Narrative Ideas at Khoj

Informed by Narrative Practices, a post-modern therapy practice, we believe that people are meaning makers, and the meanings we give to our experiences shape our lives and the actions we take. Stories shape life in the present and future, and they exist in a context. Narrative Practices also guide us that people, including the young and very young, are always taking action in response to circumstances in their lives, and that our lives are multistoried.

Now, how do these ideas inform our work?

As educators, we get several opportunities to interact with students every day. In those interactions, we witness a galaxy of stories on a daily basis. Stories about their skills, know-how, problems, hobbies, friends, families and the list can go on and on.

However, it’s quite interesting to reflect on when we think about students. What kind of stories pops up in our minds most of the time? Or stories often told to us about students? As educators and people working in the ecosystem, do we hear stories about their qualities, skills, and know-how more OR stories about them being labelled as troubled, mischievous, stubborn, slow-learner and whatnot, more?

Narrative practices have anchored us to learn and unlearn the way we work with young ones on a daily basis. Here, we share with you some discoveries we had about how Narrative Practices come alive at Khoj. 

Our lives are multistoried, not single-storied.

We believe that our students’ lives are multi-storied, not single-storied. Even when students are surrounded/labelled by the problem stories they are always taking micro-est actions to respond to the problem story. Let us see how. Sangeeta Zombade, Director of Khoj, shares this from a conversation with Grade 3 students:

The school was doing a module called, “Kindness is my power” across all grades. Students were exploring how we hold the power of kindness and how we may express it with each other, also reflecting that the power of kindness exists in us.

One of the students from grade 3, Sundar, has become a constant discussion point amongst teachers around his behaviour (“he is very violent”, “he doesn’t listen”, etc).

During a reflection conversation with Sangeeta, the director of Khoj, he said, “Didi, I am trying. However much I am trying, it’s not happening. Because this has become my habit.”

The teacher asked, “what are some challenges around it? Kaun se time par aap kar paa rahe ho, kaun se time par nahi kar pa rahe? When are you able to do it, and when are you not able to do it?”

Sundar was able to share some examples of when he is not able to be kind. However, he found it difficult to share any example of when he was in that moment. He said, “Meri mummy mujhe bura bolti hai. To main kind kaise ho sakta hoon (My mother says I am bad. Then how can I be kind?)”

“Every day you come to school, you share your food, and you help Didis in the class. You ask questions when you don’t understand – do you think these are actions of kindness?”

He stayed quiet.

Sangeeta further added, “right now you are talking about your challenges with me. Do you think this could be kindness?”
He seemed surprised and asked, “Is this really true?”

Sangeeta affirmed.  

Then she enquired, “Kaun si feeling hai jo bahut bar aa aati hain aise situation me (What are some feelings that come to you often in such situations)?”

Gussa hai jo bahut jyada aata rehta hai.. Baar baar.. (Anger comes very often, time and again).”

“Do we want to do something about this gusssa (anger), together?”

Mujhe help lagegi reminders ki (I will need help with reminders).”

Post this conversation, Sangeeta and the class teacher also got into a discussion on understanding his background, how can we approach conversations with this student, without blame or shame, and recognising that the student is very self-aware about the situation and his needs. They are also working with the social work team to explore what’s happening on the home front.    

Here, we notice Sangeeta was developing alternative storylines by introducing questions; questions that are influencing these other truths of Sundar being kind, she was trying to recruit other lived experiences of Sundar being kind. When we are really curious to know what is our students’ meaning-making of the whole experience, that’s an entryway to what they hold on to, what is their preferred story and what are their intentions and values for their lives.

Preferred stories from the classroom

Teachers hold a very influential role in the school context. The way we think about stories reflects in the way we engage with our students. Oftentimes the problem stories create an image of students which robs their dignity.  It makes us wonder  “what will become possible if all school stakeholders come together to hold on to these other stories about our students which are different from the problem stories?” What will we see happening in our classrooms? What would our relationships with our students look like if we hold on to their preferred stories? 

Do we know stories shape life in the present and future? Check this out how. From another situation, Priyanka Shrivastav, Teacher Lead at Khoj, shares a conversation with Grade 3 students:

Khoj has the first 30 minutes of free play, followed by 30 minutes of SEL every day in the timetable. One day, during free play, many students came up to me and complained about their classmate, Sakshi – “Didi, she took all the toys”… “Didi, she is not sharing, she has taken every toy,” “Didi, marbles nahi khelne ko mil rahe hai,” etc. It so happened that when one student said this, the next added and then many started complaining about her. 

As part of the Kindness is my power module, I had planned to do “Ally – the alligator”, a story about friendship, kindness and inclusion with the students. After this incident, I modified our closing debrief. I asked, “In the last few days, who all were kind to us during playtime? Can we share how were they kind to us? We will go around the circle and share one by one.”

After many students were done sharing, it so happened that 5-6 students spoke about Sakshi only, “she shared the marbles with me the other day,” “she invited me to play with her when I didn’t have any toys.” Listening to this, something clicked for Rohan and he exclaimed, “Didi, so many people are talking about Sakshi being kind today!”

I added to the excitement, “Interesting, no!? Yesterday there were so many complaints. And today we notice that Sakshi has also been kind to so many of us so many times.”

Then as a class, we discussed, – why our focus goes so much on the complaints about our friends? What may be the reason that we miss talking about different types of stories, some of which can also be about what’s good that they are doing? What will happen if we do that too?   

People, however young, are experts of their lives.

It’s not that the stories of students about their hopes, dreams, and know-how, or about their skills and qualities are not available to us. We would say that it’s not made available to us because the problem story is most of the time given the centre stage. The problem stories are so powerful that the other stories become less influential in the face of a problem story. 

We believe, including the young and very young, are always taking action in response to circumstances in their lives.  Mala Naidu, School helper, and Pooja Badekar, Grade 1 Teacher, share from a conversation with Grade 1 students:

This year, we had a first-time school-goer in grade 1. In the beginning, the school was discomforting for her – being in a new place, with new people, away from the family for 4 to 5 hours a day. Her response to this newness was crying and running away from school. She could not place trust in the school, teachers or other adults who were supporting her to feel comfortable in her new journey. 

Mala (School staff): Priti, what happened? Why are you crying? 

Priti (student): I want to go home, I don’t want to be here. 

Mala: Okay! we will go home in some time. 

This kind of approach kept happening for a couple of days. But it wasn’t working. The school team was learning and trying to understand Priti’s needs; they learnt that she is very close to her grandfather and her sister. 
Mala and Priti’s class teacher, Pooja, had spoken about inviting her grandfather and sister alternate days to the school to stay through the day on alternate days for a few days so that she feels safe in the classrooms and she will know that her family is reachable for her. 

While the family was making an effort to ensure Priti settled down in the school, Mala and Pooja were using different strategies to build rapport with her. 

Priti and Pooja had a conversation where the teacher mentioned that she is also new to the school like her. 

Pooja: Priti, you know that I am new to the school?

Priti: yes

Pooja: what makes you feel secure at home? and not in school?

Priti:  at home, I feel safe because my Dadu and sister are together they won’t leave me and I trust them.

Pooja: Okay can we both become friends? We will stay in the same class. I will be there in class as well as mala didi. We will be there to help you and care for you.

Pooja,  slowly by talking to Priti, bonded with her and gained her confidence. And Priti started supporting Pooja and Mala didi in the classroom. Slowly, she started developing trust in the teachers and didi and the students around her and peers in the classroom she felt secure. Pooja and Mala started giving her more time to settle down and eventually we thanked and requested her family to support Priti’s settling down. 

Adults and young students knew what and how to respond to the situation that they were experiencing. The class teacher used an empathetic approach when she mentioned that she is also new to the school and that she can help me also. Now Priti is settled, she comes to school with a giant smile on her face 🙂 plays around with her friends.  

People are meaning-makers.

Priyanka shares from another conversation with Grade 3 students: 

We know people are meaning makers and meanings are influential in nature. A lot of times some meanings from certain experiences gain centre stage. Hence it becomes very important to reflect on these meanings that often come into our work. One such beautiful example of it is in the next story.  Do we know meanings are influential? Check this how?

Whenever I would ask students to draw whatever comes to their mind, I noticed there is always some hesitation. “didi nahi ata hai (didi, we don’t know how to draw)”.

After talking to them, I came to know that students had formed a single story of how Art should look like, “art should look beautiful. having curves, patterns etc,” Seemed like this was coming from the dominant discourses of what art is from their ecosystem. 

It was necessary to challenge or offer an alternate perspective for them to experience what else art can look like. That they experience that Art can be anything. 

One day, I chose to do the story by Peter H. Reynolds on “The Dot” and the journey of this character in the story, bringing multiple perspectives about Art. While the stories offered some conversation, they didn’t change anything overnight. It’s not that there was a sudden change in everyone. 

What I continued doing was, drawing it out myself on the board or on paper, everything that they were asked to do. My drawings looked off from the dominant way of how drawings look. When I was able to say that this is my drawing, there was acceptance. Slowly the acceptance towards one’s own diverse arts became more alive. 

We have seen in our journey of being in schools, students get labelled based on their energy, participation or behaviours very easily. For eg: students with high energy, students who don’t listen or participate in activities, and students who constantly engage in fighting, and abuse in the school. These labels gradually become the only story about those students.  It becomes difficult for teachers, students and caregivers to think about them beyond those stories.

For the Khoj team learning and practising Narrative Ideas in the school guides us towards an education that honours stories that students and teachers bring in.   

About the Authors:

Mala Naidu works as a Helper at Khoj for the last 5 years. She has experienced and received trust in this process of working with the students and the team, which she feels is rare in workspaces.

Priyanka Shrivastav works as a Teacher Leader with Khoj, SEL-aligned School. She has been involved with the school for the last 5 years in diverse roles. She also leads a class of 35 amazing young people on a journey of discovery and co-creation. She holds a degree in E.C.C. Ed. and currently pursuing her B.ed degree. When not teaching, Priyanka loves to doodle and travel to different places.

Sangeeta Zombade is a certified educator in Early Childhood Care Education (E.C.C.Ed) and Experiential Education. She holds a B. Com degree and has been working in education for over 14 years. She is working as the Director of Khoj, she leads educators’ professional development, school operations, and team development at Apni Shala.



We would like to express our deepest gratitude towards our students, colleagues, and friends who not only helped us in thinking and reflecting through this piece, but also supported bringing the Narrative idea come alive in our work culture. This experience wouldn’t have been possible if each of them would have not supported us. 

Disclaimer: Students’ name has been changed to maintain their confidentiality. 


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