling like a short walk by the river, check out some of my other posts instead...

If, as Bakhtin rejoices, the novel is about polyphony – multiple social languages in wondrous, open-ended, unresolved dialogue  (‘life’s fullness’, as Benjamin grants) – the flipside of this, mourned by Benjamin, is that it is about the irredeemably perplexing and ultimately lonely nature of life.  The novel is about the individual’s search for the meaning of life, ultimately a hopeless search in which no-one can guide him to the answer.  He is lacking ‘counsel’ (Benjamin) – why? Because of the ruptures brought about by rapid social change, the information age, the isolation of each individual’s experience.  Think of the working class father whose experience as a builder seems to have no bearing on his son’s endless string of casual call centre jobs, silencing his reminiscences.  Or think of the online ‘fangirl’ community where young women create disturbing and sexually explicit fantasy stories in an environment untrodden by any guiding adult, with its own social norms utterly different from those of the mainstream.  So the novel celebrates the individual’s endurance of perplexity in polyphonic chaos – their strivings to make it up as they go along, and call this meaning.

If on the other hand, the story is about continuity and communicability of experience (Benjamin), the common underlying structures of life (Milan Kundera called this the sense of ‘es muss sein’, ‘it has to be’), it travels along archetypal paths which bind the teller and the listeners.  The flipside of this is Bakhtin's view that the story’s epic nature denies either any agency: the epic story is finished and unchallengeable. (I realise I am conflating his views on epic with his contrasting views on folktale, but I think I wouldn't mind me doing so for the purposes of dialogue.) He forgets perhaps that the storyteller has already travelled these paths in her own particular way, as will the listeners in their own.

Then my burning desire to tell stories is an urge to declare underlying commonality of experience – to sew up tears in the rupture.  I feel this is the case: I want to show my counsel to be relevant, ‘useful’ as Benjamin says. 
Yet both I and my listeners were brought up primarily on the novel, not the story.  So it could not be otherwise than that I would ‘novelise’ (Bakhtin) the stories I tell, giving them psychological interiority and inconclusiveness.  As Benjamin decrees and I like most storytellers feel to be right, I will do this very little in my first telling – I will leave in that ‘chaste compactness’ that allows the listeners to bind the story into their own experience – but this is very much what I and the young people will be about in subsequent workshop activities.  We could hardly do otherwise.  Thus Bakhtin describes the way the novel pulls all other forms to itself. 

But things have moved on.  Bakhtin might have envisaged the novel endlessly tearing up ‘epic distance’, knocking down gods, parodying archetypes.  He might not have foreseen how, once all the gods had been destroyed, humanity would feel the need to rediscover the paths of counsel – that in storytelling workshops, a group of young people might sometimes take refuge in the ‘es muss sein’ of epic distance, telling them how they might live their lives and define themselves.  At other times, of course, they would restore the multiplicity and perplexity that they know must on some level exist within the most perfectly formed story.  They would play with these opposing pulls like a tug of war.
So when Tom Maguire talks about the ‘return of the storytellers’ to the stage, or when youth theatre practitioners tell me that stories are right back at the heart of practice with young people, they are evidencing what Kearney, Ricoeur and countless others call the ‘narrative turn’.  It’s a swing of the pendulum back towards counsel and archetype, but because of where it started we have assimilated many skills of navigating perplexity and writing our own identities.  This time, we listen to the stories and consciously choose to use their archetypal paths to guide us and dignify our experience.  This is the dialogic mode of storytelling.  It is a mode which restores the necessary role of the storyteller, but foregrounds the listeners' active re-making of the story as never before.

However, it gives the storyteller new responsibilities and insecurities.  No longer can she work in the innocent community Benjamin yearned back towards, assuming her listeners' life experience will turn out to be similar to her own, and thus relying on the self-evident usefulness of her counsel.  Her ‘usefulness’ (in fact her right to tell at all) must now be earned, by making it evident that she is ready to put her counsel at the listeners’ free disposal, as well as receive counsel from their knowledge, gained in their different world.  (I wonder: was Benjamin aware of this different, more knowing spirit of storylistening?  Did he foresee the narrative turn even as he was mourning the passing of story?  Is this why he emphasises the ‘chaste compactness’ and the vital role of the gaps in the story?  Because this is indeed where these dialogic processes occur.)  This is the 'moment' of the storytelling revival; this is why storytelling is in some ways a different artform than the archaic forms it claims descendance from, and I am experiencing this in my encounters with adolescents.  I need to justify my choice of story, contract delicately with them as to the right opportunity for telling it.  We take delicate steps together unto long-untrodden ground.
Then in what way is the counsel contained in this epic material ‘at their disposal’? What do they use it for?  Well, novelisation - understood as bringing the epic onto a level with interiority and everyday experience - can go two ways.  The adolescent young people I work with very rarely 'knock it down' to meet earthy everyday life in the way Bakhtin described.  Their engagement with it is playful but not always subversive. It frequently seems to be more about raising their personal experience up to meet the epic on its own archetypal plane.  Or something in between.  A young woman with whom I collaborated on a retelling of an Italian folktale drew on her own poetry written in moments of great emotion or insight.  She described this process of conscious novelisation afterwards: 'I was looking to myself and what I would do or feel.'

In fact, strikingly often, young people use epic to dignify their own experience – experience that sometimes seems uncelebrated, isolating and uncommunicable.  ‘Dignifying’ – what do I mean? Simply transcribing this experience onto the archetypal paths of counsel, simultaneously allowing it to reshape these.  In this way the rupture is healed and experience becomes communicable again.  At a sufficient epic distance, universality is re-established: say, between the teenage self-harmer and the young hero on an impossible quest up the glass mountain.  You see the same in novels and theatre: think of Jeanette Winterson’s parallels (in 'Sexing the Cherry') between her lesbian or transgender characters and the mermaids and dancing princesses of legend.  The apparently untraversable gap, between the young people's experience, mine and that of all the storytellers and storylisteners that went before, shrinks for a while.  There is no need to be contrived about this – it happens by itself.  I often don't see it til long after a workshop and I assume they do not either.  Story is a mutually comprehensible language which can re-frame adolescent experience, and be re-shaped in turn by it.  Thus lines of communication can be opened and I, at least, feel the better for it.  

         Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) 'Epic and Novel' in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas.
         Benjamin, Walter (1973(1955)) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hannah Arendt (ed). Illuminations. London: Fontana.
         Kearney, Richard (2002) On Stories: thinking in action. London: Routledge.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

'Storyknowing': A Symposium and Festival on Storytelling and Theatre with Young People

WHEN? Fri 22nd and Sat 23rd April 2016 
WHERE? York St John University and York Theatre Royal
WHO? Researchers, practitioners, teachers and young people (12-18)

Advance notice of ICAN's biggest practice research event yet: a two-day festival and symposium to explore the artform of storytelling for, with and by young people.  It will both disseminate our research, and contribute to it - threads from the workshops, talks, discussions and performances will be tied together into a short film, and perhaps ultimately into a book. 

Story is the way human beings make sense of the world they live in.  A story does not tell us what to think - it poses questions and leaves spaces for us to interpret them together.  It carries wisdom and experience, and asks us to add our own wisdom and experience before passing it on.  Therefore stories – whether modern, mythical, traditional or fantastical – are particularly important to help young people to position their own lives and difficulties in a wider context, and to become critical, responsible, problem-solving adults. 

The ‘narrative turn’ in literature and the social sciences (Kearney 2002, Meretoja 2014) has been mirrored in community arts practice.  Storytellers and theatre practitioners, ever more conscious of the impact on young people’s wellbeing of prevalent narratives of individualism, academic competition, physical perfection and social division, are increasingly seeking to provide alternative narratives for them to explore. Story is well and truly back at the centre of practice with young people.

And yet many young people may rarely hear or have the chance to work with stories.   The revival in performance storytelling has tended to favour adults and the very young, neglecting teenagers and older children.  ICAN’s research has found that secondary teachers, often constrained by tightly planned skills-focused curricula from reading a whole novel (OFSTED 2012), wish to ensure pupils’ access to stories; recent conferences on child and adolescent mental health have featured opportunities to build professionals’ confidence and capacity to use personal or fictional stories in their work. 

So what kinds of stories do young people need to hear?  What do they find in them, and how do they use them to put across their own perspectives?  How should we make the most of their power in our practice?  How should practitioners develop a participatory practice of storytelling? In what ways is this challenging to, or congruent with, current trends in education, mental health and youth work?

This festival and symposium will bring together practitioners, teachers, academics and young people to explore, through workshops, performances, discussions and outstanding practice, how we can use story to enrich drama and arts practice with young people.  It will also be about performance both by and for young people, showcasing both professional performances developed specifically for audiences aged 11-18, and performances by teenagers across various artforms.

There will be calls for papers (CfP) issued on research and practitioner networks, as well as on the ICAN website.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Wormwood in the Garden

For the Love Arts Festival of Arts and Mental Health, some young people (from a mental health setting) and I devised a storytelling piece, based on Italo Calvino's folktale, Wormwood.  One young woman performed it with me and added her own poetry to amplify the emotions of these puzzling, cipher characters.  You can see a recording of it here and her blog post describing the process here

It was an inspiring and challenging process, provoking lots of questions for me about the nature of folktale and what it can do, which for now I simply present for your delectation / befuddlement.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The eloquence of non-engagement

My work in the adolescent mental health setting has been even more challenging than usual recently, with a difficult constellation of inpatients and a change of venue to a more distracting room.  Often only a handful of young people join me for the storytelling sessions, and only a couple are still there at the end. Meanwhile, these few have engaged intensely and enthusiastically, and produced some beautiful work in their own artforms based on story.

It was in this context that I had a 'research chat' (I would say 'trialogue' but it sounds too grandiose, or 'interview' but that would be pushing the point) with the two teachers in the setting, some of my firmest and most perceptive allies in all I am doing.  We looked into the reasons that many young people don't come, or leave part-way through.

The most challenging for me to consider is the fact that I often have an 'expectation' of 'something in return' for a story.  We recognised that almost all the young people love listening to a story - the rest and privacy it gives them, the absorption in a storyworld away from their difficulties.  But they know I will lead from that into a follow-up activity - a storytelling game, or creative writing exercise - which will demand an element of performance.   No matter how low-key this seems to me, for some young people it is too big a risk to turn up at all. Perhaps they will be judged or assessed or analysed. I have to remember the framing of their lives here - being permanently 'under the microscope' as some of them rage - and their lifetime of school experience in which almost every activity has a measurable learning outcome.  Such apparent open-endedness can only be suspect, or disorienting.

Then there is the power of symbolism.  These young people are strikingly intelligent and self-critical.  While the archetypes of myth and folktale might be an other-worldly common language, of great value in the right 'transitional space', they are just too obviously near to autobiography for some of these young people whose lives and emotions are in turmoil.  It is not possible to 'play' with things that are too hot to handle.  The 'storyworld' might be a place of danger rather than escape.  No matter how many times I assure them I am not a therapist and have no designs to analyse or heal them, the thickness of the atmosphere may contradict this for them.

There is, too, the 'discomfort' factor - the workshops involve sitting down quite a bit; the young people do not control the physical space as they would in other group activities designed to relax them away from their difficulties for a space and let their minds free-flow (like, say, cooking).  Thus unlike other groups, there is not the same element of escape from one's demons.  Although I often bring plasticine, yarn, beans to must be hard for them to overcome their desire to roam and escape the intensity of the moment, especially in the distracting space of the lounge.  There might be great value to their learning to weather the discomfort for sake of getting to a shared space of fun and creativity, but who am I to say that this is an achievable journey?

Then there is the adolescent suspicion of story and play - these are older teenagers for whom play has lost its charm and not yet regained it.  And finally, certainly not least, for some young people there is the sheer joyful empowerment of refusal.  We all felt there is considerable value to us turning up every day (in their case), every week (in mine), cheerful and consistent and pleased to see them, ready to be rejected or to fail another day, and then be back again the next morning.

All of these things call into profound question my belief in the 'other room' of the story, that a meeting of minds is possible in that room separate from the conditions and anxieties prevailing in the world next door.  That in that other room, people can take on different roles than they habitually do and meet as artists, be seen and appreciated for their strengths.  Yet this is a play space which can only exist under certain conditions, very difficult to achieve in this setting.

So one solution would be: I should just tell stories.  Clearly demarcated by music or simple handwork activities.  Many more young people would come along and would get something from it - the stories would stay with them to return to over the years.  This would be much more faithful to the core idea of the storytelling exchange: a story is told as a gift, the listener lends their ear as a gift, then the two go their separate ways, both enriched.  A more 'advanced' goal of getting to dialogue, genuine creative encounter between artists, is perhaps usually inappropriate to this setting.  Does an ill person want to be (benefit from being) in close dialogue with other ill people?  Am I treading on very dangerous territory here?

And yet I am not ready to give up on the power of play and retelling.  Because some individuals have stated in so many words their joy in playing together in the storyworld, knowingly perhaps but with great spark.  Because too, some groups in the ever-shifting parade of this community have seized certain stories and turned them into powerful satires, or used them to address the outside world. What right have I to claim all the storytelling role for myself, if there are such desires?  And related to this, because for a few young people story and related artforms are a way to start charting paths back out into life - to the theatre, to other identities they are experimenting with.

What this leads us to is an understanding that I need to do more to demarcate the storytelling space itself as a place where nothing will be demanded.  A gift only (and which can only be given if they choose).  I can use music, I can give undertakings and timings.  Thus the storyworld and its potential for free-floating will be available to everyone.  And (this is a bit Zen) by giving up any hope that we will get into the play space that lies beyond, I will therefore make it possible that just sometimes we will.  Some people will drift off and those few who have the will and ability to pass the many barricades will stay.  And we will fail and fail again, and see what happens!

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Starting to write my exegesis

The time has come for me to make an attempt to tie the threads of my learning over the past (nearly) two years into an exegesis - a short thesis which will explain the theoretical and practice-based grounding of my work.  

I have just re-read something I wrote in May - an attempt to pithily summarise 'the main point' of my research - my main, kernel finding.  Here it is for your edification!

I start from the position that young people benefit from genuine, ‘I-Thou’ dialogue with caring adults, that adults are enriched by such open-ended encounter with adolescents, but that this is difficult to achieve in institutional settings.  Thus different means of communication are needed from those used habitually in institutions and this is where I believe story enters.

The sparseness of story makes it inherently responsive to context, in that it requires ‘rehydration’ in each setting, transposition to the chronotope and particular context of each telling.  The storyteller must, however, be sparing and leave gaps for the listeners to stitch the story to their own experience.   
As the storyteller can only call on her own experiential vocabulary to perform this delicate task, and the listeners can only call on theirs to fill in the gaps, and these two processes are often simultaneous and reflexive, what results is a dialogue ‘in another room’ between their respective knowledges.  This ‘other room’ is a bounded place in which different discourses can be accommodated and then orchestrated, by both the storyteller and other participants; thus the boundaries of discourses and the existence of alternatives can be more clearly seen, and there can be negotiation to create new meanings and (imperfectly) shared understandings.  The story-world is also a place where all present can operate on a higher and roughly equal plane of understanding, because of the innate human tendency to think in narrative. 

The muscles being exercised are those of developing a responsible discourse of causalities, of recognising the ultimate unfathomability of the world while assuming the role of one who can help to shape it with others.

This ‘other room’, the story-world, is an inter-subjective place where no-one’s knowledge is sufficient and everyone’s is necessary, thus not even the storyteller can know her way around at the outset, nor can she have preordained goals for what should happen there.   While the institution’s goals may infiltrate, they are present usually only to the extent that one or more parties allow them in. 

Moreover, the story-world is a place no-one can be forced to enter, or to stay in once there, and the ultimate dampener of the storyteller’s hubris is the onus on her to ask the listeners for the gift of their listening.  Thus there will be many occasions when there is no meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou’, no real dialogue, sometimes because listeners are not disposed to listen.  On other occasions, failure will result because the storyteller puts her blinkers on and navigates the story-world using her own pre-planned route, or seeks to bind listeners into it against their will.  

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Profligacy of Practice-as-Research

I have given four symposium talks in the past two months and in each case my greatest challenge was choosing the best moments from my practice to illustrate the points I was making.  To trawl through my memory, or through the vast bank of field notes I have accumulated in what now must be hundreds of hours of storytelling sessions with groups of young people.  I become wistful, reading through other people's more crystalline papers which carry a clear narrative of (say) a ten-week project, which gives them more than abundant experience and examples to come to realisations, contextualise them against theory, and make their point.

My work seems in comparison open-ended, hugely time-consuming and profligate.  Such an overwhelming proportion of it will never be written up.  Like a cherry tree covered in blossom that never leads to much fruit, it almost makes it harder, not easier, to draw communicable lessons from it.

Of course there are several 'buts' here, and here they come.  Firstly, of course, the major attraction of this PhD for me was the opportunity to do extended, reflective practice, becoming embedded in settings and being able to respond to the interests and needs of the young people I found there.  (This is something a freelance storyteller, indeed artist, can rarely do for the simple reason that they have to charge for their time and every institution is broke) This has given me more riches than I could ever have expected.  My skin has thickened, my instincts have been tuned, my range and repertoire has been stretched in every direction.  I am incorporating this learning, these 'findings', into my own self, whether I choose to or not.  The challenge, of course, is to be able to continue to articulate this practitioner's understanding in intelligible words.

Secondly, the whole relationship between practice and theory in PaR is different from that between 'fieldwork' and a mainstream PhD.  The practice is not simply something you extract knowledge from in order to be able to tell others; it is the research and it is also a major (the major?) way in which the research findings are expressed.  I was told this right at the beginning by my supervisors, but it's taken me a long time to grasp what it means in practice.  That's why you don't stop doing practice when you have enough to say; it's rather almost as if I keep going until each project has 'worked itself out', finished itself or found a happy conclusion.  So the practice leads and largely sets the pace of the research.  Once more, the challenge is to keep sight of the need to write, crystallise, shape this experience into a form accessible to the academy.

Thirdly, the dissemination of the research is as much through the relationships formed during it, as by what is written at the end of it or even presented in papers.  This is what leaves traces on young people, teachers, youth workers, decision-makers, institutions, as well as of course on me.  The quality, potential and durability of these relationships thus feels like a yardstick of the quality and impact of the research.  So in one of my settings, where relationships have been curtailed by instititutional pressures and gaps I can work in have closed up prematurely, the 'research' cannot be said to have 'happened' in the same sense that it has in another setting, where more and more opportunities keep opening up and a dialogic, collaborative research relationship with the practitioners and young people keeps bearing fruit.  Even though I have spent just as much time in the first setting, told just as many stories there.  A single researcher cannot 'make the research happen' just by planning it, any more than you could make a marriage happen by proposing to someone.  It's a two-way (or three-way, or many-way) thing.  At the risk of repeating myself, the challenge remains to transcend the particularity of these many dialogues to be able to draw some conclusions that are useful to those you have never met.


Friday, 22 May 2015

Casting stories in plaster - and just hanging around

York Open Studios is a great thing.  I was visiting local artists whose work I had never seen before, and so found myself peering at at the very intriguing cubes of Doug James.  These are bundles of memory, like cubic doll's houses full to bursting with artefacts and words and images, so you want to make yourself tiny and be able to look inside.  Doug saws up old books and cassettes, plasters and sticks and paints and bungs in sweetie wrappers, bits of diary, cinema tickets, everything that helps him tell the story of a particular person, occasion or time period of his life.  Some things cannot be contained in the cube, and spill out like tears or excess.

We immediately realised we were engaged in similar work in different media, so I invited Doug to come and lead a workshop at the adolescent mental health setting where I go every week.  We gathered up swathes of material and worked with five young women all morning.  They were characteristically quick to decide what stories they wanted to tell, whether of their favourite places or of family members, and lateral-thinking about how to use Doug's techniques to do so.  Here are some of the results:

Really this session exemplified for me what I have come to treasure about my current role, particularly in this setting.  I am not engaged in a ten-week project with a particular end date and outputs in mind, but I am a sort of usually welcome hanger-around.  Indeed, I am not just passively welcomed but actively supported in practical ways.  And so a sort of gift-and-opportunity relationship develops, in which little is planned in advance but opportunities are offered and taken up.  An artist is available to work for free - well then I can get him in, will next week be OK?  Materials are required - well then the setting works hard to gather them.  A conference on young people's mental health is coming up - then shall we create a story to put forward the inpatients' perspective?  I won't manage to do all this work with the young people myself - well then the staff find the time to work with them between my visits.  There are some free seats at the theatre tonight - would any of the young people like them? Yes and one of them is interested in work experience at the theatre, could that be arranged?  None of these things could ever have been foreseen at the outset.

My supervisor I recently met with the setting's chief psychiatrist and told him about the organic flourishing and multiplying effect of this work in this setting.  We agreed that it clearly springs from the flexibility my role allows me, along with the setting's responsiveness.  We also recognised that this is an almost unique position these days, like the early days of the community arts movement when pioneering artists simply took up residence in a community.  We explored together whether it would be possible in any form to continue this work beyond my PhD, whether with me or another artist - but it was hard to envisage any such funding model.

Ironically, even the prophets of efficiency in public services might have to admit that this 'hanging around' is an efficient model of funding arts work.  I am free to see opportunities arise and grab them, and the setting responds in kind.  My time, if costed, might come to a couple of thousand pounds a year.  The list of 'outputs' from this couple of £K is certainly longer than it would have been with a more structured project. 

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Telling Tales with Teenagers: stories from the front line

A talk I gave today at a very stimulating workshop, 'Tales Beyond Borders' run by Leeds University's 'Reading the Fantastic' research group:

Telling Tales with Teenagers – stories from the front line
Cath Heinemeyer

In this talk I will draw on stories from my work with teenagers in educational and therapeutic settings to address the question: how and why do folk tales and myth take us to places other literature cannot reach in applied work?  Through what mechanisms do they engender creativity, engagement and bravery in participants?
I will argue that, to give participants access to the riches of this material, the storyteller’s practice must be dialogic, responsive, open-ended, and embedded in the unique context of the setting.  I will go on to use some of my own stumbling blocks, as well as some of my small successes, to illustrate the implications this may have for the planning and delivery of applied storytelling projects. 

In working with young people in educational, social and therapeutic settings, why start with a story?  Why would you introduce a fantastical narrative into the room – wouldn’t it be better to simply do drama or creative writing or some other artform with the young people, to get them to express their own ideas?  Isn’t it, in some way, an imposition on them to ask them to engage with an Indian myth or a Scottish folktale, material that is exotic and perhaps irrelevant to them?

Clearly, as a storyteller working with teenagers, I feel these stories do have a tremendous value.  My experience in the ‘bottom sets’ of a secondary school, in an adolescent psychiatric unit, in youth clubs, in a youth theatre for teenagers with additional needs, has led me to conclude that myth and folktales have the potential to bring the young people to places they could not otherwise reach.  Why should this be?  I believe there are three main reasons and will put these to you. 

But first, a story:

I was working with a special needs youth theatre, and told the Welsh myth of the youth of the solar deity Llew Llaw Gyffes over two sessions: the coercion of his mother to come out of her isolation, his supernatural birth, his mother’s disowning of him and refusal to name him or let him marry a woman, his adoption by his uncle, his need to overcome her curses through trickery and skill so that he can come of age, his magically created wife Blodeuedd the flower woman, her betrayal of him, his suffering in the wilderness, his eventual revenge on her and her lover. 

The young people listened with great attentiveness, then explored the story through drama, creating their own retellings in modern-day settings.  Their versions showed the hidden regret of the powerful mother when she abandoned her son; the impossible situation of the flower woman who was given the ability to love passionately, but not the strength to be faithful (they in fact portrayed her as a robot); Llew being unable to watch when revenge was finally taken on his wife.  They also showed things that the story left out: what became of Llew’s mysterious twin brother who turned into a fish? What was it like being Llew as a young boy with no name? 

To us who knew the young people well, it was evident that some of these themes were highly relevant to the group.  Several of them had been taken from their families into foster care; some had been bullied at school for being ‘different’; many had anxieties about finding girlfriends or boyfriends, and about carving out an adult life for themselves.  The power of their dramatic retellings owed no doubt in part to the conditions of their lives, as well as to their skill as actors. 

How does story bring us into new territory?

The first way in which I believe the story facilitated this work was in engendering creativity.  This is often discussed as if it were an ethereal property of our minds, something we are born with and which children have in large doses.  However, I follow Lev Vygotsky (2004(1967)), who helped us to understand that it originates in our personal experience.  Creativity, for him, is the ability to combine elements of experience in innovative ways. 

The creative activity of the imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience because this experience provides the material from which the products of fantasy are constructed…This is why a child has a less rich imagination than an adult, because his experience has not been as rich. (1967, pp.14-15) 

Vygotsky goes on to analyse the way in which the accounts of others, such as stories of events or places we have never seen, in turn widen our experience, as we use elements of our lived experience to construct images of these narrated realities in our minds:

It becomes the means by which a person’s experience is broadened, because he can imagine what he has not seen, can conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never directly experienced…Thus there is a double, mutual dependence between imagination and experience.  If, in the first case, imagination is based on experience, in the second case experience itself is based on imagination. (1967, p.17)  

I have found that myths and folktales provide raw material that enriches the palette of experience from which young people can create their own drama, artwork, writing or stories.  It is always difficult to choose the right one, but my main criterion is something like ‘openness’: I avoid moral fables whose meanings are already resolved, choosing instead the larger, more open canvases of myth and meatier folktales.  I look for complex moral and emotional territory, characters encountering situations which are many-sided.  These provide infinite ‘hooks’ for listeners – everyone will find something which intrigues, provokes or delights them – and this is what they may choose to develop in any subsequent creative work. 

Moreover, and of particular significance for teenagers, these old stories contain distilled experience of contending with the difficulties of life – with love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, isolation, identity, finding a purpose.  I do not take a neo-Jungian perspective, believing that each individual myth and folktale contains some kind of essential wisdom, but I agree with Italo Calvino when he argues that

Taken all together, they offer, in their oft-repeated and constantly varying examinations of human vicissitudes, a general explanation of life preserved in the slow ripening of rustic consciences; these folk stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for that stage in life where destiny is formed, i.e. youth, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and finally, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity.  (1956, p.xviii)

Stories continue to intervene in our maturation process throughout our lives.  However, adolescence is undoubtedly a crunch point when, as Vygotsky (1967) says, there is an intensification and a reorientation of the imagination towards trying to understand and adapt oneself to the adult world.

So in listening to the story of Llew, the young people in the youth theatre were guided through very complex emotional territory.  Aspects of this resonated with their own experience, but this was given a new shape by the story.  It introduced, in magical form, new elements of experience, characters, situations, and perspectives from which to view them.  Entering deeply into sympathy with Llew, the young people nonetheless then engaged with the dilemmas facing other characters, from the inside.  The drama they were then able to create was on a level of creativity and maturity they could not, I feel, have produced without this stimulus material.  It was a short-cut to higher ground.  To put it another way, the group became cleverer, subtler, more creative, within the storyworld than they were outside it – and so are all of us.

The second, and related, factor is that of engagement – the way in which a story can become stitched into a listener’s mind, in a way that information presented in other ways usually does not.  And paradoxically, this relies on the very lack of detail, description and explanation in myths and folktales – their ‘sparseness’.  Walter Benjamin (1936) accounts for the memorable nature of stories by pointing to their lack of ‘psychological shading’.  I suggest this is one of the principal differences between literary stories and told stories.  The storyteller does not usually say why Red Riding Hood chose the path of pins, or how she felt when she saw the wolf’s sharp teeth.  We rather experience her choices and fill in the gaps for ourselves – a two-sided process which Tom Maguire (2015) calls ‘metonymic representation’.  This, said Benjamin, enables each of us to integrate the story into our own experience.

Storyteller Shonaleigh Cumbers expresses much the same thing when she says that stories are remembered and passed down (e.g. in books of folktales) in a sort of ‘dehydrated form’.  The art of a storyteller is then to ‘rehydrate’ them – to convey them in enough detail to bring the listener into the storyworld, but not so much that you obstruct her own construction of it in her mind.  If I asked the young people in the youth theatre to describe Llew’s mother, or her castle, each of them would give me an utterly different description.  All I might need to do to trigger this process is to give an imperious gesture, or tell how she spun round on her heel away from her baby boy lying on the floor. 
This ‘filling in of gaps’ extends beyond the appearance of people and things, to their motivations and the chains of causality determining what happens in the story.  Once more, this will intersect with the listeners’ own life concerns.  The young people were provoked by Blodeuedd’s betrayal of Llew into trying to account for her actions, and to decide whether she deserved the punishment that came to her (she was turned into an owl).  This led them into drama which variously seemed to suggest she was not a ‘real person’, or that Llew and his uncle should be blamed for creating such an object of desire without thinking about the consequences.  Two girls, who in everyday life were particularly fixated on finding boyfriends and husbands, each portrayed Blodeuedd as a kind of victim of the madness of dependent love - an awareness which I hope will serve them well.  All the dramas showed a real sense of tragedy, rather than judgment of Blodeuedd.  The story provoked complex thought and deep exploration by leaving gaps, areas of cognitive dissonance.

The third way the story brought us into otherwise inaccessible territory was by engendering bravery – the emotional courage to spend time with such troubling situations and emotions.  This property of story as a metaphor is recognised by therapists who use storytelling (e.g. Crawford et al 2004, Gersie and King 1990, Sunderland 2000).  Margot Sunderland (2000) finds that the valuable work of expressing difficult emotions and developing an understanding of complex situations will occur within the client’s exploration of the story – in fact she urges therapists not to ask young people to relate the therapeutic story explicitly to their own experience. 

The work with the youth theatre members with additional needs was in no sense therapy and I am not a therapist.  However, undoubtedly territory was being explored, through the metaphor of Llew’s coming-of-age trials, which was difficult for some of the young people.  One young man, quite marginal to the group because of his tendency to isolate himself, clearly recognised this when he approached me in the mid-session break and nearly shouted, ‘I don’t want to hear stories about boys with no name – no weapons – no girlfriend!’  And yet he did choose to get involved in the drama, perhaps expressing something about his own identity, by portraying Llew’s runaway brother who escaped out of the story and into the sea, and went onto have more adventures there. 

The huge, detailed and containing metaphor of Llew’s life allowed for not only the exploration of difficult themes (such as parental abandonment, bullying), but a safe space in which they could be shared without exposing individuals.  This is akin to Winnicott’s (1971) idea of the ‘transitional space’ of play – but I suggest the magical or otherworldly nature of myth and folktale adds another layer of insulation.  The request to transpose the story to the present-day was an invitation to the young people to extract those themes of greatest concern to them.  The collective creation and watching of these scenes then turned individuals’ private difficulties into a more universal, communicable experience.  Relating back to the story, individual young people could perhaps feel that others had come through similar things and endured, even developed, through them. 

Under what conditions can story work in this way?

Thus far I have made the case for using story in terms of its content and style, but I find the form of the storytelling exchange in applied settings is equally important if this potential is to be achieved.  Applied storytelling (perhaps any storytelling) has its own strictures, of dialogue, encounter, reciprocity, open-endedness, to which I feel I have been led by my practice, but which are borne out by influential theory.  I also feel most of my teenage participants are aware of these rules on some level, and particularly of when they are violated.  Riding roughshod over them has consequences – to illustrate which I will tell you another story.  I hope it will contextualise the three questions I have added into the mix for discussion purposes.

Every week for over a year I have cycled out to an adolescent psychiatric ward to lead a storytelling session.  The group has always changed from week to week as one young person is discharged, another arrives. One day, after two sessions with nearly the same group of girls, I was sent an email by the teacher with feedback collected from the girls.  Most said, although they enjoyed doing something creative together, they thought the sessions were ‘childish’ and sometimes ‘boring’.  I reeled for a moment, then looked over their comments in more detail, and reflected – what did they mean?  The first session with them had seemed amazingly productive – with my guidance, they had enthusiastically created their own folktale based on a Renoir painting, ‘Girls Combing Their Hair’.  This was a very perceptive allegory of the ways our culture forces girls into harmful stereotypes.  The following week I had come back armed with another book of paintings, by Chagall, and with the expectation that they would produce another wonderful, healing feminist parable in the same way.  Instead I found averted gazes and stony silence.  A few of them eventually produced a fantasy tale which was perhaps aimed at satisfying me – an allegory of a woman who recovered from her self-imposed isolation.

Every guidance I had ever had about working in this setting had pointed in a single direction.  The teacher and the occupational therapist both urged me to be flexible, be responsive, don’t try and over-structure things.  Don’t expect particular outcomes.  My supervisor, experienced in arts and mental health, suggested that the powerful thing would be the very act of asking people what they want to say, rather than seeing them as ‘sick’ people who might need to say certain things or hear certain messages. 

But these felt like negative pointers – pointing me away from things rather than towards a positive goal.  I felt the need of a ‘concept’ and by habit searched for an instrumental one that might free me up from pure reliance on instinct – which I feared may be lacking.  It had not occurred to me to just ask the young people what they wanted, or follow their interests on a week-by-week basis.  And now, in their feedback, they had given me the same rule – it’s got to be playful, not too ‘holy’, ‘boring’, earnest, don’t have too therapeutic expectations. 

I realised that, rather than having a plan, I needed to hope for invitations, to accept all offers , to trust that they will bring up the things that they need to talk about.  Most of all, to gratefully depend on those few individuals in the room who break the silences and continue to create opportunities for the whole group.  Indeed there is a strong dynamic of gift and acceptance going in both directions here – I am very reliant on their contributions, and they need me to be robust, reliable and cheerful but responsive.   Perhaps this is why any time I have bulldozed through with my own plan, there has been a breakdown, or a fizzling out. 

So maybe this is the difference between the storyteller and the therapist – the emphasis on the gift and its open-endedness, the trusting each other to go on a journey together rather than having any idea of destination?

In all this I feel my favourite theorists looking wisely over my shoulder. Benjamin (1936) asserts that the storyteller conveys experiential, situated knowledge, not pre-packaged, disembodied information.   Even when I am telling a group of young people a story from another culture, or one I have read in a book, my telling will be conditioned by my own life experience and I am appearing as myself, a fallible and vulnerable work in progress, in relationship with my listeners and not in full control.  This must be, in Martin Buber’s (1957) sense, a real dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘Thou’.  In this case, in trying to protect myself with a structure aimed at eliciting a particular sort of text from the young people on the ward, I was violating this principle, and they smelt it.

I don’t mean, by this, that storytellers shouldn’t have outline workshop plans, but rather that these should be offered with the aim of facilitating dialogue and creating a space in which the unexpected can happen.  Julian Stern (2013) suggests that real learning only occurs when both the teacher and the student are surprised.  In the first session, I had arrived with a book of paintings and little more, yet came away overwhelmed by what they had seen in the painting, and how powerfully they had articulated this in a folktale.  The second time, by the very act of trying to make the same thing happen, I made it impossible that it would.  

As well as mutual vulnerability in the workshop, there is a kind of contract between the teller and listener in the very act of telling the tale. Tom Maguire (2015) suggests that while this is present in any form of theatre, the direct address of the listeners by a storyteller demands ‘a distinctive form of reciprocity’ (p.118).  In order to start telling a story, I need to earn the consent of my adolescent listeners, and also to respect their right to withdraw this gift at any time.  While I am telling the story, I must respect the fact that much of their active engagement with it will occur within their minds, and not demand a certain response. 

In a focus group I recently held with some quite challenging pupils from the ‘bottom sets’ in a secondary school, one boy made a special point of this:

It’s just – you know when you’re telling a story and some of us put our heads down like that – it’s only because some of us do it to, like, picture the images in our heads.

This boy was a keen story-listener but often a cynical participant in any follow-up activities, and he was quite consciously trying to steer me to understand that he was engaging, but in his own private way I could not see.

Yet if I do nonetheless want to facilitate creative work based on a story, I first and foremost need to create a space in which both the young people and their support workers or teaching assistants can initiate a sort of dance or story-conversation.  This can become genuine dialogue, which might take us far from the track of the lesson or session, and off on surprising tangents.  In a school setting, this requires an uncommonly brave class teacher, as it bears the risk that the curriculum goals or learning outcomes may not be met; however, it also carries the potential that the pupils’ understanding of the topic will be greatly broadened and deepened.  Indeed, Julian Stern (2013) bewails the dominance of learning outcomes in education, as they can in fact undermine the potential for real learning.  Likewise, in the psychiatric ward, my feeling is that, paradoxically, storytelling sessions are only likely to be beneficial if they are not understood as therapy and do not have specific therapeutic goals (Rowe 2007).

The most memorable sessions in any setting have been those where a story from me has triggered stories from others present.  On one occasion in the psychiatric ward, I told two very contrasting versions of Red Riding Hood from Jack Zipes’ (1994) collection (the Charles Perrault version we all know well, and a much more biological peasant version), and the young people spent the rest of the session revealing to each other the ‘real versions’ they already knew of other fairy tales, full of indignation at the way heroines had been turned into victims.  Just as often, young people themselves have known how to proceed with a story when I have not: after telling the story of an old Bedouin woman, I realised my telling had not been able to bring the class of low-ability boys into her world, so different to their own.  There was awkward silence until one very disruptive boy asked whether the class could act it out.  He himself, very exuberantly, took on the role of the elderly matriarch, bossing about his classmates as he orchestrated the planting of an olive grove, transposing the story into a family setting the pupils could all recognise.  They then wrote vivid poems about her memories of life in the desert.

By its nature, surprise does not always occur.  Young people may not trust each other, or the storyteller, or the setting, enough to contribute; key individuals may be absent or a new group member may be inhibiting the others; they may prefer to mull over the story slowly and privately; or the story may simply be the wrong one to grab them.  So I am trying to learn not to fear silence so much.  On this occasion in the psychiatric ward, my attempts to generate particular outcomes actually set us back in our creative relationship.  It would have been better to simply tell a story or two, and then sit companionably chatting of this and that, or simply doing some handwork together, than to bulldoze on through their reluctance. 

I am drawn back again and again to the strange Armenian form of beginning a story: Three apples fell from heaven: one for the teller, one for the listener, and the third for the one who paid heed.  Surely the listener is the one who pays heed?  Or does this third person represent the shifting role to which both the teller and listener should aspire?  Should they both be paying heed to what is actually being generated in the exchange of stories, and moving on from there?


Benjamin, Walter (1936) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hale, Dorothy J (ed.) (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Buber, M. (1958) I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith. 2nd edn. with a postscript by
the author. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. (Original work published 1923.)

Calvino, Italo (1956) Italian Folktales. Penguin Classics.

Crawford, R., Brown, B. and Crawford, P. (2004) Storytelling in Therapy. Cheltenham: Nelson Thomas.

Gersie, Alida and King, Nancy (1990) Storymaking in Education and Therapy. Sweden: Stockholm Institute of Education Press

Maguire, Tom (2015) Storytelling on the Contemporary Stage. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rowe, Nick (2007) Playing the Other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Stern, Julian (2013) ‘Surprise in Schools: Martin Buber and dialogic schooling’, FORUM  55:1, pp.45-57.

Sunderland, Margot (2000) Using story telling as a therapeutic tool with children.  Milton Keynes: Speechmark Publishing

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich (2004 (1967)) ‘Imagination and Creativity in Childhood’, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 42:1, pp.7-97

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock Publications.

Zipes, Jack (1994) The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: Versions of the Tale in Sociocultural Context. London: Taylor and Francis.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Storytelling at an adolescent mental health unit

Every week I spend an hour with a group of young people in a mental health unit.  Here I am Benjamin’s ‘sailor’ type of storyteller, not the ‘farmer’ type – my itinerant status is of positive value, as I bring from outside the institution stories and ways of being, but do not have more than the absolute minimum insider knowledge of their patient status.  Thus we can ‘meet in a different room’ – a provisional space of provisional meanings and limited mutual knowledge, in which identities can be experimentally rewritten on a regular basis.  My own 'power' is also dampened by my lack of foreknowledge or control of who will be there this week, and what mood they will be in, and what they will want to do – equalising us further.  Like a sailor visiting a port, I walk into the saloon looking for old friends or new acquaintances, and see what’s up.  Like the children climbing the Faraway Tree, I do not know what land I will be entering when I clamber up the ladder each week, or how welcome I will be. 

Like our identities, the narratives we partake of are also provisional, tenuous, stories for this moment whose meaning could change by next week.  Trying to pin them down even for two weeks in a row usually fails, as the land has rotated.  Their ‘storyness’ is thus always to the fore – they are always bizarre texts from nowhere, decontextualized gifts for decontextualized people.  They must be ‘open’ stories (Rowe 2007) and ready for irreverent handling.  I am saying, ‘Look, here is more of what I have seen that the world contains.  See how most people haven’t worked it out yet – I certainly haven’t.  There are possibilities here.  Do you want to do something with this?’  Then I am dependent on someone generously accepting this invitation in order to make the session work.  We share anecdotes the story reminds us of, other possible versions, facts that might explain this or that in it. I could not have and do not have any intentions regarding their interpretations, behaviour, illnesses.  Rather I search for willing collaborators with knowledge that complements mine.  

The challenge is to set up this ‘different room’ rapidly in such a way that its rules are understandable to all and all wish to come into it.  Where young people have been working in companionable isolation, each on their own project on separate and safe islands, to draw everyone towards a central focus needs delicacy and no coercion.  Then, I must try to make clear each person’s rights as regards the story: their pre-existing membership of a community who have knowledge that will affect it - its lowly and servant status – its gift that may be accepted, refused or subverted. 

And yet none of this means the story may be told casually.  It is still a ‘story-child’ (Gersie 2001) whose robes must be carefully arranged, to give it the best possible expression, and to show how any words offered in response to it will be treated.

This is ‘relational art’ (or relational storytelling) in Bourriaud’s (1998) sense, art that temporarily alters relationships through focus on an intermediary object, or may even cause the boundaries of an institution to flicker for a little while.  This flickering is of little use if it is illusory, however sometimes it is more than that, because a conduit opens up to the adult world, or the artistic world.  Opportunities arise for respect and recognition of talent and privileged knowledge – an exhibition, a conference, a chance to try out a future role.  The story then becomes the intermediary not just between storyteller and ‘participants’ but a possible means of meaningful communication between struggling young people and the world that is struggling to receive them. 


Benjamin, Walter (1936) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hale, Dorothy J (ed.) (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Bourriaud, Nicolas (1998) Relational Aesthetics. Les presses du reel.

Gersie, Alida (2001) 'Telling stories, hearing tales: alternative approaches to easing a great burden

Rowe, Nick (2007) Playing the Other: Dramatizing personal narratives in playback theatre. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A story-based pedagogy (2): Story-based pedagogy and the National Curriculum in 2015

This is a sequel to my previous post ‘An attempt to sketch my story-based pedagogy’.

Having made a start at articulating the pedagogy in my mind when I lead sessions based around storytelling with young people, I now want to turn to the question ‘So what?’  What’s challenging about it?  How does it differ from young people’s daily experience of education, in particular? And, viewing my practice-as-research in a secondary school as an ongoing invitation to its teachers to explore the possible role of storytelling within their own teaching practice, what might be preventing them from doing so? 
To understand the force field of education policy that sets the context for much of my practice-as-research, I’ve set out to research (for starters) the English curriculum in secondary schools, as it’s written down and as it’s lived.  I’ve spent a day observing lessons in a school English department; surveyed English teachers after working with their classes; interviewed the University of York’s Nicola Towle, a teacher trainer specialising in English; read influential OFSTED policy recommended by her; engaged in extensive and intensive discussion with my teacher-collaborator.

Leaving aside questions of teachers’ confidence, training, time and energy to engage with new practices, I want to concentrate for now on the conflicts between a story-based pedagogy and the strongest currents in the state education system in 2015. 

Firstly, current OFSTED curriculum guidance emphasises ‘active listening’ (Towle 2015 pers. comm.; OFSTED 2012), involving various strategies to check pupils’ comprehension and maintain their engagement with a narrative.  Thus, I observed teachers reading texts to pupils stopping at the end of each paragraph to ask quick-fire questions.  According to Nicola Towle, a teacher will very rarely read a class a whole chapter uninterrupted (especially when OFSTED is in town), let alone tell them a story orally. 

To a storyteller, this indicates a mistrust of young people’s abilities to enter into the world of a ‘whole story’, which may be due to most educators’ and policy-makers’ lack of experience of storytelling.  It mistakes the liminal state of the listener, deeply engaged in forming images and understandings in her own mind, for passivity.  It is this, as much as the preference for written over oral material, that puts teachers off storytelling.  This mistrust may be confirmed by teaching approaches which fragment the story, actively cutting short listeners’ engagement with its causalities, ambiguities, nuances, and above all its sensory world.   

Secondly, the secondary curriculum is at present strongly focused on developing transferable analysis skills.  So, in an English unit of work designated a ‘reading unit’, the pupils’ understanding of the novel or poem itself is secondary to the skills pupils practise on it, such as constructing ‘PEE’ (Point, Evidence, Explanation) paragraphs.  This would be inimical to the storytelling sessions I lead with my teacher-collaborator, because the focus needs to remain on the stories and the young people’s reimaginings of them.  Thus we do not name analysis skills explicitly, not abstract them from the specific case of the story.  However, the teacher finds that her low-ability students demonstrate ‘higher-level thinking skills’ such as analysis and synthesis during our storytelling sessions, more so than when she uses non-narrative approaches to teaching. It seems reasonable to hope that they will be able to use these skills in other areas of their learning.

The last point illustrates a broader difficulty – the general risk-aversion of most teachers, responding very reasonably to a system ‘more oriented towards compliance than towards innovation; more preoccupied with short-term gains than deep-level improvement.’ (Headteachers’ Roundtable 2014, p.3).  To ‘have a reasonable hope’ that pupils will apply X to Y is not sufficient – specific actions must be taken to show pupils the specific ways in which they must apply X to Y. 

A story-based pedagogy is risky in other ways.  It is inherently unpredictable in terms of content (one story invites another), so it follows pupils’ interests and responses more than a lesson plan, and thus risks not achieving the pre-set learning objectives for a lesson.  My teacher-collaborator is very conscious of going off on ‘tangents’; she finds them to be rich areas of contextual learning, ways of exploring the territory that lies on either side of the narrow path towards assessment – but therefore, things that are pursued at a possible short-term cost in terms of exam success. 
It is risky in terms of behaviour, because a storyteller cannot reserve the right to control classroom communication without compromising the nature of the storytelling exchange.  We often sit in a circle rather than me addressing the whole class; pupils do not have to raise their hands to speak.  The loosening of hierarchies and rules, different seating arrangements, and emphasis on conversation and group work, create a reliance on pupils’ sense of responsibility to enforce good behaviour.  Invariably the pupils listen very intently to a story for a long time, but much of what occurs on either side of it could be judged by OFSTED as involving ‘low-level disruption’.

Much of the teacher-student communication I have observed took the form of ‘Information Response Elicitation’ (IRE); Nicola Towle confirmed that, while there are moves towards a greater pupil role in classroom communication, this is a powerful ‘default’ form of interaction in classrooms.  The teacher asks ‘What does So-and-So mean when he uses this word?’, and asks for volunteers to answer, knowing the answer she is hoping to hear.  There is not usually a sense that meaning is being constructed collectively by teacher and pupils, as there is in a story-based pedagogy. 

Walter Benjamin (1936) draws the distinction between ‘experience’, told sparsely in narrative form so that the listeners can draw their own conclusions and make the new knowledge their own, and ‘information’, facts which come ready-interpreted from beyond the world of the listeners’ experience.  The implications of this understanding depend on what kind of knowledge you value more highly.  My experience has been that any time I have brought into the storytelling classroom some ‘information’, without being able to stitch it into my own and pupils’ experiential world, it has felt like a violation.

In sum, this approach to teaching and learning runs against the stream in many ways at present; while it might be embraced by teachers as an occasional welcome break from 4-part lesson plans and analysis skills, it seems unlikely to gain any more traction than that in the short term (the notable exception here is my teacher-collaborator who embeds our storytelling sessions into her delivery of each unit she teaches her low-ability pupils). The final post in this trilogy on my evolving ‘story-based pedagogy’ will, more optimistically, examine currents in the education system which might be sympathetic to it. 


          Benjamin, Walter (1936) ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Hale, Dorothy J (ed.) (2006) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

          Headteachers’ Roundtable (2014) A Great Education For All: The Headteachers’ Roundtable Education Election Manifesto for 2015, accessed at , Feb 2015

          OFSTED (2012) Moving English Forward: Action to raise standards in English

          Towle, Nicola (2015) Personal communication.