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An Extraordinary Story: Lessons from UP Education Network

An Extraordinary Story: Lessons from UP Education Network

Mason Smith and Gordon Eby's picture
Mason Smith and Gordon Eby
March 7th, 2016

narrative UP Education Network storytelling facilitation design session collective next

Collective Next recently designed and facilitated a two-day collaborative design session for UP Education Network, which we explore in the following case study. This is the fourth installment of our series The Narrative Universe.

Enter the Protagonist
In late fall of last year, 44 individuals representing the UP Academies of Boston, Dorchester, Holland, Kennedy, Leonard, and Oliver gathered in a downtown office. They sat intently watching videos of over a dozen of their students describing their vision of an extraordinary school. The air filled with phrases like:

  • “School provides a family…a home away from home”
  • “A teacher is someone who knows your greatness”
  • “School is like a job, we get paid in knowledge”
  • “I want more ideas about the world”

These were the voices of the protagonists of a story that was about to be re-written, collectively, by the individuals in the room.

UP Education Network is a non-profit with a mission to restart chronically underperforming district schools and transform them into extraordinary schools. The scene described above occurred in a highly collaborative two-day meeting (or what we call a design session), dedicated to developing a collective narrative of becoming an “extraordinary school”—across all five, and soon to be, six—locations.

In his book, Narrative Politics, Stanford University’s Frederick Mayer argues that “shared narratives are not just a consequence of being in a community, they also help to constitute the community in the first instance.” Indeed, prior to the design session, the five schools UP had restarted were united through a very general common narrative of underperformance and a desire to improve. It was time for the narrative to develop beyond this in order to forge a more profound common identity and to bring their resources together as a community.

Re-writing the Narrative
As facilitators and designers, we faced unique challenges. We needed to help develop their shared narrative and re-write the existing narrative. This new story would be about a group of extraordinary schools, rather than a group of underperforming schools who hoped for more. Experts in the field of psychology, such as Dan McAdams and Michael White, have long argued that crafting a positive personal narrative in the wake of negative events can both provide new direction and begin to foster a sense of well-being and positive identity. Not surprisingly, the same holds true for communities and organizations. When UP Education Network’s founder and CEO Scott Given kicked off the meeting, he provided exactly this reframing. Scott lauded the awesome efforts to date, emphasized the importance of togetherness, and empowered the group to create a shared narrative that would foster their organizational and personal success.

From Many to One
A diverse group of attendees were drawn from all five schools, and represented roles ranging from administrative support and IT to principal and teacher. Even more perspectives were represented over the course of our two days together. The critical voices of students and families were brought to bear through pre-recorded videos and interview transcripts. Forging a collective narrative from such a diverse set of individuals required a delicate balance: members had to let go of their personal narratives enough to be open to other perspectives, and yet they also had to hold on to their personal understanding enough to ensure that they were intrinsically motivated by the shared narrative they created.

Along the way, our goal as facilitators and designers was to create the conditions in which the collective narrative could organically emerge. Our exercises allowed participants to dive deep into a diverse set of viewpoints, to document their individual visions and then look for common themes across these perspectives, and to engage in constructive dialogue about shared “plot points”, while also leaving room for each school to interpret these plots points in accord with their unique circumstances. Among the most important of these common plot points was the need to agree on the attributes of the story’s hero, the UP graduate: the key knowledge, skills and experiences he or she must possess at the end of his or her academic journey.

Growing evidence supports the idea that where your organization is headed depends on how you are telling your story. When UP Education Network’s design session concluded, they had made great strides in creating a highly developed collective narrative with a deep sense of individual ownership. They are well on their way to creating a narrative path that any school in their network can follow to become extraordinary.

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The Narrative Universe