Introduction: I’m very pleased to publish this guest blog from pioneering educator Katherine Culpepper. Her work with high school students provides a model that I would love to see replicated widely in schools today—especially, but not exclusively,with students coming from challenging circumstances. An earlier blog on Katherine’s work can be found in the archives on this site. The foundational ideas in this important blog could also be used by parents, families, and others to support and assist children and adolescents in seeing themselves as heroes and heroines, discovering their values and gifts, and making positive choices going forward so that they can fulfill their potential.
By Katherine Culpepper
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to write about some of the work that I have done with high school students using Dr. Carol Pearson’s work on archetypal stories. Beginning in 2014, I adopted a counseling method that combines Dr. Pearson’s ideas developed in her book What Story Are You Living?, coauthored by Hugh Marr, with art therapy techniques. This approach has proven to be successful in the multicultural environment where I work. Approximately 68 percent of our students are Latinx, 15 percent Black, 6.5 percent White, 4 percent Asian, 5 percent multiracial, and 1 percent Native American. One-third of our students are multilingual learners, and about 20 percent of them receive special education services. Over half come from homes where English is not the primary language spoken. Combined, our students and families speak 55 different languages and hail from 91 countries.
The challenges of working in this environment required the use of a methodology that would engage students with different languages and backgrounds. Archetypes and art therapy tap issues deeper than culture or languages. Initially I worked with students individually, and only later worked in groups. Students arrived with a wide range of presenting issues, such as anxiety, depression, fear of academic failure, and relationship problems at school and at home.
Individual Sessions with Every Student
An individual session begins with the administration of the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator® (PMAI®) assessment. I would read the question, and if students did not understand the question, I would explain it to them. This took about 30 minutes. Because scoring takes only a few minutes, the results were immediate and could be processed in the same session. In the conversations with the students, it was common for them to ask, “How did you know this about me?”
Of the three stories that our students are living most often, the most common is that of the Orphan. These students will discover that the shadow of the Orphan is the inner disposition toward pessimism. They often have a single parent who would be working full time or with two jobs to take care of the family's needs, so no one would be there when such students went home. Schools then need to compensate for this to the degree they can by helping each student feel cared about and supported. When students become aware of the gift of the Orphan or realistic expectations for their lives, they are able to discover that they can make informed and effective decisions about their futures. The school and the relationships in the school with the teachers, administrators, and counselors then guide the students to accomplish the goal of living up to their potential. Some go on to college or to a trade school. It is imperative that the students are awakened to the gifts that are within, waiting to be embodied.
Another common story among my students is the Warrior. Many students who are living this pattern arrive at the insight that they are living the shadow side of the Warrior. Some who combined Orphan with Warrior were bullying others or being bullied. Some were members of neighborhood gangs,which they joined to gain a sense of belonging and mutual protection. When I gained this information, I would reach out to parents to encourage them to become more involved with each child, to promote a greater sense of safety and confidence in how parents do or will support and care for them.
When, for one reason or another, students recognized and acknowledged that they were gripped by fear, I would contact their teachers and alert them that the students were under stress for many reasons and needed some extra help for them to find peace in the classroom. The teachers generally were accommodating once they understood the circumstances. This could turn the tide, and the students would begin to discover that with effort and support they could express the positive side of the Warrior by doing the required school work and replacing experiences of fear with courage and confidence in the face of difficulty.
Lastly, a number of students would discover that they were living the story of the Seeker – not surprising for adolescents, especially those from immigrant families. We would examine together the two sides of this story, the gift, which calls the student to explore possibilities to expand and broaden their vision, and the shadow, which impedes the student’s faith that something good can await them. When students became consciously aware of some of the areas that held promise for a brighter future, they still might struggle to commit. If so, they were invited into discussions about particular issues that were challenging them.
I always tried to bring the parents into this process. I would call them and invite them to come in, and when they did, the student, the parent or caregiver, and I would discuss this process. Often the parents would want to take the PMAI® assessment, and they too would discover things that were unconscious in themselves, so that when leaving they would have identified issues that they could work on in the future.
Group Learning and Development
Beginning in the 2018-19 academic year, our librarian and I formed two groups, one all girls and the other all boys. These groups were designed to promote the development of students’ understanding of the 12 archetypal stories. Each group met once a week for 12 weeks. We began each session discussing an archetype, and followed this up with an art activity at the end, and an open discussion of how this story was active or not in their lives. The students were asked at the end of the 12 weeks to write an essay on their experience and how the teaching was helpful for their lives as students. I have shared two of the students' essays below.
In the following year, we formed groups that combined boys and girls and invited students who had participated in the program the previous year to present the archetypal story and lead the group discussion. It was an amazing experience, which allowed the students to take a leadership role in the school and become role models for other students.
Most of these students went on to college, and some came back to visit. Several of them reported that they had learned so much from being in the groups and expressed how the experience helped develop greater self-confidence and self-awareness as they began their college years.
In conclusion, I am happy to report that our introduction of archetypal stories to our students has proven to be one of the most valuable tools in our work with young teenagers and their parents. I began our sessions with the promise that “when you come in you don’t know certain things about yourself, and when you leave you will have a new understanding of how to make progress in directing your life.” Our students, parents, teachers, and administrators have come to know the ways in which this promise has been fulfilled in many students' lives.
I recently decided to leave this high school to work in a private elementary and middle school, where I will continue to use this method in my work for the students and their families.
Katherine Culpepper received her B.S. Ed. from the University of Memphis in 1987 and her
M.S.W.in Marriage and Family Counseling from The Catholic University of America in1990.
Shehas worked as a school counselor with a wide range of students in the Providence School
Department since 1995, including students in the Autism Transition Academy since 2014. Her
interestin art therapy and archetypal analysis was developed further at the Assisi Institute. She
and her husband, Gary, have two daughters, Marie and Anne. In June 2021 she left the
Providence School Department to work part-time at a local private school as a school counselor
and to complete her M.A. in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. She hopes to
continue to develop the work with archetypal stories in her practice. For more information,
contact her at email@example.com.
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