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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

Case Stories: Telling Tales About School

I had just come back from my rounds in the cafeteria and was feeling like things were going pretty well. As I entered my office, I knew my momentary peace would be short-lived as Mrs. Dragon, the music teacher, headed toward me, full steam ahead. She was furious and began arguing loudly. Because of the space and technology simulation, she had not been able to meet with the 7th grade teams for a week. She said that for various reasons, the kids had missed too much music this year. I tried to calm her down and explain how the interdisciplinary curriculum sometimes requires schedule changes to accommodate special activities. But, she was not at all interested. She finally left my office in a huff, demanding, "Who has the rights to these kids, anyway?"
Professional development programs are increasingly moving away from presentations by experts and toward programs that involve administrators and teachers as facilitators of their own renewal and growth. One method that we have been using to encourage educators to take responsibility for their own professional development (and that of their colleagues) is the case story. It is an approach that blends aspects of the conventional case study method with the tradition, artistry, and imagination of storytelling.
The premise underlying our work is that the story form is a sense-making tool for educators. Writing their own stories can help them to better understand and share their theories of practice and dilemmas, and explore new possibilities with one another. At some point, participants begin to think differently—more critically and less self-centeredly. They are challenged and inspired to think more deeply about their practice and to investigate ways to solve problems.

Writing, Listening, Reflecting

In our case story approach, practitioners write brief stories of their own experiences, then read them aloud and discuss them with colleagues. It is during these discussions that real-life, close-to-the-bone problems of practice come to life (Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski 1995). The approach involves not just what happens to someone, but one's responses to what happens.
We have used the case story in a variety of settings, including all-day professional development and leadership institutes, professional development conferences, and graduate courses. Our basic model requires a minimum of three hours. It involves the following six steps.
Step 1: The freewrite. This activity primes the pump. It is designed to stimulate reluctant writers and warm educators to communicating the issues of their leadership and teaching practice. Begin by showing the group an example. Next, ask participants to write for seven minutes on a theme such as, "The obstacle to leadership for me is...." Encourage them not to worry about form, but to simply let their thoughts flow. Once they've done this, divide the group into smaller groups of three. In these groups, each participant reads selected portions of his or her piece aloud, highlighting the gems—aspects of the experience that are particularly meaningful. We recommend that groups appoint a timekeeper and allot five minutes per participant, with time for reaction and dialogue.
Step 2: Writing case stories. Give participants 30 minutes to write a one-page narrative about a real-life teaching or leadership experience—a critical event or incident that presented them with a genuine dilemma or crucial decision, and that mattered very much to them. Ask them to write about the experience in story fashion, develop the personality of a lead character, use dialogue, and give the piece a title. The story should be sufficiently intriguing and thought-provoking to make the group want to talk about it. Provide guidance when necessary. Twenty-five or even 100 professionals writing quietly together about things that matter to them is a supportive and validating experience, even for reluctant writers.
Step 3: Telling, listening, and discussing case stories. Again, divide the larger group into groups of three, but different groups from those formed earlier. In these smaller groups, members will take turns playing each of three roles: the writer of the case story, the facilitator, and the timekeeper. Members rotate roles every 15 minutes. The writer begins by reading his or her case story aloud, then tells the story by elaborating on the text and identifying its essence—what he or she believes is the heart of the story. The other two group members listen carefully without interrupting. They then pose a series of clarifying questions in order to fully understand the dilemma (See "Case Stories: Telling, Listening, and Discussing," below). Next, they begin to frame and interpret the issues by discussing questions such as, What is the central issue? What are the alternatives and the consequences for the main character?

Case Stories: Telling, Listening, and Discussing

Two teachers listen as a colleague, Gerald Leblanc, housemaster of the Lowell House School, reads his story aloud:

The Problem with Ms. Parasol. I'm losing sleep and what's left of my hair as my worries about Ms. Parasol grow. In the middle of a lecture on Boyle's law last Thursday she stopped, picked up her things, and left the room 15 minutes before the end of class. Two weeks earlier she didn't show up at all for sixth period. Mr. Hammer found her in the department center, reading. She said she had "lost track of time."

Ms. Parasol has been a science teacher at Kirk High School for more than 40 years. She is somewhat of a legend in this large but provincial city, and has taught the law of inertia to most of our adult population. Ironically, she is slowing down, but refuses to consider retirement. She asserts she is "sorely needed" here and bristles at any mention of leaving. She is late to school almost every day and I have to find coverage for her homeroom. She has difficulty correctly identifying students so she fouls up the attendance records. On four separate occasions she reported her handbag stolen, only to have it surface in the department center or staff restroom.

Ms. Parasol has never received an unsatisfactory evaluation, so I am now documenting these incidents. I've also started "visiting" her classroom more regularly, although she has responded with indignation. The other day she told me, "An administrator, especially a former student, could be a little more sensitive to an older staff member."

To compound these problems, the rest of the facultyis protective of Ms. Parasol and not supportive of me. While it's easy to document what's happening, I don't know how to ease her out with dignity. It could take years to get her to retire. What does that mean for the students? Some people tell me just to get rid of her, but it's not so simple.

Clarifying questions.The two colleagues ask: Have you confronted Ms. Parasol about being late to school and any of the other incidents that you told us about? Did you tell her why you are visiting her classroom? What is your school's system's policy on retirement?

Framing and interpreting the issues.The three teachers discuss the problem from different perspectives, including: What is the central issue here? What are some alternatives for dealing with Ms. Parasol? What would be the consequences of taking any of these actions? Did they consider that Ms. Parasol might have a physical or mental problem, like Alzheimer's disease? Why is the faculty not supportive of the administration? Are we sensitive enough to the different stages of adult development? Are there other resource people at the school who might help with this issue?

Dialogue.Speaker 1: "In my judgment, the kids come first. This calls for direct action."

Speaker 2: "How about creating a part-time position and allowing her to phase into retirement?"

Leblanc: "That's avoiding the issue."

The aim is to explore alternatives and not look for one best solution to the case story. It is best if the storyteller does not participate in the initial discussion, but observes how others interpret and respond to the issues.
Step 4: Small group reflection. Have the groups pair up to create groups of six. Then ask them to consider three questions: What was it like listening to and discussing your colleagues' stories? What was it like writing, telling, and hearing discussions of your own story? Do you have any other observations and reactions to the work that you have just completed?
Step 5: Whole group reflection. Ask each group to report one of the major topics or important findings that they explored. Give everyone a chance to comment, building on one another's ideas.
Step 6: Conclusion. Wrap up the session by talking about the importance of improving professional practice. Stress that to strengthen our practice, we must first understand it. And in order to make sense out of our practice, we must allow ourselves time and distance for reflection, a place where we're not immersed in the problems we're seeking to solve.

Dialogue and Perspective

The benefit of the case story is not only in what participants learn, but also in the interpersonal and critical skills they gain as they learn to reflect and think together. What they write about, how they tell it, and how they talk about it are complementary learning processes. It is the combination of the three that leads to greater understanding.
In the third phase, participants can take risks together to make sense out of past behaviors and actions and generate new ideas. They can learn how they respond to various situations, and to uncover and articulate their own values. The process encourages members to suspend attachment to a particular point of view so that the group as a whole can obtain a broader perspective, a more complete picture of the teller's reality.
Our approach draws in part on the work of C. Roland Christensen of the Harvard Business School (Christensen et al. 1991), who has stressed that discussion is the key to the case method. In addition, we have been guided by famed philosopher Martin Buber's reflections on dialogue (1970, 1988), as well as by the work of Edwin Bridges (1992) on problem-based learning and David Bohm (1994) on thought as a system.
Writing and telling stories is a powerful way for educators to understand how their world works. And the case story process helps break down the isolation of practitioners and build a more collegial environment. The process promotes an atmosphere of trust and a sense of participation and well-being. As one assistant principal enthusiastically told us after spending six hours in a case story session, "We are one another's best teachers. I appreciated the attention and caring that my colleagues showed for me and my problems, and the insights they provided."

Bohm, D. (1994). Thought As A System. London: Routledge.

Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Buber, M. (1988). The Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays. Atlanta Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, Inc.

Bridges, E. M. (1992). Problem-Based Learning for Administrators. Oregon: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management.

Christensen, C. R., D. S. Garvin, and A. Sweet, eds. (1991). Education for Judgement: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School.

Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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