The power of story

Colleague spotlight | Lisa Stephenson


Lisa Stephenson

A Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education and Course Leader for the MA in Creative Education, Lisa’s focus is creative curriculum and drama for learning. She has worked creatively with a range of marginalised young people, schools, cultural organisations and artists, exploring the way in which arts processes can activate children’s emotional literacy, critical dispositions and wellbeing. Lisa is also the Director of Story Makers Company, a practice-based research collaborative in the Carnegie School of Education. Lisa’s research and practice focuses on empowering young learners through participation in creative learning.

Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working with Carnegie School of Education

Working as a primary teacher and senior leader in Bradford schools, my practice has always been interdisciplinary, drawing from work across a range of settings including hospitals and community work, and drawing from studies in drama and psychology. Since joining the Carnegie School of Education, I have championed the role of drama and creative arts across our Initial Teacher Education courses and established an MA specifically focusing on creative learning in education.

I also founded the Story Makers Company in 2017 as a practice-based research collaborative working with children, artist educators and schools to share and create new arts practices. The research- practice focuses on empowering young people to see themselves as active change makers and amplifying the voices of marginalised groups. Recently, we have established The Story Makers Press, a children’s publisher which co-creates culturally representative stories with children. So far, we have published four books and teacher’s guides which are underpinned by our research on wellbeing and creativity. My PhD focuses on active citizenship and exploring the ways in which affective dispositions can reimagine 21st Century learning in schools.

What makes you passionate about your work and why is it important?

Stories are the way that we make meaning of a complex world as children and adults. They are often told from a particular viewpoint. The act of making, telling and sharing stories together can not only become a place to imagine and create new futures but also can become a way to think about whose stories are told and whose are not. This is because when we make stories together, we experience multiple viewpoints and positions which may be different from our own. We also co-create in new and innovative ways. This incorporates visual, physical, linguistic and emotional ways of knowing and expressing those narratives. This process invites active compassion, collaboration and critical reflection, which I would argue are central purposes of education.

The ability to imagine and make liveable futures under their own, negotiated terms in story worlds, becomes a place for children to practise for the dispositions and thinking necessary for living well together (Stephenson and Dobson, 2019). This way of working is sidelined in England’s current national curriculum. I believe that we need to hold on to these imaginative spaces in education as important sites of learning about our relationships with each other, the world and thinking regeneratively as active citizens.

How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?

Collaboration and partnership is the heart of all my practice, as I believe that collective creativity is essential for social change. My work is always co-created with artists, children and teachers. As part of my PhD research, I worked with 30 children over a year using drama for learning. We explored the ways in which the children made meaning, sharing our critical reflections on these experiences. Eight affective dispositions emerged from this research and this has enabled a clearer articulation of the ways in which creative arts processes may support contemporary learning and wellbeing. One child told me that through the workshops he had “learned to fight without fighting”.

Recently, I led two online story experiences to connect children during Covid: The Museum of Legends and Re-imagining Home. Through the Story Makers hub, we worked collectively with 12 artists and children in designing these immersive experiences. The project was particularly meaningful as it provided a shared experience at a time of difficulty for children and focused on decolonising spaces for children to share their aspirations. It also challenged our practice as we innovated new ways to work. This work is presently shaping new curriculum models in schools.

What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working in the Carnegie School of Education?

I am proud to work with such a committed team of colleagues and share our research with trainee teachers. Feedback from students and children are always the most valuable aspects of the work. I have been awarded the Golden Robes Personal Tutor Award by students and also Educate North Innovation Award 2020 for Story Makers Team. Following the co-creation of our third Story Makers Press book, Chasing the Volcano, created with children who were from Roma communities, a child told us that “I liked that I could draw my anger”, another child told us – following the publication of our second book, Zalfa Emir, co-created with Muslim girls – that “it was important to have characters that are like me”, another child that “they had never had this much confidence”. These are always the proudest moments and the real impact of the work.

We recently won an Erasmus+ bid to work with five countries to co-create resources to promote creative arts learning across all phases of education. We have also won a Teacher Development Fund to work with 10 schools across Bradford developing a creative curriculum through drama to support oracy and language development for children. This is built on collaboration and aims to support learning widely.

What is the importance of your work?

A recent report by Durham Commission (2019) shows that children’s access to creative and cultural learning through the arts is marginalised with children having different access to arts and creativity in school. This has been cited as a social justice issue by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Cultural Alliance (2019). Although the New National Curriculum in Wales looks promising, we need to address these issues through new educational practices which listen to the voices of young people. We also need to focus on educational practices which support children to work collectively and critically in uncertain times. Story making has a role to play in this.

story makers company

Promoting inclusive and creative learning in education through story
Image of an outdoor Story Maker session, delivered by two staff with three young people

Dr Lisa Stephenson

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Education

Dr Lisa Stephenson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education. Her teaching and research specialism is creative (drama) learning. She is founder and director of Story Makers Company, a practice-based research centre which champions creative pedagogies and relational learning.

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