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Time with Teens: As Learners, and Teachers

By Michelle Hughes

I just spent the last four Saturday afternoons with a group of teens. It reminded me of how much respect, appreciation, and compassion I have for humans this age. This was a bright and thoughtful group of kids who have had their struggles and resistance around school and schooling, and were working with me to build some strategies and Habits of Mind, and set some authentic goals, so they could expend less energy resisting and in a state of stress.

I was fully aware that these kids had not gone online, hunted me down, and begged their parents to let them do this workshop. In our one on ones I let them know that I knew this, but appreciated their willingness to engage, nonetheless. I got knowing smiles back. The parents had found my workshop through word-of-mouth (though I had advertised on local and social media). At our initial parent meeting, parents shared how their concerns about how their bright creative children were not engaging at school had led them to discuss the workshop with their children. What parent doesn’t want the world to see their kid the way they see them, for all their potential and wonder? Kids agreed to either join the group or work with me individually.

The workshop was called “Reboot of the Mind: Planning, Organization, Plotting = POP!” It was designed to be an introduction to academic coaching, and also lower the sense of isolation that a learner feels when they think they are the only one struggling. The focus was in four parts:

  • Setting authentic goals that were for themselves, not parents, teachers, or others
  • Lowering resistance to school through identifying their Big Why and how school serves this purpose
  • Learning about Habits of Mind and how exercising them could improve your life and be strategic in achieving goals
  • And learning the basics of planning, organization, and plotting.

While I taught teens for years, it was my first workshop series with kids as a coach, and I was nervous. Teens are scrutinous and discerning critics, and these were giving up their Saturday afternoons. I’d better have something worth learning!

In my planning I worked with a trusted colleague to check the planned sessions for focus – yet variety; thought-provoking activities as well as kinesthetic; individual and group work; reflective discussion without being invasive; downtime and snacks. Yet, with all the weeks of planning and organization, in between each week I tweaked the content and activities (even the snacks) based on what I had observed and learned about the kids. By the end, the workshop had really become focused on them and what they cared about, as much as the essential goals of the workshop.

The first session opened with a meet and greet in which all they needed to share were their names, grades, and schools. Many teens tend to dislike ice-breakers at the top of an experience when they are feeling weird and vulnerable. In this session we really focused on “Why School?” At this point I was doing most of the talking and leading and they politely followed until we did the Ninja Resistance activity. This required some physical pushing with a broomstick, and resistance from receivers. After playing the pushee and pusher, we then practiced an Aikido-like move, allowing the pusher to push as we stepped aside, around, and moved forward.

“Does resistance require more energy than allowing the force to move past you?”

“Definitely,” one said.

“Are there things we should resist?”

“Yes” and nods all around.

“Like what?”

“Racism,” offered one.

“Unfairness,” said another.

Nods all around.

“Is school something we sometimes resist, but actually have to do?”

Nods.

We then talked about how school was a fact of their lives, and how moving past their own resistance to school could end up being less exhausting and stressful. Later we talked about how they could not control how a teacher taught or behaved, but they could control how they reacted and what they chose to get out of the experience.

In another session I asked, “How are planning and organization similar or different?”

“They are basically the same thing,” offered one.

“How so?”

As we parsed this out further, we saw that planning activities addressed “the how” of getting a project together, where organization is “the what”. We broke this down and then applied this to assignments they had either brought from school or a simulation I had created. Then we spoke about Plotting in their planners or calendars. “That is the When.”

A core practice of my coaching are the Habits of Mind, which made their way into each conversation.

“Which Habits of Mind did we just apply?”

“In creating your MindMap you are going to identify your ‘Big Why.’ Now what are the Habits that come naturally to you, that will be useful in achieving your Big Why? Which are the Habits you want to grow? What tools will you use to build these Habits?”

Each time we delved into the Habits of Mind, and as they became more comfortable, we went a little deeper.

Still, I worried after the second and third sessions that they might not come back. Each Saturday, I arrived an hour early, reviewed the changes I had made to the session, organized materials, shoveled the snow from the walk, set up snacks, and was amazed that kids walked through the door at 1:00.

This last week was our final week together and was focused on, “How do we bring what we learned into the real world?”

Discussion of setting boundaries, who felt pretty good at that and who needed to work on that, of what their short-term SMART goals were, and of how social media affects their lives flowed pretty easily. At the end we did a Praise Singing.

“Are you really going to make us sing?” one asked while others laughed.

“No, but it’s an expression you’ll sometimes hear, like – They sang her praises after the performance…!”

Blank stares.

“Well, you might hear it, but it really comes from southern Africa…” and I described the ritual of praise singing as a healing for someone who was unwell.

“So, we’ll stand opposite one another and share one appreciation of the person in front of us. Take a few minutes to think about what you might want to say to each person.”

“Are you going to join?” asked one.

“Yes! I have things I want to say to each of you.”

They took a few minutes, then we stood in two rows, and they had really kind and insightful things to say to each other. They even had some for me.

There is no question that I learned as much or more from these workshops than the kids. Each week, as I revised and planned the next week’s workshop I was reminded that when working with learners, it’s important to have a plan that one can toss out the window in favor of more relevant, necessary, engaging, and fun learning activities.

I am so grateful to this group of kids for being willing to come back each week, to engage and share this experience, and to be my teachers.

Michelle Hughes has been teaching and leading in both public and independent schools for more than thirty years. Trained at Bank Street College of Education, she has infused progressive education principles and practices in her work with students, teachers, and curriculum design. Michelle’s teaching practice and leadership skills were developed in an inclusive environment of diverse learners. As a school leader and now learning coach and professional development consultant, she continues to focus on including all learners. The Habits of Mind framework has guided her work with teachers and students and through certification as an Individual Practitioner, have become the foundation for her coaching and consulting.

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