I walked out of a classroom for what I thought would be the last time in August 2019. After twenty-eight years of this rewarding profession consuming me, I found myself searching for a new identity. This is when narrative therapy entered my life and I have been on a wonderful and exciting journey of growth and self-discovery ever since.
At the beginning of this year, the school at which I had previously taught asked me to help in a locum post for a term. My initial reaction was one of frustration as I thought that my narrative journey would have to be put on hold for three months. However, I decided to embrace the experience and wear both my ‘teacher hat’ and my ‘narrative hat’ at the same time. My three months back in my old high school classroom were exhausting, yes, but extremely invigorating and rewarding at the same time. When I saw how easily narrative ideas could be incorporated into my teaching, narrative became a way of life for me and an extremely rewarding and exciting one at that! I would like to share some ways in which this magic happened …
Firstly, speeches became wonderful opportunities for externalising conversations. I decided to give the Grade 8s the following speech to invite them into a time of introspection and reflection.
As you begin your Grade 8 journey, you are embarking upon a new phase in life. I would like you to cast your minds back into your past and engage in some introspection. For the purpose of this speech, you are to construct a Memory Box, holding seven items that have been extremely important to you. Reflect on each item with your class and explain why it has had an impact on your life and is therefore worthy of being placed in your box of memories.
In these speeches there were a few unexpected tears as many painful memories of loss came flooding back. However, the honesty and vulnerability the teenagers brought to this task opened opportunities for meaningful conversations. As a class, we used Heather Plett’s idea and made a pact to hold space for one another. I decided to take a bowl to school and placed it in a prominent place during the speeches as a visual reminder of the ‘holding space’ we had created. Considering that this was done within the first 3 weeks of the term, I was surprised by the level of maturity and the support the teenagers provided for one another. Suddenly, Granny’s knitting needles used to knit squares when she was receiving chemotherapy, Grandpa’s army medals, and junior school ties became wonderful springboards for conversations. I even found myself doing unplanned legacy work! Inadvertently, when I found more boys crying than girls, the topic of the ‘male myth’ entered the conversation and they were invited to deconstruct the discourse of ‘boys don’t cry’. It is at times such as these that teachers are privileged to be able to facilitate conversations which allow us to enter the world of teenagers to get a glimpse of their lived experiences.
The Grade 9 speech for the term was also a meaningful experience for my students.
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’
Find a picture or photograph that captures your attention. Your picture will act as a stimulus to describe who you are as an individual, your values, dreams for your future, and what makes you special.
This speech was presented when, due to Covid-19, the schools were still online in the first two weeks of term. The children expressed that they liked the ‘privacy’ of the online platform because they could speak from the heart without being judged, a core value of the narrative approach. I therefore listened to incredibly moving speeches of teenagers feeling not good enough, stress and anxiety around performance, relationship difficulties and my eyes were opened to how many teens are battling to form positive identities. My feedback was given online too, which opened wonderful opportunities for me to engage in narrative conversations via email or the Google Meets Classroom platform. Many of these conversations continued throughout the term when the children were back on campus. I posed questions during casual conversations with various students, and many came back the following day eager to tell me that they had thought about the question and asked if I would like to know the answer. This approach challenged power discourses lurking in the educational realm and allowed my students to see that they are the narrators of their own stories.
Secondly, opposed to something that had to merely be completed for marks, writing became a meaningful exercise for the children. We spent time looking at the practice of meditation (we listened to music, discussed the benefits of being still etc.) They were then asked to journal about the dreams they have for their lives or when the world returns to some semblance of normal after Covid. Their journals were ‘private and confidential’ (we put big orange stickers on which they loved!) To honour the narrative principle of confidentiality, I did not read their journals, so I am unsure of what they wrote. However, judging from the mood created by lying under the trees, their body language and the time they managed to stay focused, I believe that they embraced this exercise wholeheartedly. Many expressed that they would continue practising journaling as, ‘That was so cool!’
Thirdly, I used a reading task to introduce the narrative idea of alternate stories. The students were required to read at least one novel. Rather than give a meaningless task such as summarising the story, I decided to plant the seed of creating alternate stories by asking questions such as the following:
· Choose a conflict between two characters. Which strengths did they rely on to solve this conflict? How could the characters have acted differently to avoid this conflict?
· Imagine a conversation that takes place between two of your characters three months after the events of the novel. What have they learned? How might they have changed the narrative if they had been given the opportunity to do so?
· Imagine an alternate ending for this novel. What would you change?
Finally, the literature study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opened an opportunity to discuss discourses. We looked at the role of women in the Elizabethan Age in order to understand why young girls like Juliet were considered ready for marriage at the age of 14. We also looked at the trauma resulting from the unresolved conflict between the two royal households to which Romeo and Juliet belonged, leading to their untimely deaths. My students surprised me by comparing this conflict to the current situation within the royal family. This comparison led to further discussions around racial, wealth and class discourses in the 21st century, and how these discourses impact people’s identities and decisions.
I trust that I have been able to use these few examples to adequately express why I found my time back in a classroom fulfilling, invigorating and extremely exciting. What was initially seen as a distraction along my narrative journey ultimately became an enriching and rewarding experience for which I am extremely grateful. I am also grateful for the way in which my students embraced the narrative approach and the many lessons they taught me along the way. Upon reflection, I am surprised by how easily I have entered a relationship with the narrative approach in such a short time and how it has positively influenced my way of being in this world. Long may this love affair continue …