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A Tale of Tales: Using Story-Based Techniques for Health Education, An Interview with Dr. Tapati Dutta, MCHES®

“Using storytelling as a pedagogic methodology made students good listeners and enhanced their critical thinking, all while exciting them in a way that made room for self-discovery and intercultural humility.”

~Dr. Tapati Dutta, MCHES®

NCHEC: What is your current job title and where do you work?

Dr. Dutta:  My job title is Assistant Professor, Public Health Department, Health Sciences Division, Fort Lewis College, Durango. Summarizing my professional profile, I’d describe myself as a “pracademic,” (practitioner and academician). More precisely, a social scientist and inclusion strategist in public health, with almost 25 years’ experience in program management, socio-behavioral research, community-based health education, policy advocacy, implementation science, across contexts of health equity, and healthy policies among underserved populations. A significant body of my research has been translational, that means, while it has empowered community stakeholders, and bridged the community-scientists-policymaker divide, it has garnered the political-will for healthy policies and effective programs in HIV, cervical cancer, and sexual and reproductive rights.

NCHEC: What is your role as an Assistant Professor?

Dr. Dutta:  Currently, as an Assistant Professor at this federally designated Native American-Serving Nontribal Institution (NASNTI) in rural Colorado, my primary roles are (i) curriculum development, and teaching upper division undergraduate courses - Global Health, Health Research, Program Planning and Management, etc. - to diverse students in class sizes ranging from 15 – 35 students; (2) mentoring students for senior projects, and internships, and (3) initiating and fostering North-North, and North-South academia-non-profit research partnerships to conduct public health research with students, colleagues, and partner organizations.

NCHEC: Describe the rapidly changing needs/challenges of rural and tribal students during this time of COVID.

Dr. Dutta:   In June 2020 U.S. News and World Report named Fort Lewis College the 10th most diverse liberal arts college in the nation, defined by its rural, multiethnic composition. Around half of FLC’s students are from Native American or Alaska Native communities, representing more than 184 Native American tribal nations and Alaska Native villages, roughly 50% students are of color, and about 1/3 of students are first generation graduates. This contributes to the college’s diverse teaching-learning environment. However, the same diversity, plus being in a rural locale, posits unique challenges, digital divide being one of them. This was true always, but with COVID-19, it became even more apparent. Post March 2020, as a COVID-19 induced response, when the college moved to online teaching, we witnessed the depth to which the digital-divide cut through the students’ community. While several students from Native American reservations such as the Navajo Nation reported traveling up to three hours to access Wi-Fi, others mentioned that they drove to the top of hills near their homes to find cell service, and many were simply unable to access the internet at all.

NCHEC: How would you describe the concept of storytelling as a pedagogical technique among tribal first-gen students and how did you incorporate it into your classroom?

Dr. Dutta:  Globally, as much as in the US, while indigenous groups vary linguistically, geographically, culturally, socially and politically, a universal commonality among them is a rich oral tradition, constituting of storytelling, eyewitness accounts, poems, songs, choreography, and speeches, that are passed orally through generations, contributing to the collective community knowledge. This is an invaluable way to preserve the tribes’ history, culture, beliefs and sense of identity. Deeply Inspired by this oral culture among indigenous communities and guided by the principles of ‘narrative medicine’ where patients' stories helps building physicians’ empathy and, in turn, improves the quality of care, I have used story-based techniques as a teaching-learning methodology for my taught courses: ‘Global Health’, ‘Research Design’ and ‘Program Planning and Management’.

In my classes, the story arc is built in the following way: guest speakers and I share lived experiences, and experiences from the field; thereafter students form think-pair-share groups to discuss on different research, and practice issues around health policies, disparities, communication, often on tabooed topics like ‘suicide’ and ‘sex-education’, etc.; and finally students write letters to health researchers, decision makers, and, implementors, in which they critique and debate, share diverse perspectives on these issues. When the college moved to online teaching-learning, under the HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) learning model that allows each student the choice to attend the class in person or online, digital storytelling was used. In addition to the  earlier methods, now done via Zoom platform, students watched public health documentaries and TEDx talks, and paired and shared in Zoom break out rooms. Digital storytelling, in my opinion, aided co-constructing the synchronous and asynchronous ‘story arc’; promoted newer frames of meaning-making pertaining to global health inequities; enhanced students’ mapping of community-based social solidarity mechanisms in addressing COVID-19, and eventually fostered student innovators, often leading to their trustworthy relationships with the professor and community partners.

NCHEC: How has this technique assisted student learning?

Dr. Dutta:  Students’ evaluations highlighted that using storytelling as a pedagogic methodology made them good listeners, enhanced their critical thinking, while also excited them in a way that made room for self-discovery and intercultural humility. Trust building between students and professors was both, incumbent to, and an outcome of these story-telling processes.

Some of the student quotes are mentioned here:

  • “The lectures from Dr. Dutta were very informative and interesting. The thing I found unique is Dr. Dutta’s TEDx talk. She shared her real life experiences of life growing up, the hardships she faced, interaction communication and connecting with people from all over the world.”
  • “I heard testimonials from the experts that are handling and coping with the COVID-19, how it was affecting their tribe or area and what ways are they mitigating the spread. I realized the Navajo Nation wasn’t the only tribe that was struggling with dealing with the COVID but that there are other tribes out there that are experiencing the same obstacles and dilemma.”
  • “I had never taken a course that produced more connections and opportunities in that field, like this one.”
  • “I think one of the most unique things about this class is how many real world applications it has, and how many directions you can take in health implementation and research. We had guest speakers from around the world which was very interesting and also writing letters to them. I have never done something like that.”

NCHEC: How could this technique be adapted and applied by health education specialists in other career settings, such as community organizations or in K-12 schools?

Dr. Dutta:  Narrative and stories are increasingly been used in multiple subject areas including language, arts, social studies, science, healthcare education, nursing education, for their deep appeal, satisfaction, and cultural transcendence. Hypothesized as a decolonizing and democratizing methodology, the efficacy of story-based techniques are multifold. Literature highlights that they disrupt racial, class and gender stereotypes among learners, diminish stigma, and even fatalistic (e.g. suicidal) ideas that negatively impact students’ learning outcomes and retention.

Health education specialists can use a whole array of resources like audio books, webinars, podcasts, TEDx talks to enhance critical thinking in the affective zone, promote conversational discourse on topics like Social Determinants of Health among diverse learners, thus contributing to transformational learning.

In a recent example, I facilitated a book club discussion for K-12 teachers. In this, teachers read a particular book, which they are given. This is followed by a guided discussion to provide socio-culturally nuanced understanding of the health issues discussed in the book. This allowed the K-12 teachers to brainstorm on concepts that are not readily discoursed and critiqued through traditional pedagogy, while also making participants aware of their strengths, and alternative voices, in relation to a specific topic.

Story-based methodologies are also a great way to promote strategies like SALT- Support, Appreciate, Listen-Learn, and Transfer, and Motivational Interviewing for empathetic health communication. We have recently used these among healthcare professionals to promote COVID-19 related vaccination communication.   

NCHEC: Can you recommend some resources that health education specialists can utilize?

Dr. Dutta:  Some of my publications in gray literature and comments of health professionals and students therein, are noteworthy markers of the effectiveness of storytelling methodologies for health education:

A warm thank you to Dr. Dutta for providing a beautifully written and in-depth look at utilizing narrative and story-telling to promote health education and dispel stereotypes among diverse learners, while fostering a critical and poignant human connection between teacher, student, and our 'global classroom.'  
Posted by Jessica Wessner at 06:30

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