Tales from teaching

by Victoria Ward on September 22, 2010

I was handed a charming book when I was at Origins Asia and I want to write about it, because it upholds so many of the principles of building story systems that Sparknow has developed over the years.  I’m working on a set of wildly metaphorical labels as hooks for the 12 principles and plan to use these as an organising device for our archives & research. Some of them I spoke of, in the keynote and in the workshop – the red thread, the second wave, pebbles & diamonds. Others I inferred but wasn’t explicit about and am still searching for the right temporary handles -two tribes, the spaces in between, mechanical advantage, themes & variations, safekeeping. More on all that in due course.

Anyway, the book was called ‘Tales from Teaching’ and here, pretty much as I’ve written them, are my fieldnotes about it.

Name | Tales from Teaching, Hope: Tampines Junior College, Singapore, Tales from Teaching 2010

Principles | #1 red thread    #the second wave #4 pebbles & diamonds  #5 two tribes #6 the spaces in between #8 mechanical advantage #9 the suitcase & the journey #themes & variations #12 safekeeping

Situation |
Tampines Junior College wanted to find a way to infuse the missions statement (lead, care, inspire) with new energy and meaning for teachers. They wanted to find a way to get teachers to share stories without being intrusive, and were looking for the right form of invitation.

Teachers were invited to fill in a mock examination form, structured precisely to echo the kinds of exams they set their students. So, for example:

SECTION B: Select ONE of the following questions.

Care (verb): To be concerned or considerate

1. How much care is enough Using authentic material from your colleagues, attempt to quantify the amount of care teachers give to their students.

2. There is always hope.  Discuss how caring teachers are simultaneously bearers of hope.

3. Care = Teacher = Hope. Discuss the significance of this relationship in whatever way you deem fit.

4. Using a quotation, explain the importance of a culture of care to schools today.

The answers take all kinds of forms, including poems, pictures, stories – sometimes fictionalised, acrostics, reflections, personal fragments of autobiography. They’re carefully scattered in juxtaposition with no bridging materials, or authorial intervention, and allow the reader to find their own way. They are presented as exam answers in a short, 58 page booklet.  The front page looks like this:

Front cover of tales from Teaching 2010 published by Tampines Junior College

Fieldnotes |
This is a beautifully witty, elegant and very slim intervention, playing with the form and substance of the setting of the teaching professional and the normal day to day tasks and using these as an unthreatening invitation to share personal stories. The polyphonic result reclaims the abstract words of the mission statement and puts them back into the living teachers and values acted out at the school.

There’s some neat mechanical advantage here too (using one intervention to achieve several things at the same time). The process of inviting the teachers to engage leads them to reflect, so their own reflective capacity is built, while the resulting materials can be published and distributed. The reincorporation of the personal, so vividly, in the collective (the red thread of personal material reincorporated into the collective so that individual and institution are visibly connected) means that individuals can see themselves quite clearly in the organisational whole.

Note also the safekeeping. By anchoring the intervention in a familiar form, this feels like a safe space, and so the teachers are willing to be quite vulnerable and open because they feel at home. There’s more to be said about the possibilities of using recognised organisational artefacts and forms as windows into a different way of communicating.

Theoretically, this brings to mind Ken Gergen’s work on social construction, the reconstruction of mean and a collection of personal meanings (1) and Madelyn Blair’s ideas, derived from this, about story in a word (2).

I do wish I hadn’t mislaid the card of the lady who gave it to me, but I will work out who she is and have a longer conversation with her about how they went about it.

References & notes |

(1) Ken Gergen An invitation to social construction. London: Sage, 1999. 2nd ed 2009 ISBN 0-8039-8377-8

(2) Madelyn Blair of Pelerei has spoken in an earlier blog about story in a word. Instructions on how to run a story in a word session can be found in lots of places, including in the DEZA story guide available online from DEZA and also in Sparknow publications.

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