Introducing Status: Understanding Ourselves, Relationships, and the Key to Social Change

I have been waiting all year for just the right time to facilitate this workshop with my class.  After building community for half the year, and with my students' inherent interest in issues related to inequity, justice, and finding their place in the world, I knew that it was time.  Jumping into STATUS...

After playing "Ball", connecting as a whole ensemble with a common, clear focus, I randomly numbered off the class into two groups.  Half of the students became our audience, and the other half became the performing players.  I gave them a context that would involve many players, probably splintering off into a number of sub-scenes--break in-between classes out on the yard.  I suggested that some folks might be playing basketball, while others would be talking or eating...or just interacting in ways that felt real to them.

While I initially told them they would need to use names other than their own, I let this requirement go as I saw them naturally using their own names later in the scene.  Coming up with character names may have presented more of a distraction than I had assumed.  The players touched upon the crux of the activity without the need for new character names.  They adjusted their relationships and ways of interacting with one another based simply upon the cards I taped to their backs: Ace was high and Two was low.

The improvised mega-scene began with a number of smaller scenes: Pairs or small groups of players were interacting with each other, chatting or offering compliments or completely ignoring one another.  Although it had the staccato pace of something forced and new, the groupings were remarkably true to form--some were left alone, while others were surrounded by friends and admirers.

As the pace began to lull, I side-coached an idea to move the scene forward.  I suggested that someone might like to play basketball.  Before I knew it, an event had organically developed from the group itself.  The ENTIRE ensemble was instantly involved in one of the most painful, intense, status-rich events that exists on the schoolyard: picking teams

Two of the kids with the highest numbered cards immediately rushed to the front of the group, proclaiming themselves Team Captains.  They invited other high-status players to join them, smiling and clapping as they chose them to be a part of each team.  These team captains held their bodies upright and walked amongst the rest of the players with an obvious confidence.  They had no doubt that, once selected, the other players would join them in their groups.  They asked others to move or turn around so they could see the back of their shirts, dismissing them when reminded of their lower status. 

The other players exhibited a variety of non-verbal messages, as well.  Those with mid-level status either looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, or shifted from side to side, appearing nervous and uncomfortable as they waited for approval and acceptance.  One girl actually erupted into applause and squeals of delight as she pranced over to her group after finally being chosen.  Those with lower status cards on their backs gazed toward the floor, allowing themselves to be pushed around and physically isolated from the rest of the group.  One boy even stuck out his lower lip to express his discomfort and disappointment with his situation.  These are seventh- and eighth-graders.  Appearing cool and mature tends to be their focus in many activities, yet the power of this extreme social situation evoked responses we would normally expect from younger students.  I am not surprised in any way; I exhibited some of the same behaviors as an adult when playing this game myself!

The players' words and actions were at least as compelling--and disturbing--as their non-verbal interactions.  The student whose card was second-to-last ended up being one of the harshest bullies to the student who had the lowest status in the game.  In his distraught state at being treated with such disrespect, he attempted to increase his status by being hurtful to the one who was closest to him in the game.  When the two teams both refused to accept the player with the lowest status--tossing him back and forth as if he were a human yo-yo with no feelings, I knew the scene would have to end soon.  I ended the game as the player with the Ace card, a student who had said few words during the entire game, told the player with the Two card to stand "in the back," entirely separate from all of the other students.  The latter quickly scurried away, affecting a pout and eliciting laughter from all of us.  I brought the game to a close.

As an adult observer, this scene was troubling to say the least.  As someone who remembers the social tightrope of middle school, it was as real as it was horrifying.  As an improviser and educator who thinks about status all the time, it was illuminating and inspiring.  I am proud of my students for taking risks and being honest about how people treat each other.  Beyond the scope of the scene itself, however, I was blown away by the complexity and truth with which they handled the debriefing session that followed.

As the players discussed the way the scene made them feel, as well as their motivations for acting the way they did in character, they analyzed a number of nuances that exist in group behavior--at our school and in society at large. 
Carrie: How does it feel in High-status Land?
High-status player 1: Weird.
High-status player 2: Powerful. 
High-status player 3: I rule you all.
Carrie: You rule?
High-status player 3: Heh, heh, heh. (And then he immediately lowered his status by sitting back on the desk behind him.)
Carrie: How does it feel--to be the ruler?
High-status player 3: Fun.
High-status player 1: Weird.
High-status player 3: Different.

Carrie: Uh...Low-status folks?
Low-status player 1: Terrible...never felt worse.
Carrie--to the student with the Two card on his back: How did that feel?
Low-status player 2: Sad.
Carrie: Even though you knew they were joking?
Low-status player 2: Yeah.
Low-status player 1: Can I say something?  ...The high status people thought they could push the low people around.

And he made this observation only moments after he, himself, had bullied the one person in the game who was of lower status than him!  These interactions are complex, troubling, and thought-provoking.  We have so much to discuss--now and throughout the rest of our year together.

Here is an excerpt of the processing discussion--some of the audience players' thoughts and observations:

This is just the beginning of our work with status.  The first step in this entire process is to NOTICE--to seek to understand status and how it plays out in fictional characters, in our own lives, in our local and global communities.  The second step is to really begin to THINK about status, and thinking brings about ideas for change.

“It kind of makes me think that, like, sometimes, at our school, like people actually act like they do have cards on their backs so people might just judge people on their status…like, ‘You’re a great person.’  And they treat you (others) like, ‘You don’t have such good status,’ and people still treat you badly.”

“I was kind of thinking, since I was the low person…I was thinking that if that’s actually how low people are being treated, and a lot worse than that…and if that’s how it feels to be low, that, like, I must not be that low, actually, because I know that my friends are really nice to me.”

“It made me think about how real the social status thing really is, because everyone—or almost everyone—has like a number on them or whatever, but they can’t help it.  And how easy it would be for someone to just drop that.  But no one does, so…”

And--now what!?
Our next step is to translate these insights into opportunities for ACTION.  We will explore how status is dynamic rather than static--how status can and does vary within a single scene between two characters, and how status changes based on with whom and where and when a given character is interacting.  As we understand the changing nature of status, we can then explore how to adjust the ways people view and treat one another so that equity is at the core of our relations.


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