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PepToc: Exemplifying creative teaching to support youth innovators

By Rebecca Meyer

“What would you say that you think would help someone else?” 

This past week I was inspired by two educators working with youth from kindergarten through sixth grade in a rural school outside of San Francisco, California. These art teachers designed a project to develop their students' understanding of empathy, recognition of their resilience in living through the pandemic and help spread their joy to others. The teachers led with, “What would you say that you think would help someone else?” and it manifested into this awesome telephone hotline called “Peptoc” that has gone viral.

If you're feeling mad, frustrated or nervous, press 1. If you need words of encouragement and life advice, press 2. If you need a pep talk from kindergartners, press 3. If you need to hear kids laughing with delight, press 4. For encouragement in Spanish, press 5.

This project resonates with me in a myriad of ways. In my educator role, I have my feet planted in two different worlds. One is focused on strengthening STEM (science technology engineering and math) learning through designing curricula and building the capacity of caring adults to facilitate hands-on, engaging programming with youth. The other is focused on civic engagement and leadership, also working with caring adults to empower youth to grow personal leadership capacities and be changemakers who tackle some of our most complex and persistent social-environmental challenges. Across both roles, I engage youth and adults in design thinking and action learning to find solutions to problems. As Tim Brown and others have articulated, design thinking and learning through acting is essential to finding innovative solutions to complex challenges. I believe the art teacher’s “Peptoc” project is a wonderful example of how design thinking and action learning can result in innovative solutions to complex challenges.

As I read about this art project, I was struck by how these educators are modeling and weaving together three design thinking and learning action concepts from my recent blog posts on how to break habits and build creativity, foster youth empathy, and create space for youth as social innovation changemakers

  • Build creativity. These art teachers really exemplify out of the box thinking on how to engage youth in learning to find and attempt solutions to difficult problems. You can read a New York Times article about how they were inspired for the project by a fellow artist whose performance art series was giving pep talks in parks.
  • Foster empathy. They used strategies to foster empathy, including sharing stories and helping youth talk outside their circles. The teachers moved this project into the real world. Imagine how youth must feel seeing the impact of the number of callers, along with the story being featured on National Public Radio and in the New York Times.
  • Create changemakers. The two art educators created conditions for learning and innovating by offering opportunities for youth to more meaningfully engage in their community and make a positive difference.

I’m sure this project is one of many brilliant examples of educators who are helping youth understand and have the ability to tackle complex challenges. What are some other examples of great projects that you think we should be learning from and discussing?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator

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