Thursday, February 12, 2015

A simple Valentine

This year for Valentine's day, I wanted to do something more meaningful than passing out extra candy to the kids in the after school program. Instead of extra treats and elaborate party games (which kids do enjoy, don't get me wrong), I wanted to take the opportunity to tell the kids how truly great they are. 

I know that the kids who are behind academically or have ongoing behavior issues and complicated home lives don't hear praise and compliments very often. Their lives are filled with "don't do this" and "you need to improve because you aren't good enough." Parents are often too stressed to notice and comment on the positive, and schools are overworked trying to improve academics. Its difficult to stay motivated when the message is always punitive. 

So I wrote each student in my after school program a handwritten card with a personalized message letting them know how glad I was that they attended program, specifics on the positive character traits I noticed in them, and an encouragement that they can and will make the world a better place and do great things.  

When I passed them out, the response melted my heart. Some kids were quick to say thank you and reach for a hug. Others kind of looked at their card and pondered for a bit as a huge smile filled their lovely face. One kid, who I know doesn't get much affection at home didn't quite know how to respond, but was practically doing cartwheels when he realized he could keep the card. I made sure to read the cards with the kids who didn't know how to read and for those that asked, I elaborated on what was written.

At the end of the day, most kids took their cards home, some forgot them at the program site, but the atmosphere changed. Any doubt that the kids had on whether they mattered disappeared. They walked a little straighter, laughed a little louder, and were generally friendlier to each other. 

And to be honest, this was also something that I needed to do for myself. When in the midst of an after school program with at-risk kids, it is easy to lose sight of the strength, kindness, and thoughtfulness that is within each kid. Its easy to fog the mind with the chaos and forget the little humans with vulnerable hearts in front of me. I needed to take the time to re-center and notice each little human being as an individual worthy of love and capable of making a difference. Taking the time to sit down and write honest and meaningful praise for each child was refreshing and reminded me of the reason for this work. It was probably as meaningful for me as it was for the kids. 

I think its fair to say that candy, balloons, and musical chairs would not even come close to having the same effect. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Building Partnerships with Schools

Over the years I have worked with many different schools, some very cooperative and open to partnerships and some that were more reserved. It is no secret that it is a delicate relationship to manage. I wanted to share the few things I have learned over the years that have helped me build strong partnerships with schools:

1. Find your ally.

Schools can be highly political places. People are stretched very thin with limited resources, high expectations and pressures coming from every which way. Chances are slim that someone will be willing to give you an ear unless you have some sort of connection.  If you have previous connections, see if they would be willing to help you find the information you need or at least point you in the right direction. If you are new to the school, find the person who works closest with your population and start building that relationship. This person may become your best friend.

2. Listen.

Take time to listen and learn about the initiatives and programs the school is trying to push. Learn the language the school uses to describe student achievement and behavior management strategies. Ask thoughtful questions about strategy and mission. Find ways to speak their language and find ways to  align your program with their goals.

3. Be willing to give. 

If you learn that the school has a need that is yet to be filled and your program may be able to address it - be willing to offer your help. This takes a little bit of creativity. If you are a student support specialist or case manager, perhaps you can start groups that focus on specific skills that the school hopes students will achieve. Perhaps they need more aides - find if you can offer translation services or one hour a week of tutoring/assistance to a kid that you might already be serving through your own program. This olive branch should involve no effort for the school and be a direct benefit to them. It is your chance to build relationships and a reputation.

4. Find opportunities for collaboration.

If you are planning a community event, involve the school. Let them know what your goals are and ask if they would like to participate, have representation, or support the event in any way. Invite teachers and staff to come to the event, use school space, see if your event can be included in school mailings/newsletters/announcements. Being open about your intentions may lead to ideas you haven't considered before.

5. Keep in touch.

Once you have an established relationship, or if you are serving kids from a certain school - don't underestimate the value of sending a quick card or email mentioning what the kids are up to, perhaps highlighting an inspiring or funny story and/or pictures. This keeps your work fresh in their mind, and they may think of you as a potential resource or partner if an opportunity arises. Also, if you need to connect at a later date, the relationship can continue instead of having to begin from scratch.

Networking is huge, and willingness to listen and give can go a long way in helping achieve the development of meaningful programs.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What happened to imagination?

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."  ~Henry David Thoreau

There was a time when kids actually had to imagine that toys could walk around and talk.  A time when a stick could be a scepter, weapon, or horse. A leaf could be currency or decoration. Building cities with blocks, creating story lines with dolls - imagination was in full gear and could explode for hours. 

I am afraid that nowadays there are so many toys that take the imagination out of playtime. A doll from an existing tv show or movie.  Lego sets with prescribed plans that are meant to be followed exactly. Cars and gadgets that do everything for the kid - all he has to do is press a button.  Flashy and fun as they are, the ironic thing is how soon a kid will abandon the fancy toy and return to playing with the box the toy came in.

Why? Because of the infinite variety of things a box can do.

I complete agree with Susan Linn from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:

"The best toy is 10% toy and 90% child," Linn says. "We've got all these toys embedded with computer chips that talk and sing and play and dance at the press of a button. But what they do is deprive children of the ability to exercise their creativity. The toys that really foster creativity just lie there until they're transformed by children." (USA Today)
Play is important because it is through play that children understand and learn about the world:
"Play is a really big part of a child's development," says Steve Snyder of The Franklin Institute, an interactive science museum in Philadelphia. "We don't play by accident."
Any toy can be a learning tool, he says. "Ask 'What would happen if we did this? Why might this happen?' At some point, kids stop asking questions. We want them to always ask questions." (USA Today)
Can you remember the games you played as a child?

For me, it is the most imaginative of games that I remember the most. Paper dolls from paper, playing school, carnival in the backyard, etc. All these games required little more than a couple friends and random items collected to create the world or our imagination.

Dr. Stuart Brown, researcher on play talks about the importance of play -and its not just for kids :


Hope you have a playful holiday!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Awesome resource alert: JA Biztown

Recently read an article about JA Biztown, a project of Junior Achievement that provides 5th graders an opportunity to learn about financial literacy through participating in a mock city.  Students learn about community, currency and how the "real world" works by role-playing:

JA BizTown, a national program operated by the economic education nonprofit Junior Achievement, provides a "day in the life" simulation of a city environment, and is the culmination of a suite of curriculum designed to help fifth-graders learn economic principles from how to balance a checkbook to the importance of saving. 

Each student interviews for a "job" and spends the day performing tasks related to that industry, whether installing phones or interviewing CEOs at the BizTown TV station.

JA Biztown also has a summer program for youth 10-14 years old.  The weeklong camp explores community, financial literacy and business.

In light of current economic situations, this is an incredible opportunity for youth to get a handle on how our economy works as well as develop ideas on where they would like to be in the future. I'm so glad this program is available in Portland!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sustainable middle school programs include...

The Wallace Foundation released a study that highlighted a few key attributes that make for a sustainable after school program for middle schoolers.

The basic findings:

1. Provide youth with as much leadership opportunities as possible.
2. Staff must have a pulse on what goes on in the students lives outside of program
3. Program is community-based
4. Staff discuss the program at least 2 times per month (I say the more the better)
5. 100 or more youth enrolled per year

Find the entire report here.

The Wallace Foundation has a wealth of research on after school programming. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

How to study for a test

The Wall Street Journal recently released an article with study tips that have research proving their effectiveness.  

One of the takeaways for me from the article is the emphasis on overcoming test anxiety through building confidence.  

Some tangible tips from the article:

1. Write down fears and anxieties before the test to free working memory and prevent distractions during the test.

2. To combat self-doubts (such as 'I'm bad in math'), remind yourself of proven personal traits and strengths that can propel you to success.
3. Practice in advance facing all the pressures you will face on exam day, such as driving to the testing center or visiting an unfamiliar testing room.
4. Test yourself by recalling broad concepts rather than trying to memorize facts or re-reading textbooks.
5. Before the test, envision yourself answering questions calmly and with confidence.

Find the rest of the article here.


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