By Kristina Hulvershorn
If you have planted the seeds of concern and compassion through humane education, there will likely come a time where students are ready to take action with that knowledge. I have learned several lessons (through many successes and failures) which I try to remember as I walk the delicate balance between adult-driven and youth-led initiatives. Here are some of those insights. I hope they will be useful as you work to harness the wisdom of the youth you serve:
1. Redefine your role. It is wise to try to take a step back and ask yourself what adult role is best suited for this project. Due to years of conditioning, your educator-brain might tell you that “this is no time to let the kids take the reins…They NEED my wisdom!”. Resist the urge to take control! If our goal is to nurture the compassionate and creative aspects of youth, they need to feel the freedom and exhilaration of designing and executing a project, start to finish. I recommend assuming the role of facilitator. As a facilitator, you still provide some structure, are available to give feedback and support, but the ideas are generated and sustained by the students themselves. Get comfortable with watching ideas take off and fail as well. These failures can be a tremendous teacher and will serve them long after their youth. When kids aren’t following through or particularly motivated, sometimes that means they aren’t feeling sufficient ownership. On some occasions, when I have inadvertently imposed my ideas, I’ve seen this happen. When kids withdraw, invite them to adjust the project so that it becomes meaningful and inspiring to them. You’ll likely see increased participation and follow-through.
2. Provide healthy boundaries. As you back away from the center of youth activities, make sure you have laid the groundwork for healthy relationships and expectations. Often, teachers and youth workers default into adult-led formats when relationships and social situations falter (excessive talking, exclusionary behavior, off-task behavior, etc). It’s better to establish clear and healthy expectations and then give the students tools to keep the environment a positive one. The easiest way I have found to do this is to spend about 30-60 minutes dedicated to a discussion of what each participant needs in order to feel safe, heard, and ready to do their best. It is important that they feel good about the agreements and that everyone is on board with them. Every group of youth I have ever worked with has been able to articulate their needs thoughtfully. Truth be told, adults struggle with this task more than students do! Write this list down, post it, and empower students to revisit it as often as necessary. You may need to do some role-modeling of how to refer back to the agreements. Here’s an example; Brian tells Shae, “You have terrible handwriting! Let me do the writing.” You calmly remind Brian that we have all agreed not to use put downs and ask him if he can think of a different way to express his desire to be the recorder for the group. Eventually, you will hear kids correcting each other in healthier ways that affirm the boundaries they have created.
You will also need to teach them how to “work it out.” A basic tool to talk through conflict can go a long way. A simple model called STEP, from Peacelearningcenter.org, asks students to:
Tell your point of view.
Explore the other person’s point of view.
Giving some structure and letting students solve conflicts for themselves is a helpful way to find solutions that will really work for them.
3. Communicate to other adults. Depending on your situation, there are likely other parents, educators, or volunteers involved. One of the hardest parts of this process for me has been to find the right language and approach to effectively communicate with adults about what is happening with youth. Sometimes youth projects seem loud, messy, confusing, or time consuming. None of those characteristics necessarily mean that they are wasting time or need an adult to tell them what to do, but it could appear that way from the outside. Explaining that this is a youth-led project is sometimes enough, but often, it is important to lay out a few key points to help others understand why you aren’t orchestrating their every move. Investing a few moments to share with stakeholders what is happening in advance, can save you the headache of running interference from critique or judgement. A couple of my favorite points are:
• How do you get better at running? Practice. How do you get better at drawing? Practice. How do you get better at leadership? PRACTICE! We have to give youth the time and space to truly experience leadership…which sometimes means letting them fail, letting them get stuck, and letting them figure it out on their own!
• You won’t believe what these kids are up to! It was their idea to __________ (explain what they are up to…), and I’m trying my best to allow this to be a youth-led project. This means they not only generate the ideas, but they also have to figure out how to make them happen. It’s tempting to micromanage, but they always figure it out!
4. Let go of your vision. You have a number of years of experience. Sometimes that equates to wisdom, and other times it equates to…well, something else. Fresh perspectives and sincere passion for animals, our Earth, and other humans are potent forces! Just because their approach doesn’t look just like the one you would devise, doesn’t mean it will have any less impact. Let your wisdom rest, and provide help in the form of acts like formatting flyers, creating permission slips, providing supplies, and advocating for the youth! The projects that youth create always have sincerity and an appeal that is unmistakable.
5. Provide inspiration by learning about other youth changemakers! Time after time, I have seen a spark that ignites after youth see role models, of a similar age, do meaningful work. Sometimes believing that meaningful work can come from yourself is all it takes to push kids to the next level. Provide stories of youth who have created impactful projects, initiatives, and movements! Pay attention to race, gender, and ethnicity to ensure your students can truly see themselves in the role models you provide!A few individuals and groups I’ve seen fascinate and motivate youth are in the links below:
•Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: earthguardians.org/xiuhtezcatl/
•Iqbal Masih: moralheroes.org/iqbal-masih
•The Children’s March: zinnedproject.org/materials/the-childrens-march/
•Malala Yousafzai: biography.com/people/malala-yousafzai-21362253