Following is the Still Waters in a Storm process, described for use by teachers or community organizers:
Everyone listens to everyone. That’s our rule.
1. Students and teacher gather together in a designated space. As they arrive and get comfortable, they talk, casually, about anything.
2. On the first day, the teacher briefly outlines the group’s purpose and protocols:
3. We write, recite our writings, and have conversations about the writings. We can write about anything, in any style, any length, finished or unfinished. It can be serious or funny, true or fictional, story or poem or dialogue or diary, or simply a collection of words. We may doodle and draw on the paper. When you finish writing, be considerate of those still writing.
4. When everyone’s ready, we take turns reading aloud. Everyone listens with respect. It’s not always easy to read out loud, for any number of reasons.
5. After each reading, we have a conversation about what we heard. The goal of this conversation is to understand what the writer is expressing and to provide a caring context for expression. This means no negative responses (“That was stupid!” or “That made no sense!”) and no telling the writer what to do with his or her writing, should he or she choose to revise or otherwise continue it (“You know what you should do? You should make it all rhyme!” or “I think you need to cut the first paragraph.”) Helpful responses can begin with: “I noticed…”(savoring a detail); “That reminds me of a time when I…” (associations); “Why did you…” (questions). The teacher can gently guide students away from destructive or coercive feedback into these responses, which encourage fullness and precision of expression and respect the writer’s authorship and life experiences.
6. One voice at a time during responses, acknowledged by raising hands. This is not a feeding frenzy, and it is language, not volume or speed, that communicates here.
7. No praise. Praise trains students to seek more praise. It’s a controlling device. The reward of this activity is honest, specific, careful conversation, the message being that each person is heard.
8. The teacher can volunteer to read first, and model the vulnerability of the reader while again guiding the group towards supportive responses before the first student reads.
9. No grades, no tests, no corrections of spelling, grammar, structure. Never ever. We’re rehabilitating trust and self-expression and opening a door to compassion and self-understanding.
10. Keep a folder or box of each student’s writings, no matter how fragmentary. Remind them they always have the option of returning to something and working on it again. When they’re ready.
11. The one rule, “Everyone listens to everyone,” can resemble normal classroom rules that insist on sitting quietly. This can provoke anxiety in the traumatized mind. Reassure students repeatedly that the rule exists in order to create a place that is safe for everyone, and fair, and kind. These are important values, and you will protect the values in order to protect the students.
12. Otherwise, allow the group to run itself. There must be a balance between protective rules and the freedom to take creative and emotional risks. Tell the students this. Discuss it. Try reading and discussing John Stuart Mill, from On Liberty: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
Here is novelist Richard Price’s description of a session he observed:
“Still Waters in a Storm is a unique and important phenomenon in the heart of the often-struggling community of Bushwick. A racial rainbow of young people ages 6 to mid-twenties sit around a long table in a small room every Saturday afternoon and for three hours compose, recite and provide feedback for each other’s efforts in a mood of agendaless empathy and reflective creativity. I have never seen anything quite so moving and heartening in all my years as a writing teacher.”
I cite this to note how simple the arrangement can be, and how people who have been discouraged can, with time, come to love expressing themselves and listening this way. Time is crucial. It takes a lot of patience on everyone’s part for the group to be born in its unique way. Sometimes people begin by writing one word, or a page full of curses, or just doodles. Eventually, they say more, and even come to experiment with style.
A three-hour session sends the message that we’re not in a rush, there’s time for everyone. Once people catch the passion, it’s never enough time.
Even if you only have a few weeks or a day with a child, clearing space and time in this way will help them begin to heal from what amount to violent forces (school bells, clocks, grades, tests, corrections, sit down and be quiet, etc.)
If there is any way to limit the group size to 12 or fewer, this helps. It’s safer, because everyone knows everyone early on, and all voices can be heard. But Still Waters meets in groups as small as 2 or as big as 40.
The setting is important. Somehow it has to be a sacred space, still water in the storm. Leaving the school building would instantly send the message that this is not about business as usual, but collectively transforming a classroom (redecorating, rearranging, making a special entrance) would be empowering.
If there is any way you can do this by including a range of ages, from little children to senior citizens, I believe it is very helpful. Our Stone Age brains are wired for living this way. It’s the village raising the child. The group is modeled on several other groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Buddhist meditation circles, Quaker Prayer Meetings, and indigenous human villages or wolf packs, where everyone takes care of everyone. Awakening these instincts restores a lost feeling of purpose and place, and by caring for others, that mind can remember how to care for itself. I’ve seen it happen again and again for years.
Balances: Expression and Listening, Self and Other, Reflection and Responsibility, Control and Surrender.
We become who we are in relationship to others.
Teacher Protocols for “Still Waters in a Storm”
1. You are both a guide and a member of the group. You model full participation and vulnerability: writing, reciting, listening and responding.
2. You facilitate discussion by acknowledging those who want to speak and gently but firmly insisting on “one voice at a time.”
3. You protect the group from outside interference or inside sabotage during the session. Make the boundaries, and their rationale, firm and consistent. You’re all here to put thoughts and feelings into words, and to reflect back to each other what you’ve heard.
4. You remind members, as necessary, that they are to respond by noticing details, asking questions, and making connections, never by judging what they hear.
5. You remind members, as necessary, that they are to refrain from praising each other, announcing likes or dislikes.
6. You never correct writing or speaking, but gradually introduce possible ways for writers to make their self-expression more precise or visible (metaphors, alternate vocabulary,…)
7. You learn by truly caring about what the students say, by listening with compassion and patience. Writing that seems like nonsense or offense is probably beginning to say something that may not completely emerge until much later in the process.
8. This is also the example you set for the group. Listening with compassion and patience.
9. You learn by accepting with gratitude what the group says in response to your own writing.
10. You learn by reaching always for fullness and clarity of expression in your writing and speaking. You admit to confusion and frustration in your own writing and thinking, as a natural part of the process. You follow a student’s example and acknowledge that you are doing so. Your humility and effort will demystify the process for the group.
11. There is no agenda except self-expression and compassion. No final project, no test, no homework. This is sacred time.
12. There is no vision for how the people in the group should be as a result of this. Only the freedom to express themselves and the responsibility to listen with compassion during this time. The rest is up to them.