As a program developer, I am putting systems in place to measure the outcomes of my work. But at the same time, the teacher in me tries to nurture a certain detachment in this very regard. In my own experience as a student, there have been certain lessons, certain relationships whose significance remained obscure to me for years. This is true in education and, arguably, truer still in youth development. If we are working to endow individuals with resources to transform their lives, we have to be ready to play the long game. We can never really know if, when, and which of the many seeds we’ve sprinkled will take root. Teaching is not unlike gardening in the sense that on top of skill, it also requires a goodly amount of confidence in that skill, patience, and faith that eventually our efforts will bear fruit. (more…)
While I agree with the significance of taking small steps towards a large goal, I wonder how we can lay out a larger map for our young adults to understand the short and long term processes of pursuing passions and earning a living.
One of the higher compliments anyone can pay me for my work is something along the lines of “I would love to take that workshop myself!” or “My high school- / college-aged kid could use that program!” or better yet, “Everyone could use a program like that.” Technically, I design programs for so-called “at-risk” youth, but all that really means is being sensitive to certain needs and understanding the institutional context of their lives. What I am actually striving to create are programs with a much wider appeal—wider because in the end they aren’t aimed at “troubled youth,” but at our shared humanity.
As human beings we all unfold in our own time, and that process is never smooth or evenly-paced. Some of us encounter great challenges very early on. This may appear to “set us back,” but only if we succumb to the bad habit of measuring ourselves against others, or—more accurately—against some kind of social norm that demands we be self-sufficient and clearly on our way to some narrow, preconceived notion of success by our mid-twenties. Another view is to approach these challenges as tests. And if we have the tools and the space to reflect on those significant life experiences, we can use them as learning opportunities and even a source of strength.
Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities?
Credit: Lindsay Adamski
If you want an inside look on how I develop my material and roll out new workshops, here is a case study. Last Sunday several members of NYFC YAB, accompanied by Lindsay Adamski (a.k.a., ladamski), joined me at AlleyNYC for a four-hour project management bootcamp. (Yes, you read that right: four hours on a Sunday. It was their suggestion. They are intense, these folks.) The aim was to finish the work that we started at the retreat back in August on the YAB Project Management Manual, which like their constitution, is co-authored by YAB and me. My model for this was the OCFS Handbook for Youth in Foster Care, which incorporates the voices of young people in care in every chapter. I especially liked how the handbook defines terms using the words of youth in foster care.
YAB does a terrific job of referring to a printed copy of their constitution during their meetings, and the manual is definitely supposed to act as a guide for every step of the project management process: brainstorming, project selection, planning, execution, and ending (termination, completion, and administration). Each section has handy tools and tips for success. We’re also making it available in digital format, however, because the manual is intended as a living document that they can edit over the years by modifying, clarifying, and elaborating on the existing material (e.g., working out their own ground rules and processes for each of these stages). There are exercises sprinkled throughout, so it also served as a workbook at the retreat and at the Alley bootcamp.
Full disclosure: the first project management workshop was a little rough. In a strict sense I wasn’t disappointed, though, because as with any new workshop, I was prepared for some kinks. (It’s always tough to time new activities.) Furthermore, it was the last workshop on the final day of the retreat, the youth were kind of restless and burnt out from all the work and running around we’d already done, and the creepy cabin we used as a classroom (the “dead animal room”) was not conducive to thoughtful dialogue. I’d assumed that we would finish the chapter on brainstorming rather quickly, but it took us an hour to get through the material. Nothing was too trivial for debate, and in my effort to write down everyone’s opinions, we lagged behind schedule.
It was clear that I had to recalibrate my approach (in business parlance, “pivoting” after “failure”!) for the follow-up session. This was a team effort. Lindsay got feedback from YAB about what they thought could be improved for next time, and the two of us met to discuss some tactics. Here are the ideas we all came up with: (more…)
For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about openness—the malleable mindset—and how to cultivate it in young people. I come at this, it should be said, as an educator, and I’m finding that outside the institutional setting of a college classroom, it’s tough to sustain my go-to strategy of Read more…
[For Candice and Nahjee] I wish you ladies could have joined me for Lisette’s talk, “Multi-contextualism and the Consumption of Higher Education,” because I know both of you would have really enjoyed it. Giving you a digest below. We can dig into all this more deeply when we see each other next, because I would love to hear your reactions.
Lisette made a very credible case for the dishearteningly low college graduation rates of the latino student population being a result of certain cultural pressures rather than a lack of academic preparedness. In other words, it’s not that latino students aren’t capable of hacking college-level courses; it’s the fact that within the latino community young people take on very adult roles within their families, and this sense of obligation—and very real responsibility—often gets in the way of attending to the competing demands of college life. If we understand young latinos’ desire for parental closeness and their role in contributing to the family income, then all of a sudden the phenomenon of high-achieving latino students dropping out of selective colleges in order to attend the community college close to home makes sense.
What enables Lisette to arrive at these insights is by considering the problem of college persistence through the lens of multi-contextualism. (more…)
Someone else just accepted my invitation to guest post on this blog! Among other things, he is a beloved manager and insightful mentor and I’m hoping that he can write something about the qualities that he looks for in his proteges, and perhaps a little bit about how he works Read more…
I first heard about Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed” on this podcast. I distinctly remember listening to the interview about this book while on a long bus ride and scribbling Paul Tough on a piece of paper to remember for later. It was another book that made me feel energized and excited about the potential in this work.
One point that struck me was when he described how character traits, such as grit, social intelligence, and self-control, can function as a type of safety net for students who don’t have much support from their family or their community. For students who are growing up in chaotic homes and the challenges associated with living in poverty, they have had to develop character traits that help them succeed and that they can fall back on when times are difficult.
Young people in foster care who make it to college are part of a small group. When you look at how many continue on to earn their degree, the number gets even smaller. There is obviously something that these students develop that has allowed them to go through the traumatic experience that is foster care and continue to strive to reach their goals.
The neurotic lesson planner in me always arrives to classes or workshops with a surplus of material because as a young teacher one of my biggest nightmares was to run out of things to do and—heaven forfend—have to wing it in the classroom. I went into the YAB retreat hoping to get through three team building activities. All of them were brand new, so I was a little nervous about inaugurating them and seeing how they would come together in practice. In the end we had to cut the 15-minute communication skills activity I’d planned and run a bit into the post-workshop hour. But Amy, Lindsay, and I were all expecting this retreat to be as much a learning experience for us as it would be for YAB, and we ended up being extremely pleased with the results of the team building activities.
We kicked the weekend off with “What Do You Bring to the Table,” a workshop idea I adapted from Mariam MacGregor’s Teambuilding with Teens. I designed this activity as a way for everyone to focus on their fellow YAB members’ strengths and also to learn why they are valued by their peers. Here is how we went about it: (more…)