May, 2006. We treated our Doctoring small group to a nice home-cooked meal to celebrate the conclusion of their first year of medical school-eight students, two lucky teachers. Students, after all, are hungry for knowledge but they're also hungry. We had grown to know these now 25% doctors through didactic but more so through their reflective narratives that we were privileged to receive and respond to…After dessert, I surprised each of them with a personalized binder of all their narratives plus the written feedback they had received over the course of the year from their co-teachers-Hedy (me), a clinical psychologist and Steve, a family physician. The teachers lugged home extra large binders with all the students' writings and feedback, precious cargo indeed. I hoped the students would hold onto the experience, maybe even look back one day upon those texts, tangible evidence of their metamorphosis. I got choked up that evening. With good reason.
It is a mysterious process, this reading and responding with written individualized feedback to students’ reflective narratives as we accompany them on their journey of personal and professional identity development. Rita Charon captured the awe: "What a remarkable obligation toward another human being is enclosed in the act of reading or listening" (1, p.53) This became my mantra as I diligently typed at my computer, striving to craft meaningful, quality feedback to the students’ narratives that had sailed across cyberspace to land on my screen. I tried hard to establish a "comfort zone", a trusting "mentor" relationship where an embryo doc could safely share vulnerabilities and uncertainties, personal angst and yes, triumphs, dramatic moments and perhaps even more meaningfully, everyday moments of caring that should be recognized by a self-aware, mindful practitioner (student and teacher alike). And, I learned, it wasn't a bad idea to keep "oven mitts" (2) nearby for the "hot" stuff, the personal and/or professional content that can be challenging for both writer and reader, albeit less frequently encountered. Life is not sanitized, homogenized, or neatly packaged. Neither are narratives.
Interactive Reflective Writing
Some background. Several years ago, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University (Alpert Med) included an interactive reflective writing innovation within their Doctoring course (3) for first and second year students; the current curriculum includes this as well. I was there from the get-go. Students send confidential "field notes" by email throughout the year- in response to structured narrative prompts on patient encounters and other topics-and receive written feedback from an interdisciplinary team. Early on, I sensed something special unfolding…Narrative medicine enthusiasts will not be surprised to hear about the perceived benefits of hearing a student’s voice within narrative (valued as distinct from the usual group dynamic), witnessing the representation of their experience in the written word to give it meaning, and deepening learners' reflective capacity through this process. "Clinicians donate themselves as meaning-making vessels to the patient who tells of his or her situation", Charon observed (1, p.132)…And the embodiment of this? The meaning-making vessel of narrative. Written feedback, I would suggest, is potentially a "meaning-making vessel" in its own right. Indeed, the "interactive" nature of this paradigm has pedagogic value, students have noted, as they appreciate writing with an "audience" in mind. (4) Narratively humbling indeed for those in that audience. (5)
Narrative content in a longitudinal context, Steve and I noticed, documented our students’ learning journey. But what of the teachers, the "seasoned travelers"? (6) It’s not about us, it’s about them (our learners). I know this. But maybe, just maybe, it’s about us too. Narrative connects on so many levels. We know this. It reminds us, inspires us, nourishes us. Students’ revelations within confidential interactive reflective writing can have a powerful impact, touching one’s heart and soul. Through authentic engagement, I found that their writings about clinical encounters (including personal and professional issues) served as narrative triggers for my associations. I experienced a flow, sometimes tidal wave of cognitive and affective responses, personal and clinical recollections, a potential treasure trove to share. Yet I would not share it all; educational responsibility prevails, judgments need to be made, and students don't want to read novels on their narratives anyway. Ultimately, something about this experience resonated with a key concept I had learned in narrative medicine: the "parallel chart" teaching tool, (1) inviting further contemplation.
Rita Charon appreciated the value of considering the nuance and texture of patients' experiences of illness as well as what students themselves were undergoing in providing patient care, even though "you cannot write that in the hospital chart, we will not let you". (1, p.156) "And yet", she instructed clerkship students (and later, residents as well), "it has to be written somewhere. You write it in the parallel chart" (1, p.156) In similar fashion, I suggest, the teacher's experience of the student's narrative, of the student's "narrative writing in the service of the care of a particular patient" (1, p.157) can be considered a "parallel 'parallel chart'". In essence, my narrative writing evoked by the student's text is in "the service of the care of a particular student", regardless of whether all of it or none of it appears in my formal written feedback.
The Teacher's Experience
What of this living organism, this "parallel 'parallel chart'"? Might it offer opportunities for a parallel process of transformative growth of a teacher? Let the student's narrative "brew". (7) Allow the narrative to speak to us, guide us, enhance our awareness, then trust our instincts, use our curiosity, and sift through our "parallel 'parallel chart'" to craft feedback of substance and worth…all in the service of the student, yet with mutual benefit. Let the teacher's narrative "brew" too. Professor Lee Jacobus' observation that "time moves on once the book is gone from the writer's hand and the writer is no longer the person who wrote the book" is germane (blog review of Margaret Atwood's Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing). (8) The student is no longer the person who wrote the reflective narrative; neither, I would assert, is the teacher who responded to it. It's called Education. And it gives "faculty development" a whole new meaning. The intersubjective process of transformative growth (1), I now realize, is not the student’s sole proprietorship. (9)
So we sift, filter, craft, and mold our "parallel 'parallel chart'" for most effective educational impact. My research colleagues at Alpert Med (Drs. Reis, Monroe, and Borkan) and I recently offered the BEGAN tool, the Brown Educational Guide to the Analysis of Narrative to help guide faculty with this process, describing integration of personal and clinical experiences, reflection-inviting questions, elements of close reading, as well as student text quotes within written feedback to students' narratives. (10) Be a "generous listener" (11) but more than that, use that "parallel 'parallel chart'" to support and challenge the learner toward deeper reflection, understanding, and meaning making. Oh, and be sure to pause before hitting the SEND button, we advise, to avoid foot in mouth disease and other such maladies.
The literature is replete with explorations of what doctors find meaningful about their work, what it is that sustains them-making a difference in someone's (the patient's) life is often mentioned. (12) Within medical education, connecting to students through their narratives about connecting with patients can help make a difference in students' lives and our own. "Learn from every patient", the teacher teaches the student. "Learn from every student", the narrative teaches the teacher. And we do. Impressed with the power of narrative, a primary care doc, for example, recently remarked to me that reading and responding to students' narratives was helping remind him why he went into this business. As for me, I've grown as a teacher, colleague, and writer. Teacher me now routinely uses my "parallel 'parallel chart'" (with deepened insights) and BEGAN tool to craft what I hope is useful, meaningful individualized feedback to reflective narratives in the Alpert Med family medicine clerkship. My colleague self "ping-pongs" ideas (based on my response flow) with co-facilitators within small group teaching and with research colleagues, sparking creative output. I'm also fortunate to be able to reflect on their written feedback to students derived from their own "parallel 'parallel charts'". As a writer, narrative flow has led to gratifying creative and academic writing accomplishments; JAMA, Newsweek, Academic Medicine, and more. Correlation does not imply causation, but it sure feels that way. It's been a remarkable journey.
I ran into one of my original first-year Doctoring course students recently at an Alpert Med seminar. He looked good, more polished and self-assured, excited about Match Day in March, he told me. We took a moment to reminisce about the "good ol' days" of Doctoring and my, how time had flown. "I still have the binder", he grinned as he walked away and made my day. "So do I", I whispered, "So do I".
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2. Ellis, K. Plenary on Close Reading. Advanced Narrative Medicine Workshop - Program in Narrative Medicine. College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University, June 23, 2008.
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