“Have you ever had one of those uncomfortable moments when a colleague made a racist remark, but you didn’t know what to do or say that would be productive, so you remained silent?”
That’s the question that Astra Cherry of the Gateway Writing Project (Missouri), Linda Christensen of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College, and Pamela Morgan of the Maryland Writing Project—members of the Urban Sites Network Leadership Team—posed in a session titled “Hard Talk: Tough Conversations About Teaching Writing and About Learning” at the 2008 NWP Annual Meeting.
The question was posed to open up a discussion of how we tackle awkward conversations around race, class, language, and pedagogy.
The group shared a strategy to work through such inherently uncomfortable moments: a role-play technique described in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed . The method, influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, uses theatre to explore, analyze, and hopefully transform one’s internal responses to certain real-life situations.
Boal maintains that each of us is both an actor and a spectator of our actions in life, and by essentially stopping the “play” and rewriting the script—with the audience—a situation can be recast.
Setting the Stage
In order to learn Boal’s methods, we had to participate in role play and drama. The group of facilitators explained the importance of safety, acceptance, and community and set norms that would help us create an environment where tough conversations could flourish.
The goal of such rehearsal, after all, is to find a way to continue the dialogue rather than alienate or humiliate anyone.
To alleviate some of the initial risk-taking, facilitators modeled a sample “theatre act” and then allowed opportunities for questioning and reflection before asking the groups to follow suit—following a “gradual release of responsibility” model. The process ended with participants imagining the opportunities and challenges for using the process in classrooms, districts, and writing project sites.
“Do You Speak English?”
To give an example of how the role-playing process worked, in one group we discussed the following scenario. An Asian American teacher has just had a long day at school. As she walks in front of the school, a car pulls up, and an African American student calls out, “Do you speak English? I need some directions.”
Since I am Asian American, I decided to play the teacher. My group debated a long time about how to act out the scene and finally decided I would say, “Why did you say that?” with a bit of an attitude. We decided that this question would make the student think about what he or she was saying.
But other ideas about how to handle the situation emerged. One person thought that if the teacher responded in such a way, the student might think, “Oh, that teacher just has a bad attitude!” Someone else suggested that I should answer the question with “Yes,” and then try to help the family with directions. Participants believed that if I gave the family something they wanted (the directions), they might be more open than if I asked them to be careful about their assumptions.
It was definitely one of those “Aha!” moments. It made me realize there were actually better options available to open people up to examining their assumptions than my initial response.
Each small group was asked to consider multiple responses while unpacking the underlying implications of each possible response. During this time, participants quickly recognized that all too often hard talk is made harder by unspoken assumptions and expectations.
Other scenarios posed by participants in the small groups helped illuminate critical opportunities to probe misunderstandings, stereotypes, biases, and racial, ethnic, or religious insensitivities that had been overlooked or avoided because people had not considered multiple interpretations of language and gestures, among other things.
A Replicable Process
The USN workshop heightened everyone’s awareness while providing simple—and replicable—tools for posing and responding to critical issues in the classroom and in the community. Here are the steps of the workshop’s process:
- Facilitators model stories and openness: The facilitators shared stories from their own lives to model the openness they desired.
- Individuals reflect and share in small groups: Participants wrote about a specific uncomfortable moment and shared their recollections in small groups.
- Groups select one story to act out: After participants shared their individual stories in small groups, the presenters asked the groups to each select one story to act out in front of the large group.
- Groups talk to decide the best way to intervene: Participants discussed and debated the best way to intervene that would continue the dialogue and acted it out in front of the audience.
- The whole group discusses a scenario: After each scenario was performed the presenters asked the audience to give feedback using these three questions:
- What worked in this?
- Are there other ways to interrupt?
- What else could be said and done?
- The audience discussed which responses would be most productive in achieving the objective of intervening and continuing the dialogue.
- The group shares ideas for taking the process home: Participants talked about how to take the “hard talk” back to local sites and schools.
Moving Our Communities Forward: Reflection and Application
After the workshop, Lona Alida of the New York City Writing Project reflected on the use of stories: “I loved the role of stories in the process. Story is such a great tool. Sharing stories was a safe and nonthreatening entry-point. It made us comfortable enough to take the risks needed in order to tell our stories to people we did not know.”
Another participant, Pam Bellino, commented on the process: “I found the brainstorming development of responses to be quite valuable. Also, hearing the voices countering the arguments allowed me to find a voice that I might be comfortable speaking in myself.”
In the busy life of teachers and writing project communities it can feel difficult to create these spaces where we can talk honestly and practically about uncomfortable situations, strategize about how to intervene, and keep the dialogue going.
But finding the time to carry out similar exercises is crucial, as Amelia Coleman of the Philadelphia Writing Project noted: “We have to make more opportunities to engage in hard talk; it’s the only way to move our school communities forward.”