Journal Entry 3, LCE Summer Lab: There are no “safe spaces” only brave ones

Storytelling workshop with Micaela Blei, Senior Education Program Manager for The Moth (NYC)

When we talk about personal storytelling we refer to an art form, where people are asked to stand on a stage and use language and narrative to give expression to their experiences and insights. Why would we use storytelling?Stories have the potential to help us recognise our diverse human experiences, through both sharing our own accounts and listening to others.

Today I participated in a workshop facilitated by a real pro, Micaela Blei, former 3rd Grade teacher, two-time Moth GrandSLAM winner, PHD candidate and Senior Education Program Manager for the acclaimed storytelling non-profit The Moth. We kicked off the workshop with a quick introduction to storytelling and Miceala put out 3 guiding questions that would help focus the workshop around the Community Building purpose thread.

We started with warm-up exercise where she invited each member of the group to respond to the following three things:

  1. Your name?
  2. Where are you from?
  3. I’m the kind of person who…(complete the statement).

After we had all introduced ourselves, Micaela introduced herself and then proceeded to tell us a wonderful and colourful story about herself in middle school and her adventure in finding friends in unexpected places (such as German folk dancing groups) and the internal conflict this caused because of her family’s history because of the Holocaust. It was a blend of funny, absurd and weighty, there was little pieces we call all recognise and it was vulnerable. She showed us how she approaches story telling but she also built a trust amongst the group by sharing with us.

A side note on modelling

Modelling can be a risky thing to do at the beginning of a workshop or class, particularly in the creative disciplines. One runs the risk of setting up ideas about what learners should aspire to, if the modelling is done in a prescriptive manner. So when modelling one should be aware of the tone it sets for the class. The flip-side however, is that it can be extremely useful, as it gives learners an idea of what they are working towards.

Micaela’s story served to be useful, and therefor served as good example of modelling. Some of the reasons why she was successful was because she was well prepared but not over-rehearsed or overtly formal and she was real. She was sincere in the story she told us, so we didn’t just learn about the art form we learnt a tiny bit about her life thus creating a more comfortable environment.

Generating ideas for storytelling

Often generating ideas for storytelling or content of any kind can be real hard and even deter you from writing a story or creating an artwork. There are many tools one can use to help improve this part of you process or to help you get started, and so we explored two activities that could help with ideation.

  1. “I used to be…[x], but now I am…[y]”

Stories sometimes entail transformation or big change, and often it is through transition periods that good stories come into existence or when we have epiphanies about ourselves. And so we were each asked to complete this statement “I used to be…[x], but now I am…[y]”. The idea is that in the change or conflict from transitioning from x to y, exists a story, asking how or why may initiate the story. Examples are “I used to be fat but now I am thinner.”, “I used to like meat but now I’m vegan.”, “I used to be in the military but now I dance.”, “I used to be white but now I am not.” and one that seemed to come up a lot“ I used to be scared but now I am braver”.

And from this activity a story may come to light, an idea or change in one’s life that may encourage exploration.

2. Story Web

Story Webs are a useful tool to generate a wide a variety of ideas. Because the nature of this activity is focused on personal narratives, you begin by putting your name in the middle of the page. From there you make 4–5 lines, at the end of which you write four themes or categories relating to you or things that are important to you. These themes may be anything from you places you have travelled to to your hobbies or people in your life, the themes can be anything really.

Once you have selected your 4 or 5 themes, list 3 subsections relating to the theme under each theme title. This part is where one should pay attention, your subsections should only list things or events you can recall it should not be future things that you want to still have happen. So be sure that you can answer “When I was a kid, about 7 or 8(a time you recall), I would sit all my mom’s friends down when they came over for dinner for a presentation about Ancient Egypt (sub-category).

“There are no safe spaces only brave ones.”

We were asked to select 1 of the the ideas we had generated and flesh it out into a 3 minute story which we would then tell the person sitting next to us, and they would do the same. Each of us had to be a listener and a storyteller. We were encouraged to not tell stories that couldn’t be dealt with in the appropriate time, we were also encouraged not to tell stories that we weren’t ready to tell. This lead to a discussion about creating “safe spaces”.

One of the fundamentals of teaching artistry is creating safe-and-charged environments for engagement: the ability to foster a particular learning environment that is inviting, challenging , and energizing. It is also something that we had been speaking a lot about during our reflection sessions, particularly why it is necessary for students to feel safe in wanting to engage and not fear making mistakes. However, in the context of the storytelling workshop was it truly possible to guarantee participants that this was a safe environment where they would not be judged?

Although a nice ideal, it is an almost impossible ideal for a facilitator to guarantee. The reality is it is also a setting in which the listeners may be completely unprepared for the stories that they are confronted with. Sometimes, truths are told, and participants (both listeners and tellers) are confronted with subject matter that is challenging and uncomfortable as is the nature of the medium, after all their are stakes and risks involved, this is not fiction.

Storytelling Workshop, Developing your Practice Lab, LCE Summer Forum 2017

As Micaela explained, she couldn’t possibly promise participants that especially on behalf of others. What she could promise is her support and that the teller would have their story would be heard. Therefor she could not promise a “safe space” but rather a “brave space”, i think I prefer that name more for multiple reasons. When you invite people to to make something, to step out of the clichéd “comfort zone” and ask them to take a risk and try something, it takes courage and it often requires us to be vulnerable, which are indeed acts of bravery.

Often learning happens best when we make mistakes, fair poorly or fail and when we give space and time to evaluate our shortcomings. We so often take the low risk, easy option to avoid failure, often to the determine of our own learning, so i do think it more fitting to create brave spaces. Brave is far more exciting than safe, and so much more conducive to learning.

A final thought

Although our experiences as individuals are vastly different, it is through our stories and sharing of ourselves that we can also find connection and common patterns in our human experiences. Crafting personal stories can be daunting but also incredibly rewarding. Thanks for the workshop Micaela, but moreso thanks for “Brave spaces”!