Story-telling with young volunteers

This section was written by Paula Connaughton, an IDYW workshop facilitator  

Based on a personal experience of facilitating a workshop, what follows is an outline of the possibilities as well as the obstacles of engaging young volunteers in youth work story-telling. It presents a series of approaches to group work and the use of Socratic Dialogue (see Story-telling with experienced youth workers) adapted by one IDYW workshop facilitator working with a younger and less experienced age group.

Background and contexts

The most challenging aspect was to ensure a shared experience

What are the chances that my presence as a stranger could be (mis)construed as that of another authority figure – a professional – parachuting in and out of a youth club to facilitate a workshop?  This question came to mind as I agreed to facilitate an IDYW workshop with young volunteers at an open-access club. The most challenging aspect was to ensure a shared experience rather than one that came across as delivered by an adult to young people.  This meant restructuring the IDYW storytelling process:

    • to engage young people who I had not met previously in this format; and
    • to meet the challenges of developing their confidence, empowerment, and ‘collective’ strength to participate as a group. 

As the case study that follows illustrates, I used what are recognised as youth work’s principles of practice (also identified by IDYW in its original Open Letter as its ‘cornerstones’) – for example, by making young people’s concerns and interests the starting points in order that participants could move beyond an imbalance of power between myself as facilitator and ‘them’ as ‘emerging practitioners’. I also used a combination of small group work activities required for developing discovery through experience that would aid the unpicking of the youth work story that was eventually presented to the group. 

Though I make no claim to this being an ideal way of facilitating a storytelling workshop with young volunteers, as the case study shows methods of Socratic Dialogue combined with group work did seem to help to break down barriers to participation.

  • What however is your assessment of this combination of methods?
  • Would you have used different approaches – and if so, which ones?

The storytelling process

After introducing myself and the purpose of the IDYW storytelling workshop, I asked participants to give their names and how long each of them had been coming to the club. This led to a two-way conversation with one individual and progressed as a few members went on to share their knowledge of the club, its history, and their own experiences of membership. 

However, asking individuals to share a story that would be unpicked by the group was an obstacle as members of the group were reluctant to volunteer when they were introduced to the group’s task – that is, to:

Describe an example of your practice which represents you practising as a youth worker in your current setting’.  

Their attachment to the youth club was to a space that gave them a sense of belonging

As at first participants said nothing and just glanced at each other, I asked them if they understood the question.  At this point, I was the focus of all exchanges, as it emerged that having the title of ‘Youth Worker’ was an issue for some in the group.  Some were hesitant to say they had the responsibilities of a youth worker and were more relaxed about admitting to having ‘volunteer roles’ – as though the two were separate entities.  Through discussion, it became obvious that their attachment to the youth club was to a space that gave them a sense of belonging, that it was friendly, and that it presented them with leading roles and training that required support from ‘qualified’ youth workers.

This depiction of their experiences led me to ask what their responsibilities entailed; in what context they supported other young people in their social and personal development, why they took that particular approach, and where it happened.  This dialogue led to group members exploring knowledge, understanding, and skills based on their reflections of their own volunteering experiences, which once they came to a group consensus that they were in fact volunteer youth workers, eased the way to gathering narratives.

When it came to choosing the best story to be narrated, and why, all but one person in the group – the one who seemed most confident – were reluctant to undergo the process of having their story unpicked. Because, it was felt, he would know what to say, there was unanimous agreement that he should share his story.

_MG_1225As the actual narrative was of an example of practice that involved most members of the workshop, it made sense to use this story because it had the potential to involve more than one storyteller. However, it was evident that some were still feeling the pressure of being on the spot, as, more than simply recalling the event, they would have to talk in front of peers.  I therefore asked if the group would prefer to split into two small groups with one group preparing the narrative and the other coming up with a series of what, why and how questions that they thought might emerge from the storytelling process. The purpose of this second group was to stir ideas for the process of shared dialogue.

For the questioning process the two groups came together again to form one large group. Though I lead on the exchanges at the beginning, as they developed more confidence the storytellers became accustomed to sharing their story and so, too, did the ones who were posing the questions. Thus, a dialogue soon emerged which allowed me to step back and intervene only when those asking the questions overlooked issues.  For example, as illustrated in the first extract below, I asked the storyteller to elaborate on what he meant when he said he had ‘engaged’ with the girls.  Allowing the storyteller to explain the use of buzzwords helped the group to realise that that there would be no privileging of words over actions.

  • A series of ‘what’ questions that related to youth work formed part of the investigation and helped the storytellers unpick their actual experiences.
  • These were followed by ‘why’ questions that allowed participants to delve deeper into the task and understand the root of their practice as youth workers.
  • After coming to a consensus on this, the dialogue turned to ‘how’ to resolve some of the issues and uncertainties that were evident in the narrative.

The following demonstrates elements of the youth work process that emerged through the unpicking of key features of the story – focused on young women’s and young men’s social and personal development at a sports day event.

Extract 1 – working with young women

Background information

Workshop members spoke about challenges of working with young women and men attending the sports day. One focused on some of the girls who stood around in groups wanting to be together rather than be separated or participate. This led to a number of interventions by the team of volunteers as they engaged with the girls in order to encourage them to take part in the event.

Unpicking of the story

Facilitator: What do you mean by you ‘engaged with’ the girls? 

Storyteller member 1: We talked to those attending.

Workshop member 1: Why was it important to talk to them?

Storyteller member 1: We wanted to act in a friendly, supportive and assuring way, and so we often took part in the activities ourselves.

Storyteller member 2: And we encouraged them to take part by reassuring them with comments and praise because we recognised that there’s an issue with body image – some didn’t want to run in front of the lads.

Workshop member 2: Why was it important to get the girls to take part?

Storyteller member 2: So that girls can experience sports and leisure and not be embarrassed about taking part.

Facilitator: Tell me about the process of ‘encouraging’ the young women?

Storyteller member 3: We just talked and mingled with them – sometimes we paired up with them sort of running alongside them, saying things like, ‘go on you can do it’.

Workshop member 3: We are aware that we have to be sensitive and respectful to all participants because of our training.

Facilitator’s reflection on the story-telling process

_MG_5749The fact that all participants in the workshop, storytellers and questioners, saw their role as acting in a friendly way as well as supporting young people to go beyond their immediate experiences and try something new resonates with the defining principles of youth work.  It was obvious that the process of unpicking their story had helped the group grasp the process of their work based on challenging young people and working through common concerns.  Later, as they reflected back on previous encounters, the group established how this could only have happened because of past experiences that had led to building trusting relationships amongst young people, and with and between the young volunteers. 

Extract 2 – working with young men

Background information

In this next extract, one of the storytellers discusses his challenge to a young man on his aggressive attitude because he had not won a race. 

Unpicking of the story

Storyteller: I was aware that some of the young men in the group were very competitive when it came to sport, particularly those with a bit of status for being good at it. But I saw one of them taking it too seriously when he lost so I went over and talked to him and let him know it was ‘just a bit of fun’.

Facilitator: What steps did you take to challenging this young man’s attitude?

Storyteller: I just sort of joked with him – to calm him down – and I said to him that I wasn’t taking it seriously because it was just taking part that mattered.

Workshop member 1: Why was it important to challenge his attitude in this way?

Storyteller: You’re just aware that it’s about ego and he felt stupid for not winning, so you just want to say ‘it’s only fun’ because it could get worse.

Facilitator: So, how did he react to you?

Storyteller: He changed after our talk and seemed to accept what I was saying, which was important because it was getting heated.

Facilitator’s reflection on storytelling process

What was key to this short extract was the way that the storyteller was able to demonstrate how outcomes in youth work may be ‘incidental’, often arising from chance meetings or observations rather than from some planned engagement.  It was evident that though the storyteller, as an ‘emergent practitioner’, demonstrated mindfulness of the situation by using humour to temper hostilities, he was unaware of the importance of the role  of conversation until this was explored through open dialogue in the workshop.  Further dialogue in the group also opened up the complex process of balancing approaches to challenging behaviour with the ability and insight to divert what might have ended up as a volatile situation.

Evaluation of the story-telling workshop experience

They listened to each other, thought logically, and arrived at a consensus on defining aspects of the youth work process

The above extracts from the story-telling workshop demonstrate how key elements of the youth work process were not immediately evident to the young volunteers – something that other workshop experiences have shown is often true for ‘qualified’ workers (see Story-telling with experienced youth workers). The case study also shows that combining the adapted Socratic Dialogue approach with small-group work underpinned by the principles of youth work itself has the potential to add value to young volunteers experience and to support them in their repertoire and ability to identify what makes youth work a distinct practice.  These combined methods seemed to foster confidence in participants to unpick their stories as they began to demonstrate a capacity for independent and co-operative reasoning.  They listened to each other, thought logically, and arrived at a consensus on defining aspects of the youth work process in the capture of their story.

By the end, there was a unanimous agreement from the group that they now thought of themselves as youth workers and that through the workshop they had come to recognise elements of youth work which would help them make better choices in their work with other young people.

I saw myself as a volunteer not a youth worker until I reflected on what I did in the workshop, and now I see myself as a volunteer youth worker…  This has been the best lesson I have had so far.

Recommendations for working with young volunteers

A workshop that entails engaging in dialogical reasoning has the potential for making young people uneasy, anxious and even hostile to the task, as one’s own judgement is slowly replaced by an attitude of constructive doubt and constant change.1  Some possible ways of helping to break down such barriers to participation and create a relaxed environment might include:

  • Breaking the session down into manageable time slots.
  • Opening the session with a ‘get to know you’ introduction.
  • Allowing for flexibility – using a variety of techniques such as small-group work as an effective form of engaging people in the decision-making where peer pressure and past experiences of adult roles might be affecting the interaction.
  • Recognising that the Socratic Dialogue process used for story-telling is not a linear one as this and the ‘unpicking’ of the story involve ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ between, for example, the ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions. This suggests that there is no pressure to forge ahead or stick to a protocol.
  • Breaking down jargon whenever necessary by explaining technical points, – while remembering to talk to young people as you would to adults so as not to perpetuate societal views that infantilise young people.

Are there for you any other, perhaps more important, learning points from this example of youth work story-telling?

1Button, L (1980) Developmental Group Work with Adolescents. Third Impression. London. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

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