A troupe of teen actresses telling their stories through writing and performance

Welcome to the Girls Surviving blog. We are creating this blog to reflect on the process we use in our work with teenage girls. We are two artists, Paula and Carolyn, who have been teaching writing, theater, and storytelling for many years. We are also mothers of daughters who had a hard time navigating their teens. We believe they would have benefited from a program that provided them with a safe place to talk about what it's like to be a teenage girl and to discover their unique artistic voices. Seven years ago, we began to form a troupe of teen girls who, we thought, could write and perform plays based on the experiences that inform their lives. Since then, we've watched the girls in the Girls Surviving troupe begin to take control of their lives with self-confidence and courage. We are writing to parents, teachers, counselors, and other artists who interact with girls in the hope that this blog will raise awareness of and open conversations about the lives of girls who are growing up in our complicated times.

“I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself as not a survivor but as a girl surviving.”

Monday, February 25, 2013

Breaking Out of the Routine

            Our plane bounced onto the tarmac on the tail of 25 mile-an-hour winds.  I was relieved and thanked the pilot for setting us down safely. My husband and I were returning from a vacation.  We hadn’t had a vacation in over a year, and when I got home I realized just how much we had needed one.  The change of pace and scenery, the sense of adventure, the newness of it all had done us a world of good. We explored, discovered, and learned.  Sometimes we learned the hard way.  Even those challenging moments – the flat tire and my bout with a stomach ailment – make for good storytelling now.  Most importantly, we built these stories together, and, as result, grew closer together.  Breaking out of our daily routine and figuring out how to work and play together in a new environment had strengthened our bond.

            The girls grow closer together, too, when we give them opportunities to break out of the Girls Surviving workshop routine. Our established routines and rituals help provide the safe, comfortable environment they need in order to find their voices and learn to trust. But, as their trust and self-confidence blossom, so does their desire to learn new things about the world and each other. They’re teenagers; they have tons of energy and love to have fun.  When we sense they’re getting restless, we look for ways to interject excitement into the process.

Exposing the girls to a range of new experiences over the years has helped them create memorable stories to share with other troupe members, friends, and family. Thanks to Dr. James Gallagher, a long-time champion of Girls Surviving, we were able to bring our graduating seniors to a gala benefit performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark last spring.  Listening to the girls reminisce afterward about all of the experiences that had brought them together, we were ever more grateful to Jim for giving them one last special memory to carry forward into the future as they went their separate ways. 

Another dear friend of Girls Surviving, Phyllis Hassard, spoke to the girls on two separate occasions.  The many decades that separate Phylllis’ generation from that of our girls completely disappeared when Phyllis spoke, and the girls welcomed her as one of their own by presenting her with a Girls Surviving t-shirt.  Phyllis’ authenticity and passion for helping girls and women overcome obstacles to their success brought us closer together as we recognized parts of ourselves in her personal stories. Her message about the importance of forming enduring interpersonal relationships built on respectful, thoughtful communication helped renew the commitment that all of us who are involved in the life of the troupe had made to trust and respect each other.

Several teaching artists have come into our workshops throughout the years to share their insights, unique talents and skills with our girls. Arthur Wilson, a big man with a commanding, sonorous bass voice had all of them running around the room laughing as they carried out his elocution and projection exercises.  A professional dancer also loosened up the girls with the beat of her drum.  She taught them how to translate their poetry into movement and create an ensemble performance piece combining words and dance. Ensemble work requires concentration, respect for others’ abilities, trust that the ensemble will recognize and overcome unexpected challenges at performance time, and a generous heart that is willing to let the other performer shine for a time. When the girls performed their piece, poetic movements, accompanied by lines of poetry, flowed from one girl to the next as effortlessly and fluidly as ocean waves on a calm summer day.

Another time, the girls had a chance to see how professional actors work closely together in the same way.  One fall evening we bundled them into cars and took them to see a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ. Many of them had never been inside a real theater before and none had been to this one.  Those who sat in the first row could see the actors drip with sweat, swell their lungs with oxygen, and sometimes spray each other’s faces when the dialogue soared with passion.  The girls giggled about it afterward on the car ride home.  Mingling with their “eww’s,” of delighted disgust, though, was awe at the courage and commitment that allowed those actors to overcome their self-consciousness and lose themselves in the work of making us believe that the relationships depicted on the stage were as authentic and vital as those we experience in real life.

The troupe also had an opportunity that tested their ability to perform as an ensemble. A colleague of ours at Playwrights Theatre of NJ (PTNJ) and I came up the idea of creating an arts day at the theater that would give several teen troupes in our region a chance to perform for each other and the larger community. PTNJ is a professional theater that is dedicated to developing new plays and teaching the art of playwriting to people of all ages through its educational programming. It was a perfect setting in which to showcase the work of young actors, all of whom would perform their own writing that day. Performing at PTNJ was one of the most challenging, exhilarating and bonding experiences for our troupe.

The girls had to work hard to overcome many challenges at PTNJ.  Performing in a space different from a school auditorium alone would have been difficult enough, but the small black box theater at PTNJ looked and felt completely foreign to them.  There was no curtain; the stage was a simple black platform that stood about a foot off the floor; and the seats rose sharply up from it into the dark walls of “the box.”  Because the theater was in the middle of production, set pieces were scattered upstage.  There wasn’t much space to move around, and every time a girl entered, she had to be careful not to trip on the edge of the platform.  Usually in performance our girls remain on stage all the time.  When they aren’t acting, they simply sit on the sides of the stage and wait their turn.  Because the PTNJ space was so cramped, they couldn’t do that.  They were forced to move off the stage, which made hearing their cue lines difficult.

They also were worried about how their performance would stack up against the others. Performing for peers can be very intimidating, and our girls were the youngest and least experienced to perform that day.  Many of them that semester were still in 8th grade.  Most of the actors in the other troupes were high school students, many of whom studied theater seriously in school and took acting classes at one of the professional theaters in the area.  One troupe came from Arts High in Newark, a school that requires an audition to enter its four-year intensive arts education program.  These were very accomplished actors.

 The situation was pretty scary.  What made it even scarier was that our girls were performing off book for the very first time.  Rather than ask the girls to write a new play and perform it in a staged reading as usual that semester, we decided to have them revise the previous semester’s play, memorize lines, and perform the play the way actors do in a full production.  Because the play that had emerged from the previous semester was so strong and our actresses that year more advanced, we decided the moment had come to provide an incentive for the girls to further refine their writing and acting skills.

We knew the girls were ready for that challenge, and they proved to us that day that we were right.  They rescued each other when a line was forgotten; they covered for each other when an entrance was late; and they stood proudly across the stage to take their bows and receive their applause when their play was over.  Our girls made mistakes, for sure, just like every other student actor who took the stage that day.  But no one noticed because they stayed in character while telling their story. They relied on each other, discovering what actors mean when they say, “the show must go on.” Unlike musicians, writers, and visual artists, actors must bond to make their art, and our girls had that bond.  It was established first through routine, then through change and challenge.  

All of the young actors who performed that day realized how dependent they were on other cast members.  They watched each other’s performances with understanding and respect because they well knew the risks involved in performing on the stage.  They celebrated the work of the other troupes with loud applause and encouraging whoops and hollers. They did not judge.  They embraced each other’s efforts, and our girls left the theater feeling thrilled with what they had accomplished together. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sharing Writing

“Let’s go, girls; time to share.”  Either Carolyn or I say a variation of this sentence at some point in almost every workshop. In this context, sharing means reading aloud the writing each person has composed that evening. Since writing is an integral part of the program, the girls share their writing with each other in this way as a matter of course and I have used the term this way so often, that I’d come to think of “share” as being synonymous with “read.” Something that happened this week, though, made me realize that in our workshops the word retains its more conventional meanings of “to take equal responsibility for” and “to allow another to have use of something” and “to use something in common with other people.” In fact, “sharing writing” is one of the ways we build trust between troupe members.

At first glance, sharing writing may seem no different from discussion. After all, it’s just presenting ideas to the group. However, there is a difference between speaking and writing, and the difference lies in our sense of ownership over what we write. Although we should know better, we frequently vocalize our thoughts, with little consideration of their value or of the possibility that there will be consequences to speaking them aloud. It is as if our words enter the air, then dissipate as surely as the morning dew from the grass. Our writing, however, is different. In the first place, unlike casual speech, it can be studied for meaning, and a reader’s judgment of it may affect his estimate of the writer’s social, moral, or intellectual worth. Secondly, because student writing is always being corrected for everything from penmanship to content, many children quickly become insecure writers. As a consequence, often teenagers are reluctant to read their written words aloud for fear of being scorned or corrected.  In the worst cases, they stop writing all together. For these reasons, sharing writing has the same ritual significance in our workshops as forming a circle at the beginning of each session, and Carolyn and I have developed habits of listening and commenting that model appropriate responses when writing is shared.
The girls break the circle to write. Depending upon the activity, they may be writing individually, in pairs, or in small groups, so they scatter to find places most conducive to their task. When the task is completed, they return to the circle to share. After independent writing activities, girls are given the option of ‘passing’ if they don’t want to share their writing. However, we encourage sharing because the experience of having her words received respectfully by listeners is often the only encouragement a shy writer needs to gain confidence. The adult members of the group, teaching artists and counselors, also write and share. Everyone takes the same risk. After every girl has an opportunity to share her writing, Carolyn and I take their notebooks home and type all of the writing before the next meeting. The typed transcript is, again, shared with the group, but this time each writer has the option of hearing her words read by someone else. The troupe considers all of the writing that is contributed by the girls as possible material for their script. Select pieces of every girl’s writing end up in the script.
Everyone in the troupe owns the script. We never present a finished product that was written by “the best writers” because we recognize that every girl is a “true writer” with insights and contributions that add depth and meaning to our scripts.

Last weekend I received an email from Marci, one of our veteran actresses. In it was a scene she had written for the script the girls are currently composing. The idea for the scene came from Zenab, another girl in the troupe, but it had not yet been developed as a scene. Marci and Carolyn had talked about the idea after the last workshop and Marci, who is a passionate writer, put the scene together the next day.
The writing was terrific. Marci developed Zenab’s scenario, effectively revealing characters’ history and motives through their dialogue. Carolyn and I read it with enthusiasm and decided that Marci should share it with the rest of the girls in the next workshop. However, as the workshop day approached, I wondered how to present Marci’s scene. It isn’t often that one of the girls comes to the workshop with a new piece of writing for the script. We usually develop everything in the group. Also, this particular piece was so strong that I was sure most of the other girls would be willing to place it in the script with little or no revision. Would doing this, I wondered, upset the collaborative balance we work so hard to achieve in the writing? Would Zenab feel that her idea had been appropriated without her consent? These are just the kind of questions that Carolyn and I discuss as part of our workshop planning. We rely on each other to anticipate problems or come up with solutions we might not  think of on our own. It happened, however, that Carolyn was away this week, so I had to rely on my own judgment in the matter.
I solved my problem by handing it off to the girls, in this case, to Zenab and Marci. I emailed both girls the writing they had each done to plan and develop the scenario and asked them to lead the writing activity in the next workshop. Over the week, we discussed possibilities for expanding Marci’s writing in a way that would complement Zenab’s conception of the characters and their conflict, and on Thursday evening, the two young writers asked the other girls in the troupe to weigh in on the scene. The girls discussed the material, wrote more dialogue for the main characters, and interviewed supporting characters to get a better understanding of the history of the conflict. It was a good workshop – a great evening of sharing.

Monday, February 4, 2013

More Listening

‘Unfettered student talk’ is an expression I used in my previous post. It’s hyperbole, of course. We do fetter if things start getting out of hand, but I believe that another thread in the binding of the trust essential for our programs to succeed is the willingness to let students talk about anything. Anything.
Children have so many questions about the world, and in a world where many traditionally ‘adult’ topics are the subject of daytime talk shows and after school soap operas, today’s children must carry in their heads a stock of confusing information about topics like sex, drugs, health, and religion that they have no opportunities to organize or clarify. The traditional sources of worldly wisdom: parents, teachers, and clergy, are often not good sources of information for teens. Parents immediately worry that the child’s question refers to his own predicament; teachers are warned against broaching subjects that are socially or politically controversial; and the clergy usually toe the party line. Even when a child knows an adult who is willing to listen and engage in conversation, it’s often hard for the child to begin it.
By the time our children get to middle school, they are full of questions, and they have reached the time of life when their most interesting sources of information are their peers. Every middle- and high school teacher has overheard conversations between students that are so full of misinformation it would be funny if we didn’t realize that the likelihood they will make decisions based on these falsehoods is high. Here again, listening to student talk becomes an invaluable tool, because it allows us to recognize our students’ misconceptions and redirect their line of inquiry. It also gives us insight into what topics they worry and wonder about.

Once in a middle school storytelling workshop, I told the story of Bearskin, a Grimm tale about a soldier who makes a bargain with the Devil. I had told the story at least a hundred times before to audiences of teenagers and adults and it always introduces interesting conversation about a variety of topics. This day, however, the conversation turned in a new direction when a boy asked,
“Wait, was that the real devil?”
I had fielded the question before and I responded as I usually do when I want more information before committing myself to an answer by asking, “What do you mean by the real devil?” I was expecting a reference to something religious, and the boy was not a little kid, so I was taken aback when he replied,
“You know, the one with the horns and tail and pitchfork.”
Luckily for me, this statement began a discussion among students about the possibility that such a creature existed. I listened to students offer their various interpretations of Old Scratch, before suggesting that the devil in my story might be a metaphor. This was greeted with protests along with citations from the story to prove the students’ point that the character was, indeed, real. Finally, the first boy, in exasperation, said,
“I’m talking about the devil who takes you to hell if you’re bad!”
Silence. The boy had opened a topic of conversation that is frequently censored in school, namely a contemporary religious belief. The other students were uncomfortable, and I didn’t want my response to undercut the teaching of a parent or priest. The silence was broken by a girl who asked in a quiet voice,
“What really happens after you die?”
Unsurprisingly, this was the question that was really on every child’s mind. As soon as the girl asked it, they all began to talk at once. Some gave explanations they had heard in church or on television; others told stories of the death of a relative or friend. As I listened, I realized that it didn’t matter that I had no answer to the girl’s question. What these children needed was an opportunity to talk about life and death, a topic too loaded and too uncomfortable for many adults to entertain. I joined the conversation when I thought I should, but I offered neither answers nor platitudes. Just before the bell that would end the class, I told a short parable about the difference between heaven and hell which I knew would both clear the air and send the students away with something concrete to think about.
My point in telling this story here is that the class changed after that workshop. Conversation was more relaxed and the students seemed more thoughtful. I think the experience of being allowed to have an open talk about a difficult topic lifted their confidence. It helped make Storytelling a safe place, a place where you can be yourself, where you can talk about anything. The fact that Carolyn and I have never stipulated that any topic of conversation is off limits has created a similar atmosphere in Girls Surviving workshops.

Allowing students to have a philosophical conversation about abstractions like life and death may contribute to the creation of a safe workshop environment, but the content of such discussions probably have little practical effect on the students’ day-to-day lives. Sometimes, however, we hear students talk about real life situations in a way that might lead to repercussions outside of the workshop. Then, as we did when our Girls Surviving troupe was using misogynistic slurs to describe a character in their writing, we must make a decision to intervene, to teach or preach in an attempt to change a potentially destructive behavior. Sometimes we view the issue as a teaching moment, but it’s not always clear that an intervention will do any good. And as we try to make the call about how to handle such a situation, listening is sometimes more helpful than acting.

One evening, as we waited for latecomers to a workshop and girls were talking back and forth, catching up on the new of the day, or the week, I heard a girl say,
“Did you hear? Harriet Smith is pregnant!”
This is a statement we’ve heard more than once over the years about girls we usually don’t know (Harriet Smith is a pseudonym.), and as it usually is, the declaration was greeted with surprise, excitement, and a little malice. As the gossip continued, I wondered how the girl in question was feeling. I gleaned from the talk that she was very young. I imagined she was scared, confused, worried, desperate, and, perhaps, a little excited. I thought about the road she would have to travel, the decisions she’d have to make, and my heart went out to her. Then I looked at the eager faces of the girls as they talked about her predicament and wondered if I should tell them what I was thinking. Up to that point, I had been an observer. I doubt the girls were even aware that I was listening. To speak up would change the pre-workshop gossip to real workshop work, and we might end up talking about for the rest of the evening.
We’ve said before in this blog that we are always willing to change our plans when the girls bring up something we think they need to talk about. That night, I decided it wasn’t appropriate to commandeer their conversation because I was pretty sure that a discussion about the vicissitudes of teen parenthood wouldn’t have any effect on the girls’ thinking. Most of them didn’t have the maturity or experience to empathize with their classmate’s situation. I had listened to them talk about boys and sex in several contexts and, for most of them, the subjects were theoretical. None of them, I thought, would be able imagine herself in the pregnant girl’s shoes. They were young and na├»ve enough to believe that they could never make the mistakes that put her there. As Carolyn said in another post, sometimes the timing is wrong and we just have to be patient.
I think our willingness to listen and let things go is another way Carolyn and I build a feeling of trust in the workshops. In fact, I think the answer to the question I asked in my previous post, the question of how the Girls Surviving creates the space in which every girl can find her voice hinges on the adult behavior in the workshops. We try to show the girls that we can be trusted to allow let about anything that concerns them and to listen without judging. When they realize they can trust us to follow the standards we’ve set for behavior and discussion, it’s easier to trust their troupe mates and themselves.

Striking a Balance

            Girls, teaching artists and counselors who participate in the Girls Surviving program form a bond because, together, they create a relaxed, yet orderly space in which to learn and make art. This is a space that allows for tradition and ritual as well as spontaneity and creativity.  In this space, everyone learns to listen and talk, take and relinquish leadership, reflect alone and write collaboratively, discuss serious issues and laugh, let off steam and behave within boundaries. In this space everyone works to strike the balance that will create the bond. One way to reestablish balance after a series of intense discussion-focused workshops is to play an acting game.

            One of the girls’ favorite acting games is called ‘Waiting for the Bus.’ This fast-paced improv game has been immensely popular with successive groups of girls over the years.  In fact, it has become a Girls Surviving tradition, played to usher newer girls into the rehearsal and performance phase of the program. It is introduced every year with undiminished enthusiasm by one of the veteran girls. Even the shyest girls eventually play a round or two of ‘Waiting for the Bus.’  Few resist for long the temptation to join in the fun.

            This is how the game works:  Player One enters the stage and sits in a chair.  Her objective?  To wait for the bus. Enter Player Two, who sits next to Player One.  Her objective? To invent ways to be so annoying or obnoxious that Player One feels compelled to flee the scene. Player Two then assumes the role of Player One, and a new player enters to be annoying.  And so it continues until everyone has had a chance to play both roles. The rules?  No touching.  Many hilarious scenarios have been played out in this manner. 

The game is not only fun, it is non-threatening. If a girl acting the part of Player Two is feeling shy and wants to get out of the limelight as quickly as possible, it’s easy for her to think of a single gesture that’s obnoxious enough to drive Player One off the stage in a flash. Simply sticking out her tongue a couple of times will do the trick.  Or, if a girl is feeling pressure to be creative but can’t spontaneously think up a fresh idea when her turn comes around to be Player Two, she can summon help from a stable of stock characters that has been built up over the years.   A variety of obnoxious characters have a proven record of effectively chasing away even the most stubborn actress playing number one. There’s the bedbug bitten scratcher; the flu-infected cougher or sneezer; the garlic-breathed burper; the thief; the police officer; the screamer; the ear bud-attached dancer or rapper …and the list goes on.

 Improvising how these characters might behave in the given circumstances allows the girls to safely explore the possibilities for effective physical and verbal expression. Because there is only one rule, the girls must create their own boundaries. Performing in front of their peers, they err on the side of caution. Audience reaction also helps guide them. A delighted laugh here or there encourages Player Two to continue, while a hushed, ”oh my goodness” signals that she may have crossed a boundary and needs to try a different tactic. 

            Just a couple of weeks ago one of our energetic veterans, Kayla,*  spoke up at the beginning of our workshop with the suggestion that we introduce the game to this year’s group that night.  Her timing was perfect. The cold, dark days of winter were weighing us down.  We had just spent several weeks struggling to write and revise a complicated scene. We needed to do something that would perk us up.  A couple of new girls had joined after the holiday break, but they seemed to have adjusted quickly, and the rest of the girls were feeling comfortable with each other. It seemed like a reasonable time to start the process of transforming our writers into actresses with this simple game.  Paula and I reshuffled our agenda and let Kayla take over.

            She began the game as Player Two.  Her partner, acting the ‘waiting’ role, was a relatively new girl, Ella, who is both gregarious and a friend of Kayla’s outside of the troupe.  It was a safe pairing to set the game in motion.  Kayla could relax into her dual role as mentor and leader because she felt comfortable modeling the exercise for the troupe with her friend. Ella’s personality lent itself to this type of activity, too, and her part was less taxing. It didn’t take long for this dynamic duo to have everyone in the room relaxed and laughing.

After the demonstration, the girls who take to acting like ducks to water jumped up to join in.  Though they played many rounds, I was impressed and proud that they didn’t dominate the stage. They allowed time in between raucous encounters at the bus stop for more reluctant girls to decide whether or not to take the risk of performing a silly improv in front of their peers.  Sometimes breaks in the action were long.  Despite their eagerness to keep the game in constant motion, the girls seemed to understand that it takes time to gather enough courage to put oneself in the spotlight.  The major participants patiently encouraged those who sat on the sidelines to give the game a try. Eventually they succeeded in getting every girl up, out of her seat, and onto the teacher’s desk we were using to serve as the bus stop bench.

When it was over I heard someone in the room exclaim: “I wonder if we could play this at a party!”

“Of course you can,” I called out as I dug clementines out of an Acme shopping bag for our snack.  “It’s a great party game.”

Acting games are structured opportunities for people to be spontaneous, creative, and just plain silly.  They serve as lessons in living as well. Games like ‘Waiting for the Bus’ have a rule or two to provide focus.  Actors, therefore, have free reign to invent and play off each other’s inventions. That experience allows the players to discover on their own which activities they engage in on the stage resonate with their audience.  As a result, they develop a heightened sense of what constitutes acceptable behavior, both on and off the stage.

Acting games provide a framework for our girls to develop invaluable social and acting skills.  They also offer a change of pace from the intensity of discussion and writing, an outlet for pent up physical energy, a safe format in which to take risks, a new lens through which to view their peers, and a chance to laugh and have fun.  Acting games help individual girls discover their voices and bring all of the girls together into a cohesive, bonded group.

*A reminder:  All names have been fictionalized.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Learning to Listen

Last minute revisions - Spring 2012

Carolyn and I have been trying to create a document that outlines our process for guiding an amorphous group of teenage girls into a self-directed troupe of actresses who collaborate on writing and performance projects. We know that we do it every year, and we can easily list exercises we use and, even, some of the transformative stages we see as the process evolves each year. But somehow these things don’t add up to explain how or why the group coalesces into a troupe.
We have come to the conclusion that the heart of the issue has to do with the bond of trust that is established between all of the members of  the troupe: girls, teaching artists, and counselors. It is trust that enables the girls to talk about the issues that are close to their hearts and to reflect on their own fears and shortcomings. They know that the things they say inside a Girls Surviving workshop will not be mentioned outside until they have been transformed through art into representations of experiences that will resonate with every member of an audience.
So, what does the Girls Surviving staff do to create an atmosphere conducive to growing this trust and security? That’s the question we’re trying answer for ourselves and for other teachers, counselors, and artists who may be interested in trying to replicate the program. 

Something that happened to me last week outside of Girls Surviving may have presented part of the answer. I direct a storytelling program at Frelinghuysen Middle School in the Morris School District. The students who participate learn to tell stories through a variety of artistic media. Like Girls Surviving, it is a long-term program and students who join in their 6th grade year often remain in the program  until they leave the school after 8th grade. Every year, when I introduce a new group of 6th graders to the storytelling program, I ask a group of older student storytellers to take part in the presentation. This year, four of my 7th grade students told stories and explained the program to the new recruits at these orientation workshops. Near the end of the session, Anjel, one of the 7th graders said, “Storytelling is a very relaxed place.”
A 6th grader asked, “Why? What do you do?”
Anjel paused. He and his classmates had just finished a twenty-minute explanation and demonstration of what they do in Storytelling, and that, clearly, was not the focus of the 6th grader’s question. Anjel looked toward the back of the room where I was sitting. I shrugged. I couldn’t answer the question. I was a bit surprised when I heard him describe our workshops as “relaxing.” Although I know the students enjoy themselves, the program isn’t easy. I expect participants to accomplish a lot in the 40 days I see them, and many of our projects require them to take risks, both socially and artistically.
One of the other 7th graders, a girl, spoke up in answer to the question. “Well, in Storytelling you can be yourself.”
“Right,” said Anjel, “you can say anything and you know no one will make fun of you.”
“And,” another 7th grader chimed in, “we talk about everything.”
The sixth grader nodded his head as if his question had been answered satisfactorily, but I can’t believe he felt that it had.
I took me a day or two of reflection on the episode to realize that my 7th grade storytellers’ description of the atmosphere in their storytelling workshops spoke to the heart of some of our questions about Girls Surviving.

As teaching artists, Carolyn and I do much of our work in other teachers’ classrooms. Over the years, we have both spent a fair amount of time talking with administrators, planning with teachers, and observing student / teacher interactions. One thing that we’ve observed is that in most school situations, students are given few opportunities to speak at any length. There are many reasons for this, some more legitimate than others, but I think that however valid the reason, the result is that, by the time they get to middle school, many children are uncomfortable expressing their opinions in front of teachers and classmates. There is always the suspicion that when an adult poses a question, she does so with an answer already in mind, and students quickly learn that wrong answers might be greeted by classmates with distain or ridicule. The irony of this situation is, of course, that one of the best ways to assess what a student knows is by listening to them talk. Student discussions throw light on the speakers’ misconceptions and missing knowledge in a way that most pen-and-paper tasks cannot, and aural assessment can be done in a fraction of the time it takes to read and evaluate a stack of essays.
Because we don’t have to worry about things like test scores and administrative edicts, Carolyn and I have the luxury of allowing our students to spend hours of workshop time in talk. Although the work of our programs develops literacy skills and broadens our students’ knowledge base, these outcomes are a means to our main program goal, and not the goal, itself. Creating opportunities for unfettered student discussion is a crucial part of our process toward that goal. It is through discussion with each other that students develop the ideas they eventually present to a larger audience.
That said, productive student talk has to be directed, and I think directing classroom conversation is one of the most important skills Carolyn and I have developed (and one we continue to refine). We each have our own style, but we agree that perhaps the most crucial element of our skill is the ability to listen. There are times when student discussions call for adult intervention, but we have learned that they occur less frequently than most adults (ourselves included!) imagine. One of the Girls Surviving counselors, Kim, taught me that before interjecting a remark, a facilitator should always say to herself, W. A. I. T. –  Why Am I Talking? I have learned that the reason for my own impulse to speak up is usually that I’m afraid the kids won’t be able to resolve an issue on their own. Silence and patience have taught me that, given enough time and direction, they usually reach on their own the point I wanted to make. As they talk without adult interference, students gain confidence in their ability to speak for themselves. The model of an adult respectfully listening, voicing agreement or disagreement with only a word or a nod, teaches them one of the most important rules of successful social interaction, namely that it requires a balance of action and observation; of speaking and listening.

I agree with Anjel that people are more relaxed in a place where they know they can speak freely and that their ideas will be taken seriously. And as talking helps students to understand and articulate their own thoughts, listening to students talk helps us understand them. Their conversation opens windows into their lives, their thoughts, their interactions, and their attitudes, and I believe that it is our willingness to let these scenes unfold without judgment or interruption that begins the process of binding trust.