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Finding ways to engage youth in program evaluation

Are you engaging youth in program evaluation? You may be wanting to do so, but having trouble finding a way to do it.

In October, educators from our center and youth workers from several area youth programs embarked on a journey to explore innovative ways to engage youth in program evaluation. The Innovators on Youth Roles in Evaluation Cohort emerged as the laboratory for this exploration. The Innovators began to gather the information about Youth Participatory Evaluation (YPE) from our early meetings and Kim Sabo Flores' presentation that month, Transforming Youth/Adult Relationships through Research and Evaluation.


YPE is a practice that benefits youth, adults, and program. In her blog post, Youth as partners in evaluation - an idea that is catching on, Kate Walker began the discussion on how programs benefit from involving youth in evaluation and research.

In her presentation and book, Youth Participatory Evaluation, Strategies for Engaging Youth People, Kim Sabo Flores furthe…

Collaborations with schools benefit youth

Recently I was part of a school-community partnership group. We were brought together to create a measurement plan for learning objectives set forth by a local school district. The objectives all focused on building 21st Century skills in youth.

There was a heavy emphasis on developing global citizens and cultivating youth interests and talents. Too often these traits are thought of as "soft skills"; however research suggests that soft skills are sometimes the most demanded in the workforce. In fact, National Public Radio ran an article that stated that preschool is one of the best training programs because of the emphasis on soft skills in early childhood. Like preschool teachers, youth workers strive to help youth develop skills that will make them more productive citizens.

Other members of the school-community group were surprised when I said that youth workers think about 21st Century skills all the time. In fact, these are often the goals that drive our program. Their su…

Click activism: Are social media changing civic engagement?

Have social media changed how the youth you know engage in civic activities? Are charities and civic organizations too out-of-touch with today's youth to engage them in their communities?

Recent research suggests that digital citizenship (regular and effective use of the Internet) is associated with civic engagement and participation in democracy. Further, innovative use of social media has become a key factor in engaging youth (as well as adults) in working and supporting the causes they believe in. We've recently seen evidence of this in news accounts about its use in super storm Sandy and political campaigns. The Internet and its social media tools have already, or soon will change the traditional civic and social organizations in our society.

Social media have been shown to powerfully grab our attention. They can dramatically expose us to problems and issues, encourage us to care about them, to want to fix the problem and better our world. For many it can be a life-changi…

Mobile learning apps connect with youth

Sometimes it seems as though everywhere you look, people are using their phones. But what are they using them for? The Pew Internet Research Project reports that teen texting volume is up in 2012 while the frequency of voice calling is down. About three-quarters (77%) of teens have a cell phone; one in four say they own smartphones.

American teens on average are sending or receiving 3,339 texts a month, or more than six for every hour they're awake, according to a Nielsen Company report: Calling Yesterday, Texting Today, Using Apps Tomorrow. Although texting is at an all-time high, the largest area of growth was in teen data usage, from 14 MB to 62 MB per month. Almost half of teens surveyed reported using an app 10 times per day -- more frequently than general grooming and eating.

So how are you connecting with this mobile youth society? Do you text? Do you push meeting reminders? Do you have mobile apps that support the topic you are teaching while encouraging youth to build ma…

Tips for building right-brain skills for 21st century thinking

As we explore what it takes to thrive in the 21st century, it is hard to ignore the growing amount of literature that suggests the right side of the brain is needed more than ever. Right-brain abilities - artistry, empathy, design, big-picture thinking, creating something that the world didn't know was missing -- are hard to outsource or automate and in high demand in workplace and community settings. Left-brain abilities -- the logical, linear, analytical, spreadsheet kind of skills -- are important but not sufficient for success.

So what does this have to do with the field of youth development? The answer is that it is directly related.

Our field plays an important role in helping young people to gain 21st-century learning skills and abilities to thrive in a global world. Here are some tips for building right-brain abilities through the learning environments found in youth programs.

Critique the learning environment
With youth take time to critically reflect on the types of a…

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to me" and to you

Back in 1966, Aretha Franklin had a big hit song, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Even if you weren't born back then, you probably know it, and maybe, like me, when you hear it, walk around for the rest of the day singing the chorus, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T: find out what it means to me..." The song became a hallmark for the feminist movement in the 1970's and remains relevant today, especially in youth work.

Young people say that respect is vitally important and is something they don't get much of from adults generally, and specifically from teachers, parents, police, and policy-makers.

I would say that a lack of respect seems to be the underlying cause for virtually every societal problem -- youth violence, teen pregnancy, school dropout, discrimination and prejudice against people of various ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation, gangs, bullying, social and civic disengagement and disconnected, and so on.

So why aren't we talking more about the importance of respect in soc…

Youth as partners in evaluation -- an idea that is catching on

The American Evaluation Association (AEA) is holding its annual meeting in Minneapolis this week. AEA's new Youth Focused Evaluation Topical Interest Group (YFE TIG) launches with an impressive series of sessions devoted to evaluation about youth, for youth and with youth. It is exciting to see all the evaluation and research that is being done in partnership with young people. For me, these sessions underscore the potential benefits and barriers to engaging youth in evaluation.

As with other forms of participatory and action research, including youth in the process can:
Enhance the inquiry. Young people provide an important and legitimizing perspective on the programs that serve them, and their involvement can contribute to more valid and reliable findings.Empower participants. When youth are involved as collective decision makers and change agents in the inquiry process, they can gain important skills and competencies.Contribute to society. By recognizing youth expertise and equa…

Top 10 ways to engage diverse communities

What does it take to build relationships with diverse audiences? I have thought a lot about this question in my work with University of Minnesota Extension.

One of the things I enjoy the most about my work is the chance to act as bridge between my university and communities across our state. Often, immigrants and minorities haven't had the opportunity to engage and participate in what Extension has to offer. Engaging them is different than what happens when working with communities who have had long-lasting, positive relationships with us.

Extension work extends beyond our program participants; it permeates  individuals' lives, families, organizations, and entire communities. In the social environments in which we do our work, including demographic changes and economic turmoil, it is crucial that we establish, maintain and nurture positive relationships with diverse communities. Along with some of my colleagues across Extension, we put together a "Top 10 List" for en…

Youth programs designed for those who need them most

Did you know that time spent in youth programs is the most consistent predictor of youth thriving? Participation in them can enhance young people's self-esteem, school performance and civic responsibility. But which youth benefit the most?

While all youth can and do benefit from youth programs, they are disproportionately valuable to the welfare of low-income or marginalized youth. Those who have fewer resources -- financial, cultural, and social -- benefit disproportionately more from programs than youth who have plenty. Ironically, there is a severe shortage of youth programs designed for at-risk youth.

This is an urgent issue that the Minnesota Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) team has gone a along way to addressing. The Minnesota CYFAR Sustainable Communities Project is entering its fifth year of operation. Since its launch, we have used the organic middle school model designed specifically for youth and their families at risk. It is not a highly structured pro…

Build your evaluation muscle to use it effectively in the program

Just when you thought that your youth program was doing well to DO evaluation at all, we evaluators want you to USE it, too! What does it take to make the report, and the entire evaluation process, an integral part of a youth organizations' everyday work?

I've learned that building capacity to use evaluation does not depend on having a lot of fancy bells and whistles. My experiences in the reporting stage of evaluation work with youth-serving organizations have taught me that successful use of evaluation has little to do with slick reports and branded slide presentations. It is more about the right people coming together to roll up their sleeves around the findings and lessons.

Others in the evaluation field have done some thinking about this and are sharing their experiences on evaluation use. Boris Volkov and Jean King provide a capacity-building checklist for those planning evaluations. Their checklist suggests that one of the first places to start to ensure that evaluatio…

Opening doors with a global mind-set

For young people entering a 21st century workforce, a global mind-set is not only important. It is vital to their healthy, happy development.

What is a global mind-set, and how do we cultivate this in young people who, like adults, gravitate towards the familiar?

Gupta and Govindarajan describe a global mind-set as an awareness and openness to diversity combined with a tendency and ability to integrate new knowledge and experiences across cultures. I like to think of a global mind-set in terms of the doors it opens. A global mind-set allows for healthy encounters with others representing diverse cultures, races, ages, gender, religions, lifestyles, and viewpoints. And a global mind-set allows these encounters to penetrate our experience in a way that encourages us to expand the way we think and act, combining old and new ways of going about the world.

For young people (or anyone, for that matter) to develop a global mind-set, they need the opportunity to wrestle with and challenge their…

Finding the balance in program design

Have you ever seen a youth program that tried to do too much in the time allotted? Or one that was all about engagement but lacked learning outcomes? Finding the balance between these is key to good program design.

Here are two relevant examples from my own family: My twin 3-year-old boys participated in a day camp experience focused on camping. Each session was 90 minutes in length. During the first session, the instructor involved the children in learning about: each other, the instructors, basic components of a camp pack, how to put up a tent, how to prepare camp snacks, and hiking in the woods. For the age of participants and the amount of time available, the program tried to cover too much ground. In contrast, my six-year-old son had ecstatic reviews about a class field trip to a new museum, could not describe a single thing he had learned, even though we probed.

In their book Understanding by design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe refer to these phenomena as the twin sins of prog…

The power of reflection on learning

Have you seen the power of reflection in youth development? You can witness the power of reflection during the Minnesota State Fair. In the 4-H Building this week, more than 3,000 4-H'ers with general exhibits are going through conference judging, where they sit down with a judge and a group of peers to explain their project and be interviewed about it. Each exhibitor is asked to reflect on how they developed the project, along with technical details of the project area.

Reflection is an essential part of learning. In fact, reflection actually influences brain development.

One of the experts on this is Abigail Baird, a professor of psychology at Vassar College. Earlier this year, she delivered a presentation at the University of Minnesota's Howland Symposium on Trends in Adolescent Brain Development: Implications for Youth Practice and Policy. In it, she stressed the importance of encouraging youth to think of experiences and consequences of actions as a bodily response. What …

What makes an evaluation report compelling? (or not)

Okay, time for true confessions here. How many research or evaluation reports do you have sitting on your desk? You know there was blood, sweat, and tears put into the creation of those documents, but somehow you don't feel compelled to read them. Why not?

I'm willing to guess that the answer is either: A. you don't have time or B. the reports are way too boring. (By the way, reason A is just a disguise for reason B.)

The truth is that many evaluation reports are dull, but there are also great ways to spice them up by focusing the message and using pictures and stories to illustrate points. I have set a goal of unlearning some report-writing habits to make mine more interesting, and thus more likely to spur action.

A new learning experience that I'm taking part in is the American Evaluation Association's eStudy series: An Executive Summary is Not Enough: Effective Reporting Techniques for Evaluators. In it, Kylie Hutchinson sets out to teach practitioners to create …

Olympic spirit: Motivation for inclusive learning environments

All eyes are on London this summer for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games. Like many people across the globe, I find the Games to be so inspiring. I am particularly drawn to the Olympic spirit of diversity and inclusion and that same spirit motivates me in my youth development profession.

In fact, each time I build a youth program, I ask myself this question: How can I build an inclusive learning environment? We know from research that programs serve youth best when the learning environments in which they function are intentionally inclusive. But the word inclusive can be rather hollow if you are not sure how to apply it. Here are some tips to consider when building inclusive learning environments.

Mind your own language
The way we speak about young people reflects our attitudes and influences what youth programs can achieve. Use language that honors youth. Phrasings such as doing things with youth, rather than for or to youth show that you value young people and that you do no…

The question of youth program accreditation

A youth program funder posed this question: Should Minnesota funders require accreditation of out-of-school programs to ensure implementation of high quality learning opportunities? While accreditation systems to endorse after-school programs exist at the state and national levels, there is no widespread consensus for support in Minnesota.

To explore the implications of youth program accreditation, Greater Twin Cities United Way, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Extension Center for Youth Development sponsored three invitational forums with a cross-section of field leaders that resulted in an issue brief on the topic.

So why this conversation, and why now?
First, accreditation systems exist in early childhood education, school-aged care programs and formal education to guide investments and provide a common framework for improvement. As these systems are being widely implemented in Minnesota, it would seem reasonable that funders, policy-makers and even the public might e…

STEM learning = inquiry + content

STEM education programs need both inquiry/process and content. Most programs that I am familiar with do inquiry well. They do content less well. In fact, some programs are all inquiry and no content. This is a critical flaw. However, it is relatively easy to fix, because even small elements of content can make a complete STEM learning experience.

Recently a colleague and I had an enlightening discussion with some nonformal STEM educators at the Colloquium on p-12 STEM Education Research. We asked them "What do you want youth to learn in your program?"

The key words for their answers were: inquiry-based learning, learner-directed learning, less content, fun, hands-on activities, lifelong learning, real-world context, collaborative, and technology literacy.

These are great responses and fit very well with two important framing documents for STEM learning today: Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) and the soon-to-be-published Next Generation Science Standard (2013), bot…

Positive youth development through gaming

I was in New York City recently for the Games for Change Summit, where keynote presenter Jane McGonigal reminded us how computer games can change our lives through enhancing our personal development, helping us learn and adding years to our lives. Heady claims.

Yes, we know that games are engaging and get us moving at twitch speed. We've heard they can change how our brains are wired and how we learn. But did you know that games make us happier, that they enhance our emotional resiliency? That they can help us build the mental resilience we need to trust, to take risks and to fail? That they can increase our confidence in self, our sense of self-efficacy?

McGonigal backs her claims with evidence from the fields of psychology and neurology. She makes a strong case for the role of gaming in positive youth development. For example:
Young cancer patients who play Re-Mission learn why painful treatments make a difference in their health, and become more treatment compliant, even if they…

Youth, for a change!

Last week I had the great pleasure to speak at and learn from a group of 200 youth, youth workers, administrators, funders, policy makers, police officers and researchers in Milwaukee, at a conference called "Youth/Adult Partnerships: Engaging Youth in Community Transformation," organized by the Center for Urban Initiatives & Research. The conference focused on, and modeled youth engagement as a philosophy and strategy for community change.

If you know me, you know that youth engagement is a cornerstone of my work here at the Youth Work Institute. The conference organizers did an incredible job of taking a leap of faith and having youth speak on panels, perform and lead poster sessions about various community issues they had researched. And you could feel the change-a-comin'--oh yes, you provide the opportunity and young people will lead the way.

By the end of the day, folks, young and old, were ready to get organized, to commit to work together to enable youth to…

Summer learning loss and the achievement gap

You might wonder, 'What does summer have to do with the achievement gap and overall educational disparities?' Well, have you heard of summer learning loss?

Summer learning loss occurs when children and youth are not actively engaged in high-quality learning opportunities between school terms. Poor and minority children experience this disproportionately as they are less likely than their better-resourced peers to have educational opportunities such as summer camp, educational trips or even visits to local museums.

Although summer is a season of relaxation, it is just as important for learning as fall, winter and spring. Even here in Minnesota, where we pride ourselves on our high quality of life, we have one of the largest educational achievement gaps in the country between white and non-white students.

A 2009 research brief by the National Summer Learning Association highlights some of the consequences that summer learning loss has for youth who are often already at a disadva…

Who benefits from 4-H volunteering? You might be surprised

You might think that the sole beneficiaries of youth program volunteering would be youth. But you would be mistaken -- the value extends to the community and to the volunteers themselves.

A recent study of 4-H volunteers in the North Central United States documents the types and levels of contributions made by volunteers that benefit youth, their communities, and the volunteers themselves.

More than half a million adults across the US give their time to the 4-H program and Extension. This is a lot of "people power". To put it in context, the YMCA and the American Red Cross -- two of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country -- are each supported by similar-sized corps of volunteers.

Extension 4-H Youth Development, a public organization, is a key actor in the landscape of programs that recruit volunteers to promote the positive development of youth in communities. We can quantify this by turning volunteer hours into dollar signs at the rate of just over $20 per hour…

Keeping program assessment "local" reaps benefits

Want to keep a youth workers in your organization? Try involving them in observational assessment!

The recent release of the national YPQI study on improving youth program quality found one unexpected benefit to the process of observational assessment and planning process -- it increases staff retention. While it may seem hard to connect these dots, the finding does not surprise staff and consultants here at the Youth Work Institute who are working with youth organizations and staff throughout Minnesota to improve program quality.

Key study findings Include:
Using the YPQI intervention increases quality
Staff retention increased at programs using the intervention
The intervention works across a variety of youth work settings
The intervention is a cost-effective, low-stakes model for improving quality
These findings also connect to recent policy conversations happening in Minnesota and elsewhere that posed the question "Should youth programs be accredited?" The YPQI study ad…

Learning from Caine's Arcade: Programming free play

Last month, I presented an online webinar titled, "Natural Spaces: A Place for Positive Youth Development." In it, I talked about four research-based design principles that I believe can improve the ways that our programs connect youth with nature:

1. Situate programs in youths' favorite outdoor spaces
2. Integrate more free play
3. Plan developmentally appropriate environmental learning activities, and
4. Use nature design principles

In this session and others I've presented, the concept of 'free play' in structured programs seems hard for participants to grasp. Free play is not free time. And it is far more than something that only happens in nature-related programming.

Free play is characterized by the following qualities: open-ended, few explicit rules or supervision, and free choice. Questions like these bubble up: "What do you mean?", "What does that look like?" Free play is important, but we seem to lack the concrete, intuiti…