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They're thriving in the program, but do they have goals beyond it?

By Jessica Russo

Alexander Cho and other participatory observers of a high-quality after school digital media program discovered that youth who were some of the most engaged and committed to the program also began to shrink from school obligations and abandon plans for attending college.

For these young people, the future was vague and uncertain "due in large part to lack of family financial resources and the absence of an intuitive post-secondary roadmap." In short, they were unable to connect the 21st century skills they were gaining in the program to future possibility, such as higher education or career options.

To me, this dissonance between the learning environment and the future of these youth points to the vital importance of helping young people connect WHAT they are learning to what they can DO with that learning.

In a white paper that my fellow blogger Trudy Dunham cited recently Henry Jenkins et al claim that "a focus on expanding access to new technologies carries us only so far if we do not also foster the skills and cultural knowledge necessary to deploy those tools toward our own ends."
Here in the Urban Youth Development Office, we've named this as the critical issue driving our business plan -- the need of youth, particularly those from low-income communities, to learn how to overcome economic, educational, and social barriers in order to connect their skills and interests to possibilities for their futures and build their potential to author their own lives. Our strategic goal is more about welcoming youth into a culture of possibility than engaging them in a youth program on digital media or entrepreneurship.

One of our clubs is focused on media production, and while the youth love and are deeply engaged in the content they are learning, the depth of their experience depends on our staff, volunteers, and mentors, who are constantly helping them reflect on what it is that they're really getting out of the experience. They take the youth to campuses, help them fill out financial aid packets, and guide them on getting into college. They are, in the words of Cho, helping youth "frame and mobilize these skills to their own advantage."

How can we help youth go beyond even deep engagement in content or participation in a program or activity? How do you address that issue? Are there other aspects of youth programming that we all intuitively know, but that somehow are continually missed or undervalued?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban 4-H Youth Development Office

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Jess,
    This is such an important point to make. Sometimes we are too short sighted in our programming efforts to really think about the big picture.
    As an evaluator, I often help groups of people plan for short-intermediate-and long term goals. Some people do this through the creation of a logic model, but there are other ways to think about the level of influence of your program. Do you think that having intentional conversations about long term goals would help youth workers make connections between what they do in programs and how it could relate to youths' futures?
    Thanks for starting this discussion!

  2. Thanks for the heads-up about your blog, Jessica. Happy that this issue is resonating for your team.
    Though our team hasn't done more than preliminary thinking about this, I would suspect that the previous commenter is right: intentional conversations are absolutely important. I would also suggest training in the nitty-gritty of college application processes and a discussion of what going to college even means (this is hazy for a lot of students), exposure to different types of portfolio creation strategies to showcase and share work, and, perhaps most difficult and nebulous, finding ways for the traditional curriculum to incorporate and highlight these participatory culture skills instead of viewing them as tangential or indulgent.

  3. Thanks, Sam and Alexander for you comments. Yes, I agree! Being intentional is the key, and I do think that youth workers need to think about how they can help you create long-term goals. Specific training on those "nitty-gritty" details that Alexander talks about is one way to help break down some of the mental barriers, as well as provide practical information. We've also had success with having our youth workers and volunteers (most of whom are college age) work one-on-one with youth on having these conversations--helping them learn about the financial options in applying for college, talking about the difference between different higher ed opportunities, etc.
    Alexander, your point about incorporating those skills into the programming/curricula is so important. For those unfamiliar, these skills are referenced in the Jenkins article cited above, and they include such abilities as multitasking, networking, navigating different cultures and perspectives, and one of my favorites, the ability to play (defined as "the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving").
    We can't assume that all youth think about their futures in the same way, or even have the same level of hope. We also can't assume that they have ever thought about the skills they do have, or how these skills could help them fulfill their dreams for success.
    Actually talking about these skills with young people is a start--building a habit of reflection after every experience that helps them tease out what it is they are learning and gaining. What are other ways to bring these skills to light in a meaningful way?

  4. Hi Jessica –
    This topic is critical on so many levels. I am glad you brought it up here and started a discussion on it. You mentioned the dissonance between the learning environment and the futures of young people. Like you indicated, it is important to know what specifically fills this chasm of dissonance so that the field (including researchers, youth- serving organizations, individual practitioners, and more) can act responsively.
    Also, you mention that importance of” helping young people connect WHAT they are learning to what they can DO with that learning”. In addition to the connecting the WHAT to the DO, I think there is an issue that needs to be addressed first and nurtured along the way. That is, helping young people to discover their love of learning so that they can begin to see their education (formal, nonformal, informal) as a cherished possession that they can take with them wherever they go. That, along with addressing the barriers that cause young people “to shrink from school obligations and abandon plans for attending college”, can help fuel a young person’s pursuit of lifelong learning.
    I am interested in your thoughts. Thanks for a terrific blog.

  5. Thank you for your comments, Jennifer.
    I like that you point out that it is their discovery of their love of learning that needs to be addressed. An important way to help young people make this discovery is building healthy habits around how we as adults talk about learning.
    Recently I saw a 4-H promotional video, meant to educate people about how hands-on learning authentically engages youth in the content. Yet the adult facilitator they interviewed said, "here, they're not learning, they're DOING," as if in the "doing" there is no learning. I think this person knew better--in fact, later in the video, he described how the learning comes alive. We need to quit placing "fun" and "learning" on opposite ends of a pendulum. They are integrally related--if you're not having fun, you're probably not learning. HOWEVER, if we don't take the time to talk about the learning itself, we miss a prime opportunity not only to nurture that love of learning, but also to help the learning stick in a meaningful way. Perhaps we need to spend some time refining our definition of fun.

  6. Thank you, Henry, for those resources. MacArthur's Connected Learning initiative is encouraging. In the youth development/out-of-school-time field, we are talking more and more about "collective impact" and how different sectors of youth and family development--educational, faith-based, community, and youth-serving organizations, to name a few--can cooperate on similar outcomes. This is all based on a similar set of principles and values as those mentioned in the Connected Learning initiative. I particularly love the emphasis on interest-powered, peer-supported, academically-oriented learning, because these principles highlight what I'm trying to get at in this blog--that youth programs should not only inspire, but mobilize young people to drive their education and life-long learning.
    There is unlimited power in connections! We are all connected anyway--and we don't have to imagine what could be done if we could all see those connections as a resource. The proof is in programs and initiatives that try it out even in the face of potential opposition--such as those you mention in your comments above.

  7. Hi Jess - good discussion! I like what I am hearing. I’d like to add two concepts. One is the metaphors of "street smarts" and “entering an alien world”. We all have stories, behaviors, abilities -- but we may not understand how we can use them to survive and flourish in a new environment. And adulthood and college or a professional job is a new, alien environment for many youth. Can we foster youth development of ‘street smarts’ in this alien world? The second and related concept is the old psychology creative problem solving experiments (, where one had to forget one’s preconceptions and find new uses for common objects in order to solve the challenge. How can we help youth see “new uses” for their cool media production experience? For the relationships that they developed? Your team is doing good work – keep making the connections.

  8. Hi, Trudy. I do think that those "street smarts" are what give young people the ability to translate their skills and knowledge to creative problem solving. And so how can we not only encourage use of those street smarts, but also help them develop that "intuitive post-secondary roadmap" that Alexander talks about in his article? It's not that they don't HAVE the ability to transfer's that they often don't see their "reality" as including a use of those skills that could lead them to better circumstances. I think it's partly a lack of hope for the future--knowing that success is possible. This is actually the reality for everyone--that success is possible (and it's also helpful to have a healthy idea of what success is...but that's another topic). But some people get that reality covered in more muck of life circumstances than others. It's not that it isn't there--it's just more difficult to see.
    So in light of those thoughts, it's helpful to think of them finding NEW USES for their experiences, skills, and knowledge. And perhaps that can be part of a youth program's job--showing them how others have done the same.


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