In early April 2017, Belmont High School undertook the planning and execution of a Diversity Week in early April 2017. The week included a number of guest speakers, workshops and panel discussions, including three workshop sessions with Urban Improv focused on providing students with tools and strategies for thinking about and discussing race. Approximately 400 students from a mix of grades attended the Urban Improv workshops as audience members, participated in discussions and a few were given the opportunity to join the Urban Improv performers on stage to role play strategies for dealing with difficult situations involving race.
The need for moderated forums, education and safe spaces for such conversations and learning to happen is important to the BHS Community, especially in light of recent events at the school, the district’s Social and Emotional Learning initiatives and the need to support staff in promoting these conversations. Urban Improv met our goals successfully, through a structured workshop which asked the assembled students first to think of ways in which racism, stereotyping and micro-aggressions play a role in society today, and particularly communities similar to Belmont. The performers then acted out several short scenes which depicted examples of these, and asked students to provide commentary, ask questions and give feedback. One of the most powerful tools used was when the performers asked students to suggest ideas for what they might want to say to the characters in the situation, or what actions they might take if they were in the scenes depicted. Asking students to practice perspective taking, actively participate in the conversation and reflect on their own thinking was not only effective, but an example of the kind of active learning that has a lasting impact on students.
Following the workshops, students and teachers provided positive feedback about both the content of the workshop, as well as the importance of the conversation. Some of the feedback included: recognizing that BHS was willing to provide space for these important conversations and bring in special guests; commenting on some of the specific takeaways from the conversation; reports back from teachers about follow-up conversations in full-class discussions, with individual students and small groups that furthered the learning begun in these conversations; recognizing the importance of bringing in outside presenters who were able to speak to the issues in a way some teachers would not have felt educated enough or comfortable addressing; bringing in presenters who represented a diverse range of genders and ages, which was particularly powerful for students of color in the audience to see.
As noted, this conversation was both one of many that took place during diversity week and an important jumping off point. The approximately 400 students and teachers who attended these workshops left with new ideas, conversational strategies and awareness that they have been able to bring to further conversations about race, both in our own community and in the wider world. One student said after the workshop that she thought it was so important, she wished it had been mandatory for the whole school to attend,and that she wanted the administration to bring Urban Improv back in the future for more workshops.