The Kitchen School* is a small informal educational provision for 14-19-year-olds, inspired by the anthroposophical principles of Rudolf Steiner. It answered a need for an alternative to mainstream schooling for some young people, whether for emotional, academic, or health reasons or through personal choice. Young people studied a small number of conventional qualifications alongside a curriculum determined jointly by themselves and the tutors, and undertook many collective practical projects such as gardening, crafts, and community volunteering. The Kitchen School ran for many years based in domestic or community locations, finally closing due to funding pressures. * pseudonym
During the School’s final year of operation, and my first year of research, I made contact with its tutors and proposed running a storytelling project with the young people. After some initial visits and discussions, both the tutors and young people were agreed that they would enjoy and benefit from a week-long intensive storytelling course. There were at this point five young people attending regularly (as well as others being supported to study at home). The tutors proposed a focus on the ‘hero’s journey’, called by Joseph Campbell the ‘monomyth’, which they felt would be of great relevance to some of the considerable challenges the young people were currently facing, as well as assisting them to improve the quality of their creative writing. I chose as our starting points a pairing of stories I had used before: the Blackfoot legend of Feather Woman and Poia, and the contemporary true (and equally heroic) story of Malawian teenager and ‘barefoot engineer’ William Kamkwamba
'By telling, retelling and exploring each of these stories and then ‘layering’ them onto each other, we built up a structural understanding and a starting point for creating our own ‘hero’s journey’ myth. This was based on an outsider character, Hamma (an amalgam of the group’s initials), who seemed to spring fully formed into the group’s collective mind. My notes record that she was ‘a spiky-haired, non-conventionally attractive, warrior-like, hunting, wild-living, 20-year-old female’. Her story was allowed to develop along disparate lines, each individual pursuing it according to their own imagination, and was then ‘gathered in’ to a version that belonged to the whole group and was further investigated through drama. This was a group of young people who knew each other closely and were able quickly to synthesise their ideas, in games, story-building and drama. They did not hesitate to show me and each other their difficulties, and the earnest story of Hamma, both in its individual (oral and written) and collective (dramatic) forms, seemed to name and grapple with many of their most sensitive areas. In the tutors' assessment, ‘students worked deeply and empathetically with the issues under consideration and many of the topics (Cath) introduced related to the individuals’ own issues, and these were reflected in the stories that they produced.'
Endings and Learnings
My work at the Kitchen School strongly underlined the influence of context and setting on all participatory arts work. The students seemed tacitly to understand and fully endorse the tutors’ holistic, Jungian-inspired approach to supporting their development. Within such an atmosphere, it was not surprising that the tone of the week had been more ‘therapeutic’ than almost any other work I have led with young people, even in the psychiatric setting Maple House. The strides the students made – in bravery, mutual trust, understanding, and willingness to write – were tangible and ongoing, the tutors later reporting that our work together ‘repeatedly resurfaced and resonated during the rest of the year, in many guises’. Such therapeutic outcomes are frequently claimed for storytelling, but in my experience only achievable in very defined, ‘safe’, even rarefied circumstances, typified by the Kitchen School. These conditions can rarely be created (and never expected) by the storyteller; they are a feature of the setting.