What Does It Mean to Be an “Upstander”?

Poly held its first ever cross-divisional Upstander Workshop in early December, which has since created conflicting feelings among students. For the Upstander Workshop, every student from grades 5-12 gathered together in small teacher-facilitated groups during the assembly period to discuss how to create improved culture and community within the school. By working through various scenarios, the workshop encouraged students to stand up for themselves and others against harmful or uncomfortable actions, behaviors, and language that threaten the health of our school environment. An additional workshop with student-generated scenarios was hosted on January 19, and there are plans for more in the future.

The Upstander Workshops were first developed during the 2020-2021 academic year by Director of Student Life Jared Winston and Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) Omari Keeles. The inspiration for the workshops came from the winter reading book for middle school, titled What Lane? Winston describes the book as the story of a biracial child living in Brooklyn and his experiences with big “R” and little “r” racism throughout his daily life, and the opportunities both acted upon and missed for characters in the book to stand up for him. Winston said, “We used that as a great opportunity to talk about the role that we can all play in supporting each other and reflecting upon how individual choices that we make in difficult situations can lead to progressive change in society.”

The school’s student body looks far different from five and even 10 years ago, but issues of bullying have always existed. Winston hopes to communicate, however, that this is not explicitly an anti-bullying program. “This is first and foremost a community development program. Do we hope to mitigate bullying as a result of these workshops? Of course. We do recognize, though, that bullying, unfortunately, will happen in our halls and beyond despite our best efforts,” Winston said. In instances where bullying does happen, the school hopes to teach students the various response strategies, understand the impacts of their words, behaviors, and actions, and encourage empathy. Ultimately, Winston
believes that being an “upstander” means to treat yourself and others with dignity and to lead a life of integrity.

The very first Upstander Workshop was looked over by the division heads, along with Assistant Head of School Michal Hershkovitz. In one given scenario, a student was trying to study for a huge set of tests in the library while another group of students were being disruptive. In another scenario, a student is upset with the amount of trash being left behind in Commons, as a group of students leave their lunch table without cleaning their table. Using these scenarios, students across grades were encouraged to learn what exactly it means to be an upstander, and how to model that behavior.

The Upstander Workshops have sparked very mixed reactions. Some students feel as though the workshops are unnecessary. “Sitting in a classroom for an hour talking about different hypothetical situations and barely getting any type of reactions or involvement from the student body isn’t helpful…not that it’s a bad concept to fight to create an upstanding community, but trying to reach all students at once is unobtainable,” said junior Damien Jung.

“I feel like a lot of people don’t take it seriously, as shown by how people talk about it outside the workshop,” said junior Alfonso Rada.

However, other students have found the Upstander Workshops to be helpful. “It was very engaging and I feel like together we can help the community,” said freshman Tristan Zam. “I feel like it helped me think about my community and my place in it,” said freshman Tessa Weber.

Winston is well-aware of the critiques the workshops have since received. In fact, Winston said there were many negative comments from students in the feedback forms that were sent out after each workshop. He shared that in the feedback forms sent out to teachers, there was much more of a positive reception, but there were still some suggestions. Winston notes that one teacher shared “I wonder if there’s a world in which we can get students thinking about their own stories/positionality at Poly; I think that shapes a lot of the conversation under the surface but isn’t made explicit.”

Winston believes that the negative feedback was likely caused by discomfort that students experienced during the workshops. “I totally get where these students are coming from. While this work can be uncomfortable, I encourage students to view that discomfort as growth in action. That which is difficult is often significant, and cultural development and change take time,” Winston said.

The second program was more teacher-and student-driven. In addition to working through student-generated scenarios of upstandership, students across grade levels developed Bills of Responsibility, which will be posted around the school in common areas to remind everyone of the community’s intentions. After gathering feedback from the first workshop, a special committee of teachers was established. Known as the Social and Emotional Learning Committee, members include English teacher Lee Marcus and history teacher Eliza Jimenez.

“Soon, we’re going to be moving away from just a workshop planning committee. Instead, we’re becoming an advisory committee, so we will be advising students and coming up with the workshop content,” Marcus said.

“We’re trying to establish a cohesive culture while also recognizing that we do have very distinct Upper School and Middle School cultures. We are constantly thinking about how ‘upstandership’ applies in both settings,” Jimenez said.

The third and upcoming workshop will be a student-led program, which was always the plan, according to Winston. The Middle School Senate is continuing to develop an Upstander program for late April for only students in grades 5-8. In the Upper School, the Student Government is similarly developing a workshop for grades 9-12 that will take place in late April as well. But
Upstander work will extend beyond just this programming. “The Women’s Affinity group is going to have a DEIB assembly talking about cultural issues at Poly in March and we will then finish March with a Health and Wellness assembly talking
about culture,” Winston said. A large part of the Upstander initiative is to set a base-level in terms of how the school community will look and feel going forward.

Winston isn’t sure if the Upstander Workshops will look the same or different in the future: The future is largely dependent on student and faculty opinions. But either way, he wants to continue creating a positive culture within the school. “On the heels of this pandemic, it is so important that we establish what we stand for at a foundational level—working with students across grades facilitates a meaningful dialogue about culture here at Poly and reminds us of who we are today and who we strive to be tomorrow,” Winston said.