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Showing posts from 2014

Why do adult volunteers need cultural competency?

"Our community isn't really that diverse. When there are so many important skills for me to learn, why should I focus on diversity?" I've often heard this question as I've worked with adult volunteers in youth development roles.

So often, diversity is reduced to what we can see: race, gender, age, and perhaps ability. But culture is so much more than what we can see -- it includes the experiences, beliefs, and values that give us membership to a certain group.

Individuals belong to multiple identity categories. For instance, I am a White, heterosexual female member of the Millennial generation. I am highly educated, a transplant to Minnesota, and a middle-class single adult. All of these things together (and beyond!) make me who I am. Only a few of these identity categories are apparent by looking at me.

Working as a team can be the biggest challenge of all

What did young people on the Engineering Design Challenge teams this past year learn from the experience? Notably, one main takeaway for youth was that building a team can be as challenging as building a Rube Goldberg design.

At the end of the first season of our engineering design challenge recently, we asked each member of the 22 teams about the experience. What did they learn? What obstacles did they overcome as they built their Rube Goldberg Machine together?

Youth voice requires online access, literacy

2014 marks both the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the creation of the World Wide Web. It wouldn't have occurred to me to connect these two transformational events, but it occurred to Urs Gasser, and I'm glad it did. He reminds us that that the world wide web is a major tool for young people to access and exercise their rights. And that youth voice, their participation in discussions on the key issues of today, is vital.

Gasser acknowledges that even after 25 years, disparities remain in the well-being of children and youth: their ability to exercise their rights, and in their online access and network literacy. These disparities place our children at risk, as well as the health and well-being of our society overall.

Cross-age teaching has social and emotional benefits

Teens and younger youth both benefit from cross-age teaching. In fact, it may be the most effective way to provide opportunities for positive youth development and encourage youth to avoid delinquent behaviors. Younger children respond enthusiastically to teen behavior modeling, so rapport is established very quickly.

Our center runs the 4-H Youth Teaching Youth program (4-H YTY) in four Minnesota counties. The model includes strong partnerships between county-based 4-H programs and local schools. During the 2013-2014 school year, our staff trained 761 teen teachers, and they in turn taught the 4-H YTY curricula to nearly 10,000 elementary-aged youth in greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area school districts, making it one of the largest 4-H projects in Minnesota.

Professional development is money in the bank for youth-serving organizations

High-quality youth development programs rely on staff and volunteers to deliver programs that meet an identified need in the community. To do their work well, youth workers need high-quality professional development. But options are sometimes limited by funding, time and availability. We need to overcome these obstacles to ensure that youth workers get the professional development they need to keep programs valuable to the communities they serve.

Research has shown that it pays off in the form of:
staff retentionimproved health and safetyreduced stressleadership successionimproved program qualityreduced hiring and orientation costsimproved job satisfactionfaster more successful organizational change

Data injection could be a shot in the arm for your program

Even the strongest youth program can stagnate. The initial energy can wane over time, leaving you as a program leader wondering why. Data about your program may offer some insights and solutions for re-energizing.

Demographic data and the population characteristics often drive initial program design and creation. Updating our understanding of these data can help us to reinvigorate a program by showing the continued relevance of the program to the community we serve, or to adjust the program by seeing the changed landscape.

Inquiry-based learning for volunteer-led youth programs

Do you learn and remember better when somebody tells you the answer, or when you work through the problem yourself? Chances are you will say "when I figure it out myself". This is the crux of inquiry-based learning, and it's one of the things that 4-H does best.

From the time a 4-H member selects a project area until its completion, 4-H youth are immersed in solving problems hands-on. As you may know, the 4-H program is delivered primarily by volunteers using the resources of a land-grant institution. It's up to us as program leaders to make it possible for volunteers to help young people do hands-on learning in an effective way.

Slow down and see cultural resilience

"Cultural resiliency is what we call the competencies acquired through diverse life experiences, which then become the foundation from which students can develop essential 21st century skills: innovation, adaptability, critical analysis, cross-cultural communication, and teamwork." -- E3 - Education, Excellence, Equity

This quote set the context for our Oct. 2 public symposium on social and emotional learning Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz of E3 spent two days with us challenging our thinking about SEL, sharing his talent and his research that bridges academic assessment with culturally responsive teaching.

The cultural resilience content he presented refined my thinking about integrating social emotional learning into my youth development work. One nugget that still has me pondering is defining youth engagement strategies that reflect cultural resilience.

When times are bad

This blog post isn't going to be research-filled or one of great insight and wisdom, but one that comes from my heart. As I sit to write this week, I am reminded that ten years ago, a student I worked with passed away in a sudden accident. He was a senior in high school. I was six years into full-time youth ministry and had been in the youth development field for over ten years. I was on a bus full of youth headed back to the church from a service project when I received the call. Nothing had prepared me for having to break the news to the high school students on the bus. When we arrived at the church, youth had started to gather and within two hours, over 200 youth congregated in the basement of the church.

WeConnect: A global youth citizenship curriculum

Citizenship is a concept commonly used in the field of youth development. It typically refers to young people being positively engaged in their communities. But what happens when you add global to citizenship?

By adding this word, the scope of youth citizenship grows vastly and helps us re-imagine the arena in which youth live, learn, work and play. Global citizenship has been described as a continuum that ranges from being aware of the interdependent nature of our world, to understanding how local and global issues affect the lives of people around the world, to taking action to create a more equitable world. We see global citizenship as an outlook on life, a belief that people can make a difference, and a way of behaving that follows suit.

Jessica Pierson Russo and I have developed a resource for youth-serving organizations and schools entitled WeConnect: A Global Youth Citizenship Curriculum. It's a program model and curriculum designed to show youth that they are participants …

Your source for youth development research

I want you to know about a valuable educational resource. We have a new trove of research papers, presentation recordings, and analysis about youth development research available on our website. These resources are curated by our Extension faculty specialists in youth development, STEM education,program quality,culture and diversity,program evaluation,citizenship and leadership and much more.

It's valuable for:
practitionersresearchers university of college studentssupporters and stakeholders If you are practitioner, you can use this collection in your scholarship, to keep informed about program quality, find seminal works about positive youth development or identify studies that show how youth programs make a difference in young people's lives. This resource may also help support your goal of becoming a more actively engaged scholarly practitioner.

Researchers may use this site to stay abreast of current literature in the field and to see what types of issues practitioners are…

Skills development should not be our primary goal

To what extent does skill development matter for youth and their futures? What else do they need to follow their dreams in education?

In a past blog entry, I used the capabilities approach as a framework to understand the various conditions that may influence whether or not a youth may translate his or her STEM knowledge into a STEM career. I offered that scenario as an example, but this doesn't mean we expect all youth in STEM clubs to pursue STEM professions. If we measured the effectiveness of STEM programs by the number of engineers we produced, we'd be painting an incomplete picture.

When I talk about capabilities, I'm referring to the freedom young people have to make choices to achieve their goals and accomplish something that's important to them. I think it's more important for them to be able to address and overcome obstacles than it is to learn marketable job skills. This is particularly so for youth who face additional constraints on their freedom on ac…

Breaking habits and building creativity

Creativity is on the decline in the U.S. I am learning that creativity takes practice--actually, it takes a LOT of practice--and that sharing ideas is a far better strategy than holding ideas close.

In a prior blog post, Mark Haugen challenged us to improve our programs by changing a habit. I'm taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called Creative Problem Solving. It's a way to learn more about sparking creativity in our youth, (a 21st century skill) and maybe to become more creative myself.

The notion of change is inherent in the course syllabus. Each week, an assignment calls on us to do something different -- in other words change a habit. These Do Something Different (DSDs) assignments (e.g., talk to someone different, or eat something different) tug at something inside, a deep exploration of my core habits and values. Although relatively simple in design, they push me outside of my comfort zone. While in certain moments it can be very uncomfortable, the experiences …

Increase reflection to strengthen program quality

Reflection is essential for learning. Creating opportunities for young people to reflect on their experiences is a critical component to strengthening program quality, yet is often the most challenging to implement.

So why is it so hard to do in our programs?

We fall into the trap of thinking of reflection as something that can only be done at the end of a program session, and we often run short of time to finish an activity, let alone reflection. Most of us are not taught to be reflective learners nor are young people offered much opportunity to pause and reflect as part of their typical day or out-of-school program schedule.

Who is getting outdoors? Mainly the white and well-off

Have you been to a national park lately? If so, then chances are, you're white and have a relatively high income.

Recently I've attended several events about children, families and outdoor play and learning. I noticed that, whether it was a professional event held in a conference room or a family event in a park, most of the attendees looked like me. This observation is borne out by research. Though some advances in gender diversity have been made within the "green workforce", racial diversity lags far behind.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) found that visitors to parks in Minnesota are more likely to be white and non-Hispanic and have higher incomes than the Minnesota population overall. In 2007, 98% of park users were white. Some creative strategies on the part of the DNR have begun to shift the balance, though. Focus group information gathered by the Metropolitan Council suggests that various cultural groups use parks more or less frequently, …

Cultural resilience: A framework for promoting assets

Minnesota's educational achievement gap between whites and students of color has been narrowing, but remains one of the highest in the nation. To more fully address youth's learning and gaps in academic performance, we need to redefine educational excellence in a global society.

To be successful in school now and ready for college and careers later, young people need to develop a range of skills that extends beyond traditional academics. Content knowledge and academic skills are important, but it is also critical that youth learn how to work well with others, persevere when faced with challenges, and recognize when a new strategy is needed to solve a problem. These social and emotional factors are critical to young people's success, and they can be developed through diverse life experiences and overcoming hardships or struggles.

On Oct. 2, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz will share a framework for creating a rigorous inclusive environment with a diverse community and reframe the conce…

Working hard or working smart?

"How could we know as much as we do, spend as much as we do, care as much as we say we do and accomplish so little for so many kids over so long a period of time?"

That is one powerful statement by Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. For anyone interested in the achievement gap, I encourage you to listen to his speech during this year's Ready by 21 National meeting. You will ride the wave of deep sadness to hope all in this 30-minute presentation. He had me at the first line, but the whole speech is thought provoking.

No one who understands the reality of education and youth work would say that educators don't care deeply and work hard. But I wonder- are we working smart? Smith talks about how in programs we will hold dearly to one that has a specific outcome for a specific population. Often times we know that this program doesn't have lasting power and it certainly isn't sustainable if scaled up. Sound familiar?

So here…

Cook-offs promote healthy eating for life

Will you try an unidentified "healthy" food item because someone tells you it's good for you? Most likely not. The same is true for young people. But if you involve youth in preparing a menu item using some not-so-familiar "healthy" food ingredients, they'll probably taste it. They may even learn to like it!

Engaging youth in cooking can get them interested in trying healthy foods they might otherwise disdain, according to Susan Moores, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (Magee, 2014).

We know that eating habits are established early in life. Studies tell us that youth who are involved in meal preparation and cooking are better at making healthy food choices. In fact youth engaged in a higher frequency of helping prepare and cook food are associated with a higher self-efficacy for selecting and eating healthy foods. Involvement in home meal preparation is associated with food preference and self-efficacy among Canadian children…

SEL and children's mental health - What can we teach each other?

What does children's mental health (CMH) have to do with social and emotional learning (SEL)? How can we draw connections between these two areas of work so that children learn better and are healthier?

Viewing children's mental health as a public health issue brings common ground to this conversation. Public health encourages us to look beyond a child and a specific diagnosis toward dynamic, ecological systems in which both CMH and SEL are influenced.

A child's mental health status is influenced by her internal state, but also by experiences within her family, school or community. A child's mental health at a given time may be affected as much by parental conflict or community violence as by a diagnosed condition.

The public health approach emphasizes optimal mental health for everyone, not just those who are sick. We all have a state of mental health that changes throughout our lives - sometimes it may include a diagnosis and sometimes not. The idea of mental health…

Going from teaching veteran to expert teacher

The more I research and study the facets of teaching, the more I am aware that we as educators don't always apply the same methods of reflection on ourselves as we do to the youth we serve. Do we study to be scholarly teachers? Do we understand the scholarship of teaching as it pertains to our professional development and promotion? Do we take the time to dive deep into reflection to become experts in our teaching?

Over the last few years, I have been studying the art of teaching and reflective practice as a nonformal educator. In his book, Becoming a Reflective Teacher, Robert J. Marzano and his team from the Marzano Research Laboratory compare the development of an expert teacher to that of an athlete. "Just as athletes wanting to improve their skills must identify personal strengths and weaknesses, set goals, and engage in focused practice to meet those goals, teachers must also examine their practices, set growth goals, and use focused practice and feedback to achieve…

Did you ask a good question today?

"Inquisitive minds are the safeguards of our democracy, now and forever." - John Barell

John Barell, in his book Developing More Curious Minds, tells stories of how the adults in his life nurtured curiosity: his mother, who at the close of a day always asked him not "What did you learn at school today?" but rather: "Did you ask a good question today?" His grandfather often began a sentence with the words: "Johnny, have you ever wondered..."

Barell states that the questions of young people are the attainment of the highest thinking skills; questions signal thought processing. As adults, listening to questions and thoughtfully responding and guiding young people to discover their own answers takes time and skill.

Asking questions and defining problems is, in fact, the first practice of the eight practices of science and engineering, as defined in A Framework for K-12 Science Education. The framework identifies the key scientific ideas and prac…

Essential ingredients of social and emotional learning

Rather than delivering a separate SEL curriculum, a recent issue of Social Policy Report proposes that schools integrate the teaching and reinforcement of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills into educators' daily interactions and practices.

Using a food metaphor, the authors describe this as a shift "from a focus on packaged, branded product (curriculum) to the essential ingredients like vitamins and minerals (essential and beneficial strategies)." I think a strategies approach is more in sync with how SEL ought to be framed in out-of-school settings as well.
Blending techniques So what are some of the "essential ingredients" for promoting SEL? The report outlines four strategies for integrating SEL into daily practice:
Routines - Routines that promote SEL skills like emotional regulation (e.g., "Stop and Stay Cool," a three-step process for staying in control of emotions) and conflict resolution (e.g., the "Peace Path," a process in w…

Online learning and Rube Goldberg

This summer, we are very excited to have 16 teams of young people from across the state competing in our engineering design challenge, "Build a Rube Goldberg Machine." These third to eighth graders work together and learn the principles of physics to build a working machine that they can take to their county fairs.

When planning this challenge, I really wanted to know, "What role can an out-of-school, project-based contest play in building and transferring STEM knowledge and skills?


To address this, our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) team has integrated a number of strategies. These teams of 3-10 youth in 10 counties have formed, adopted team names, and each has one or two adult volunteer leaders. Along with building the machine at face-to-face club meetings, the teams use online learning spaces -- team journals, a portfolio, and an "ask an expert" chat -- to support their learning. From these online records, we can also study their learning …

Is program design an art or a science?

On the one hand, there's data. On the other hand, there's your gut. As I branch out and begin to truly understand the programs I work for and grasp their impact and begin to plant some of my own programmatic seeds, I am thinking about youth development program design. In a recent experience, I had a positive outcome that sparked me to ask this question: Is what we do an art or a science?

My answer? I think there's a healthy tension between the two that goes unnoticed. I am finding tools for program design that bring out both sides.

Many youth workers, teachers, and volunteers don't have time to critically analyze each lesson or activity on a daily basis. We often rely on quick improvements on quality, feedback, and our own "guts" to improve our practice. In my previous role as a teacher, I remember making quick modifications before class, making notes for next year on what worked, and often-times throwing out the entire lesson plan because I felt it didn'…

Rethinking youth program sustainability

Is program sustainability all about money?

Grants can offer new resources and opportunities to youth programs and the communities in which they take place. The Minnesota Sustainable Community Project (MN SCP), funded by the USDA from 2008 to 2013, helped us to create eight new youth programs throughout the state. In these programs, youth developed leadership skills, gained new mastery and expertise in a subject area and made plans to meet their long-term goals in education.

We knew the benefits to these communities could not be fleeting. To sustain them beyond the life of the grant, we worked within a research-backed conceptual framework.

Mancini and Marek's research says that sustainability is not synonymous with securing more funds. Rather, it refers to the capacity of a program to sustain the benefits it provides. They identified seven factors critical to program sustainability:
Leadership competenceEffective collaborationUnderstanding the communityDemonstrating program resultsS…

21st century learning stories

What lessons do you take from a story about two best friends graduating from Stillwater High School this week -- one of them an artist with autism who seldom speaks, the other headed for a local community college? Their steady and unwavering lifelong friendship across their differences bridged them through childhood to their walk across the graduation stage this month.

This story by Mary Divine of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press centers on two young men who formed a bond that has seen them through the years and over many successful "outcomes".

Youth-serving professionals wanting to make a difference by advancing "21st century learning" can take a lesson directly from young people like these boys. According to Robert Sternberg of Cornell University,
"Successful individuals are those who have "creative skills to produce a vision for how they intend to make the world a better place for everyone; analytical intellectual skills, to assess their vision and those o…

Play is important work for learning

Last month a New York elementary school cancelled its annual kindergarten spring play because the kids needed to continue working to be college and career ready. Really?

I was saddened and frustrated to read about this. I have fond memories of kindergarten. I remember the academic part - learning to count to 100, memorizing colors, learning sound-letter combinations, learning to print letters and numbers, etc. I also remember the "fun" stuff - songs, games, story time, playing dress up, creating skits, and playing "house" and other role-playing games in the maze of boulders and trees along the edge of the playground. Those "fun" activities were seen as critical parts of our school day.

These activities were not just enjoyable. They were chock full of learning opportunities - learning to listen, work collaboratively as well as independently, communicate, share, problem solve, and create. Sometimes these fun activities tapped our early reading, writing and…

To improve your program, change your habits

Much of our everyday life is done by habit. In 2006 a Duke researcher found that more than 40% of our everyday actions are habits, not decisions. How can we use knowledge about our work habits to make programs and organizations better?

We are what we do. Our programs are what we as leaders do. A habit is fairly easy to understand with a few minutes of reflection; we all have them! I challenge you, the champions of youth programs; use your habits to make your program better.

Youth programs throughout Minnesota have champions that strive to provide high-quality experiences for our learners. We are succeeding and we also have room to become better. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, said, "Champions don't do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking...They follow the habits they've learned."

Duhigg's description of how a habit works is a great place to start learning about their power. Maintaining a habit is easy (espec…

Our brains are wired for social learning

Psychologist Louis Cozolino describes the brain as a "social organ," saying there is no such thing as an individual human being, because we are so fundamentally shaped and co-created by our relationships. He explains that human relationships actually sculpt brain tissue: Our positive relationships trigger our brain chemistry to be more plastic, enabling us to learn more easily. Traumatic experiences, on the other hand, negatively alter the brain and can shut down learning. Our brains and bodies are constantly being shaped at a cellular and genetic level by our environments as we live. Our brains are constantly evolving through our interactions with each other.



Neurophilosopher Patricia Smith Churchland says "I am who I am because my brain is what it is," perfectly describing the rapidly developing realm of neuroscience and the insights it holds for youth development.

Our brains evolved in a tribal context, where learning was done through relationships and oral tr…

Transforming traditional youth programs for today

4-H is changing. A couple of weeks ago at our annual staff development conference, the theme was "Building on traditions and inviting transformation." A few short months from now, we will host the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents (NAE4-HA) National Conference, where the theme will be "Tradition and Transformation".

Do you see a pattern? Transformation! Tradition has been the foundation to the 4-H educational model. The model includes youth-adult partnerships, the development of 21st century skills and a pathway to higher education. Today we are transforming our traditions for the 21st century.

How do we go about this? How do we make sure transformation feels right at home now that we've invited her in? My mom used to say "a good education starts at home." I would add that transformation starts at home, too.


Two recent experiences made me reflect on how both our staff and our programs are being transformed. I have been part of a Shared Lea…

Countering youth-oriented hate speech

Viral Peace. Can you imagine peace going viral as quickly as the latest online video? Can you imagine peace and tolerance overcoming hate speech?

This fantastic concept is the name of a non-government initiative whose purpose is to build capacity to counter hate speech. Small cadres of credible community leaders in eight or so countries have been trained to effectively respond to hate speech in social media and online communities. Considered counterterrorism, the leaders 'trolled' online sites relying on strategies such as logic and humor to undercut the power of the extremist rhetoric.

Is the Viral Peace model an effective strategy to spread peace and tolerance in the world? To reduce the prevalence and acceptability of hate speech? I don't know, but this past week Harvard announced the formation of a network which builds on the Viral Peace model to counter online youth-oriented hate speech. I find the announcement hopeful and the approach compelling on several levels.

We…