Everyone knows about “safe spaces”: the rooms in a school or college where students can discuss issues openly, free from epithets, putdowns or other attacks.
That’s important, of course. A new program at Staples High School aims to provide a special place to connect, feel comfortable and grow.
But “Connections” — the innovative, twice-weekly project that will keep small groups of students connected with staff members throughout their 4 years on campus — hopes to go one step further.
The goal is to create “brave spaces.” That’s where teenagers and teachers can do more than discuss bias incidents like swastikas or hurtful comments.
It’s where they can think critically about them, learn from them — and learn how to talk about them, openly and honestly and directly.
“Connections” helps students reflect on what it means to be a community member making a difference. It was in the works before Stafford Thomas was named principal, but he has embraced the concept and put the full weight of his position behind it.
Educators — even at Staples — have not always been trained in how to lead discussions of bias and hate. They may feel uncomfortable, and worry that students may feel uncomfortable too.
Marji Lipshez-Shapiro knows those feelings well. “It takes a lot for people to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with what can be too uncomfortable,” says the deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut chapter.
She’s spent nearly 30 years running professional development workshops for teachers, through the ADL. For “Connections,” she designed a special one — much more targeted to the program, to Westport as a community, and to Staples as a school.
“Every school has bias incidents,” she notes. “Too often the district doesn’t want anyone to hear about them. They sweep them under the rug, and they become ‘lumpy carpets.'”
Swastikas and other symbols pop up in bathroom stalls. Racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments are made in hallways, cafeterias and before class.
The ADL program used case studies: actual examples from schools nationwide. They could happen here too.
“We want educators to have tools, to be proactive and reactive,” Lipshez-Shapiro says. “The ‘Connections’ discussions are about prevention and intervention. When there is an incident, we want everyone to learn from it. After all, this is school!”
Lauren Francese — the Westport Public Schools’ 6-12 social studies coordinator, who helped design the workshop — says that it will help all teachers talk about challenging topics, in the classroom as well as during “Connections.”
Lipshez-Shapiro agrees. What happens, she asks rhetorically, when a teacher overhears a boy tell a friend he’d take a girl to the prom “only if she puts a paper bag on her head”?
“When do you challenge that statement? When do you not say anything?” she says. “Silence is what does harm. But lots of people are afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or coming down too hard.”
The ADL workshop gave teachers tools to begin nuanced conversations. That way, Lifshez-Shapiro says, they can help students “not just stand up, be brave and say ‘Don’t say that,’ but go beyond.”
In the Staples session, she asked educators to think about their own favorite teachers. What qualities did they have?
And when they were in school themselves, she continued, how did you feel like you belonged? How did you feel when you did not belong?
“Every high school needs to do this,” Lipshez-Shapiro says.
Thomas — the new principal — agrees.
He calls the training “timely and especially helpful in preparing our teachers and ultimately our students in navigating brave conversations in a responsible and, most importantly, productive manner.
“It was extremely well received, based on the feedback data. I believe this training and continued assistance from the ADL in the future will go a long way to cultivate a caring and nurturing school community.” He echoed those sentiments at Back to School Night.
“Our teachers were really engaged and energized by these conversations,” Francese adds. “They’re the starting point for making Staples a safer — and braver — space.”