The "Parallel 'Parallel Chart'"

an illustration of hands reaching outCommentary by Hedy S. Wald, Ph.D., Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, RI

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.

Concluding Reflections

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".


1. Charon, R. Narrative medicine - honoring the stories of illness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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.

3. Monroe A, Ferri F, Borkan J, Dube C, Taylor J, Frazzano A, Macko M. Doctoring. Providence, RI: Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, 2005-10.

4. Wald HS, Davis SW, Reis SP, Monroe AD, Borkan, JM. Reflecting on Reflections: Medical Education Curriculum Enhancement with Structured Field Notes and Guided Feedback. Acad Med, 2009; 84(7): 830-7.

5. DasGupta, S. Narrative Humility. Lancet, 2008; 371: 980-1.

6. Kerka, S. Journal writing and adult learning. ERIC Dig., 1996; 174:1-4.

7. Wald HS, Reis SP. A Piece of My Mind. Brew. JAMA, 2008; 299:2255-6.

8. Jacobus, L. [Accessed February 16, 2010].

9. Wald, HS. I've Got Mail. Fam Med, 2008; 40(6): 393-4.

10. Reis SP, Wald HS, Monroe AD, Borkan JM. Begin the BEGAN (The Brown Educational Guide to the Analysis of Narrative): A framework for enhancing educational impact of faculty feedback to students' reflective writing. Patient Educ Counseling, 2010; doi:10.1016/j.pec.2009.11.014.

11. Rabow MW, Remen RN, Parmelee DX, Inui TS. Professional Formation: Extending Medicine's Lineage of Service Into the Next Century. Acad Med, 2010; 85(2): 310-7.

12. Horowitz CR, Suchman AL, Branch WT, Frankel RM. What Do Doctors Find Meaningful about Their Work? Ann Intern Med, 2003; 138(9): 772-5.

  1. Thomas Lawrence Long

    I spent yesterday afternoon presenting a writing workshop for nurses at a children’s hospital. My first question for discussion: Why is writing by nurses important? The first reply: We have such great stories to tell, and no one else will tell them for us! Thanks, Hedy, for reminding us of the power of healthcare professionals’ own stories.

  2. Hedy Wald

    And thank you Thomas Lawrence Long for taking the time to support your colleagues in such endeavors (those nurses and me!)…Narrative connects and you have once again proven that…The power of narrative never ceases to amaze me. Thank you for reading and sharing and keep up your fine work.
    Best wishes,

  3. johanna shapiro

    I really resonated to the concept of “parallel parallel chart.” I have spent most of my career “continuing the conversation” by email with students in response to their reflective writing assignments. I calculate that over the past 12 years alone, I have probably had over 5000 email exchanges with students. Hedy is so right that, like patient-doctor interactions, student-teacher interactions change the teacher as much as the student. It is, as she observes, a bidirectional, not a unilateral, process. She is also right that we need to keep it about the student; but I think part of that is by allowing them to see the effect their work has on us, their teachers. Finally, while I am a big fan of group discussions, I agree that these written dialogues are often more intimate and more profound, because people are not simply blurting out the first thing that comes into their minds. For the most part, although mediated by the technology of email, these feel like true I-Thou encounters. What a privilege!

  4. Hedy Wald

    Johanna has the gift of succinctly capturing the essence…Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Johanna.
    I feel certain that your students quickly sensed your authentic engagement, caring, and dedication to quality teaching and responded in kind… The intimacy of words is special and in this context, can potentially make a real difference in personal and professional development. Being “heard” and respected as an individual during the hectic pace of medical education is a gift and you are generous with the students in this way. Each narrative opens up a whole new world – and having a teacher who appreciates that can make a difference. As we both agree, a difference for both teacher and student…Thank you again for reading and sharing – a pleasure to gain such insights…

  5. David Biro

    Thank you Hedy for reminding us of the power of narratives, that they always involve a back and forth dialogue and in doing so join us together — whether doctors and patients, doctors and colleagues, or teachers and students. I, for one, will be doing more narrative and giving more attentive feedack the next time we give our medicine and litrature elective at Downstate!

  6. Hedy Wald

    Yes indeed David, doctors and colleagues, as I now have the opportunity to write to you…thank you for reading and sharing, that’s meaningful…it’s gratifying to see kindred spirits out there “slowing down”, taking time from the hectic life we all lead and reflecting on our work together…take a look at our BEGAN tool (PEC 2010) for guiding faculty in crafting quality written feedback – may be of interest as you embark on “more attentive feedback” -we included some examples of student narrative and written feedback…Keep up your fine work at Downstate and thanks again for reinforcing our belief in the power of narrative…

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