Introducing Poetry and Story for Growth and Healing – writing workshop

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This three hour introductory workshop was facilitated by Professor Geri Chavis from St Katherine University in Minnesota. In her book, titled Poetry and Story Therapy: the healing power of creative expression, Chavis explores many of the areas covered in her presentation. In respecting confidentiality and copyright, I’m unable to discuss specific details from our workshop, yet the exercises and activities are perhaps not entirely different from what may happen in an English classroom when exploring different texts. This video is worth watching to hear Chavis outline her credentials and suggest that this work is mostly for people in helping professions, yet teachers will instantly recognise the value of this approach in encouraging an authentic response with our students.

IMG_7891The Beaney - House of Art and Knowledge: site of the workshop

Geri began by sharing a list poem that documents the many role a person may have, and invited us to spend a few minutes writing our own list poem using these stems:

  • I’m a  ______________ woman / man / person
  • I’m a woman / man / person who ___________________
  • I’m the woman / man / person

We were then invited to introduce ourselves by giving our name, mentioning something about our name and sharing part of what we had written. It could be something that we found interesting, or a revelation. As facilitator, Geri modelled her attitude toward her own name, and read a few lines then discussed their impact. This prove to be a powerful activity, and given that most participants are working in health and counselling roles, the idea of sharing was not in dispute. As adults, we could choose to be as revealing as we felt comfortably felt. I should point out that there was not one moment where we were expected to outline our job or occupation or what we hoped to do with the knowledge from the workshop. Throughout the session, there were moments when people volunteered an anecdote that made their working situation clear. It also became obvious that may attending the session knew each other professionally and where engaged in cross supervision.

Geri met each moment of sharing with a focused response and asked relevant questions or commented on her understanding of a person’s ideas and attitudes. This was a positive and welcoming experience and highlights the need to develop a genuine rapport when working with others, particularly when creative expression can unlock strong personal connections and emotions.

There was some time spent in briefly exploring the theoretical reasons and benefits for working with poetry and stories as therapy, including these ideas:

1. Our multifaceted responses to poems and stories

  • sensory / physical
  • emotional
  • cogntive

2. Our engagement in relation to the past, present and future

  • past – evokes memories
  • present – provides visceral experiences
  • future – stimulates problem solving, imaginging of new possibilities, re-visioning of past experience, re-evaluaiton of past constricting assumptions and behaviour

3. Dynamics of therapeutic reading / listening / sharing process

  • identification – recognition of self
  • projection
  • catharsis
  • examination / exploration
  • juxtaposition or responses
  • insight – application to self

4. Power of poetry

  • authentic speaker conveys sense of personal immediacy
  • compactness
  • sensory appeal – imagery
  • metaphorical / figurative language
  • surprising word combinations / juxtapositions
  • rhythmical patterns – predictability and surprise
  • striking sound effects
IMG_7864Greyfriars Chapel set in flower meadows by the River Stour

Geri then shared examples of different poems that clearly demonstrated these different features for discussion. Sometimes, a poem was read aloud by Geri, at other times we took turns to read a line each, which is always a very powerful way to share ideas and tighten group cohesion. Hearing words spoken has a deep impact on our understanding and can often allow people to reach emotions and tap into an unexpected response. At times we were invited to respond to different ideas through creative expression, and as the workshop progressed, we felt more and more comfortable in discussing or suggesting different emotional perspectives. These activities prompted me to remember the importance of choosing texts that are relevant for our classes, which implies that we must take time to welcome and value our student’s opinions and attitudes.

Before moving on to briefly explore the short story form, Geri summarised the power of creative expression as allowing us to

  • express our sensory reality, emotions and truth
  • affirm our voice
  • contain the chaos
  • gain new recognitions
  • surprise ourselves with unexpected word combinations and a new point of view.

Reasons for choosing a short story include the power of this form to:

  • provide characters to react to and identify with
  • share compelling life situations to react to and identify with
  • highlight evocative settings and symbols

When responding through writing, people might consider the short story form because of its ability to:

  • capture, honour and reframe your stories
  • shape experiences and make meaning.

Throughout the workshop, Geri and participants shared anecdotes and evidence that demonstrated many key points and took the discussion deeper. It can be quite challenging to be open to public scrutiny, and while these ideas resonate with many teachers, I am not advocating regular therapy sessions in the classroom. More effectively, some issues could be explored in regular teacher writing groups where all members recognise our adult status and once rapport has been established. We must always remember our duty of care towards our students and report serious issues according to school and government policies and guidelines.

IMG_7855towards Blackfriars Garden on the River Stour

It was a privilege to attend today’s workshop and a reminder that our students have a rich life outside the classroom. Fortunately, before teaching, I was a registered general and psychiatric who is familiar with these psychoanalytical terms and have experience in conducting group therapy sessions. I find it refreshing to reconsider the affective value of literature, rather than the focus being on analysis and writing for marks or results. There should be time for free writing and reflection on what a story or poem means for each student, how they feel about a particular text and whether we effectively support an authentic discussion in class that allows issues to be frankly examined. These activities can also highlight those students who need greater pastoral care.

These are all happening in classes everyday, I know, but the research in my literature review often points to teachers feeling unable to step outside a focus on text selection and analysis, particularly in the senior years.

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