Where stories collide

COMPOSING DIVERSE IDENTITIES: NARRATIVE INQUIRIES INTO THE INTERWOVEN LIVES OF CHILDREN AND TEACHERS. By D. Jean Clandinin, Janice Huber, Marilyn Huber, M. Shaun Murphy, Anne Murray Orr, Marni Pearce and Pam Steeves. Routledge Pounds 22.99

Teachers' lives are interwoven with those of their pupils, for good or ill. Gerald Haigh reads an analysis of what happens and what it means

On a recent school visit, I waited in the entrance hall beside a girl from Year 10 or thereabouts. As we sat, two members of staff separately stopped to speak to her, encouragingly and with evident pleasure. The conversations made it clear that she was returning after a fairly long absence, and was now waiting for her year head to come and look after her. "Have you been ill?" I said, conversationally. She smiled, standing up at that moment as she spotted her teacher approaching. "Yes," she said as she started to walk off. "I've had an ovarian cyst."

A lot was going on there wasn't it? So many different stories. There was one about a teenager's life being overtaken by a health crisis. Then there was something in the conversations with her teachers that told of the love and concern bearing her up at home. And finally, I was privy to how she was being welcomed back into a robust structure of support in her school. That is what this book, the product of observational research in two Canadian schools, is about - the way that the classroom is where stories meet and find ways of either accommodating each other or not.

The opening chapter tells of Lia, aged eight or nine, from Somalia, late for school because she's had to deliver her brothers to their classes.

Arriving at school, she finds herself locked out - her route straight into class closed off. Instead she has to go through the front entrance, collecting a "late slip" - a symbol of the school's system of rules and regulations. So how does Lia's story of belonging to a culture where looking after her brothers is assumed to be her job, even if it makes her late, accommodate itself to the school's story of rules and regulations? The answer is, as she well knows, that during those early minutes of the day, Emily, her own teacher, will be operating a flexible cushion of time - the school may have a defined starting point, but Emily doesn't. Lia is able to hang up her bag and put her late slip on the teacher's desk, whence it will probably disappear, before moving on to join her friends in the reading corner.

Implicit here is the idea that the teacher brings her own story to the mix, based on what the authors describe as: "a personal philosophy which welcomed children whenever they arrived and invited them to join in with the activities of their classmates when they were ready."

Sometimes, though, accommodations are not so easily reached - as in the interwoven but ultimately unresolved stories of Jeanette and Amit which will chime with many teachers in Britain. Amit is an elementary school child, of Indian immigrant parents. Jeanette is principal of one of the Canadian schools. Amit struggles with learning, and teachers work tirelessly with her, always involving the parents, always stressing Amit's many personal qualities. Then on the annual Celebration of Learning evening for parents, when Jeanette and her colleagues are ready to share good news of Amit's progress, her parents break the news that 13-year-old Amit is to go to her grandparents in India - the flight is already booked - and prepare for marriage. Jeanette is devastated, determined to do something about it. But she can't, and Amit's final sad collect-call to her from Toronto airport is her last contact. It's a bleak enough tale, but this isn't just a book of stories, although they're there to be found: sad, happy, but always revealing. It's about using stories to understand, in sociological terms, how an institution works. It illuminates from unfamiliar directions what we assume, perhaps too easily, to be the familiar world of school.

We don't just read Amit's story. We have Jeanette's too, revealingly unpicked all the way from her childhood, undergraduate and beginning teacher days. As we read, it dawns on us how Amit's parents - who have narratives of their own - might just have been influenced in their decision by Jeanette's intensely supportive actions. "The parents let Jeanette know they recognised Amit would always struggle with school, as Jeanette and the teachers had made clear to them in previous meetings."

There's a powerful sense of these people - Amit, her parents, Jeanette - living lives which move inexorably towards that sad conclusion at the airport.

The idea of following separate stories to the point where they meet is a familiar enough dramatic device. The analysis here, though - illustrated by many more examples than those mentioned here - goes deep. At the least it should give all of us in schools cause to stop from time to time and consider the different stories that have brought us to where we are, and, more importantly, how we can work to make the rest of the narrative hang together.

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