3 October 2014

Minneapolis Research Trip Sept 2014

In September I was invited to Minneapolis by Professor Jack Zipes to participate in the work of Neighborhood Bridges. This involved presenting my research to staff, teachers and teaching artists of Neighborhood Bridges, meeting with academics, and going into a number of different schools to see the project in action. 

A brief overview of Bridges

Walker Sculpture Garden (Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburgh)

Bridges is recognised by the US Department for Education as a national model for arts education. Highly trained teaching artists take storytelling and drama into schools and work with the teacher and their classroom from autumn to spring. The breadth of the work is impressive as Bridges works with almost forty teaching artists and teachers in schools across Minneapolis. I assisted four teaching artists in the class room during their first sessions. The teaching artist works with the teacher and a classroom of approximately twenty to thirty young people within primary and secondary schools. Throughout the year the classroom works on encouraging the students’ individual and group storytelling and drama skills, including creativity and the ability to question story from their own experiences. The year cumulates with storytelling performances created by the students at the Children’s Theatre Company which is an opportunity to see performances from other schools and meet other classrooms on the program. Dr Deborah Ingram at the University of Minnesota, and others, assess the program to ensure critical literacy targets are met.

Presenting storytelling research at Warwick 
After introducing myself to roughtly forty teachers and teaching artists on September tenth Maria Asp at Bridges kindly arranged a two hour slot on the fifteenth. This was an opportunity to hear the perspectives of various teaching artists, teachers and Bridges staff. My research aims to investigate if oral storytelling, within a school context, can be used to understand and/or assist the transitions of young people of 12-14 years into adult roles. To answer this question a total of thirty focus groups were conducted across three schools over five weeks using an innovative storytelling method called the storytelling space because it creates an area within a school separate from conventional goal-focused education. 

After presenting an outline of this work I asked how storytelling research might support the work currently done in education. A number of themes arose during this discussion.

The social aspects of storytelling

Bridges Program Director and Teaching Artist Maria Asp reflected, ‘To me it just seems right on that the social trigger is where the learning happens. That’s because everything that we know about true critical pedagogy is that learning is relational, that when they’re in a space where they’re knowledge is valued, and their experiences, if it’s family or whatever, is seen as valuable sources, as opposed to another author or something, that’s where kids, that’s where they show their greatest compassion and understanding for each other.’


The group discussed how current assessed education stifles potential and creative thinking. Maria Asp said ‘Making space for non-scripted teaching is an argument that I think storytelling could support’ for example in terms of information retention. Storytelling in education over text-based work led has in the group’s opinion led to an astounding recollection of details from Bridges’ storytelling games from the start of the year. Narratives are remembered, they see this in action working with the classrooms. Sandy Agustin, Teaching Artist, points out education is ‘about asking questions it’s not about right or wrong. It’s what do you think?’

Bridges teaching artists described the way in which storytelling breaks barriers so teachers see pupils differently and vice versa. They have seen how the program improves class relationships, and how the teachers learn and enhance their own skills over the year and beyond. Engaging the teachers engages the students. 

The role of the storyteller

The group I presented to were surprised, and shocked!, when the storyteller was asked to leave the room during the research focus groups (the storyteller’s role being to deliver the story then leave the group to their discussion). The purpose of this, due to lack of time to train the storytellers in the research method, was to avoid adult-led discussion. This technique avoided leading the storyteller to perform in a particular way to enhance the research goals which I felt would be interference. Although by being present and conducting the research this has an effect. Tessa Flynn, Community Engagement Manager and Teaching Artist, said ‘It’s interesting too, that it’s just the kids. Just taping what they are talking about’. 

Professor Jack Zipes said, ‘you’ve got to talk to the storyteller. They’re going to emphasise certain things. All teaching artists in bridges go in with the intention to animate students, to think about particular problems. The way they tell their stories will emphasise certain things.’

This I saw in action whilst assisting Bridges in different schools across Minneapolis. The teaching artists told the same introductory story of Minnie and St Paul; a folk tale about the founding of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul). However the relationship between the two characters, Minnie and Paul was retold in many different ways. Jay Scoggin for example emphasised Minnie’s gratefulness to Paul for building a bridge to return her cows to her that had wandered onto his land. In Katy McEwen’s version Paul gave Minnie back her cows, which allowed Katy to ask the classroom what else Paul could do to say sorry. A student suggested that Paul could offer Minnie another cow and Katy wove the idea into the story. Aaron Radatz’s version of Paul captured his love of pranks so that Paul purposefully hid the cows in his barn as a joke as he cleverly drew the students into the story. And Tess Flynn had her classroom feeling comfortable enough to be acting out the character of Minnie, copying her actions of Minnie’s cranky personality whilst telling the story.

Storytelling is relational, and in education research the relationships between storyteller and teacher has time to evolve into a richer learning experience. In the Bridges program the storyteller facilitates discussion of the story by placing questions in the students like ‘who has the power in this story?’.

Differences between US and UK research

I was able to obtain school approval to record the audio of student’s conversations. Shannon McManimon who did her PhD on Bridges wasn’t allowed to record and had to take notes by hand. This creates an obstacle to research. Though she noted, as I did, most of the time the students forgot that they were being recorded. And that a researcher by being present is an interfering presence. Shannon’s PhD was based about a story she narrated: ‘who told the story was no longer important because they had taken ownership of that story’. 

I was stuck with how to end this blog because there is much more that came out of the discussions.  However it is most fitting to end with a question from a Bridges member of staff.

Rachel Austin Bernstein, East Metro/Early Bridges Manager

‘These students were doing this means nothing against all the standardised test scores. Yet this is serious educational research. That’s a different research language than analysing test scores. How can we compare the two different kinds of research?‘

With many thanks to Professor Jack Zipes, to everyone involved with Neighborhood Bridges Project for being so welcoming, and the Sociology Department at Warwick for their support

29 August 2014


I was invited to Minneapolis this September by Professor Jack Zipes after meeting him in Cambridge last year in order to talk to the charity Neighborhood Bridges about my research with storytelling. In order to promote my trip and my work to those in the 'nonacademic bubble' I had the idea of using pictures.

I've spent this last month taking a series of photos at University of Warwick campus entitled Up-Down UK. I wanted to take the time to look at the world and appreciate the beauty of simple things like the creatures that crawl in the grass or a lamp post above our heads. I will take another series entitled Up-Down US while in Minneapolis.

Please let me know what you think.

Up-Down UK





My personal fav is the lamp post ;-)
what about you?
Or please feel free to share what you think.

10 July 2014

The Well at the World’s End: Storytelling, Health & Well-being (Fri 4th July)

My trip to the conference and the Beyond the Boarders storytelling festival inspired the following short piece which I dedicate to everyone present this year.

[Picture from]
Memories beside the sea

The trees watched the people as they approached; but the people weren’t aware that the trees were watching. For time unmeasured the trees of the grove danced with the wind beside the sea. One day some people came. The trees didn’t understand why. The figures looked like small saplings to the trees. Saplings that pounded their roots on the ground but not in the earth; that drank water but not with their roots; that sang but not with the liquefied earth that the trees felt effortlessly flow through their trunks and branches. These saplings pounded the earth and drank water until they couldn’t walk, and sang until they couldn’t talk. And when the sun had set and risen three times the saplings, being uprooted, left for another place. The trees saw what the people did not know. The trees remembered that one day people came and may return to share their grove beside the sea. Until then the trees of the grove danced with the wind beside the sea.

At St Donat’s Castle with a view of the sea through the large glass windows we pulled around our chairs and talked about stories, storytelling research, and what the possible future of storytelling research could be. This event was organised by Steven Killick (Cardiff) and Alette Willis (Edinburgh).

As there was a problem with PowerPoint on the day I reinvented my presentation on the spot, and it was probably a much better presentation for it. But as I failed to use my recorder here is a link to the talk I planned to give on the day: BTBPresentation.

Alette Willis summarised the morning session appropriately when she used the word ‘connect’: ‘storytelling enables connections’ against a global disconnection. Stories do this by connecting us ‘to meaning and metaphor’, to one another. By gathering together practitioners who use story in their work and storytelling researchers Steven and Alette opened up a dialogue which acknowledged the need to be able to answer the nonbeliever (of stories) when asked, ‘Why should I care about story? Why should I fund its research?’

To give you a brief idea of what was discussed (here goes): Prue Thimbleby talked about stories in care situations such as reading stories in nursing homes, and using life narrative so that people’s voices could be heard during breast reconstruction appointments; Elizabeth Vooght brought up playfulness therapy and the work of Kamberelis (2003) which seems to have ties to my own research through negotiating the self and narratives (so watch this space); storyteller Dafydd Davies-Hughes described how he uses storytelling with young people on probation in Welsh communities; Fiona Collins told us about her storytelling revival questionnaire and shared some of the wonderful responses; Laura Simms talked about her experience of stories repairing disconnections, that is how she was able to use transformative stories with ex-child soldiers and communities to enable people to talk and construct new narratives; Janet Dowling discussed stories and bereavement, including the use of stories in therapeutic practice; Suzie Doncaster, a language therapist, talked about confidence in communication; Nicola Grove who wrote the book Using Storytelling to Support Children andAdults with Special Needs discussed using story with people who have learning difficulties; Emily briefly touched on how women tell stories of their bodies across art forms; Jess Wilson talked about the use of storytelling by psychiatric nurses; Trish Chilton, a speech language therapist, considered social construction and meaning-making in relation to stories and how we need to think in creative ways to research stories (so lots of ties to my research); Rosa Durand outlined work that she had done with federal police in Mexico, training police officers to tell stories in the community to promote peace; Karen Lewis talked about work done at the George Ewart Evans Centre For Storytelling, and then Steve Killick and Alette Willis drew the morning session to a close.

Steve Killick summarised how ‘stories are a powerful way of working with people’ so that ‘it’s become incredibly important to start filling that in’ with research.

30 June 2014

ASA14 Decennial: Anthropology and Enlightenment Conference (Edinburgh) 19th-22nd June

This year the Anthropology of Storytelling panel invited creative contributions that explored the capacity of storytelling within anthropology and other disciplines.

The conference allowed me to reflect and converse with others about how research can be expressed in other forms; and in doing so central ideas to the research become accessible to others in the form of fiction. The boundary between non-fiction and fiction blurs. For example, John Harries (University of Edinburgh) gave a vivid and lively presentation about a story of a man’s dog in Newfoundland.
This story changed in his own renditions at different conferences over the years. Was this fiction or a recollection of events that were missing in his initial observation notes? It was a clever way to illustrate what becomes of stories told by others when they are retold over time. The story transforms.

We also heard some lovely stories from reading of pieces to a storytelling performance...

Amanda Ravetz (Manchester Metropolitan University) read Lines of Reverie, a reflective piece of writing which carried the room, or at least me, from a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts to a reflective voice that bordered on poetry but also expressed the research process. Her lyrical descriptions of a flower man in her dreams made me reflect on how our memories and dreams influence the writing process and add richness and depth.

Mihirini Sirisena (University of Edinburgh) read A Love Letter. At first as I listened I wondered is this research or a personal letter? In the end I became lost in the story, a woman in India begins a relationship with a man at college and now doubts the relationship, the unfolding of her version of the story in letter form was inspired through research interviews. I felt that this letter in particular enabled the reader or listener to question their own relationships as it drew to its inevitable conclusion. For when the letter ends we are left wondering if anything was resolved between the woman and her boyfriend, and if they are still together? And of the new beginnings and ending of our own lives.
Once upon a time... a story of ethnographic exploration

Juliet Rayment (City University London) told a story invented by visiting storytellers and children from the Isle of Jura about deer and whiskey production. Which Juliet then cleverly linked to midwifery research in order to explain how the perception of the other in the workplace, the stories shared about the other, shapes work practices.

Uluru Inverted: shock value in desert storytelling

David Brooks (Ngaanyatjarra Council, Aboriginal Corporation) read an Aboriginal story, a process of meaning-making, and twisting of truth, from Uluru (Ayers rock)

‘Men whom I have known for nearly thirty years suddenly told me about a commercial film they said they had once watched together, involving a white fella who constructed an elaborate and clever joke puncturing the seriousness that envelops Aboriginal Uluru, and about how it had them in stitches.’
This story is revealed through David’s paper to be a made up event, a comic tale, the film referred to in the story remains untraced, but the comic twist in the story making fun of the ‘white fella’ is a commentary about the tensions between aboriginal belief and education.

Though these were my favourite the full programme can be found HERE.
My presentation was about how my Sociological research inspired the short story The Genie of Pig Wood. And how this makes us reflect on what we might wish for, and the consequences of those wishes. Because I wanted to make my talk interactive I let the audience decide the order of the presentation. I also told the story of the Three Wishes and invited the audience to pretend, if we were our 11 or 12 year old selves again, what would you wish for? What would the consequences be? At the end of my presentation I then passed around an empty Iron Bru can to collect people’s wishes. My idea was to take the collaborative aspect of the conference and offer to work one of the wishes into my story.
I was delighted to get so many people making wishes. Thank you all so much. Here is the complete list in random order. Time will tell which ones I work into my story ;-)
17 Wishes
The right for a wish per day (ok… per month!)
A dog or wolfhound
To be brave or bravery
For the genie to become a bubble and disappear
To travel really quickly and get all over the world
1.     That I could fly 2. That all the children in the world had enough to eat
That I would never have children (11 years old)
Live in a tree. Consequence: it would be cold in winter
My 11 year old wish: I wanted to be like ‘Baby’ from Dirty Dancing. I wanted to be brave
Care for the sick kids I’d met in hospital. Consequence: All the other kids who need help, the adults
I wish I was kidnapped by someone from a distant planet and came back in a year or so…
Travel more
Save the wish for a rainy day
For omniscience
Ten thousand pounds
Being taken away by my princess mother. Consequence: Losing my family
For my parents to like each other

13 June 2014

'Loving Exclusions: How Marriage Breeds Sex/Gender, Race, Class and State/Nation Inequalities'.

These are thoughts on a talk given by V Spike Peterson (University of Arizona) in Social Sciences 11th June Warwick University

I think that discussions of marriage are very topical at the moment given the media attention on same sex marriages, and the long overdue changes taking place. I'm not certain about the links Peterson draws between the state and marriage. She herself said she was taking a bird's eye view and there are many complex processes involved. Peterson comes from a psychologist turned international relations viewpoint.

‘Hold onto your hats!’ Peterson began. By the time it had ended I felt entertained and informed about something I knew little about before. I also felt like I had just crammed for an exam. There was a lot of history to cover about the change of marriage overtime since ancient Greece to the present which I can’t do justice to here.

Peterson’s presentation was not a critique on marriage, as she acknowledged the emotional investments of many individuals as well as alternative marriage arrangements. Her talk was liberal, and not based on any biology or factors at an individual level. It was more to stimulate discussion in this area. Her argument was that the state formalised and supported marriage as a structure through organisations like the church leading to the image of marriage we have today. That marriage was based on Christian, monogamous, relationship values that benefits privileged men, and therefore sustains inequality between people.

If I understood correctly, because the state formalised marriage this leads to the ‘normalisation’ of heterosexual, patriarchal marriages which leads in turn to male-female differences (in gender roles within a marriage) and therefore  husband-wife relationships. The structure of one male to one female partner, plus children, reinforces certain stereotypes based around sex and gender identity. A patriarchal structure causes continued economic equality as privileged males inherit property (only certain people could in the past inherit family property). As family inheritance is passed down amongst certain individuals in the family, through history this has maintained an economic advantage for men in particular, particularly in certain classes. This affects life chances.

Peterson cited as an example the post-war GI Bill in the USA where white males that had served in the army had opportunities to study, and therefore had an educational advantage over other men, which lead to jobs and the purchase of property. This excluded many people, including women, and was clearly racist.

There has been complicated if restrained resistance to such limitations throughout history. Take the suffragette movement, and feminism. However Peterson emphasises, ‘We haven’t gone beyond racism, sexism,’ rather they have ‘changed shape. You just need to look around at who does things, how they are paid, the roles males and females are assigned.’ And how, ‘patriarchy has got a different face, a female face.’

A definition of Patriarchy

Where my interest lay was in a brief mention of writing technology and literacy. Without writing by people at different points in history (policy documents included) how would we know what happened at the time? Writing is a powerful ideological capturing tool. And easier to research than language which extends through time and space. A person in the audience asked a question about language, perhaps looking at this to capture views and interactions, changing ideologies across time. A huge task, which I felt resonated with my thesis. Although I am looking at a more micro-scale, what stories interpreted by young people may demonstrate about gender identities and stereotypes. Identity, particular gender, is becoming part of my thesis, as identity formation appears to be important when considering emotional and behavioural management.

Consider the poem Ignorance by MariaIjaz

27 May 2014

A poetry reading that inspired a poem

I went to a poetry reading on the 17th May, Warwick Arts Centre, at the University of Warwick. Good writing always inspires me to write something, not necessarily good, so this is why that poetry reading inspired me to write a poem.

Louis de Bernières is a talented British writer best known for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. By his name you might expect de Bernières to be French but he is British. It is a shame that authors are not rated by their talent, by their choice of words, the quality of writing, since commercial success outweighs all else, the stories of the powerful survive as history is rewritten from their perspective. De Bernières is fortunate enough to possess both talent and acknowledgment though not as much as he deserves. He talked to a small, yet privileged, following of perhaps twenty people about his lifelong love of poetry, two folders of which he brought with him to delve into.

De Bernières, sitting on the theatre stage shared with us that he had overheard some beautiful, traditional sounding songs whilst visiting Greece. He had commented on them to a Greek friend who informed him that this was not traditional music but modern composers setting much loved Greek poetry to melody. De Bernières explored from there and was inspired.

My favourite book in the collection of poems, Imagining Alexandria, is The Brighton Dress. It captures the raw emotions of a past love, and how memory plays its tricks by flirting with imagination. The poetry reading was wonderfully informal. De Bernières flicked through his folder of unpublished works while people asked questions. One of the unpublished works he read was a favourite judging by the warm applause, was called something like Jackdaws and Ravens. He also gave a lively and vivid reading from one of his novels, A Partisan’s Daughter.

I was interested especially by part of the discussion which involved the poet Michael Hulse about poems with emotional content. During this De Bernières mentioned a poet who talked about fingers becoming roses. De Bernières said that a British poet couldn’t have written it, because we skirted emotion. I was not surprised, because in my own, poor, attempts at poems I always had the sense that I was trying to express something that often came across as clichéd and empty of the true emotion. But listening to De Bernières’ poems about his children, about his father, I realised I’d been going about these poems the wrong way because I’d being trying to capture the emotion and not the context. For example in the way The Brighton Dress does so beautifully. The whole history behind the lover and the dress is never explained, only a fragment. For after all what is poetry but a captured moment in time we care too much about to let go.

This inspired my first attempts to write in a new way. If as Hulse and De Bernières discussed there is a lack of emotional poetry I believe that is because it is a tough thing to make a living off poetry, as I think my mentor Douglas Dunn would agree. I feel sad that I did not take my chance to show Dunn my poetry, instead focusing on my prose, because I was anxious that my poems would be too emotional and unrefined compared to the complexity of his poems which I didn’t really understand at the time. I don’t understand everything now, but the difference now is that learning comes through asking questions, exploring the billion questions that pop into my head all the time, that make me write.

Especially now I am researching emotion, interested in the interaction between research and creative writing, I step hesitantly into the world of poetry, knowing that I don’t know enough of poetry to make a polished job of it. So this is a snap shot of the relationship between a mother and daughter.

Visiting mum

I wish I had the mother that I wanted: the mum that gave warm hugs and kisses.

Except my memory is defective because a child sees a mother not the difficulty.

I keel for my mum, for me, and try, try to replace those overturned memories with the new

as we wish to be the mother that’s wanted, the daughter that’s wanted.

I have a vision that the complicated mess of this relationship is replaced by a clay dough family atop a wedding cake.

A perfect home where separation didn’t happen because the war didn’t happen,
she changed her mind before the wedding, and I was never born.

So we never found each other imperfect.

She would be free, dancing in the Cat’s Whiskers

and I’d be at peace.