Urban Improv – Youth Unscripted is an after school teen program for high school-aged students all around the city of Boston. It brings together high school students from all different schools, and gives them a space to explore their identity, to explore a variety of social issues, and then this year to share those explorations and those learnings with the community at large.
Give students challenges and don’t back down on them; students can do much more than they think they’re capable of, but you have to give them the opportunity to realize that.
Give students a voice in how you run your program; take feedback and use it to influence how you structure future programming.
Praise students’ effort, not ability, but make sure that you create opportunities for students to demonstrate strong effort.
Allocate time for community-building so that students feel like they are in a safe environment where they are comfortable sharing and taking risks.
Model Self-Efficacy as a staff in how you approach daily tasks and responsibilities so that students can have an example of what Self-Efficacy looks like as an adult.
What strategies have you found to be most effective at building students’ confidence in their ability to complete tasks or projects?
We were originally a 16-week program, but this year we got a grant to extend it to 28 weeks. So going into this year, there was this knowledge that this group of teens could do just about anything, but, we’d never done it because we’d never had the time. So I think the biggest strategy that has been helpful for us this year, has been just giving them challenges, and saying, “Hey, at the beginning of January, you guys are going to be doing presentations on your identity.” We didn’t really know what that was going to look like, or what that was going to entail, but we encouraged them to just do it. We hed check-ins with them if anyone was nervous or if they didn’t know what the project would look like, so they could speak to us. But we gave them the challenge, and gave them a date, and then we didn’t back down on that, and saw what they came up with. It was for us, a really effective strategy. The students realized, “Oh, I can confidently speak about myself,” or “I can confidently share this aspect of my identity, even though its vulnerable or even though it’s hard.” And some kids who got up didn’t really prepare anything, but just decided to improv it. It was this moment of, “Yeah, you can do that. You can come up there confidently, you’ve been ruminating about your identity enough that you can come up and stand in front of this community that we’ve created, and confidently share about your identity.” So I think just giving them the task and giving them the opportunity to be able to achieve it is something that’s really important.
Does student reflection and feedback on their activities play a role in what how Youth Unscripted decides to run programming, and what you guys do with the students?
Yeah, last year there was a final survey about what the students liked after the 16 weeks, and we sat down at the end of the year and looked at it all together. We also have an application process that is really more to receive information. A few of the questions we ask on there were: What are some social justice issues that you’re passionate about? What’s something you don’t feel like you know much information about? We used that information along with last year’s feedback to build this year’s curriculum.
Then there’s the ongoing feedback. This year we’ve asked more of the kids. Instead of just coming and participating in the program, we’ve asked them to produce as well. We had a midyear check-in, which was one of the first times that we’ve done that in a while, and some of the kids who were in the program last year said that this year feels like work. They do get paid to come, so there’s an aspect of it that is like work. That feedback let us know that this year feels different from last year, and it’s supposed to.
Then with their end-of-year culminating project, the whole thing is based around their feedback. Last week we had a huge brainstorm about some of the things they may want to talk about. That gave them a framework so that they can choose a topic and then dive into that topic deeply, or they can choose a theme and talk about different topics under that theme. So, in individual small groups which were each led by actor-educator-facilitators, they chose something, and then came up with different ways they wanted to explore that with an audience. So their feedback and their input ultimately becomes what they put out there as their final performance or project, which is pretty exciting.
How do you structure your feedback and guidance to students in a way that focuses more on quality effort without giving as much attention to innate skills and talents?
Our primary medium of exploring things is through theater and discussion. So really speaking to what happens in the present, and shooting to be specific about that. We have some different theater activities where students wrote some different material they had to present, nd one of our actor-educators, as they did that, he gave very specific notes. You know, “That was great, you really came up here, and what you shared, what you wrote was awesome. Now, take your space on the stage, own your space.” It became this place of opportunity to praise the effort that they put forward with our feedback and critique. The important thing is really asking for the effort to be able to praise.