Community Engaged Research Project Draft

Bryan Hanner
Julie Villegas and Kathryn Cornforth
Berlin Seminar
1 June 2017
Community Engaged Research Proposal: Kotti e.V.
This project will focus on the idea of cross-cultural storytelling in a non-performance setting to build understanding among a local or global community. The goal is to explore how the application of narratives can be expanded beyond traditional art, considering a wide variety of storytelling techniques including music, dance, and visual arts. Each of these methods are effective in reaching a different audience, so we will consider what methods are primarily used, which if any are missing, and how they work together. Looking at the cultural background of these stories and the methods of expression, including what language is used, will be instrumental to seeing how narratives fit into people’s communication with each other. At organizations like Kotti e.V., classes for children allow for a place to promote their own stories and create new ones together to encourage creativity, teamwork, and many other skills. People and especially children rely on stories to communicate anything from imagining a fantasy world to saying why they fell on the sidewalk. This research will look at the stories to which children are exposed in an educational environment, how children get opportunities to tell their own stories, and what modes of expression are the most effective in finding a balance between community building and individual expression. Related to the classroom, what stories parents tell or hear when they interact with the class and instructors will be another element to explore. Through both what is being done and new methods of storytelling, this project seeks to look at how best to teach children to tell their own stories and listen to others’ as well.
As a musical theatre performer and a musician, I am often experimenting with forms of storytelling that go beyond the borders of what performance art traditionally does. When considering involving the community in theatre, I have found that there is a disconnect between the people you want to reach and the people who actually end up coming to the show. This struggle along with the study abroad program’s spring seminar brought me to a new question this quarter: what if the next step in my exploration of storytelling is to take it completely out of a “performance”? A stigma surrounds getting onstage or doing a performance, but there is an opportunity to break this barrier by reaching the same goals with the means deconstructed into its parts: reading a poem, sharing a song, drawing a picture, etc. I do not intend to instigate any “musical theatre” necessarily, but the elements involved and many other performing techniques encompass many ways people like to communicate and tell stories.
During my search, I dove deeper into what is so intriguing to me about stories and why I feel it is so fundamental to human nature. I think the power of stories is that they can transcend culture, even language. Stories take values, ideas, feelings, and humanity into a concrete form, some series of physical or mental events. It opens up the teller and the audience to empathy and critical thinking, if done well. The more I explored my interest in stories and understood how relevant is its goal of connection and shared experience to those that are involved in today’s global interactions and conflicts, the more I decided the topic is what I need to embrace this summer.
The good news was that many of our partners provided opportunities to look at non-performance environments for sharing narratives. After many days of reflection, I set aside several hours to look at all of our community partners, and I saw that Kotti wanted us to work with first-graders. The opportunity to work with children and see what role stories play in their lives, while they are rapidly learning who they are and what this world is, seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn from those who have less of the adult habit of keeping feelings and expression hidden. They are also closely connected to their family, so if they immigrated, they are likely standing in between the cultural background of their family and German culture. Kotti has a “family garden” for social events and also mentions looking at how parents interact with the organization. Kotti’s involvement in education, culture, and providing services inspired my research of stories in a critical part of life: a child’s education.
Overall, I am interested in how a performing arts perspective will allow for insight into the Kreuzberg community, and in immigrant communities in general. Storytelling is relevant today because more and more people from across the world are meeting and needing to work together to solve problems and reach compromises. This occurs when people migrate, but also in politics, business, entertainment, etc. By promoting understanding and empathy on both sides, a partnership can be much more rewarding for both parties. And in the case of immigration, new communities can embrace their strengths despite cultural differences. This research hopes to gain insight on the restrictions and the possibilities of stories in cross-cultural understanding, starting with its place in education.
How can stories in elementary school encourage children to express themselves and improve communication skills among people of different cultural backgrounds? I have chosen this question because we have talked a lot in our class about what we can learn from those we are working with in Berlin. In my experience, I have found that the most effective way to communicate, even without the use of words, is through stories. They can allow for self-expression through a personal story, making a story up, or telling another’s story. The moments captured in them, the ones we bring to attention, encapsulate who the identity of the storyteller, his or her empathy, and his or her imagination. Children are constantly learning and often have close ties with their families, which inspired me to look at storytelling in education and how that fits in with immigration and multiple cultural influences.
Cultural Sensitivity
Although I aim to look at all people with fresh eyes and understand them by their actions instead of preconceived notions, I have a white, middle-class background that affects my personal lens. I do not remember ever being told explicitly, but I grew up with this idea that homeless people or people living in poverty could make the choice to work and better themselves. I had a feeling that there was something more, but none of my classes really discussed it until college. I still do not have a solid grasp on all the factors that contribute to class differences, but I think I am asking the right sort of questions now. I will strive to drop my preconceptions in favor of what I find to create room for research conclusions that I am not expecting.
I have also been raised with ideas of progress, productivity, justice, and success that mainly stem from growing up in the United States. The nation’s culture instills a general discontentment with how things are now, preferring to make things better. While it is sometimes good to improve, it is also important to recognize what is already working. Remembering what is good about the current situation and Kotti e.V. will open doors to learn from the people involved with the organization and create research that considers discoveries and innovation that is already happening, instead of skipping straight to what could change in the future. I also expect my idea of what is considered successful and productive will be different than many people with whom I will be working. At this point, the most useful approach to such a broad challenge is to discuss differences when appropriate, not take others’ perspectives for granted, and reflect. With the U.S.’s global influence, there are more commonalities than before the 1940’s between the U.S. and other countries, but this also means there will be connotations associated with “American” ideals or customs that I need to be aware of when I am in Berlin. As a participant-observer, I hope to act in a way that allows me to be a part (if temporary) of the community instead of being a visiting American.
Most of my data will be collected through personal observations. I plan to start with using a combination of field notes in a journal, “close reading” of the space, and co-creating with Kotti and the class (Boyles, julianstodd). My focus for a “close reading” would include much background research into the cultures of the students’ and/or parents’ countries of origin, which will help me look at influences in their stories and gain the needed context (Boyles). Another important component will be other research related to stories and how they can be used to change the way we think and live, if not more specific to stories in the classroom focusing on immigrants. For instance, New Tactics in Human Rights, which is associated with the Center for Victims of Torture, had a discussion in 2013 that brings up efforts to reframe topics using stories, usually involving national or international movements (“Change”). Familiarizing myself with past research will allow for more connections in my own conclusions and process, but will also inform how I am contributing to a larger body of research. A strength of “close reading” is its help in making my work cohesive with existing research and context-driven insights. However, one of its weaknesses is that it may distract from the actual data and my own conclusions. Co-creating would contribute to my personal conclusions, which would focus on a constant dialogue with those I am working with in Berlin. The collaborative reiteration over the material that is central to co-creating will bring focus and clarify to my data, while also hopefully connecting with my “close reading” work (julianstodd). I surely have the “tempo” element with our restricted timeline in Berlin (julianstodd)!
Interviews will supplement my observation, giving contextual and historical insight that I cannot gain in person by observation while in Berlin. One of my focuses will be developing neutral interviewing questions to facilitate an honest, unbiased response. Interviews with people outside of Kotti will give insight on where Kotti’s fit into the community and the lives of the students’ families. It is important to keep this outside work in mind because it could serve as inspiration or useful information for what is in the most demand and what populations are being served, which is inspired by CSSP’s big-picture approach (“Our Approach”). However, personal observations of how the parents, students, and instructors interact with Kotti, as well as how stories help facilitate this interaction or add to the experience in a new way altogether, will be critical to my research.
The expectation is that one or two of these methods will stand out as the most effective, and I will primarily use them for my remaining time in Berlin. All of them will be tried in my first week, so I can get a sense of what works.
It is important to note here that this same idea of how stories reflect people and that people can be understood through stories applies to my own research (Boje). Since I am focusing on stories, I need to be aware of how I am portraying their own stories if I retell any. When documenting people’s stories, a process will need to be created to tell these stories as accurate to the source as possible.
Daily Schedule
  • ·       Participate-observe the students, instructor, and their interactions in 1st grade classes.
  • ·       Dialogue with instructors and fellow staff before, during, and after working at Kotti.
  • ·       Interview a veteran member of the Kotti staff (and a staff member of another organization, if time allows) to learn about the founding and development of the group and how its goal and role has been during its existence.
  • ·       Attend community and social events outside of Kotti (other community partners’ events and perhaps a church service).
  • ·       Observe parents’ interactions with the organization and class.
  • ·       Interviewing parents (method TBD to consult with Kotti, could be a casual interview such as a question).
  • ·       Visit other partner organizations that have programming that may facilitate a story in non-traditional ways (with permission).
  • ·       Meet with a public policymaker (mayor’s office, etc.) on the role of organizations such as Kotti in their community (how s/he thinks people interact with the organization and any hopes for the future).
  • ·       Seeing Maxim Gorki Exile theatre and other experimental art in Berlin (to set up a comparison, and how accessible the events are to children and families)
Works Cited
Boje, David M, John T Tuhman, and Donald E Baack. “Hegemonic Stories and Encounters Between Storytelling Organizations.” Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 8 No 4, Dec. 1999, pp 340-360.
Boyles, Nancy. “Closing in on Close Readings.” Educational Leadership, Vol. 70, No. 4, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013, pp 36-41.
“Change the Story: Harnessing the power of narrative for social change.” New Tactics in Human Rights. Center for Victims of Torture, October 2013, Accessed 2 June 2017.
julianstodd [Julian Stodd]. “Seven strands of co-creation: reflecting on how we learn together in social learning spaces.” WordPress, 26 Feb. 2016, Accessed 2 June 2017.
Kotti. Kotti eV, n.d., Accessed 1 June 2017 (both with and without Google Translate).
“Our Approach.” CSSP Berlin Center for Integrative Mediation, n.d., Accessed 1 June 2017.