Pass the Mic Series: A Dialogue Among Young People

By: Wintre Foxworth Johnson

Highlights

  • Youth-Nex recently hosted their 8th conference entitled Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency, co-chaired by Drs. Wintre Foxworth Johnson and Nancy Deutsch.
  • In this Pass the Mic blog series, we are highlighting each of the sessions from the conference and in future posts including youth voices to summarize and reflect on what was discussed.
  • In this first blog, co-chair Dr. Johnson introduces this blog series and shares our first session on “Youth Voice and Agency in the 21st Century: A Dialogue Among Young People.”
Source: Youth-Nex

Adults often talk about youth as “the future.” That, however, is a partial truth. Many of the issues that adults debate and the policies that we create affect young people’s day-to-day lives, arguably more than they do our own. Young people are the present as much as they are the future, and we need their ideas. They should have a say in how we think about social issues and what we do to address them. 

At Youth-Nex, we take a strengths-based approach to youth development. And every day we are amazed by the ingenuity, energy, and hope of youth as they tackle the problems they see in the world. Part of being an adolescent is forming an identity that includes a sense of meaning and purpose. We see young people enacting that meaning and purpose, often within systems that do not value their voices or expertise. 

Youth voice and agency were central to the recent convening. Throughout Youth-Nex’s 8th conference, we heard from young people and adults who are actively working to amplify the voices of youth across the systems that shape their lives. Our goal is for everyone to approach the issues affecting youth with new eyes because they are complex and require all our experiences, expertise, and ideas. We want adults to not only see but also engage youth as true partners in working for change!

The first session of the conference grounded us in youth voices. This panel was moderated by Zyahna Bryant, an activist and community organizer, and included all youth panelists. We asked: Are young people ready to lead and if so, in what ways? How do we center and uplift youth voices in the 21st century? What are action-oriented steps to support youth? Listen to this session and learn more.

Source: Youth-Nex

In this blog series, we will share each of the sessions from the conference with an accompanying young person’s perspective who attended the conference. Listen to these sessions, hear these youth voices, and consider how you can “pass the mic”!

Stay tuned to this Pass the Mic blog series to learn more about:

  • Social & Justice Systems, 
  • Youth Voice & Agency in Schools, 
  • Health & Well-being, 
  • Politics, Organizing & Civic Engagement, and 
  • Programs that Elevate Youth Voice & Agency.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Wintre Foxworth Johnson’s scholarship lies at the nexus of sociocultural literacy studies, critical race scholarship, and critical pedagogies for and with young children. Her research has two primary aims: to examine the relationship between literacy teaching and learning in race-conscious and social justice-oriented elementary educational contexts; to investigate the sociopolitical development of children from historically marginalized communities, with a particular focus on Black children’s educational experiences, racial awareness, and experiential knowledge.

Youth Performing Arts Series: Debunking the “Theatre Kid” Stereotype

By: Kessler (11th grader) & Anna (10th grader) from Empowered Players (EP) and members of EP’s Teen Arts Board (TAB).

This blog post is the second of four in a Youth Performing Arts Series by teens involved in the performing arts. For more posts, please visit our blog.

Highlights:

  • Empowered Players (EP) is a Fluvanna-based non-profit in VA designed to make a difference in the community through the arts. Their mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service through free & accessible K-12 theatre education and programming.
  • In this Youth Performing Arts Series, youth involved with EP will share more about their experiences and perspectives engaging in the performing arts.
  • In this second of four blog posts, Kessler and Anna debunk a few theatre myths and stereotypes that haunt the industry.
Source: Empowered Players Teen Arts Board

There are a lot of stereotypes about theatre kids. Some say we’re anti-social coffee addicts who can’t go anywhere or do anything because “we have rehearsal.” Some say we’re Hamilton obsessed geeks who speak only in showtunes and Shakespeare. Although they might have a point, theatre is much more than the stereotypes.

Theatre, especially Empowered Players, helps budding actors and actresses in many ways. It can improve public speaking ability, increase creative thinking skills, and includes people from many different backgrounds and walks of life through the diverse roles available. And while some theatre stereotypes are true (yes, we are that loud; yes, some of us are that obsessed with Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen), many are not. This blog debunks a few myths that have permeated the industry for years, especially for youth.

Mythbusting the “Theatre Kid”

To begin with, many people are afraid of theatre because of how it is portrayed in the media. Television and movie producers love to show theatre as something that is filled with gossip and drama, or mean girls and nerds. This does not give theatre a chance! It is an unique art that allows actors to become different people for a few hours a week while boosting beneficial skills such as confidence and public speaking. The myriad perks of theatre are overshadowed by the harmful stereotypes that continue to circulate both within and outside the community. Let’s lay these myths to rest and prove that theatre is truly for everyone!

Debunk: “I can’t, I have rehearsal”

One of the major drawbacks that can dissuade students from entering theatre is the heavy time commitment. Almost everyone has seen or heard the theatre kid meme: “I can’t, I have rehearsal.” And while this can be true (and we have used it to get out of things that we don’t really want to go to), the commitment is no worse than a regular sport. Rehearsals are after school or on the weekends, but many directors are flexible and willing to work with students and their schedules. Since some troupes rehearse on the weekends, afternoons are open for other activities. For example, Anna is in the marching band, which means that she doesn’t have time after school for rehearsals. Since Empowered Players meets on the weekends, she can do both band and theatre. Kessler competes in Forensics through the school, and the weekend rehearsals mean that she has time for homework after school and practice. This is a common occurrence. Many people balance both theatre and other extracurricular activities!

Debunk: “I can only do theatre through my school”

Popular media likes to portray that theatre can only be done through a school (High School Musical, anyone?). While school theatre is definitely an option, it is not the only option. There are many external troupes and programs that allow students to act outside of school hours. These troupes are important because it allows students who don’t go to a traditional school, such as homeschoolers, to experience theatre. There are many community theatre programs that are open to everyone, which opens up theatre opportunities to those who can’ do traditional theatre.

Outside opportunities are also important for those who aren’t comfortable doing theatre through school. Sometimes people have bad experiences with school theatre and are not comfortable going back to school. Community theatre opportunities reopens the door of theatre to those who thought it closed.

Debunk: “I can’t do community theatre because it’s only for adults”

Unfortunately, doing theatre through a community program comes with its own stereotypes. One of the most prominent ideas is that community theatre is only for adults. This is supplemented by many shows that community theatres produce that are not necessarily suitable for teenagers, tweens, or children to act in.

However, many troupes do perform shows that are children-appropriate and sometimes even call for child actors. If someone is interested and there is a community theatre troupe nearby, we suggest reaching out to them and expressing interest. If there is an opening for a child or teen actor, then go ahead and join! If not, then keep reaching out to other troupes and the right one will connect with you! Acting with adults will also increase your skill, since you will be working alongside more experienced actors who can show you some tips and tricks of the trade.

Debunk: “Everyone in theatre already has friends. I won’t be welcome”

The deterrent to many teens in joining new activities is the fear of a clique within that activity that will not accept them. Theatre is infamous for cliquey groups that exclude newcomers, but this is simply not true in most cases. Theatre troupes are welcoming of new actors, especially because more actors means a larger cast. A larger cast means a more in depth and overall fun play. In addition, the people within the groups remember how it felt to be a newcomer to the scene, and as such are welcoming. Theatre, as an art, also attracts kind and accepting people.

Debunk: “Everyone in theatre is dramatic” or “Rehearsals are full of drama”

The final myth that we plan to debunk centers on another name for theatre. Many people call theatre “drama” and this can lead many to believe that actors are backstabbing hooligans, constantly on the lookout for new drama. This is just not correct! Rehearsals are calm places, devoted to the play. While some actors do participate in “backstage drama,” as it is coined, most just want to have a fun show.

Theatre kids also receive an unjust reputation for being “over dramatic.” Seeing as how these people are actors, a certain amount of this is to be expected, but not to the degree that is shown in mass media. The over dramatism is mainly just employed in jokes, and actors know when too much is too much.

Theatre Stereotypes Debunked

Although there are many more myths and stereotypes than what is covered in this blog, we have debunked a few of (what we thought were) the most famous ones that keep youth from entering theatre. An important element to remember is that theatre is not what the media paints it as, and many people from all walks of life enjoy theatre in many different ways. And if acting isn’t something that interests you, that’s okay! Theatre encompasses everything from acting to directing to the technical crew working behind the scenes. All parts are necessary to ensure a successful show. So try out for that musical! Join that community theatre troupe! Take that directing class! Even if theatre is not for you, you will have gained new skills that will benefit you in unexpected but amazing ways.


The posts in the Youth Nex Youth Performing Arts Series are submitted by teens who are a part of the Empowered Players Teen Arts Board (TAB). The TAB is designed to create a space for teens to shape the arts landscape of Fluvanna County, VA, volunteer in their community, and co-create arts programming for EP. Each blog will feature topics selected by TAB members, and is designed to uplift their thoughts around the importance of the performing arts.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Kessler is a junior in Fluvanna County High School. She competes in Forensics through FCHS and participates in the spring shows performed by the high school. She has been involved with Empowered Players for over six years and has worked on many aspects of the theatre experience, from acting in both ensemble and starring roles, to tech, to management and directing. enjoys both acting and directing. This spring, she is excited to star in Peter and the Starcatcher as Molly Aster. This is her first time writing for a UVA blog.


Author Bio: Anna is a sophomore at Fluvanna County High School and has been involved with theatre since the summer before 4th grade. She did the initial Empowered Players summer camp, and has been involved with the program since. She has been in numerous shows, as well as camps, and has learned theatre management, directing, script writing and playwriting through those camps. She has just wrapped up her latest show, in which she played Alice in the Addams Family Musical. She also did her first mentoring volunteer work with Empowered Players in the Rudolph Musical this past semester.

Revisiting 2022: Blogs on Youth Voice, New Research & More

By: Leslie M. Booren

Highlights:

  • As the holiday season approaches, Youth-Nex is revisiting the 2022 archives for the blog.
  • We highlight themes from this year’s blog postings, including youth voice, the latest research, and more.
  • Read more and see what posts you missed from 2022, and what you should take into 2023!
Source: Youth-Nex

At the core of the work here at Youth-Nex is including and elevating the voices of youth. Dr. Nancy Deutsch, Youth-Nex Director, recently said there are two significant reasons for this. The first is that youth are more than just future adults who will one day be impacted by and engaged in making decisions about the world; they are both impacted and active now.

“It’s not just that youth have a stake in the future impact of the actions we take, they have an immediate stake in them too,” Deutsch said. “That means they should have a say in how we think about social issues and what we do to address them. Beyond that, they are already actively trying to make change. Just look around and you can see how young people are engaged in social change efforts across a range of issues.”

Deutsch also believes that including youth voices yields better results.

“We need their ideas,” Deutsch said. “Young people are better at brainstorming beyond boundaries. They engage in creative problem-solving in a way that can open new possibilities that adults don’t see. Because adolescents are more open to novelty and risk-taking than adults are, this can make them more innovative problem-solvers.”

Youth Voice

In 2022, we featured youth writers that were middle schoolers, high schoolers and young adults. They talked about the importance of art, advised educators on how to use social media, highlighted the importance of Black History, and encouraged young people to be active in performing arts. Read more about:

Check out these blogs to link to the youth takeovers on Instagram that accompanied many of these posts!

Latest Research

Youth-Nex takes a translational approach to scholarship and innovation which aims to expand and apply the science of Positive Youth Development. Our work enhances the strengths of youth to support thriving and prevent developmental risk such as violence, physical and mental health issues, substance abuse and school failure.

In 2022, many of our blog posts highlighted new research just published or available to teachers, parents and more educational stakeholders. These researchers explain their new work on:

What to Take into 2023

Although all these blog posts share important perspectives, there are two that we would be remiss not to highlight from 2022. The messages shared by these authors are particularly salient given the on-going current news in the United States for youth as we approach 2023:

  • For Pride month, Lamont Bryant writes how “LGBTQ+ Youth Need Your Support.” They describe how the U.S. is at a turning point, emphasizing the importance of social support for our LGBTQ+IA2+ communities. Read more about what you can do now for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and other sexual diverse and gender minoritized individuals (LGBTQ+IA2+).
  • For Mental Health Awareness month, this video blog addresses “Youth Mental Health & Reshaping Our Culture.” Daniel Fairley II shares tips for what adults can do to support youth mental health right now, after the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Leslie M. Booren is the Associate Director for Communications and Operations at Youth-Nex and the Youth-Nex blog editor. In this role, she manages operations, HR, events, communications and marketing for the center. Previously she has worked at the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES), EdPolicyWorks, and the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) in various roles from research faculty to managing director. She has a strong interest in community and youth development by bridging applied and research-based practices.

Youth Performing Arts Series: How Empowered Players Has Helped Me

By: Gloria & Ash, 9th graders from Empowered Players (EP) and members of EP’s Teen Arts Board (TAB).

This blog post is the first of four in a Youth Performing Arts Series by teens involved in the performing arts. For more posts, please visit our blog.

Ash & Gloria also took over the Youth-Nex & Empowered Players Instagram accounts to talk more about this blog and their experiences!

Highlights:

  • Empowered Players (EP) is a Fluvanna-based non-profit in VA designed to make a difference in the community through the arts. Their mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service through free & accessible K-12 theater education and programming.
  • In this Youth Performing Arts Series, youth involved with EP will share more about their experiences and perspectives engaging in the performing arts.
  • In this first of four blog posts, these youth share more about how acting helped them build skills and confidence for the future.
Source: Empowered Players Teen Arts Board

Hi, we’re Gloria and Ash! We are both in 9th grade and have some things in common. For example, we both like to act, to read, to dance, and to do some art. We want to talk about how being involved in Empowered Players has helped us in everyday life and with our acting. In particular, theater has helped us with public speaking, expressing ourselves, confidence, and creativity.

Improving Public Speaking

Empowered Players has helped me (Ash) with many things in my everyday life. One way it’s helped me is in public speaking. When in a play, you always know what to say and when it’s the appropriate time to say it. For example, I was in a play, The Jungle Book. Being in this play showed me the appropriate responses to things that would need to be said when speaking anywhere. For example, when talking to an adult, I am able to think of a response sooner and sound like I know how to talk to an adult. With that, I am now able to plan what I want to say anywhere, and have the ability to improv if I don’t already have a response to something when I need it. It also helps by already being on stage with a bunch of people that you may or may not know.

Expressing Ourselves

Empowered Players has also helped me (Ash) with expressing myself. Performing in a play helps show different emotions and different personalities, and this can help with expressing who you are in everyday life. For example, you could also express yourself in the play and show who you are in the play.

More Creativity

Empowered Players has also helped me (Gloria) with my creativity.

It has helped me because when we are playing improv games, I have to think of something to say quickly and it also has to be creative. My creativity has improved; and I have noticed that when I’m working on little crafts at home, it is easier for me to think of what to make.

Boosting Confidence

Empowered Players has helped me (Gloria) with my confidence, because when I’m in an Empowered Players group, I can be myself. I also learned that people don’t care what you look like or do, and that has really helped with my everyday life. Throughout the year my confidence has gone up. For example, I can make friends easier now, and it is easier for me to talk to people that I don’t really know. I have also noticed that I have become more confident in speaking in class in front of classmates and teachers, and that I can express my thoughts and opinions more freely and without worrying too much about what they think. When I looked at the Halloween costume contest video we recorded with the Teen Arts Board, where I was one of the presenters, I can really tell that I am more comfortable in front of a camera now.


The posts in the Youth Nex Youth Performing Arts Series are submitted by teens who are a part of the Empowered Players Teen Arts Board (TAB). The TAB is designed to create a space for teens to shape the arts landscape of Fluvanna County, VA, volunteer in their community, and co-create arts programming for EP. Each blog will feature topics selected by TAB members, and is designed to uplift their thoughts around the importance of the performing arts.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

.

Author Bio: Hello! I am Ash! I am 15 years old and in 9th grade. I was born in North Carolina and lived there for 13-ish years. Now I live in Virginia.


.

Author Bio: Hi! My name is Gloria! I am 14 years old and I was also born in North Carolina. I go to Fluvanna County High School.


The Power of the Creator Economy in Education: How Educators can Thrive Digitally

By: Harish, WIT teen entrepreneur

Highlights:

  • The creator economy is a rapidly growing system that democratizes education whilst also making learning more efficient.
  • Due to online learning in the pandemic, educators are more adept at teaching in the digital age; the next stage for educators is to consider reinventing themselves and their identities to include being a creator as a vital part of their role.
  • This blog explores how educators should build their brands and leverage platforms that enable them to maximize the impact of their knowledge.
Source: Youth-Nex

The creator economy is a $100 billion economy involving independent creators that grow and monetize their work through software tools, such as YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, Spotify, Substack, Patreon, and more. Since the barrier of entry to create and distribute content is extremely low, the distribution and accessibility of ideas and skills have grown exponentially. In terms of monetization, creators use a variety of revenue models from ad revenue, brand deals, and affiliate links to courses, paid newsletters, and creator-led brands. This economic system, built by 50 million content creators, community builders, bloggers, influencers, artists, and writers, is one of the fastest-growing segments in business with no signs of slowing down. 

The Creator Economy & Education

One of the industries most affected by the rise of the creator economy is the education sector. With tuition rates rising constantly and quality education becoming more accessible through MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other free sources online. Due to this availability of information and resources, higher education enrollment, both online and in-person universities, has been on a decline since 2012. Alongside the declining trend of higher education, the creator economy continues to grow and establish itself as a powerful source of widespread education. This is due to the many benefits that digital content provides, such as lower costs, greater accessibility, greater flexibility, up-to-date content, and more efficient upskilling (continuous learning, used to gain and improve specific skills). As a result, content creators are emerging as the teachers and instructors of the next generation, educating people in fields from fitness to business to culinary skills.

The Rise of Live & Cohort-Based Learning

Although the creator economy has allowed for education to become more democratized and accessible, it does come with a few downsides that are important to understand. The increase in the quantity of content makes execution and implementation more important than ever. This is evident due to traditional online courses, such as MOOCs, having a completion rate of only 3-5%. Additionally, digital learning can also result in a lack of the ability to learn together alongside peers, which creates a need for community. As a result, we’ve seen the edtech space double down on the creator economy through cohort-based learning, which has dramatically risen in popularity over the last few years. Companies such as Maven, Mighty Networks, and Disco allow creators and experts to turn their knowledge into engaging cohort-based courses that allow students to experience hands-on learning with accountability through the presence of community. Beyond this, leaders in the edtech space are also exploring use cases of virtual reality and augmented reality in online STEM classes to further increase engagement and learning outcomes. 

How Educators can Leverage the Creator Economy

With the rise of digital education, through the likes of the creator economy and cohort-based learning, we can potentially see certain portions of traditional education become obsolete. As a result, it’s important for educators to evolve and reinvent their practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed certain holes in traditional education, which has resulted in the online and hybrid education models existing and rising in popularity even after the peak of the pandemic. With teachers across the world being forced to evolve their curriculum and their skills as a part of this trend, educators are now more adept at teaching in the digital age.

In addition to meeting the demands of virtual learning, teachers should also consider reinventing themselves and their identities to include being a creator as a vital part of their role as an educator. For example:

  • Graham Weaver, an entrepreneur and six-year lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, created a TikTok account to share his knowledge of economics, personal finance, and life lessons. Through leveraging the power of the creator economy through short-form content, Graham increased his reach exponentially to distribute his knowledge and expertise at rates much faster than he could solely through the classroom. 
  • Brittany Sinitch, a middle school teacher who documents her life as a teacher through vlogs, Q&As, and lesson plans she uses in the classroom. However, Brittany is not alone as many K-12 educators are using the power of social media to create a classroom that goes beyond physical walls.

It is important to understand that education is a dynamic and ever-changing field that requires constant experimentation and iteration. With education only becoming more accessible and democratized, the identity of educators will change as they won’t be limited to their classroom. In the new age, educators will be building their brands and leveraging platforms that allow them to maximize the impact of their knowledge and play the game of distribution. 

Sources


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is WITtag_blue.png
Youth-Nex is excited to feature teen entrepreneurs from the non-profit WIT – Whatever It Takes. The posts in the Youth Nex + WIT series are submitted by teen entrepreneurs who are interested in exploring and discussing topics ranging from education inequity, mental health, political issues, and more. The teens choose the topic and the views expressed in their posts are theirs and not connected to WIT or Youth-Nex. 

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Hey, I’m Harish 👋. I’m the co-founder & CEO of Guardial and teen entrepreneur at WIT. I’m based in Austin, Texas, and love exploring social entrepreneurship, the creator economy, and marketing/branding. Feel free to reach out @harishkolli_, would love to chat!

Middle School Redesign: A How To Guide from Educational Stakeholders

By: Ashlee Sjogren, Detajha Woodson & Faith Zabek

In this inaugural post of our Middle School Redesign series, we introduce you to the themes uncovered during our RMS Listening Tour by focusing on descriptions of a dream middle school.

Highlights:

  • The Remaking Middle School initiative is re-envisioning the middle school years as positive and transformative educational experiences for all young adults, and has been conducting a Listening Tour.
  • During the Listening Tour, educators, parents, and community members shared what they thought is key to middle school redesign efforts, and these findings have been organized into themes. 
  • Highlighted in this introduction blog are those themes around student voice and collaboration, developmentally supportive curricula, a whole child approach that supports social-emotional development, and the physical environment of the school. 
Source: Canva

Imagine that you had the opportunity to completely redesign the middle school experience. What would your dream school look like? How would it support the unique needs of early adolescents? We posed this question to over 100 middle school educators, parents, and community partners during our nationwide Remaking Middle School (RMS) Listening Tour. This is what we heard. 

Student Voice/Collaboration in Decision Making

Educators and parents alike highlighted the importance of centering middle school redesign work with students’ voices. They discussed how students need to be consulted before any redesign work begins. One administrator explained this, noting: 

“We’ve always thought, well, if the kid had the choice whether or not they would come to your classroom … would they? And we saw in the last few years, the answer to that for some kids was, no. They wouldn’t. So, how do we change that? I think we change that …by asking kids. So, that question that you just asked me, I wouldn’t answer it. I would pose that question to 615 adolescents.”

Our data suggests that the voices of adolescents should be the first and the loudest. However, eliciting student voices did not go far enough. Instead we must bring students into the conversation as equal collaborators in decision making. Another administrator exemplified this narrative stating, “the governance of the place needs to be… in such a way that there are student representatives in school boards, students who are on the admin team. … Don’t talk about them, talk with them…”. Taken together, this suggests that design work should both begin and end with students, fostering opportunities for continued collaboration and idea sharing throughout the entire process. 

Developmentally Supportive Curriculum

Educators and parents also voiced a desire to redesign the middle school curriculum, opting for curricula that are developmentally responsive to the needs and assets of middle school students. For example, many highlighted developmentally supportive strategies such as fostering failure-safe educational contexts, teaching content with real world applications, emphasizing cross-curricular connections, and assigning experiential / project-based learning activities. Underlying all of these suggestions is a focus on getting students away from the traditional siloed approaches to learning out of context. One youth development worker highlighted their desire for: “more project-based, community-based learning opportunities, where it’s integrative — you know, it’s not a singular subject matter but it’s integrated subjects working… all connected together on topics and exploration.” Strategies of this sort foster more opportunities for students to engage in a curriculum that is both supportive of their developmental needs (e.g., autonomy, socialization, risk taking,) and fosters more opportunities for critical thinking. 

SEL/Whole Child Approach

Many of the parents and educators that we spoke with envisioned redesigning middle school so that it prepares students not only to excel academically but also to thrive personally. Their dream middle school cultivates a climate that supports whole-child development and equips students with the social-emotional skills necessary to succeed in school, work, and life. One school administrator described, “I think there’s this aspect of social-emotional learning and creating safety and spaces for, honestly, particularly middle schoolers to just learn how to be little humans.” Stakeholders also spoke of the need for educators to establish meaningful and healthy relationships with each student and to acknowledge their students’ unique strengths. One parent described:

They treat each child as an individual, like, human being, who is celebrated for all their weirdness. There are so many weird, happy, wonderful kids. That’s what middle school should be, right? That to me is the basic difference of the [ideal middle] school and everything kind of builds from there. The teachers are focused on the kids as individuals. They’re helping them interact [and] grow.

Respondents highlighted specific strategies to support social-emotional development (e.g., restorative justice approaches, mental health services, school-home-community partnerships) and emphasized the importance of centering equity in redesign efforts: “there’s got to be a principle of equity and universal human value that can’t be compromised.”

Physical Space

Several participants believe that a traditional classroom layout simply “doesn’t work for middle schoolers because it’s completely counter to the way their bodies are growing.” In many traditional school settings, students are confined to their desks with the exception of transitioning to and from classes, lunch periods, and bathroom breaks, not providing adequate time to socialize with peers or exert energy outside of designated recess and physical education periods. One middle grade administrator stated that he would combat this by creating “a common area that was a place where students can sit, and hang out, and talk” as well as “a big outdoor learning area, an interactive garden.” While several participants focused on the significance of including opportunities for social interaction amongst students and outdoor learning, others spotlighted the importance of making learning spaces visually appealing to students. One middle grade parent shared his ideal classroom“would be bright, definitely bright. I hate the white walls. The kids hate the light walls, the fluorescent lights, and just the plain floors. It would be just brightly colored, because that’s the middle school personality.” Adolescent years are known for being a time of transition and self-discovery. They are anything but boring, “so why are we putting them in boring classrooms?


Interested in learning more about these ideas? In future Middle School Redesign posts, we will dive deeper into each theme, exploring stakeholders’ perspectives on what is and is not working in middle school education as well as how research aligns with their observations. We are currently discussing these ideas with youth to add their essential perspectives to this work. Are you a middle grades student or know one who might be interested? Have them reach out to us: Youth-Nex@virginia.edu.

The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Ashlee Sjogren, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral research associate at Youth-Nex: Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, University of Virginia. Her research is broadly focused on equitable education both in- and out-of-school. Most recently, Dr. Sjogren has investigated student access and engagement in out-of-school contexts. As an educational psychologist, Dr. Sjogren often brings both a social context and motivation lens to understanding questions of equity, access, and motivation.


Author Bio: Detajha Woodson is the Program & Outreach Associate at Youth-Nex: the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. Detajha contributes a practitioner lens which stems from her professional experience working in education-focused nonprofits.


Author Bio: Faith Zabek, PhD, NCSP, is a postdoctoral research associate with the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health (VPSMH) and the Remaking Middle School (RMS) project at the University of Virginia. Her research investigates youth wellbeing through a bioecological lens, with a focus on school mental health and school climate. She is interested in exploring the ways in which contexts and interactions impact student and school outcomes as well as how research-practice partnerships can facilitate youth success.

Student’s Legacy Art with Historical Representation

Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) in Newport News, VA has a Youth Development Department whose primary goals are promoting student success, student wellness, and creating productive collaborations with stakeholders to implement quality programming that promotes overall wellbeing for all students.

The Youth Development Department operates on the premise that all young people will be successful when offered the right combination of opportunities, supports, and services. NNPS Youth Development is also dedicated to the wellbeing of young people, no matter what circumstances they may face.

Recently, NNPS Youth Development shared art from the walls at one of their High Schools. Shared here is that art in celebration of Youth Art Month

Hallway Artwork

Woodside High School, Center for Arts and Communications Magnet program for Newport News Public Schools, fills their halls with legacy art work pieces. Magnet and AP students have the option to leave a legacy piece that will be rotated in the hall galleries. Legacy pieces have historical representation of the students and talents that have come through the school’s magnet program. The hallway artwork is a unique feature to the building and overall culture of the school. Department Art Teachers include Rick Shelton, Bill Kaoudis, Cathy Hilton and Heidi Bogan.


If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Art Can Be a Force of Change

By: Maya Koehn-Wu

Maya also took over the Youth-Nex and Equity Center Instagram accounts to talk more about this blog and her experiences with the Sound Justice Lab.

Highlights

  • Maya is a second year undergraduate majoring in Urban and Environmental Planning with a minor in Dance. 
  • In celebration of Youth Art Month, Maya shares more about how she was encouraged to be creative and engaged with her community during her teen years.
  • Now she is bridging art and social justice issues as she continues using her creativity to change the world.

I consider myself an artist across multiple mediums. I draw, I paint, I dance, and more.

I began making art when I was young. In high school, I developed my own style, where my artwork depicted gestural figures in motion, dancing in a time-space continuum of energy. Creating and making such pieces became a way for me to create action in a space of stillness. It was a way in which to communicate the complexity and chaotic dimension of movement within a controversial space, within everyday life, within a dance piece.

Source: Maya Koehn-Wu

My dancing simultaneously – whether it was within the studio or at community events (where our dance company would put on productions that told Latin folktales in order to share and teach about Latin Culture), became an extension of my art; bringing a shared energy of pastels and color to moving about on a stage. Dancing Flamenco became a passion; where stomping to a rhythm also was a way to tell a story through movement and not words.

Source: Maya Koehn-Wu

Why Be Creative

Art for me has always been about creating a space for self expression where words often can’t, which is true for many young people. My high school teacher always said, “it is important to create something everyday.” I have since taken those words to heart.

Whether I am sewing, cooking, dancing, painting, drawing, or creating graphics for internships, I have always taken it upon myself to create daily.

I think adults should encourage youth to find creative outlets, to explore different avenues for expression, and foster the development of young artists to be creative.

In a world of standardized testing and schooling, there is often little room for subjective creativity and emotional intelligence. Creativity fosters skills that move people, skills that bridge people together, skills that foster empathy and emotion. It is this power to foster emotion and share common humanistic values that makes art so powerful.

Being an Active Community Member

Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to give back to my community. The Latin Ballet, the studio I danced at, was centered around bringing in the community. After each production we would bring the audience on stage with us to come learn some steps of Bachata, Salsa, or Flamenco.

This helped me connect with kids younger than me, but also share my talents to inspire the next generation of youth artists.

I became passionate about being an even more active member of my community. I worked as a kayaking instructor on the river, where I grew to understand the importance of conservation. I became an activist on fighting to mitigate issues surrounding Climate Change and became empowered by the power of Greta Thunberg’s voice shouting:

Youth CAN make a difference.

Within Richmond, VA I then began interning at a project directed towards studying urban heat islands, where I learned that impoverished neighborhoods and certain streets of Richmond were often 10+ degrees hotter than other parts of the city due to limited tree coverage. From that experience I learned that green space, poverty, equity, and resource access are all interconnected.

I became emboldened to be a voice and advocate for equitable change.

Bridging Art & Social Justice

It wasn’t until I learned that art and equity development can be connected that my perspective on the world transformed.

I have begun to work in a space where dance, music, and art drive my social justice projects. Today I work as an intern at the Sound Justice Lab, a social justice project affiliated with the UVA Equity Center and centered around amplifying voices of gender discrimination. I create graphics, flyers, website material, and visual content that incorporates my artistic passion to present expressive visuals that are measurable and meaningful.

I also work on a project called Project Drumline, where we teach kids rhythm with bucket drumming, music, and dance through City of Promise.

On my journey to become an active and artistic citizen, I have learned that art brings in a level of emotion and depth that sparks conversations amongst people, and conversations are the key to beginning to enact change. I have learned of the power of expression behind a piece of art. I have learned that being creative is a way for me to fight for change and to bring profound meaning to my causes.

Youth are looking for a place to express themselves, to find their own voices.

We want to be a force of change, and sometimes all it takes is putting some color on a piece of paper and other times it’s turning on music and moving your body.

Just remember, art can change the world.


Maya and her sister founded an organization, SistersProjectPeru, who’s ultimate hope is to build a sustainable medical clinic in rural Huacahuasi Peru in the hopes of increasing healthcare accessibility and empowering women on a global scale. Maya recently held an auction of her art to raise money for the organization. To learn more, please visit https://www.sistersprojectperu.org/.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Maya Koehn-Wu is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Her intersectional identity as a multiracial female inspires her exploration of different cultures and drive to constantly be making global connections and impacts.Through dance, art, and creative social justice work, she seeks to experience the world outside of where she lives. In addition to being a globally minded, assertive, and politically vocal citizen, she is working as an environmental activist seeking to work within the global community to tackle climate change.

The Power of Intergenerational Activism

By: Celina Adams

Highlights:

  • In spring 2021 I worked with the Teachers in the Movement project during my final semester as an undergraduate.
  • During this time, I reviewed and conducted oral history interviews that explored teachers’ ideas and pedagogy inside and outside the classroom during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
  • In this original blog post, I reviewed an interview with Mrs. Flora Crittenden and reflected on the power of intergenerational activism.

Mrs. Flora Crittenden is a remarkable woman who positively impacted her students and community throughout her lifetime. She worked as an educator, guidance counselor, and politician during the Civil Rights Movement. Her incredibly deep involvement in her community speaks to her determination to facilitate racial justice in every aspect of life. I reviewed an oral history interview from Mrs. Crittenden during my involvement with the Teachers in the Movement Project, and a major theme that arose in the discussion of her career is the importance of support systems. This yielded intergenerational progress that is evident in the lives of Mrs. Crittenden, her family members, and her students.

Role Models & Background 

While attending the only school that accepted Black students in her county in Newport News, Huntington High School, Mrs. Crittenden interacted with teachers who maintained high standards for her. This high school was established around 1920 with the intention of providing quality education to African American students, and in Mrs. Crittenden’s experience, it did exactly that. Mrs. Crittenden specifically recalls the impact her high school biology and chemistry teacher, Mr. Hines, had on her. While in his class, she was assigned projects that she found uninteresting. She was determined not to complete her assignments; however, Mr. Hines pushed her to conduct the necessary research. Mrs. Crittenden believes that educators like him were the reason she attended college and excelled academically. Mr. Hines was one of the many resources Huntington High School afforded Mrs. Crittenden, and his impact in her life extended beyond his classroom. Years after she graduated, Mr. Hinesbecame the principal of George Washington Carver High School which is located in Newport News. He alone was responsible for the school’s opening and operations due to the lack of resources provided by the School Board. As a result, he recruited Mrs. Crittenden to help develop the school’s curriculum and hire faculty. Mr. Hines garnered her support prior to the school’s unveiling in 1949. He went to her home, and he said “Mrs. Crittenden, get dressed—we got to go make a school.” This simple statement coupled with his guidance radically affected Mrs. Crittenden’s life. It gave her the opportunity to invest in a school in a way that most teachers are unable to do.

Educating during the Civil Rights Movement 

Even though the subject matter Mrs. Crittenden taught (girls’ physical education and occasionally biology) did not easily align with the ideas promoted by the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Crittenden made an effort to remind her students that they were valued, citizens. She wanted them to know that neither their age nor race made them inferior to anyone. Mrs. Crittenden worked predominantly with young women since “physical education classes were separated by gender but not the academic classes.” It was not until 1972 that all classes were required to be coeducational as a result of Title XI. Therefore, the majority of Mrs. Crittenden’s students had to navigate a society that praised whiteness and masculinity. This challenging situation made the affirming messages Mrs. Crittenden taught increasingly necessary. Additionally, she encouraged her students to be an active member of their communities despite social norms. This approach was rooted in her belief that:

Educational institutions have the ability to strengthen both families and nations by producing educated and thoughtful citizens.

Mrs. Crittenden was determined to ingrain these ideals in her students. Her teaching style suggests that activism can occur in any environment. It is not limited to certain subject matter, locations, or age groups. She suggests that “it just so happened that [she] was a teacher” who used her career as a platform to promote Civil Rights. Mrs. Crittenden’s work suggests that activism is rooted in an understanding of the humanity of people.

Life Beyond Teaching 

Mrs. Crittenden sought opportunities to enact change in the lives of young people and community members beyond teaching. This led to her decision to become a guidance counselor. This new position allowed her to counsel students in a more personalized manner; she could tailor her approach to individual students rather than classrooms with multiple people. Mrs. Crittenden was invested in the lives of her students. Furthermore, she was able to engage directly with students and parents creating an environment that fostered student success. Thursa Crittenden, Mrs. Crittenden’s daughter, recalled an experience in which a student received a scholarship to an excellent university, but he did not want to attend that institution. Mrs. Flora Crittenden knew the school would afford him numerous opportunities, so she traveled to the students’ homes to speak to his parents and compel him to accept the university’s offer. He ultimately decided to attend the university, and he attributes his success to Mrs. Crittenden’s persistence. This situation highlights Mrs. Crittenden’s deep desire to support her students.


Read more in the original blog post on how Mrs. Crittenden’s family shaped her view of education and ultimately led to her deep appreciation of teaching, her educational background, her life after retiring from teaching which include becoming a representative for the Virginia House of Delegates, and references.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Celina Adams recently received a Bachelors of Science in Education in May 2021 from the University of Virginia. She double majored in Youth in Social Innovations and American Studies. She currently works on the Counseling and Equity team at ReadyKids, a local nonprofit that provides educational, developmental, and counseling support to children and families. This position embodies Celina’s interests in racial justice, culture, and mental health. She hopes to continue her studies in order to learn how to highlight the stories of marginalized people and promote positive racial identity development. 

Vlog: Youth at the Intersection of the Movement for Racial Justice and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Daniel Fairley II

This vlog is the first in a series. View the second post entitled “Youth Mental Health & Reshaping Our Culture.”

Highlights:

  • I am the Youth Opportunity Coordinator focused on Black Male Achievement in the City of Charlottesville.
  • In my work, I identify and direct opportunity-youth toward targeted services, and liaison with agencies, schools, special interest groups and organizations serving at-risk youth, especially minority children and youth or any other children who fall within the achievement gap definition, while overseeing policy and program implementation.
  • In this video blog, I share more about my experience working with youth, and talk about what adults can do to better support youth who are focused on both the movement for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: Youth-Nex Youtube

There is a pandemic that has been going on for centuries and a pandemic that we just started about 2 years ago. It is easy for adults to just focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, and say we’ll figure out the other things later about racial injustice. But for many youth that is not their focus or lived experience. So what can adults do to support youth at this intersection of the movement for racial justice and the COVID-19 pandemic?

The best thing adults can do is ask questions and listen.

Say “teach me more about that,” or “I don’t know I understand.”

Put youth in the driver’s seat and make them teachers. Have them show you their experiences, and how they are navigating through it to make meaning of their experiences. Especially teenagers who are muted in their own responses, ask them questions about how they are processing and dealing. Create a space that is non-judgmental where a youth can be their genuine self.

If you are working with youth, there are 3 rules to follow:

  1. Show Up: When you are there with youth, be there completely. Limit distractions and be fully present.
  2. Keep Showing Up: Be there for youth and build a deep connection. Keep showing up time after time working with the same youth. Don’t be a one-and-done, but instead be there for the long haul!
  3. Be Authentic: Don’t make assumptions, and be true to yourself. Say “tell me what that is like” instead of pretending you know or understand their experiences. Say “what can I do to better understand your experience.”

Daniel is also a local steering committee member for the University of Virginia Equity Center with which Youth-Nex is affiliated.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Youth-Nex@virginia.edu. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Daniel Fairley II received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Richmond and his Master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from the University of Vermont (UVM). He was awarded the Kenneth P. Saurman Memorial Award and Richard F. Stevens Outstanding Graduate student in the State of Vermont for his dedication to social justice and stellar academics. Daniel’s professional experience includes interning with the Operations department of The White House under the Obama Administration. He also worked as an Assistant Residence Director in the Department of Residential Life at UVM, and as the Area Coordinator at the University of Virginia in the Department of Housing and Residence Life. Daniel volunteered with the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race, which led to his current position as a Youth Opportunity Coordinator focused on Black Male Achievement for the City of Charlottesville. He now serves as the President of the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and Board Member for Loaves & Fishes food pantry.