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It is the eve of November 8th, Election Day, a critical and contentious moment in our nation's history. I am currently sitting on a bus sandwiched between three teenage boys, all three who are much bigger than me, and who after several hours of driving are starting to produce a scent I like to call "teen spirit". We are enroute back to Cleveland from a two-day college tour, amongst which one of our stops was the University of Cincinnati, in the city known for its' historical influence of the passage of the Underground Railroad.

It seems after 2 years of growing anger and tension in our countries great divide, today should be a day of reflection and a celebration of those giant's on whose shoulders we stand. So we spent the morning visiting the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in the heart of Cincinnati and spent the morning with Ms. Faith who provided us with an experience we would not soon forget. As a white woman, I stood in J.W. Anderson's Slave Pen amongst 30 young African American youth, and I watched Ms. Faith drop heavy metal shackles on the floor of the pen, describing in details the different markings of the pen and how men, as young as 17, were shackled to the beams and left hanging until they were ready to be moved up the river. As I listened to her words, I was overcome with emotion, realizing that the only difference between the young people in the room today and those who suffered such atrocities was a factor of time. I was also keenly aware that freedom is a fragile thing and is not a universal truth, which is why it is so important that we fight harder to ensure that all young people today are educated to understand the history of those who came before them, in order to ensure that we don't allow history to repeat itself, as it often does, and that we continue to fight for the equality of freedom of all our people. Ironically, the Freedom Center demonstrated this truth, through its' new exhibit, "Invisible", which walked us through slavery that still exists today around the world and throughout our own country. Again, history repeats itself, and we often turn away.

fragility of freedom

I never fully understood the sanctity of the democratic process until I saw it at risk this past year. In all my years of education, I only understood that I had a right to vote and I should practice that right. Yes, of course I knew the three branches, the president, the fables, and all the big scandals. However, I didn't really understand the foundational principles in which our country was founded, how far we have strayed from those founding principles, how incredibly divided and divisive we have become, and how dangerous that division is to the long-term survival of our democracy (regardless of which side of the fence you sit). I am not specifically speaking of this election alone. After all, this isn't the first divisive election we have faced. Abraham Lincoln's presidential run may have still rivaled today's. Rather, I am speaking about the larger picture of our democracy. I am not sure where we begin to break the cycle that is occurring, but as I sat in JW Anderson's Slave Pen today, I couldn't help but feel a level of anxiety for those kids and what is at stake for each of them as they move forward with their education and future paths. In a society so heavily influenced by half-truths and misinformation, how do we fight to develop strong global leaders, with firm principles, and a clear understanding of what makes our country free.

fragility of freedom 2

Of course I might also argue that most of the kids we serve have never truly been free. In a society of haves and have-nots, we have successfully managed to keep those living in poverty, and most specifically minorities in poverty, in a system that doesn't allow for upward movement. The whole mantra "hard work leads to achievement" only works if you have the right resources in play, most of which these young people are not afforded. In case you don't believe me, research it. There are overwhelming bodies of research that show that young minorities in poverty, can't simply work hard and pull themselves out of poverty. So again, these young people aren't free today and as we continue to divide our nation, they seem to further be oppressed by the systems in play. However, this is for another blog... just some food for thought.

fragility of freedom 3

So again, as I sit on this bus, driving back up to "Believeland" I grow continually anxious not only for the results of tonight's election, but more so for the future direction of our country and what it means for our children and generations to come. Our freedom and democracy has endured and expanded through a civil war, the abolition of slavery, multiple wars, terrorism, the civil rights movement, forty-four presidents, new and changing amendments, etc. Yet, this doesn't make it invinsible. As Superman once said, "with Liberty comes Responsibility." Can we reshape the direction we are heading? Can we find middle ground? How do we explain the contentiousness with our children? How do we use knowledge as a source of power, rather than ignorance as a source of control? How do we teach the next generation differently? I don't have answers, only questions. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."


For breakfast, I had Almond Cacao Oatmeal. I've included the recipe below:
1 tbsp cacao powder
½ C gluten free oats
¼ C unsweetened coconut
1 tbsp almond butter
1 packet of stevia

Published in Breakfast Club

Here in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we're less than two weeks from the last day of school and the launch of 11 weeks of summer day camps. My division of the Ann Arbor Public School district – Community Education and Recreation – is busy preparing for over 100 camps, dozens of staff, and thousands of campers. Through our popular High school Volunteer Program, 160 teens will build skills and provide assistance at our summer camps.

For many of our teen camp volunteers, this is a first job-related experience. Of course, we provide training on safety, working with children, assisting lead counselors, communicating with parents, and so on. But we also want to engage teens to think of themselves instrumental in setting a positive camp culture.

How do you build teen volunteers' awareness of and capacity to contribute to a positive camp culture? Here are Ann Arbor Rec & Ed's top 5 training activities for teen volunteers.

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1. Ideally, experienced teen volunteers will be your partners in developing and leading your training agenda for new volunteers. According to the Youth Driven Spaces Initiative, developing youth leadership and voice can happen through Youth Advisory Councils and other program structures, with the overall goal of increasing engagement and skill of older youth.

2. Share your organization's vision and mission for summer camps. Why do you provide summer camps? In what ways do you strive be a positive force in children's lives? Use aspirational language to explain your organization's purpose. Invite your teen volunteers to react and add to this vision, sharing their own experiences where applicable.

3. Conduct a quick self-assessment. A quick review of a core set of skills for working with children can be really helpful to teens, especially those in this role for the first time. We like this basic list of 5 skills and qualities for those who want to work with children: patience; the ability to hide frustration and annoyance; keeping calm in an emergency; communication; and enthusiasm. We ask our teen volunteers to talk about their areas of greatest strengths and weakness in this skill set.

4. Help teen volunteers understand their unique contributions to a positive camp culture. High school students are likely to relate the idea of "camp culture" best in relation to their own lives at school.

○ Large group brainstorm: Think about your favorite high school class, one where you're really engaged and enjoy learning. How would you describe the classroom culture? Generate a list of the aspects of the class they like, including relationships, traditions, attitudes, and activities.
○ Reviewing the list, ask if another person were to walk into your favorite classroom, what would he or she observe? (Examples: Smiling faces? Would students be active and engaged in their learning? Are students showing respect to each other?)
○ Help them "crosswalk" their answers from their favorite classroom to what a favorite summer day camp might look like. What characteristics would be the same, what would be different? What would they add to make it even better?
○ Finally, have them take a 2-3 quiet minutes to think about what they believe their unique contributions to a child's favorite camp would look like. They can share with a partner or the whole group.

5. Monitor, support, coach - When observing teen volunteers at camps, be sure to notice and give feedback when you see them contributing to a positive camp culture.

Teen volunteers can be an essential part of any day camp. Help them understand their role as a mentor and change-maker in the lives of younger children -- they and their campers will reap the rewards.


For breakfast this morning, I had a bowl of cereal and a banana. (And coffee, of course.)

Published in Breakfast Club

This past month, our iTHINKBIG.ORG school assembly team completed 50, thirty-minute interviews, with High School and Middle School students across San Diego. Participants crossed economic and racial backgrounds. The question was, "What's trending now?" This is what we found out. Hang on, the results are surprising:

Favorite Music

• R&B, Pop, Hip Hop, Rap - 40%
• Country - 16%
• Alternative Rock/Indie/Rock - 8%
• Other - 36% (They are listening to: One Direction, Fetty Wap, 21Pilots, Drake, 1975, Weekend, Bieber, Beyoncé, Sam Hunt, Taylor Swift)

Top Movies

• Notebook - 6%
• Longest Ride - 6%
• Other 88% (Almost no front runner, but everyone with different opinions.)

Top Movies in Theatres

• Deadpool - 40%
• Other - 60%

Read outside of school?

• Yes - 64%
• No - 36%

whats trending

Favorite Book?

• Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bible, Harry Potter, Hunger Games (All with 6%.)

Movies or Books?

• Movies - 70%
• Books - 20%
• None - 10%

Do you care about celebrities?

• No - 58%
• Yes - 42% (Mainly Kardashians, Jenners, Bieber, and One Direction.)

What do you do in your free time?

• Hang with friends - 40%
• Sports - 16%
• Watch TV/Netflix/Gaming - 38%
• Nothing - 6%
• "Watch Netflix and Chill" (This is actually intended to be funny - No one actually responded with this answer. This phrase means to "hook up" with a sexual partner. Keep reading and learning!)

What do you not have that you need?

• Money - 34%
• Nothing - 30%
• Car - 16%
• Boyfriend/Girlfriend - 12%
• Good Grades - 8%

Do you try hard at things?

• No - 48%
• Yes - 30%
• Depends/Sometimes - 16%

Are you sad a lot?

• Yes - 52%
• No - 48%

whats trending now

Do you use drugs?

• Yes - 34%
• No - 66%

Is weed good or bad?

• Bad - 68%
• Good - 32%

Do you smoke weed?

• Yes - 40%
• No - 60%


• Yes - 86% (mostly to get married, have kids, make a lot of money)
• No - 14%

Who encourages you most?

• Parents - 40%
• Siblings - 32%
• Friends - 28%

Who are you closest to? Mom or Dad?

• Mom - 40%
• Dad - 36%
• Neither - 24%

Who discourages you most?

• People at school - 56%
• Friends - 24%
• Parents - 20%

5 Ways to Use "What's Trending Now?" To Your Advantage

First, know how to talk with your students. Know what they are "into." Second, regarding your events, this can help you choose the "feel," music you play, and help shape your giveaways. Third, teaching methods. Don't shy away from a quote from a song, reference to a movie, or anything like that when it drives home your point. Fourth, know the family and home dynamics. Most of your student's time is spent away from school. Where are they coming from practically and personally? Lastly, understand your influence as a leader. You got this! Do you remember your favorite teacher? Well, you carry that kind of influence with them. Don't forget it!


For breakfast I had an Almond Perfect Bar.

Image Credit: Flickr

Published in Breakfast Club

We are going to start with a little game. I am going to quiz you to see how well you know social issue awareness colors. I will provide you with a single color and I would like you to identify all of the social issue that color represents.

Here we go: Red.


How many social issues were you able to identify?

At this point you are probably asking yourself, "Why is he asking such a question?" or "How does this possibly relate to me and what I do?" The answer is the substance abuse prevention.

From October 23rd through the 31st, millions of students will walk into their schools and will be handed a red ribbon in celebration of Red Ribbon Week. This red ribbon will not represent HIV awareness, epidermolysis bullosa awareness or heart disease awareness, but substance-abuse awareness.

2015 Red Ribbon ThemeThe first National Red Ribbon Celebration was held in 1988 and was sponsored by the National Family Partnership in response to the murder of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena in 1985 by the drug cartel. The community united after this tragic event and began wearing red ribbons to raise awareness of the killing and the destruction caused by drugs within their community. Now 30 years later, an estimated 80 million people will participate in Red Ribbon Week activities this year.

Red Ribbon Week can be and should be so much more than simply wearing a ribbon. This celebration is an opportunity to bring better awareness to both youth and adults about the importance of preventing young people from substance abuse and addiction. Substance abuse prevention has one primary goal: to delay the first use of alcohol or other drugs. Research has indicated that early substance use increases a person's chance of developing an addiction. Substance abuse prevention works to empower youth to make healthy and positive choices concerning use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.

So, what is it that you are doing to make this celebration more than just wearing a ribbon? One way to have a greater impact on preventing youth substance use is to have youth developed and lead alcohol, tobacco, and other drug prevention activities. Since now is the time to start planning for Red Ribbon Week, take this opportunity to allow youth to step up and take an active role in the planning. For prevention activities to be successful youth have to be engaged and who better knows what activities are engaging for youth than youth? Here is one way for you to have youth assist in planning Red Ribbon Week activities:

• Visit the Red Ribbon Campaign's website and download the free "2015 Red Ribbon Planning Guide." This guide provides different ideas for activities ranging from poster contests and chalk walks to pledges and parent phone messages.
• Have the student consider activity ideas. In small groups, ask the youth to write down or draw ideas that they have for Red Ribbon Activities.
• Next, have the student identify the steps necessary to make this activity a reality, including considering who needs to be involved, and what supplies or materials are needed. This is when the planning takes place.
• Last, have the students step up as peer leaders and engage each other in the activity. Utilizing this peer-to-peer model will help strengthen leadership skills as well as assist in engaging more youth in activities.

With Red Ribbon Week coming up in a little over a month, it is important that every student and youth know the significance behind this substance abuse prevention campaign. Together, we can all work to keep children, families, and communities safe, healthy, and drug free.


For breakfast I had, Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich with a tall coffee.

Published in Breakfast Club

This blog is an additional follow-up resource from J. Branson Skinner and Liz Ricketts' blog, Experience Inspires Love, originally posted on the Breakfast Club. This blog is a part of our ongoing partnership with Asia Society.

The Collectofus Global Leaders program, part of The OR Network, connects students in Accra, Ghana; Vaalwater, South Africa; Detroit, Michigan; Brooklyn, New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Washington, D.C. They create and exchange scarves and videos and then interact through an online platform ​while learning together through a curriculum that explores the clothing students in every location wear regularly.

At the beginning of every year, the conversations we have with our students are like deja vu. Students in the U.S. are hesitant to ask questions of their peers abroad—they are worried about not asking the right questions. Meanwhile, students in Ghana and South Africa, who we lead through the exact same process, have never expressed such worries or exhibited such hesitancy.

This is an interesting phenomenon that we believe reflects a difference in education systems and the preconceived notions that students develop of one another. For instance, when we first introduce what students are going to do with us over the course of a year, we often hear from our students in the U.S., "Is it OK to ask what their parents do?" or "Can I ask about HIV?" or "Is it bad to ask about food?" They have also asked if it's OK to ask their peers in Ghana and South Africa about their favorite colors and the music that they like. It's clear to us that our students in the U.S. often only know the tragic side of the continent of Africa. They don't want to ask what they see as difficult questions in a place of tragedy. And they don't want to ask questions they perceive as too trivial for a place of such struggle.

a solar laptopUniversal Experiences
Our U.S. students know a single story of the continent of Africa. As Chimamanda Adichie says in her now famous TED Talk that we show to all of our students, it's not that this stereotype of tragedy is wrong, it's incomplete; family members dying and people going hungry are universal experiences, whether an individual is from Washington, D.C., or Accra, Ghana. The fact that people have favorite colors and enjoy certain types of music is also universal. These are all human things, and they make up the complete story of a people and a place. And, at the core of our program, we want students to reflect on themselves and what makes us all humans together. What the students in the U.S. see as difficult or trivial questions are exactly what we want our students to ask of one another. So how do we get them to break through their initial trepidation and converse?

Personal, Thoughtful Questions
First, we establish some basic concepts with our middle school students. We discuss the difference between an open and a closed question. If students have to wait weeks for questions and responses from peers abroad, we want the conversations to be meaningful. This is facilitated by asking open questions that call for thoughtful responses. As part of this conversation, we discuss with students what is searchable online. If they can google a question, for instance, "Is it hot in Ghana?" or "Is Washington, D.C., where Barack Obama lives?," then there is little need to ask it of their peers. This fact pushes students to consider more personal questions that only their peers can answer.

How to Formulate
Next, we establish a rule that for every question a student asks, she has to give her own response to that question. So if a student wants to ask, "What is your favorite sport to play and why?," she would have to first say, "My favorite sport to play is lacrosse. I like it because it is a combination of other sports that I also enjoy: soccer and hockey. I also really enjoy playing on a team. It's a great way to make friends, and it pushes me to try harder." Then, we ask students not to assume that their peers will know what they are talking about. Most students in Ghana have never heard of lacrosse. Likewise, most students in the U.S. have never heard of waakye, a popular food in Ghana that students often mention. So we ask students to explain thoroughly their questions and responses and what they mean by certain words. While both waakye and lacrosse are easily searchable, the act of explaining slows students down and helps them consider perspectives other than their own. After we've covered these ground rules and basic concepts, students begin to formulate their questions, writing down both the questions for their peers and their own accompanying responses.

Before students can record videos or visit our web platform where they have asynchronous conversations with their peers abroad, we have them practice their questions with one another in class. When it comes time to film the first communications across borders, students will interview one another in groups of three. One student operates the camera. One student acts as interviewer using the interviewee's prepared questions and responses as prompts to begin a conversation. The third student is in front of the camera sharing the scarf that she made for her peer abroad and engaging with the interviewer. We've found that this three-person group allows for a natural, unscripted conversation between interviewer and interviewee, often pushing beyond the initial student-scripted questions and responses.

Even though students on both sides of the Atlantic go through this same process, it's not until they receive the scarves and initial videos that their peers made for them that the borders come down and the students really open up. From shy and quiet to singing out loud a favorite song, we have seen students completely transform the moment they watch their peers' videos and put on their new scarves. The tangible scarf helps form a strong bong: A student sees this scarf as a sign that her peer cares. And the conversation and personal reflection that ensues between peers after the exchange is a strong lesson in the humanity we all share.

Photo credits: The OR Network.

Photo 1 caption: Students at the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit receive their scarfs and meet their peers.

Photo 2 caption: Students in Accra interact on with a laptop powered by the solar station that the students themselves built as one of their community actions project through the Collectofus Global Leaders program. In the background Liz prepares textiles for the next day's lesson.

Published in Breakfast Club

Some community leaders and I were in shock when teens in our after school hip-hop leadership program came in and told us that they felt like absolute failures at school. The disillusionment came about because these were the same youth who were presenting at regional conferences with Congress members, and opening up for international hip-hop acts. These young people, primarily young men of color, were telling us that they were treated like they were stupid at school, and constantly singled out and disciplined unjustly. One young man told me, "I feel like I have been marked as a failure by teachers and the school as a whole, and they won't stop attacking me unless I either drop out accept that I am a loser". Questions began to emerged for us like: how could students who were so engaged in one area of their lives be so disengaged in another? What would the impacts be if what we have been doing in after school could transcend a program and envelope an entire school?

The sparks of these questions were fanned to flame when I wrote a proposal and finally received the funds to create a hip-hop leadership curriculum that could be implemented both during the school day and after-school. In the true fashion of hip-hop we remixed our experiences and the stories of our youth with research from Social and Emotional Learning, Positive Youth a development, and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. We felt led to cultivate hope in our youth that Paulo Freire defined as: "acknowledging our concrete realities, and actively working towards the dreams of what is still possible." We realized that this critical, creative, and competent hope could not be schooled in our youth but it had to be educated and drawn out. We then ventured to develop an approach that combined the arts with social emotional learning with a culturally relevant spin.

We decided to use hip-hop culture as the vehicle to engage youth and help them and their schools and communities realize that they have the potential of becomming change agnets. Our opportunity to pilot this program came when a school district we were courting was labeled as being in "crisis" by articles coming out of the state newspaper. Seeing our opportunity we approached the superintendent who seemed like he would be open to a new approach to student engagement. He explained, "we have tried every intervention under the sun, but we haven't tried this Hip-hop stuff, let's see what that can do". With his blessing we were sent into the "worst school" in the district. We met with the principals and were able to ascertain that the majority of issues were coming from four classes in the school, in which we realized they were warehousing their students of color.

These students had been given every label under the sun from EBD, ADHD,ADD, and ODD. The last thing these youth needed was another intervention or prevention so before we started the program, we decided to do an all school assembly and introduce them to the invention of a new leadership program. We brought in local hip-hop artists, we spoke, and announced we were launching a hiphop leadership program to a few classes of elite youth to take place both during the school day and afterschool. This was on a Friday, on Monday we showed up to the four classes and the youth were astounded we chose them. We told them that they had tremendous influence in the school and that we wanted them to use that influence to have a positive impact on the school. We explained, that they had things they were passionate about and we wanted them to grow in these areas until they felt like they could make a positive contribution to the school culture. We held our program during homeroom once a week for about 45 minutes and gave the teachers follow up lessons on the days we weren't there. About three weeks into it, we also started meeting with the youth after school to focus on creative skill development.

We facilitated discussions examining the difference between hip-hop culture and hip-hop industry. We explained that hip-hop culture had a long history of youth empowerment, with practitioners seeing themselves as producers capable of wielding the power to change their realities. We contrasted this with showing video clips that demonstrated how hip-hop industry was more focused on having power over young people, shaping them to see themselves as consumers, and ultimately stripping them of their power to change reality by keeping them believing fantasy and myths about themselves. We encouraged youth to think critically about the media and music they were ingesting, and similar to how hiphop deejays sampled from classic hit records to create new sounds, encouraged them to start being intentional about "sampling" from the examples of people who lived purposefully that they knew.

Instead of mimicking these elders, we encouraged them to "remix" these examples into ways that were authentic to who they are and what they are passionate about. As facilitators we got open about our own lives and shared our own personal historical records of what we felt proud of and experiences that were painful. One teacher opened up and shared an experience about losing her father just the previous summer, and in tears said she being a teacher was one way she felt like she made him proud. We encouraged students to consider their own legacies, and to realize that whether they acknowledged it or not, the younger students in the school were being influenced by their examples for better or worse. We then challenged them to think about what kind of "sounds" they wanted the music of their lives to make, and to consider what direction they wanted to move people.


We engaged our youth in sharing their voice, not only in the sharing their "blues" stories, but that they could also listen deeply to the stories of others, and cultivate deeper social awareness and empathy. The voicing of personal struggle and the dialogues that took place moved the group to creating a deeper critical consciousness about their realities and created a "beloved" community where radical healing could take place (Ginwright, 2010). Youth decided that they wanted to make a difference and that the way they were going to do so was to help reinvigorate the school talent show. This would be their platform to unleash their new found hope on the school and community at large.

Our youth were helped to host also performed skits about racisim in the school, shared poems about struggle, and performed raps about transformation and hope. One chorus in their song went: " It is not a new but an old thing/ we are working hard man trying to let our soul bling/ we're not concerned what your gold brings/ we got a purpose and it is more than trying to hold things/ you serving them death Im serving them life/ you serving them wrong I am serving them right/ you are either part of the problem or the solution/ so lets solve our problems and start a movement/. The youth got a standing ovation, and to our surprise the data also stood out as we saw GPA's increase half a point on average in the four classes, attendance improved, and behavior issues went down. Upon sharing this data with the superintendent, he called for a town-hall meeting where we shared the pre and post data, but also had an opportunity for the youth to share their stories. One young man said, "my brother is in a gang and I have been planning to join later this year, but I am not any more because now I realize I have a dream and can see how school connects to me fulfilling that dream". Another young man said, "used to smoke weed everyday after school but now I stopped because I can say I have hope. Upon hearing this the Chief of Staff probed him and asked: "what kind of hope is this, hope you have today and is gone tomorrow"? He looked her firmly in the eye and said, "this is a hope I will have for the rest of my life". These youth went on to getting on the honor role and became the agents of change that later made this leadership program school wide, which was later served as our launch pad to doing work district wide and now across the nation.

We have since refined our youth engagement philosophy or pedagogy and call it Hip-Hope, and have created a hands on program called Fulfill The Dream combining social emotional learning and hip-hop that can bridge the gap between during the school day and after school. After implementing our approach over the last ten years, we have seen alternative high schools have 100% graduate rates after one year of implementation, we have seen GPA's go up as much as full points in as little as ten weeks, and the Y-Cincinnati was named the top after school association by the Y-USA after using our program. We are now determined to scale our work, with the goal of reaching over a million youth by the year 2020.

We are excited to share our experience, research, and resources with youth workers at the BOOST Conference during the Master Class I will presenting on April 29 from 10 am – 12 pm. We hope to see you there!


For breakfast I had eggs and veggie sausage.


roberto-riveraRivera is an expert in connecting positive youth development to community development using culturally relevant methods. He has employed asset-based and social emotional learning principles for over ten years in community-based youth work in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Chicago. He has most recently been named one of the "Top Young Change Agents in America" by the Search for Common Ground Coalition, and in 2012 became a fellow through the Unreasonable Institute for his social entrepreneurship skills. Roberto speaks at national and international conferences expressing powerful learning lessons linking the asset framework to organizational and community efforts with and for young people. Since he was once labeled "at-risk" himself, Roberto passionately advocates for giving young people sufficient support and opportunities so they can take positive risks and become change agents themselves.

Published in Breakfast Club

As Out-of-School-Time professionals, we have a lot of freedom to create amazing experiences for the youth we serve. In order to create those experiences, we must use all the tools that available to us. Thus, I was recently surprised as I was chatting with a colleague who challenged me on my passionate advocacy of the use of social media with youth. Like many, this friend of mine had bought in to the recent barrage of media that has focused on the negative consequences of social networking such as cyberbullying and sexting. I acknowledged that it was true cyberbullying and sexting were one outcome of the use of social networking, but I also had to point out the multitude of positive outcomes as well. This became the top item on my mind as I sit down to write my post this month.

For generations, various commentators have worried about the impact of technology on our youth. The Industrial Revolution with its noisy steam engines broke up small pastoral communities with noise and a youthful sense of mobility freedom. Telephones, watches, clocks, and even electric lights went against the natural grain of society. Radio and Television were instant missionaries of that horrible thing called Rock ‘n Roll! Of course, the Internet has just been disastrous. Wonder what they will say about Augmented Reality items like Google Glass or even Virtual Reality items like the Oculus Rift. Better yet, what will happen when the Internet disappears and becomes the Internet of Everything like Google’s Eric Schmidt recently predicted.

social-media-communicationWhile I am being a little snarky, the point I am trying to make is that social media is here and whether we like it or not it is a part of a youth’s everyday life experience. Research on the impact of social media is still fairly young, but the Pew Research Center has some great findings that we can tap into. According to their research, of teens ages 12 to 17 across various demographic factors, 95% use the Internet and 81% use social media. 48% of that group has a phone with more than half saying the phone is a smartphone. What sites are they visiting? Well, 45% go to YouTube, 28% say they do not use a specific Social Media site, 15% go to Facebook, 10% go to Instagram, and 2% hang out on Twitter. Research has found that the benefits include staying in touch, making new friends, sharing photos and experiences, exchanging ideas, and finding opportunities for community engagement. On the opposite coin, the harm factors include increased narcissism and cyberbullying. Yet, Cal State L.A. psychology professor Kaveri Subrahmanyam has discovered that youth who spend time on social media sites may actually be the healthiest psychologically as they use this new technology to form identities separate from those of their parents.

What are we to do as OST providers? Ban social media, embrace it, use it, or denounce it? I propose first understanding it more from a youth’s point of view. Reach out to the kids you serve and find out how they are using social media and why. Don’t take their freedom away by creating a special school account or embedding it in program. Instead find out more about the hype and drill down to the core use. Discover if social media should be a part of the program or not. The reasons that kids use social media are universal from elementary to high school, just scalable (think scope and sequence here). Here’s a good article from a University of Texas student that gives us some insight on social media from a teen’s point of view.

Edutopia has collected an amazing array of ways we can use social media in our out-of-school-time programs or even in the core school day. Blogging platforms can be used to encourage writing, creativity, and student expression. Video platforms can be used in entertainment productions, scientific journaling, or even book reports. Microblogs can be used to do research, take polls or surveys, follow famous people, or even something totally crazy like using LeetSpeak to translate literature (see Social networks generate backchannel conversations, tools like Skype or Zoom create collaborative environments outside of the classroom, flashcard apps help with study sessions, and even games can be used in positive ways.

The tools are here and we have a choice to embrace them or get ran over by them. The great thing is that in our industry we may have a little more freedom to demonstrate how these tools can be used for good. So, if you ask me let’s push the envelope, see what we can to create positive changes in youth, and take another selfie!

Oh and this morning for breakfast, I had a Cinnamon Roll and Orange Juice while catching up on the news through Twitter.

Published in Breakfast Club

The news is often overwhelming with images of violence, objectification, and families left stunned and mourning over great loss. The need for social justice is not new. But to high school students who are just coming to understand the repetitive nature of the news...and just how nasty things in this world can is new. It seems that at this tender age, high school students are beginning to identify what they formerly understood as singular incidents, that they may have even personally experienced, as either "just the way things are" or results of systematic injustice and oppression. This is a more than overwhelming choice to make.

In these moments, when life has shifted, young people are looking to the adults in their lives. They are looking to see if we have stopped to acknowledge the widespread pain in the news or if we have just continued on with our daily schedules. We, as the adults in young people's lives, are charged with guiding them through making sense of their world. One utterly necessary thing we must do to fulfill this commission, is to help them process their personal experiences in relation to current and ongoing social justice issues.

I have an eclectic mix of young people in my high school dance class, each student with a unique story, each from a different neighborhood. And within the group several countries, cultures, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, genders, race, and economic backgrounds are represented. In the last few months the heaviness of heart in relation to the news has been palpable in the dance studio. Students were arriving to dance class after school exhausted in a new way, eyes often puffy from tears, determined to stay committed to wearing black in solidarity, but frustrated at peers who did not support them or are openly opposing that anything is wrong in the world.

My gut told me to kick off our winter term of classes with a thematic investigation. My heart was heavy from the news, and I was certain that theirs were too. On the opening day I gathered them close together, they pulled out notebooks and journals and something to write with. I asked them to write about a social issue that weighs heavy on their heart. Every student immediately began to write. They did not take their pens and pencils off their papers for the next hour. I had never seen all of them so deeply immersed in what they were writing all at one time for so long. My intuition was right. They needed to talk about the weight they felt.

I asked them to share in summary what they had written. An African American young woman shared a story about having a sleep over with Caucasian friends, and as she wrapped her hair to go to sleep, one of the other girls told her that she looked like "The Help". A Caucasian Muslim young woman shared the pain her family has experienced over religious prosecution, hate, and the painful empathy that overwhelms her about the occupancy of Palestine. A South African young woman shared her frustration over corrupt governments and the persistent and ongoing abuse of power and colonization. A Caucasian young man shared the helplessness he felt that he someday would have job opportunities and be paid more for the same job than the very young women he was sitting with in the room. An African American woman shared how she was not sure what to say to her younger brother as they watched the events in Ferguson unfold, she did not know how to help make sense of it for him. A Caucasian young woman shared the overwhelming astonishment at the discovery that her Dad is racist. She never knew it, and then Ferguson happened. His response to the scenes on the news crushed her. She is at a loss for what to do, and wonders if she is still allowed to love her Dad. A young woman who survived sexual assault shared the anger that rises in her over rape culture, gender-based violence, and the differences in the treatment of the genders. An Asian American young woman tearfully shared the discrimination her family has endured because she has two mothers, neither of which look like her. An African American young woman shared her deep pain and personal experience over racial inequality and violence. She had led a die-in and through the experience learned that one of her close friends, who is Caucasian, did not have her back. She is enduring severe racially charged slander every day at school.

As the adults in their lives, let us lead the young people whom we have the profound privilege of knowing through the process of making sense of their world. Art-making lends itself to this process. The creators experience efficacy and influence as they form their work to speak their voice. The art piece, no matter whether it is a dance, a song, a culinary masterpiece, or a mural, acts as a container to hold what hurts. And the process of making art is, in and of itself, healing. Consider also, if the creative process is collaborative it requires hearing each other, seeing each other, and being open to different vantage points. Empathy.


One Approach to Thematic Investigation:

1. Safety.
Dim lighting. This takes the pressure off students and relaxes the environment. Sit comfortably. Allow students to sprawl out on the floor, in chairs, in their own corner, away from the group, with the group, or with a friend close by. Allow quiet conversation, so long as young people are on topic and not distracting others who need quiet. Do not forget that some young people process their thoughts interpersonally. Observe when to call the time. Let them write until they do not need to write anymore. It may be that the writing process requires one or two sessions.

2. Choice.
Give choice to sharing. Do not call on students. Clearly explain at the start of sharing that it is their choice when and if they share. This communicates that you believe that they know what they need. And wait. Get comfortable with silence. They will talk. Relax and trust them. Or, if no one shares, re-evaluate what was needed. Perhaps they needed self-reflection and time alone. But, wait. Give them the opportunity. And longer than you think you should.

3. Consistency.
Respond in the same exact way to each student who shares, with a genuine "thank you." In this moment of sharing, do not allow students to respond to each other. This time is about stating one's experience and feeling, not about arguing the fundamentals of an issue.

4. Gathering.
Take notes as they share. Jot down reoccurring themes. For instance, my students kept returning to the concept of humanity and the lack of acknowledging others as fully human. They used a variation of words to describe this, but this was at the core of each student's sharing. I repeated it back to them after all had shared to be sure I had truly heard their voices and intent.

5. Create.
After repeating it back to them, get their input. Begin to work out the message in reference to an art-making concept. And then create together, collaboratively. Then work it out some more. Then create some more. Then work it out some more. Then create some more. And so on. Young people will show you where they are in the process. Some might be mourning the world as it is, others will be imagining the world as it could be, and still others might need to use creating as an escape to remember the goodness of life. Engage in the process with young people, but most certainly do not take over the process, allow the art-making to fill the void that is needed now in order that it might usher them into making sense of this world.

Whether it is a mural, a dance piece, a song, a sculpture, a weaving, a culinary delight or any other thing you can think up to create with your young people...create. Make something. Let what you create together become a safe place to make sense of the world. Include your own voice in the mix, but be sure you do not take over; let the voice of the art piece truly be the collective voice. Creating reinforces the truth that we each have influence and efficacy, even in the face of systematic injustice and oppression. We are not stones swept away at sea. We are strongly rooted trees growing and thriving in the face of injustice.

For breakfast, I had Greek yogurt and granola.

Published in Breakfast Club

2015! Wow! When I was a kid, in the 70's and 80's, we used to fantasize about what it would be like in the 2000's. There were going to be flying cars and moon shuttles for public use, machines on which you could dial up any type of food and it would instantly appear. Even sports would be different, played in mid-air with jet packs and in stadiums filled with interactive technology. All of these notions seemed so possible then, dreamed up by city kids who watched too many episodes of "Space 1999", "Star Trek", "Buck Rogers", or even "The Jetsons".

The future was still SO far away, or, at least it seemed so, because the past sure seemed to be. Here we were, a group of kids growing up together in Hartford, CT; white kids, black kids, Latino kids, all playing together and learning together. Reading and hearing about "the past", and about how back then we wouldn't be able to go to school together, or play together. We learned about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Bobby Kennedy. We learned about "Whites/Coloreds Only" and thought about how long ago that all seemed, even then, when it was only ten to twenty years prior.

And now, here we are in 2015! In the FUTURE! And while we don't seem to be any closer to flying cars or moon shuttles, we are still not far away from the very same issues that the aforementioned Civil Rights icons stood up against.

We have clearly made progress, but there is still, clearly, so much more to be made. Because of recent events surrounding decisions not to indict police officers for the killing of unarmed Black men, the topics of race, racism, and inequality have been launched back into the mainstream conversation as if propelled by the rocket fuel that was supposed to fly our cars. The "post-racial society" the pundits claimed our nation had evolved into, in light of the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, seems to have been a pipedream, and it seems to me that we have reached another tipping point in the Civil Rights Movement and in our evolution as a "free" country for all people.

I am awed by the insight and compassion shown by the hordes of people who are outraged at the ongoing injustices and inequalities that plague black people and other "minority" groups in our country, and I am appalled at the outright racist and ignorant commentary of others who fail to see that so many of our fellow Americans are hurting and peacefully standing up for their rights to be treated fairly and as equal citizens. We are at another tipping point in terms of people revealing who we truly are.

As an educator, a parent, and a white man who was raised in the City of Hartford and had the opportunity to be a temporary minority and has made it a personal mission to break down barriers and to build bridges between people and communities, I am struck by the seeming silence of many of my fellow educators. Perhaps I am in a unique position in my role as an experiential and adventure educator, in that I have the benefit to be able to broach difficult conversations within the context of the groups I facilitate. Perhaps the topics of social justice and community are paramount in my work because I am an "expert" on "teamwork" and because people need to discuss how to work/get along well with others in my groups. However, I feel that I would be having these conversations with students regardless of the type of educator I am.

I am curious: how are people discussing these current events within their educational settings. ARE people? One friend of mine, an amazing kid, now grown man, whom I grew up with, who is now a principal at an elementary school, and who attended a #BlackLivesMatter solidarity march with me here in Hartford. When I asked, "how are your teachers discussing these events in your school?", he simply paused and replied, "They're not. I'm not sure they know how." And this is coming from a man who stands for equality and against injustice, a man who is outspoken about the social injustices in public education. We connected more about this later and I sent him some resources to share with his staff, but I was struck by it.


If people like my principal friend, who are comfortable being uncomfortable in having these, at times, very difficult dialogues about race and inequality, are having a difficult time approaching these conversations within the context of their "jobs" (Education), then how are the educators who don't think about these topics consciously, or who hold the opposite opinions than mine discussing these events and the ripple effect that these events are having on our society?

Are we creating meaningful, engaging, and physically and emotionally safe learning environments in which to critically discuss these very human problems we are facing as a collective American culture? As a facilitator of learning, I feel that using experiential activities that can bring up our commonalities and differences, all within the context of an activity, and this can be a great launch point for these types of important discussions. I have found that using activities that cause everyone to make assumptions about "an other" lend themselves to naturally segue into deeper discussions around privilege and race. I feel it is very important to regularly reflect on and continually re-examine our own implicit biases and to both recognize and unpack our own privilege, regardless of race, gender, class, etc... in order to be able to facilitate these conversations from a place of understanding, mindfulness, and compassion, and not just simply from a place of good intention.

I feel that as educators, we are bound by similar sets of rules and ethics (spoken and unspoken) and that it is our responsibility to be able to create these meaningful "important moments" within which ALL of our students can learn from and with one another. That it is our duty to create the space where students can make mistakes and still be able to remove their feet from their mouths when a cultural incompetence reveals itself without being painted as a "bad" person. Again, these are challenging conversations at times, particularly if we are not continually truly examining our own biases. However, I imagine those of us who are committed to the field of education understood the challenges we took on and that we are up to these challenges.

So, I challenge us. I challenge all of us as educators to facilitate these conversations and, at the very least, provide a space in which the students can share their thoughts and feelings about race, prejudice, poverty, and other social injustices, where students are listened to and validated, regardless if we agree with them or not. Mindful, compassionate dialogue is the only way we can begin to truly understand each other and the individual and collective challenges we face as fellow community members.

I challenge us, that if we are unable to feel comfortable enough being uncomfortable to do that, to, at the very least, invite someone who is adept at facilitating these types of dialogues to do so and then be open to participating mindfully in the discussions about these issues. I challenge us to open-mindedly examine our privilege and our implicit biases so that we can arrive at a place of compassion and understanding in order to be truly inclusive educators who are aware of the ways that many of the students who don't look like us, or who come from similar backgrounds, are feeling.

I challenge us, as people in the world, to separate from our roles as educators, to realize our inextricable connectedness to everyone else on the planet in order to become the best me we can be. I am because you are. Ubuntu. (For those who have no idea what I am talking about or who think I am talking about the open source operating system, please see one of my earlier Breakfast Club Blogs about the philosophy "Ubuntu"!)

For breakfast this morning, I mused about this topic and reflected on our connectedness while munching on an organic multigrain English muffin with peanut butter and delicious homemade "Beach Plum Jelly" while sipping a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

Published in Breakfast Club


I'm fascinated by that topic. I'm a big picture guy who talking about the details is like being attacked by a soul-stealing dragon. But get me on the big picture, and there's light in my eyes and passion that keeps me going for hours.

A lot of us are like that. I'd even argue that all of us are big picture at our core. The most detailed people have to resurface to get their bearings again. I am truly blessed to be able to speak to about 150,000 Middle and High School students every year, over two million over the last two decades, and time and time again it comes back to the questions of...

"Why am I here?"
"What am I going to do with my life?"
"What career is going to make me happy?"
"How do I leave a positive impact?"

For upper classmen, they begin to get pressure from all sides to make a directional decision for the future. It's coming from home, the classroom, and from inside their own selves as well. Think back for a second - next steps are a big deal - tectonic plate grinding pressure, earth-moving kind of big deal! But good news, there are three simple questions I've developed that can help you to pull clarity from your student during conversations like this. The first is...

1. What do you love?

That's where we start, love. It's the strongest emotion for the human species that actually propels us to do the stupidest things that we never thought we'd do! Romantic love will leave a person to "walk five hundred miles" just to be with the one we love (according to The Proclaimers). When you were in Middle or High School, the emotions of love pretty much ran your life. What about the love of a parent to a child, or for your homeland, or for carne asada burritos? I would do ANYTHING for a carne asada burrito. Don't mess with that kind of love man.

Asking someone about the loves of their life will help them to discover what touches them at their deepest level. Do you want to help them look into their truest self? This is the question that will help them see it.

greatness within2. What do you like?

Ok, and much less heavy, how about, "What you like?" This question is simple, not the crazy deep mining of the heart like before. For example, I like to write. I do. I like to read or watch or hear a great story. I like football, the beach, and great figures throughout history. I like to make things with my hands that I can revisit and say to myself, "I did that. Dang." So what is it that they like to do? We've heard it said that if your job is what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. Isn't it possible to find a life path that will lead us to what is fun for us? Can an artistic person actually do art for a living? Why not?

3. What are you good at?

Lastly, it comes down to what a person is skilled at. How many times have you seen someone on a singing competition show like The Voice, and they can't sing? I mean, really, really terrible at singing. People want to be all kinds of things, but that doesn't mean it's going to happen right? I wanted to play in the NBA, but every dream doesn't come true. This last question refines the first two to reality. It cuts away all the stuff that's likely not to happen, like wanting to do something that we're just not good at, at all. True, some skills can be developed, meaning that we can become good at something we are not currently good at, but how about running with the thing that is monstrously great inside us?

Strengthsfinder is a great tool for helping people discover their top five strengths. There is a notion that in our American culture we are predominantly encouraged to develop and focus on our weaknesses to create a well-rounded person. We bring the "D" home that is on our report card and what happens? Grounded. Growing up in my dad's house the old school belt came with that, a two for one deal. At least until that "D" became a "C". But Strengthsfinder is built on the idea of spending the majority of our energy and time on what we're awesome at, as opposed to what we're lame at.

So in conclusion, my hypothesis is that the individual who discovers what they 1) love, 2) like, and 3) what they are good at will greatly increase their clarity and in turn help narrow down what they want to do with their life. It's a big question, and perhaps it's THE question.

In the words of the great Bob Marley, "My feet is my only carriage, so I've got to push on through." We've got what we've got, so lets go get it!

For breakfast I enjoyed a smoothie with blueberries, protein, kale, banana, flaxseed, and an avocado.

Published in Breakfast Club
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