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Monday, May 5, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Change the Story

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Last week I had a particularly difficult lesson with one of my young nine-year-old students. Actually, I should say that I had another particularly difficult lesson. The student is troublesome, because for the first year of lessons, her mother and I spent about 98% of our lesson and practice time addressing unproductive behaviors.

On the day after her lesson, I was getting ready for my day and taking a shower. (Don't you find that some of your greatest ideas come while taking a shower?). As I showered, I ran over in my mind the students that I had taught the day before. Amidst many sighs, I thought about the unproductive behavior and then about the kinds of general misbehaviors that I had encountered in the last few lessons. I thought about how I felt during these periods of my student's acting up and acting out and about how her mother responded as well. Then I said to myself aloud, "You'll just have to change her story." And I shrugged and prepared to get out of the shower and get on with my day.

Wait! Something about what I said resonated with me. "Change her story." What was her story? My student's story was the story that I told myself about her every time I thought about her. My student's story was the story that her mother revealed with every interaction she had with her daughter. I do not know about any other stories I could learn about this child, such as from her teachers, classmates, or her father. I suspect there are similar stories in those quarters as mine.

Yes, the child could drive us nuts with her misbehaviors, but take a step back and think about this. She is, after all, a child. We are the grownups. We are the ones who are charged with knowing (or finding out) how to handle these things.

I wanted to change her story because I wanted to change the way that I thought about her. I wanted to change my thinking about her in order to change my feelings and behavior towards her. When I began to think about our teacher-student relationship as they related to basic story lines, I then recalled one lesson when this child and I had joked about making up a story with the child as the center figure. Our working title was, "The Day that Julia Turned into an Alligator." (Fictional Name). I do not recall why we came up with the idea of making the child into an alligator; I suspect it had everything to do with the kind of behavior that the child exhibited that day. I do recall that by turning our thoughts and feelings into a story that we could share together, we built a rather interesting connection between us that day, and I believe that this connection is what the child needs. She loves to give me hugs during her lesson, especially at her most difficult moments. (Maybe we should have made her turn into a Porcupine in the story since she likes to be so prickly).

This story idea gave me an even bigger idea that I would like to share with you. Why not create a story that features the child but not as a child?  The process of creating a story will help to reveal the nature of our thinking about the child. Perhaps once we fully understand our feelings and thoughts about the child will we then be able to effectuate a change in those feelings and thoughts by changing the story.

Here are the basic ingredients to get you started on creating your own story about one of your students. You need a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The story can be three lines long or much more depending on your needs.

Once upon a time, there was a girl/boy named _____. _____ was a _____ (animal, bird, amphibian, flower, insect, dragon, fictional character).

_____ had a problem (or a need): {name the problem or need and explain it}

{Write how _____ struggled to solve the problem or fulfill the need or grow stronger to handle the problem better}

Then one day, _____ {describe the culmination of the struggle}

Here is an example of such a story (no names, although I bear an uncanny resemblance to the old, wise teacher).

Once upon a time, there was a very old and wise teacher who loved to open the front door of her little cottage and welcome in the birds and animals of the forest. Then when the birds and animals would come to visit, the gentle teacher would allow them to enter her cottage and talk with her a while. Sometimes they would play games together, and sometimes they would play music together.

One day a very unusual creature came to the teacher's cottage and demanded to be let in. The teacher happily opened the door to welcome the newcomer, but then she was surprised when during the course of the visit the creature changed into a bird and began to flit around the room. At first the teacher ran after the bird and tried to catch it to keep it still in one place, but just as she got close enough to snatch the bird into her hands, the bird changed into a porcupine. The teacher cautiously stepped back away from the porcupine lest she be pricked by any of the animal's quills.

The next time the creature came to visit, the creature turned into an alligator, which carelessly swung its enormous tail from side to side as it walked, knocking over the teacher's lovely delicate treasures on the cottage bookshelf. The teacher hurried over to catch the items that the alligator had knocked over with its tail. Then the creature turned into a lion and raised her gigantic paws to claw the air and hissed loudly at the teacher.

"My Goodness," the teacher said to herself. "It's very difficult to love this creature! It won't let me near it. I can't get close enough to give it a hug." Still, the teacher would open the door and let the creature come into the cottage and visit. The creature took many forms: a braying donkey, a jumping rabbit, a squawking crow, and a screeching monkey. The teacher was kept very busy trying to keep up with all of the different shapes and noises. Sometimes when other animals were visiting at the same time, this new creature would bump into the other animals with its tail or scare away the other animals with its unpleasant noises.

One time the creature was skittering about on quiet feet, appearing like a little dormouse or squirrel. The wise, old teacher had her back turned to pick up her violin and play some songs for her visitors and did not realize that the creature -- who had now become a quiet, little squirrel -- had sneaked up behind her. When the teacher swung her violin up onto her shoulder and turned around to play music, the scroll of her violin smacked the little creature's head with a resounding thump that brought tears to the little creature's enormous black eyes. The teacher felt very sad about having hurt the little creature, but she did not know how to explain the mishap. The little creature spent the rest of that visit along the back fringe of the other animals who were there to visit.

The wise, old teacher was determined that she would show this creature that it could be loved, no matter what kind of animal it became. It took courage and some time to work up enough nerve to do this. One day the teacher was convinced that she would be able to love the creature no matter what it would turn into that day. She hatched a plan and thought about her plan for several days, over and over. She thought of all the ways that she could show her love to the creature, no matter what the creature turned into. She practiced smiling a lot, no matter how she felt, even when she did not feel like smiling very much because she was tired or had a sniffle or had eaten horrid liver snaps in her oatmeal (which was a mistake, since she thought she had put crushed almonds in her porridge but had forgotten to put her glasses on when she cooked her breakfast).

One day the teacher was ready. She smiled to herself all day as she anticipated seeing the creature and putting her plan into action. With each smile that she practiced, the teacher felt stronger. And a curious thing happened, the teacher did get stronger because with every smile she practiced, she grew happier. The teacher found out that it was not her music that was the magic that made the animals and birds of the forest want to visit her. Her smiles made the magic happen, and just as wonderful as magic is, we find out that the magic can grow even stronger merely by the practice of it. The teacher's constant practice of smiling brought her more and more happiness, which made the teacher smile even more.

And that is as far as I will go with the story, as it is my story to finish. Do you see how the story revealed different aspects of the teacher-student relationship? At first, the teacher welcomed visitors. The teacher thought of herself as having something to offer the visitors. This new creature, however, changed the teacher's story by causing the teacher to do things differently, to reflect more about how to be effective, and to figure out how to reach this child in a different way.

Sometimes by putting things into a story format we will discover the hidden underpinnings of the relationship. By allowing our minds to create a story format that contains the ingredients of our problem, we might instead discover that the problem is not what we first thought it was. Instead we may find ourselves digging deeper into the story-behind-the-story until we find that we have created our own solution and found our own satisfying "happily ever after."

Why not give this technique a try? You will find it is easy to get started.
Once upon a time . . .

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