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"Real Talk" Changes the Climate at Carrboro HS

At Carrboro High School (CHS), staff and administrators’ conversations about creating a schoolwide Real Talk program began two years ago, before there were any inklings of the pandemic ahead. The essential mission of the program is to allow for a more holistic approach to supporting students beyond the obvious goals of academic success. As the 2020-2021 year winds down, the initial reviews from the first year of Real Talk are positive, with promise for much greater success when schools return to in-person learning.

RT logo at CHSCHS Instructional Coach and Equity Chair, Anna O’Connell, is one of the primary proponents, developers and advocates for Real Talk. She and many others at CHS are becoming real believers in the program’s power to transform relationships and conversations across grade levels and demographics. “The initiative was started in response to ongoing feedback from students on the various issues and ‘stressors’ that they faced -- whether related to school-based trauma, academic stress, race-based trauma, and more,” O’Connell wrote.

CHS World Language Department Chair, Amy Olsen, and Social Studies Teacher, Jason Horton, shared this perspective. “When we were asked to revamp ‘advisory’ pre-Covid 2020, we were nervous but also hype to create the thing that we wished existed: time in the school day that is student-centered and focused on building and strengthening relationships between students and staff. I feel like asking students what they want/need and then honoring that often gets sacrificed for what is easier logistically.”

“During the summer, we made sure to solicit student and faculty feedback as much as possible in terms of matching established relationships so that those could be built upon,” Olsen and Horton said. “We also surveyed students about what topics they were interested in discussing during Real Talk, along with activities they’d like to do to de-stress, while giving advisors the autonomy to cater to their own strengths and the interests of their students.” They said they love that the mixed-grade groups will loop from year to year, so that ninth grade students in the Real Talk groups are with their advisors until they graduate, though changes will be permitted when necessary.

Real Talk occurs twice weekly during advisory time, with an intention of creating safe spaces for students to discuss sensitive topics as well as explore a range of ways to support each other. “When we found out we would be virtual, we had to decide if we still wanted to try (to launch the program),” said O’Connell. “We believed some students would need the connection and SEL piece more than ever, so we went ahead with virtual.” The questions surrounding the viability of virtual advisory meetings were soon answered, when staff recognized how important the sessions were for many students who were isolated from their peers and teachers.

EC/OCS Teacher, John Faircloth, said, “We are beginning to build valuable student/advisor bonds. Many students are beginning to feel more comfortable about participating openly on a regular basis. The students that do participate regularly are providing interesting commentary and are supportive of each other.”

Newcomer/English Learner Teacher, Angela McChesney, said, “We have fun; we laugh; we share; the time feels ‘relaxing;’ students tell me their scheduling concerns; we discuss how we can approach other teachers; we discuss teachers/staff members I might need to contact.”

The Real Talk launch in fall of 2020 allowed for an effective introduction of the schoolwide book read of “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” which provided the opportunity for students to engage with the book in their advisories, separate from their more familiar approach to assigned classroom reading.

In January, with no return to in-person instruction in sight, the topics evolved to cover a full month of conversations for Black Lives Matter at School, supported by the group, Black and Brown Student Coalition, then discussions about the rising patterns of hate speech and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in February and the shootings in Atlanta in March. Conversations turned to Women's History sessions in April, as well as sessions on Yom HaShoah, the Jewish commemmoration of the Holocaust.  

“One huge benefit of the Real Talk program is that it's allowed us to have deeper conversations and learning about race and equality than we have had before,” O’Connell said. “A theme that has emerged throughout has been the importance of being able to respectfully talk and learn about these issues, both on a global/national level, but also their impact on students and peers at CHS. Students are learning that there's a lot they don't know that they don't know. But a common thread throughout all these discussions has been the importance of speaking up early in the face of what may seem like small comments or jokes because that's where dehumanization starts.”  

CHS Band Teacher, Casey Spillman, said, “We have been having very engaging discussions based on all of the topics covered, both concerning ‘Stamped’ and other matters (gender equality, social justice, mental health, etc.). My students are overall willing to unmute and verbally engage in conversation. We all seem to get along really well. The students know that I never take myself too seriously and that I'm not afraid to share when I'm struggling. This has helped to create a safe atmosphere that I strive to build in all of my teaching spaces. Some of my students come to Real Talk saying that it is their favorite part of the week because it's low pressure and gives them a chance to interact with me and their peers, and to make things feel a little less detached and abnormal.”

With the biweekly format, one day is often dedicated to a lesson or topic with optional suggested questions and prompts. The other day is for group-building and general “blowing off steam” activities. As students and teachers return to school in August, a renewed emphasis will be placed on offering a real range of stress relief options, from playing games to taking walks and often deferring to students’ choices for activities and plenty of flexibility for spontaneity.

O’Connell said, “It's really made such a difference in our school's ability to respond to major events and to give our students space to process and talk where we've already established norms and relationships. It's definitely not perfect, since we had to start in an online space, but it's far better than nothing and our staff and students have gotten more comfortable talking about hard topics. I think when we're all back in person, things will really take off.”

“Personally, not only are my relationships stronger with the students in my group, but they’re already building strong bonds with each other and excited to see each other/hang out across grade levels,” Olsen said. “To quote a student from my group, ‘I can’t wait for R(eal)T(alk) next year.’  At the end of the day, education is about more than just academics, and we’re so glad to be part of this initiative.”