Story-telling with young participants

This section was written by a practising youth worker who is also an IDYW story-telling workshop facilitator

How might we develop informal story-telling methods with youth group participants? I am particularly thinking here about unstructured and informal settings such as youth clubs, social spaces and street-based work where a focused workshop might be less effective or appropriate.

The case study below is a use of story-telling through conversation. The aim was to develop and use the kinds of stories young people and youth workers naturally tell during everyday youth work sessions in the form of memories and tales of shared experiences. The are two differences here. The most obvious is that the story is recorded so it can be used as a basis for further reflection and evaluation. The second, related, difference is that there is more intentionality – it is clear to the youth workers and young people that a story is deliberately sought, and is worthy of recall, reflection and recording.

_MG_7483-3This is not a ‘model’ of how to use stories with youth group participants. Far from it! As mentioned below, there were missed opportunities and the circumstances were far from ideal. Rather, it is an approach that can be adapted by workers and young people in a variety of settings and situations – perhaps also using photographs, time lines, art, creative writing, drama, radio and film to tell stories about youth work.

Case study: The story of the human rights project

The work from which this case study has been developed took place in an open-access, once-a-week youth club in a housing estate community centre, run by a non-profit organisation. The general activities at the club were fairly typical: cooking, card games, table tennis, arts and crafts, general chatting, trips, discussions and focused projects developing from conversations and events. The story below comes from a group project focused on human rights in schools. It developed over several months, inspired by the comments young people were making about their school day when they arrived at the youth club every week. By the time they were telling their stories, the group had taken part in workshops, been on a residential and made a film. They had taken their film to other youth groups as well as to conferences and campaigning events on education issues. They were intending to take it out further and some of them planned to start a petition on rights in schools.

Gathering stories from the project

The youth workers wanted to capture the stories of the project using methods that were analogous to the everyday operation of this youth club. To do this they agreed to record young people chatting together about the project.

While others didn’t seem interested, three young women were happy to take part

I offered to come to a normal weekly youth club session with a voice recorder and ask young people individually and in small groups to share their stories about the project. Though I am a youth worker for the same organisation and many of the young people know me, I don’t work regularly on this project. On the day I arrived, lots of things were going on and staffing was short so it was harder than I’d expected to find time and space for the story-telling. While others didn’t seem interested, three young women were happy to take part. I checked with them that it was OK to tape the story and, once I’d agreed it with them, to use it for evaluation and (perhaps) share it further for the IDYW resource. Part of the way through our conversation another younger woman joined us, and two of the others got distracted and moved away.

The youth workers’ / facilitator’s role and reflections

The role of the facilitator in this kind of informal story-telling was to:

  1. discuss and agree the idea of recorded story-telling with colleagues, decide on a date and venue and bring any equipment needed (the voice recorder);
  2. encourage young people to take part;
  3. ask questions to encourage the young people to reflect on the project, their experience and the youth work setting.

The most difficult aspects for me as the facilitator were (1) finding the right time to ‘interrupt’ their other activities and discussions, and (2) getting the balance right between being relaxed and ‘getting the task done’. Both of these, of course, are familiar challenges for any youth worker in an open-access setting. I found myself holding off at the beginning of the session, reluctant to interrupt a game of cards or a conversation. For a while it felt important to spend time with the young people and join in with the games, particularly as a partial ‘outsider’ – though after an hour or so I realised I was procrastinating. Perhaps I was a bit nervous about how it would go! So I took a deep breath and asked a group I’d been chatting with if they would mind telling me about the human rights project they had been involved in.

I attempted to avoid evaluative questions such as ‘what was good about it?’ and ‘What could have been better?’

As it turned out, they were relaxed about talking about it and having the discussion taped. Though I suggested we go somewhere quiet to talk, they preferred to stay in the rather noisy main community hall with all kinds of things going on around them. However, as a facilitator it felt good to make use of ‘natural’ chat in an evaluation exercise and, although the presence of the voice recorder clearly made the talk less ‘natural’, an informal atmosphere was maintained. I attempted to avoid evaluative questions such as ‘what was good about it?’ and ‘What could have been better?’. Nevertheless, as I wondered whether the young women felt they needed to paint the workers or the project in a positive light, I told them that I wanted to hear about more negative aspects too.

One thing that did not work was asking the group to tell the story ‘from the beginning’ as they usually couldn’t remember the order things had happened in. It seemed more productive to ask ‘what’ questions like, ‘what happened?’, ‘what do you remember?’ and ‘what kind of things did you do?’ following up with further ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions to explore interesting issues.

Another challenge was in deciding how much to keep them ‘on task’ as they deviated naturally from the story to chat with friends who walked by. I allowed some deviation in order to maintain the relaxed atmosphere while also giving a few gentle reminders to get us back to talking about the story. Might it have made the atmosphere too formal and undermined the aim of informal story-telling if I had been more persuasive and assertive? Or would it have enabled more searching and critical questions to be considered? See what you think when you read the story!

The dialogue: The human rights project

The following dialogue is a lightly edited version of the conversation between the youth worker and four young women. It is not 100% verbatim: I have removed a few repetitions, and missed out some peripheral social chats. After typing up a preliminary version, I took it back to the young women involved in the discussion and gave them copies to read if they chose. I asked them what pseudonyms they would like to be given in the final copy and whether they wanted to suggest any changes. They seemed satisfied to see their story written up and had fun choosing names. They didn’t suggesting any further changes.

Part 1: The residential

Youth worker: So what do you remember? [Pause]. How did you get involved?

Lauren: I heard about the project from the youth workers who work here. It just sounded good, cos our views got to be heard, it was based on our decisions. It’s not that they didn’t have a say, they just let us take control.

Gertrude: Remember the residential?!

Lauren: The worst residential we ever had! (Laughing) Too many arguments and disagreements!

Gertrude: I came by myself on the train, I had an important performance the night before so the workers came and got me from the station. Two hours on the train!

Youth worker: When you got there, how was it?

Gertrude: It was really cute, some little cottage thing. In the middle of nowhere!

Charlotte: The actual place was really nice, but there was a bad lack of sleep! Idiots!

Lauren: I actually slept!

Charlotte: They did actually let me sleep afterwards, so it was ok.

Youth worker: And you said there were arguments? Did they get resolved, or not really?

Charlotte: They got resolved after.

Lauren: Yeah, after the residential.

Gertrude: We all sat down – did we sit down together?

Lauren: No!

Charlotte: Don’t lie!

Gertrude: No, I actually forgot!

Charlotte: I think a lot of the rules went out the window, I think that’s why.

Youth worker: So when it got resolved was it by you in your own time, or in the group?

Charlotte: Kind of. The workers didn’t outline things very much and that was quite useful because it kind of meant that we could resolve it within ourselves and it didn’t blow it out of proportion. When there was a massive argument, [worker] decided to take us for a walk. So it kind of calmed the atmosphere. Rather than sit there and talk about it, he encouraged us to go out and calm down. So by the time everyone got back it was ok.

Reflection on story-telling process

The conversation felt more like a chat than a formal evaluation

I like that they discussed some of the negative things about the residential – the arguments, disagreements and lack of sleep. Already the conversation felt more ‘authentic’, more like a chat than a formal evaluation.

Question

Towards the end, one of the young people says that it was useful when the youth worker ‘didn’t outline things very much’. Is what we do not do as youth workers as important as what we do?

Part 2: The workshops and film

Youth worker: And what else went on, before the residential?

Charlotte: We learnt about human rights, we did workshops, we had a discussion about what we think about human rights and stuff.

Lauren: Yeah basically we were in two groups and we had to make up our own newspaper front covers, something like that, and then we wrote stuff about how schools are becoming more strict.

Charlotte: And how our rights are being exploited in school.

Youth worker: So where did that come from, the focus on school?

Charlotte: Basically the project was on human rights and the youth workers were like, ‘where do you feel your rights are most obvious, or least obvious?’, and we was all like ‘school’. Cos they claim that you’re empowered and stuff by school, and really they abuse your rights.

Youth worker: And what about making the film?

Charlotte: I think it was really good, not only was it a good experience to get our voices out, it was also a good experience to learn about camera skills, and work from a different angle, not just talking about it, doing something about it.

Lauren: I’m really proud of the film, it only took three days.

Youth worker: So then what happened, what did you decide to do with the film?

Charlotte: Show it anywhere we can. We’ve showed it twice. We’re gonna show it again.

Youth worker: Yes, great.

Trisha: Basically we’re doing a petition and there’s going to be an event and we’ll ask people to sign it, because the more people we can get signatures from, the more we’ll get listened to and heard. The petition is targeting at schools, to let the children speak up and be heard. Because in schools they say we have rights and we actually don’t. We need to check over these rules, and it’s not fair. So it’s not just about my school, it’s for every school because everyone is going through the same things. We need to grow up and be ourselves, and these schools are treating us as robots. The petition is to say, can we have our freedom back, and can we have our rights.

Reflection on story-telling process

Reading this back, we seem to go very quickly from the workshops to the film to the petition. I remember feeling it was important to maintain the momentum of the conversation, particularly as there were a fair few distractions going on, but I could have asked more searching questions._MG_7879

Questions

Where could the facilitator / youth worker have asked questions that encouraged more critical reflection from the young people?

  • By asking Charlotte to explain more about why she feels that schools abuse young people’s rights?
  • By asking about the process of making the film?
  • By asking about the group’s plans to show the film in future?

What can be concluded from the content of this conversation in terms of its youth work elements – for example, about:

  • the young people’s feelings of ownership;
  • the balance of process and ‘product’;
  • the idea of ‘starting where young people are starting from’?

Part 3: Reflecting on the project and the youth group

Youth worker: Because we’re partly writing this as an evaluation of the project, I wondered, might you have done this petition anyway, or has it made a difference having youth workers involved?

Trisha: Youth workers listen to what we think, whereas in school nobody listens to us. It’s quite good going out and talking to other people, because we get to see what ideas they have and they help us try and get our voices heard.

Youth worker: And what has the youth workers’ role been?

Trisha: They looked after the whole project, and when we suggested stuff they helped it happen.

Youth worker: Is there anything that you feel went wrong? Because we’re trying to tell the honest story.

Trisha: We had disagreements. By the end of it we sorted it out but not all of it. I wasn’t there at the residential because I was too young, I joined later, but I heard about the disagreements but by the time I joined they seemed ok.

Youth worker: How was it for you joining the group as one of the younger and newer members?

Trisha: The olders were really nice, I didn’t mind being with lots of olders because it feels much more secure to do what I want to do.

Youth worker: And what sort of things do you do here normally when it’s not the human rights project?

Lauren: We come here to the community hall and socialise.

Trisha: We get ideas.

Lauren: We try and resolve things, and take everyone’s thoughts into consideration, and try and do all of that.

Trisha: We try and deal with our socialising skills. We get to have a play around and have fun. But the schools are actually extending our day and we won’t have so much time to come here, it’s really not fair, we didn’t get a say.

Reflection on story-telling process

It felt important to encourage the young people to reflect on the youth group more generally

I purposely asked about what happens on an everyday level at the youth club, when they are not involved in a project. It felt important to encourage the young people to reflect on the youth group more generally, the kind of environment it encourages or creates, as the environment created – socialising, play and fun combined with an emphasis on resolving problems and consideration for others – underpins the more visible aspects of the project such as the film, workshops and petition.

Questions:

Is there something particular about youth work that has allowed these young people to have a say over their schooling? Could this project have taken place in a school-based youth club, and if so, how might it have been different?

How could story-telling ‘chats’ be used to evaluate the everyday life of a youth club, rather than specific projects?

Postscript

Youth worker: (To Lauren) I remember you saying you’re actually really happy at your school. So how did you feel about this project?

Lauren: It was when we went to the education conference – it was all about how bad and negative schools are, but some schools aren’t like that. They’re not listening to people who have respectful schools.

Youth worker: That’s important. So is there a way we can change the schools that are strict and celebrate the ones that are less strict?

Lauren: The good schools could suggest better ways to improve the other ones.

Youth worker: Does anyone want to say anything else?

Everyone: No! Bye! [Laughter]

Reflection on the story-telling process

I remembered that Lauren had previously mentioned to me that she’d felt uncertain about some of the critical points made in the film, because her school experience was broadly more positive. The informal nature of this conversation made it feel ok to ask her about this, whereas in a more structured workshop I think I would have avoided putting her on the spot.

Questions:

How did this informal kind of story-telling include critical and divergent views? How and where could the youth worker / facilitator have drawn these out further?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this informal approach to story-telling instead of, for example, the workshops described elsewhere in this resource (See Story-telling with young volunteers and Story-telling in project evaluation).

How might you use or adapt this process in your own setting, and for what purposes?

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