The Drexel Story Medicine Pivot in Response to the Pandemic
By Nomi Eve
June 4, 2020
Nomi Eve is a fiction writer, director of Drexel's MFA in Creative Writing and founder of Story Medicine, a Drexel Community-Based Learning course.
I hate myself for admitting this, but this darned pandemic has made me a better teacher. I know that any teacher reading this right would also hate me for saying such. So right now I am ducking for cover and turning off the comments section. But it’s true. I am better at what I have been tasked to do all along, because I have suddenly been forced to do it differently.
I teach Story Medicine at Drexel, WRIT 215. It’s a Community-Based Learning class in which my students write and perform original half hour shows for patients at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). My students perform their shows live in the lobby of CHOP twice a week during the school quarter. Kids come down from the wards if they can, or watch in their rooms on a closed circuit TV channel.
Basically, it’s a creative writing class with a civic engagement twist. The course fulfills institutional aims of experiential education and civic engagement. My students aren’t sitting around a workshop table writing in a vacuum for an imaginary audience. They are going out into the real world and writing for actual kids and then getting a chance to see if those kids are actually entertained by what they wrote.
And these are no regular kids. The children who make up the Story Medicine audience are extraordinary kids who sometimes come down from the wards dragging their chemo drips, or with fresh surgery staples on their shaved scalps. These are kids who have come from all over the world to one of the nation’s premier children’s hospitals and are in serious need of enrichment and distraction. I tell my students every quarter that the patients we meet are their real teachers. I’m just there to set the table. The kids at CHOP are there to actually teach my undergraduates about writing, about life, and about the crucial nexus between creativity and survival. Drexel students who take Story Medicine report over and over again that they are forever changed by the experience.
Well, just imagine my thoughts when the pandemic hit. We performed our last Story Medicine show at CHOP on a Tuesday morning in early March on week ten of the spring quarter. I felt like we were perched on the precipice. Any minute this would be the end. Story Medicine is turning five years old right now, this spring. Would this be the last show for a long time? Would we ever get back into the hospital in the strange new world that will emerge post-pandemic? I felt so sad, watching my wonderful, enthusiastic Drexel students in costumes up there on the stage, performing their hearts out for the kids at CHOP. I was thinking that this could be the end of what my students and I and the good folks at CHOP had built together.
During finals week, the first week of Stay at Home orders, it was clear that at least the beginning of the spring quarter would be taught remotely. My first thought was that we should cancel Story Medicine. After all, how in the world do you take four college students cow costumes and put them in cyberspace? And if the patients are the real teachers, how to you bring them to the class when the class is scattered all over the country? It seemed impossible to me to even attempt to replicate the civic engagement and experiential learning aspects of my class.
And I was also concerned about managing the disappointment of registered students. The students had registered for an in-person CBL course. A course where they would leave campus and get to have a real-world experience — not a Zoom class where there would be no interaction with patients or the hospital. Given the unlikelihood that we would actually get to return to CHOP in the spring, Story Medicine seemed like the wrong idea for a remote learning class.
I am grateful that Drexel extended spring break to give us professors an extra week to translate our courses to remote learning. I’m also grateful to my department head, Roger Kurtz, who encouraged me to figure out a way to make it work. In my case, the two weeks was exactly what I needed to radically reimagine my work.
Over the course of the extended spring break, my thinking shifted. No, we shouldn’t cancel Story Medicine. Rather, it should continue, but with a much more modest focus. You see, my thinking was incremental. At first I thought that I could have my students work in service of the “regular” class. That they could write scripts for the shows we would eventually put on whenever we got back into the hospital. The “experiential learning” would go away, but my students could still do the coursework, still learn about creative writing. I started to redesign my Blackboard page with this in mind.
But then something happened. I realized that I was wrong. And not just a little wrong, but radically wrong. Civic engagement and experiential learning are at the core of what we do at Drexel, and I realized that these goals are in direct alignment with the challenges of these times.
In CBL courses, we build community through shared dedication to a common goal. We challenge our students to use their unique talents and abilities and their learned skills in service of others. By doing so, we show our students what it is like to make a difference in the world and to do work that has deep meaning. We also get them out of their comfort zones and ask them to react to changeable circumstances in ways that promote innovation as well as personal and professional growth. What could be more important right now than to give my Drexel students the opportunity to still do all this? And by doing so, give them a sense of community and common purpose in these difficult times. Yes, I had to figure out a way for Story Medicine to transform and to transform quickly.
The pandemic had actually forced my hand. In the pre-pandemic world, there was much I took for granted. All of the “experiential” and “civic engagement” learning happened organically because we were at CHOP regularly performing for and interacting with patients. Now I had to ask myself, who is our new audience, and who are my students’ new “teachers”?
A Girl Name Scarlett
My lightbulb moment came midway through week one of spring break. My light bulbs were twofold — social media and a girl named Scarlett. First Scarlett. Scarlett is a 12-year-old outpatient at CHOP who lives with a chronic illness. She saw a Story Medicine show last spring, and her mother had reached out to me to tell me what a transformative experience it had been for her — to experience the hospital as a place of joy and creativity. Scarlett had just started working with me and Lisa Hayes from Westphal fashion in the brand-new Story Medicine fashion collaboration when the pandemic hit. She was about to start designing her own outfit, which the Drexel fashion students would then make for her. Now with the pandemic, the Story Medicine-Fashion Collaboration, like everything else, was on hold.
In week two of our extended spring break, I emailed Scarlett’s mother and asked her if Scarlett would maybe be interested in visiting my class via Zoom and sharing with the new class what it meant to be a kid living with chronic illness. I knew that Scarlett would break down misconceptions. She is the only girl on an all-boys football team, she performs in Shakespeare plays at St. Joes, and her favorite garment is a pair of gold spandex pants. She lives life to the fullest despite the very difficult challenges of her condition.
And I also knew that if she agreed to visit Story Medicine, she would give my students someone to write for — making it so that they aren’t writing for imaginary children, but for Scarlett and all the other millions of kids out there in the world that she represents. I find that this motivating factor is at the core of a civic-engagement experience. Drexel students who get the opportunity to connect their work to real people, work harder, work smarter and work with fuller spirit.
Scarlett agreed to visit our class. I felt like I was on the right track. I realized that I didn’t have to stop with Scarlett. The experiential component of my CBL class could still happen and happen in a big way. I quickly made more phone calls, and designed a nine-week course in which my students would have Zoom meetings not only with a child living with a chronic illness, but also with a successful children’s book author, the producers from the Seacrest Studio at CHOP, the mother of a six-year-old who succumbed to cancer after a long battle, and a former Story Medicine student who is also a two-time cancer survivor herself. These meetings would all have a common focus: to give my Drexel students insight into the unique entertainment needs of hospitalized children, and children living with chronic illnesses. And to do so not in a regular old out-of-a-textbook way, but in a way that is in direct alignment with Drexel’s goals of real-world, experiential education.
Everyone I reached out to said yes. We had our first meeting with Scarlett yesterday, and I immediately felt as if I should have been doing this all along. Having the opportunity to interview a kid like Scarlett empowered my students to ask insightful questions and get answers they wouldn’t have gotten to ask in our regular old CHOP Story Medicine class. I knew right away that once the pandemic is over, I will never go back to business as usual, but I will continue to incorporate these meetings into the Story Medicine curriculum. Scarlett was exactly the “teacher” my students needed. And just because we are not on campus and are learning remotely, it didn’t mean she couldn’t be there with us.
A New, Global Audience
The second light bulb idea for me was social media. This relates to the civic engagement portion of our class. Story Medicine students can no longer put on live shows for kids at CHOP. So who is our audience? The last thing I wanted was for my students to be writing in a vacuum. We need to write for actual people. Civic engagement spurs my students’ creativity and gives them a sense of meaning in their work.
I realized that while the pandemic may have taken one audience away from us, it has actually given us a much larger audience instead. Right now, at this unique moment in history, kids are more in need of entertainment and distraction than ever. Kids in hospitals and living with chronic illness are more isolated than ever. In-hospital entertainment programming and visiting has been dramatically curtailed because of the pandemic. I decided that Story Medicine had an obligation to try to step into that breach.
Thanks to social media, we could create original content for kids all over the world. I pivoted our coursework so that the current Story Medicine class would make original entertainment content for a dedicated Story Medicine YouTube channel, Instagram and TikTok — all geared towards providing curated enriching content to kids in hospitals and kids living with chronic illness all over the world.
Scarlett had told my students how she watches YouTube videos and Tiktoks while waiting for her monthly infusions. She told my students how entertaining and soothing content calms her nerves as she sits there dreading injections. Story Medicine has pivoted to creating just the sort of content Scarlett and all the other Scarletts out there need. In week eight and nine of the quarter, my students will “pitch” their work to Scarlett, who will act as a judge, Shark Tank style. She will tell my students what she thinks works, what doesn’t work, what is funny, what could be funnier.
A Look Ahead: Expanding Impact
After our meeting with Scarlett yesterday on Thursday of week one, I received the following message from one of my Story Medicine mentors. The mentors are students who have taken the class before and stay on to serve as student-leaders for the new class. The mentors know what Story Medicine was.
This student mentor, wrote, "Today was really special with Scarlett. There is something about us all sitting in our homes but coming together to do this work that makes me feel that everything is okay. I am thankful and inspired by you for making this such a rewarding experience for us mentors and the new class."
I am not including this here to pat myself on the back, but to show that after just one class, radical transformation was possible and civic engagement and experiential learning could continue, even in different educational terrain.
In short, our social media channels will enable us to continue the civic engagement portion of our CBL class, and the meetings with Scarlett and the other guests will enable us to continue our experiential learning. I imagine many things for the Story Medicine future. Of course I want to get us back into the hospital one day. But I know that whenever that is, we will only benefit if we bring along with us the lessons that this pandemic has taught us.
And what next? My next thinking is that I should recruit a team of Drexel student app and game designers to make a Story Medicine app for hospitalized children. Our new social media content could be funneled through such an app, and kids in hospitals all over the world could create their own customizable characters and interact with other kids in the Drexel Story medicine cyber universe. Innovation that would be the result in a radical shift in thinking that had to occur if we were to not only continue, but thrive in this new environment. Innovation that could go hand-in-hand with our original live-programming if/when we ever get back into the hospital one day.
Our impact can and should deepen and expand — if we embrace institutional goals and let them lead us through this difficult terrain, rather than let them fall by the wayside. If we respond to the pandemic with innovation, and then bring the lessons of the pandemic along with us into the future, I truly believe that the quality of our educational offerings will not only fortify, but also increase and deepen. As for the Story Medicine audience — it will be wider — as this pivot helps us gain the ability to reach not just kids at CHOP, but kids all over the world.