Sunday, May 20, 2012

Narrative Practice 4

Here below I continue these posts on Narrative Therapy. Each post is a section of an essay by the same title which I wrote recently for an M.A. in Human Development.

A Note on the use of the Whiteboard
Delphi Adventure centre: student on High Ropes - 2007
I have also drawn diagrams on the whiteboard to illustrate what we mean by (i) internalizing and externalizing a problem and (ii) re-authoring conversations.  When dealing with the fist of these two tasks I have asked, for example, obviously leading questions like “Is Tommy merely his ADHD?”  I found that the boys understood these two concepts quite quickly.  Next, I got them all to draw a cartoon of themselves and their individual animal to reinforce the idea that “the problem is the problem, not the person.”  (White, 2007, p. 1)

Another image I have used to reinforce the idea of externalizing conversations is that of being “a puppet on strings.” I have asked them questions like “Is your ADHD or depression (or any presenting problem) pulling your strings?”  Again I have used the white board and interactive white board successfully here.

With regard to re-authoring conversations, I have done my utmost to facilitate the development of alternative storylines for pupils like Tommy and Tony, whom I have referred to above, by introducing questions that encourage them to use their lived experience and to combine this with their imaginative powers to come up with other stories and to re-author old ones.  However, I have not as yet charted a re-authoring conversation along the lines recommended by White (2007) on the whiteboard using the parallel lines of Landscape of Action (the baseline which is basically a time line indicating the sequence of events or experiences in the persons story or stories – a storyline so) and the Landscape of Identity (the upper parallel line which indicates new learning, discovered knowledge, awakening awareness of values and gifts sparked by the events recorded on the lower line.  However, I do intend to use this technique when the opportunity arises and when I feel confident and competent enough to use it. [1]

It will surprise very few teachers that recent research has shown that the use of the whiteboard enhances the effectiveness of narrative practice in general.  Grant and Usher (2011, p. 11), on foot of their studies, conclude that “(w)hiteboarding offers transparency to the therapeutic process and in particular the narrative process... It demonstrates in a visual and creative way the influence that language and stories have on people’s lives.  It opens up the dominant story and its effects, then a preferred story and how that may be imagined, and the migration of identity that is often taking place before our very eyes.” 

Re-Membering Conversations

Students after surfing the Wild Atlantic - Mayo, 2007.  Neither of these is mentioned in the text

I have already stated above that narrative approaches to therapy hold that identity is chiefly shaped by narratives or stories, whether uniquely personal to us or culturally general. Also I have already indicated there are multiple identities and hence multiple stories.  However, identity conclusions can become problematic for people if they identity wholly with one negative story.  This, then, will grow into an identity crisis simply because the person over-identifies with a problem-saturated story. 

    It is also interesting to note, that unlike Carl Rogers[2] who would have seen the person as shaped essentially by a core or real self, White (2007, p. 129) states that “identity is founded upon an ‘association of life’ rather than a core self.”   It is on this firm conviction that White bases his concept of “re-membering conversations.”  What, then, is this so-called ‘association of life’? Basically it is an association or grouping formed by all the significant figures of not alone a person’s past and present, but also of the person’s “projected future.” Indeed, it is also interesting to note that the founder of Narrative Practice also sees this ‘association of life’ as having a ‘membership’ which can comprise all the significant figures not alone from a person’s actual life but also from the life of the person’s imagination as encountered in the authors of books and plays or even characters from these books, plays or musicals who can and do have a profound influence of the person.  Strangely enough also, White allows for the possibility that these significant figures could be “the stuffed toys of a person’s childhood or a favourite pet.”

    On a personal level, several significant others form the members of my “association of life” – one a teacher whom I was lucky to have had in third and fourth classes primary who, in hindsight, literally was “the making of me” not alone academically but also personally.  It was my early identification with this person that inspired me to take up teaching as a profession and vocation.  Luckily enough I also got great encouragement from home.  However, answering a couple of White’s (2007, see pp. 130-132) questions have been quite enriching and rewarding: “What could it be that he appreciated about you that your parents also appreciated?  Do you know what he valued in you that was overlooked by others?” 

    In like manner I have used two similar questions with the student Tommy (pseudonym) whom I have mentioned above.  In a one-to-one session with Tommy, I learned that his foster grandfather played a most significant role in his life story up until his recent death. This elderly gentleman had always lived in the foster family house where Tommy has been since he was a three year old boy.  The questions I posed for Tommy were (and still are, as I hope to help this student further in dealing with his grief at this sad loss): “What could it be that your grandfather appreciated about you that your foster mum and dad don’t seem to?” “Do you know what he valued in you that was overlooked by others?”  Unfortunately, we did not get time to tease out these questions in full and these were the two questions I gave him to mull over as an exercise during the Easter break.  It will serve as our starting point for our next session.

    My hope is that these conversation with Tommy will act as an antidote to what White (2007, p.162) calls “the powerfully isolating understandings of identity that are pervasive in contemporary Western culture.”  Most well-informed and mature adults will realise all too well that Jamie is more than just a terribly disruptive and immature boy labelled with ADHD.  From White, we adults can learn the powerfully healing message that the life of every human being, not least Tommy, is filled with important significant others, not alone from their past and present, but also from their imagination and that by re-membering conversations with these others, they will learn to reject delimiting labels that restrict their identity to something very negative indeed.

[1] The example of the re-authoring conversation chart done in class was extremely helpful here, and its visual impact was stunningly powerful and its pedagogical usefulness apparent.
[2] See footnote 3 above, p. 7 of this present paper.

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