Practice scenes for the tough choices of adolescence

Fourth-graders in Urban Improv workshops show less aggression and are more engaged in class than their peers, a study shows.

Marty "Roach." That's how the teacher pronounces the new kid's name. The teasing ensues, and one girl insists on keeping the torment going.

Then she's assigned to a group project with Marty and another boy, and the boy stuck in the middle simply can't afford the bad grade they'll get if the fighting continues. What can he do?

That's the scenario that fourth- and fifth-graders recently found themselves drawn into during an assembly with adult actors from Urban Improv, a nonprofit for at-risk youths in Boston. When the action freezes, student volunteers step into the scene, with varying degrees of success as peacemakers.

Urban Improv turns learning into play - play that can quickly shift from raucous humor to a sober exercise in making good choices. Serving about 6,000 students in grades 4 to 12 each year, workshops have been built around the potential pitfalls of adolescence - bullying, peer pressure, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, violence.

Educators have long praised such role-playing methods as effective, but only recently has research started to back up their intuition. A study by the Trauma Center of the Massachusetts Mental Health Institute, currently under peer review, found that fourth-graders in Urban Improv workshops avoided the sharp increase in aggressive behavior exhibited by a control group over the course of the school year. Participants also showed more cooperation, self-control, and engagement in class.

The study is in the vanguard on several fronts, says coauthor Joseph Spinazzola, executive director of the Trauma Center. Violence prevention needs to happen before kids reach middle school, he says, and this is one of the few research projects at the elementary level. It's also a rare examination of the increasingly popular use of "expressive arts" as a prevention tool. The study was commissioned by the Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence in Washington, which receives funding from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Among the sample of 140 fourth-graders in Boston, about 30 percent had seen someone beaten, shot, or seriously hurt by another person; 19 percent had been around people shooting guns; and 27 percent had stayed inside because of gangs or drug activity.

In response to the study, Urban Improv is plans to double the number of fourth-grade classrooms it serves by this fall. It's also developing a longer series of workshops for older students who've already been exposed to trauma.

Diane Lorentz, guidance counselor at the Cathedral School in Boston's South End, is convinced that for her students "circumstances don't have to dictate." Urban Improv did eight workshops with the fourth-graders this spring. "It has partnered beautifully with the values we've always taught," she says. "It doesn't mean they're going to turn around and right away make another choice, but they've seen another way.... 'He made me do it' is never an acceptable response."

Student Andrea Moore can think of a few times she's put that idea into practice since working with Urban Improv. "When someone put their hands on me, I didn't fight back," she says.

One of the workshop scenes centered around someone with a gun. You'd never guess by looking at Andrea, with her smiling face and pink-trimmed sweatshirt, that gun violence has already touched her family. "My father got shot," she says. "They were looking for someone else and my father resembled him.... I wrote a story about what I think about violence. I think it's about time that we stop this."

On this day, Andrea's class sits on the carpeted floor of the library and quickly catches on to the warm-up song, led by five young-adult actors whom the students know well by now. The theme is fairness. After jumping into scenes by the actors, the kids break into groups and make up their own. Complete with wigs and funny glasses, they depict unfair situations they've experienced - being locked in a closet by an older brother, being punished while the person who started the fight gets away with it, losing a battle over the TV remote control.

Not all of the scenes get past the fighting stage to a compromise. The adults nudge the kids toward solutions, but mostly let them work it out on their own. "We're trying to get them to that next level.... You can hear in their conversations that they're thinking it through," says troupe member Mary Armstrong-Rogers.

Laetitia Dorinsville has taken the lessons home: "I learned that fighting with your brothers and sisters is not appropriate. If they're little, they don't know better and can get hurt. You should sort things out. But if they're older you should tell an adult."

Collin Knight, an African-American actor with Urban Improv, says the role-model element is powerful. He gets the children giggling with his persona of a goofy sales clerk who turns out to be tough as nails. "I want them to see a positive figure in the community.... They see [me] on stage and it's a step away from seeing someone on the corner," he says. When the kids join a scene and see consequences for their choices, "it's like a rehearsal for life ... and they need as much rehearsal as possible."

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