Trials and Tribulations of the Upstander Workshops

A Critique of the Upstander Workshops

Poly Prep’s favorite word is culture. “Culture matters,” Head of School Audrius Barzdukas preached in an email to the Poly community in November. The series of Upstander workshops, introduced by Director of Student Life Jared Winston aims to “strengthen a culture where we stand up for ourselves and others against harmful and uncomfortable actions, behaviors, and language,” as also stated in an email to the Poly community. While these interdivisional meetings might intend to open dialogue and build a more supportive community, they are not an effective enough measure in creating a respected and valued community. 

The problems with the program start with the curriculum itself. The first workshop of the year in December had students, in interdivisional groups from 5-12 grades, examine different conflict scenarios, curated by Winston. Later, in the January workshop, groups looked at student-surveyed “Upstander” scenarios. I will give Winston credit for mindfully setting up the second workshop with the help of an advisory team of faculty to review student-generated scenarios and a teacher-training session.

Still, however, despite the efforts, nothing in the workshop targeted real intolerance, except for maybe ageism and athleticism. In one scenario, for example, an uninvited older kid sat next to a younger kid on the school bus, even though many seats were open. In groups, students analyzed how they would respond to the dilemma, asking themselves, “What would I do as the younger kid, as the older kid, or even as a bystander?” Another was how to go about a girl always being picked last in drafting to play on a sports team. 

From my perspective as a senior and a Poly student of nearly 10 years, we do not need an hour-long session to teach students how to react to such a futile situation. These are elementary lessons being taught to middle and high schoolers at a school that prides itself on academic excellence. The scenarios did not make most kids uncomfortable. The scenarios were certainly not serious. It’s life, and I think the point is to figure it out on your own. 

The idea of these workshops seems fruitful in retrospect, but not only are these scenarios relatively uncommon, but they also require little brain energy when generating response ideas, especially when all grades are mixed. The distinction between high school and middle school is necessary to have age-appropriate conversations. The two schools are separated into the Chapel and theater for this reason. These workshops should be separated by age, which, adeptly, Winston plans to do in April in a third Upstander workshop. 

Winston acknowledged that the scenarios were surface-level, but emphasized the importance of breaking the ice in conversation. “We need to develop a common language that helps us realize our shared, foundational values as a community. As we move towards introducing more discomfort in future workshops, it is critical that both faculty and students feel familiar with having these types of dialogues…If we hope to build a strong, lasting culture on the heels of this global pandemic, we need a strong foundation that roots us in a shared understanding,” said Winston in an email to the Polygon.  

The January workshop also asked students to create a “Bill of Responsibility,” a list of values every Poly student is obliged to follow. If students don’t know the basic value of respect, however, I would argue that they shouldn’t be a Poly student in the first place. 

Endless psychological papers prove that once students reach 8th grade, these basic value training programs don’t work. 

With such a banal curriculum, neither students nor teachers seemed to care. According to the students I talked with, many teachers mindlessly read off of the pre-prepared slideshow, as students slumped in their chairs, citing answers with apathy. Students and teachers described that they went through the motions, as the information went through one ear and out the other. 

Still, I understand the intention to create a more connected student body. Creating an environment of trust and comfort would allow the community to flourish. As a senior leader myself, I agree that the easiest way to evoke such an environment is through school-wide discussion. Separated by computer screens and tennis courts, older students have not had the opportunity to interact with their younger peers for the past two years. Maybe the point is that the frivolousness of the workshop itself binds students together over the criticisms they share. 

Nevertheless, is the intention for culture change there? Yes. Are these workshops a waste of time? Also yes. I certainly cannot say that making institutional change is easy, nor can I, by any means, do it myself. Winston and administrators are, understandably, trying to put the best efforts they can. It seems then that the problem is that concrete solutions may not exist. Instead of only focusing on solutions, we should understand where our intolerance for diversity comes from and how to recognize what is important to report and what’s not.

Winston explained, however, that the Upstander workshops were never posed as a solution to culture problems at Poly. “The Upstander workshops were not a reactive or responsive community program—we began this work in Middle School Advisory last year,” wrote Winston. 

His goal has never been either to solve every issue at Poly. “Rather, [the goal is for] students to recognize their individual agency and responsibility to others… In only 115 minutes of programming, we have sparked a productive community-wide conversation about what we need to be talking about as a school— that is a success in my book. Moving into the end of the year, we now have a more clear vision in mind of what this school community needs and where our school culture stands. Culture does not build itself, and we all bring value to this conversation—own your voice, get involved, and let’s drive Poly towards its potential,” wrote Winston. 

Nevermind the intentions of the workshop and its favorable foundations, I still go back to the thought that perhaps there should be a solution that stems from a general understanding of how class, race, gender, and everything else plays into our community instead of reminding students that with great power comes great responsibility. Uncle Ben could have told us that. Students cannot be expected to confront real issues with training solely on how to ask someone to change seats on the bus. Sorry, but the middle schooler on the bus has to suck it up. Poly has bigger problems. Every little thing that bothers someone cannot be solved, and I’m not sure why it needs to be either. Perhaps, as the Upstander workshop is thoroughly fostering, the lesson is not to care so much about the little things.