by Zak Cohen, Middle School Director at the St. Francis School
As school leadership teams across the country begin to plan for Fall 2020, there remain more questions than answers when it comes to reopening scenarios. Really, the only thing we know for sure is that schools will look very different than they ever have before.
Staples of the schooling experience -- scheduling, grading, testing -- are going to have to be completely reimagined. And while many of these staples may not be defendable on merit alone, there is something to be said for the security of the familiar. After so many months of being stuck at home, even something like a bathroom pass has a certain charm to it.
Unfortunately, the familiar is just not in the cards right now.
Layered onto this is our country-wide reckoning with the racial injustices of our past and present -- a reckoning that reminds us of the shortcomings of the familiar systems and structures of school in the first place.
When it comes to reopening schools, it won’t be the logistics of recess that will pose the greatest challenge to administrators, but rather reconciling the loss we have all experienced these past few months. The students walking our halls will be carrying with them an invisible trauma that could haunt them and manifest in myriad, and sometimes unpredictable, ways. As schools, we are not solely responsible for students’ healing, but we do play an important role, and we cannot pretend that things are as they have always been.
Many schools have already begun accounting for this in their initial scenario planning by extending advisory time, expanding wellness and counseling services, and placing an increased emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Of course, the efficacy of this shift is predicated on a like shift in students’ willingness to reflect, process, and share -- a potentially intimidating process. When it comes to discussions of Self and Society, there aren’t right answers -- a notable deviation from the schooling model most students are accustomed to. If we are asking students to open up then we must first create environments in which they are comfortable doing so.
So, how do we help students grow comfortable participating in a schooling model that prioritizes the search for knowledge rather than the accumulation of knowledge itself?
Reid Henkel, Project Designer at Beam Center, believes that it all comes down to vulnerability. More specifically, a teacher’s willingness to model vulnerability for students, and thereby create a shared space for that vulnerability to exist.
Note >> All names in the interview below have been changed for privacy.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I’ve been working in the youth development field for over 15 years. Among other things, I’ve been a baseball coach, an after-school educator, and an early childhood teacher. Regardless of the position I’ve held, I’ve always been most interested in taking a holistic view of youth development -- whether this has involved teaching socialization skills to my preschool students or working with a high school cohort for my graduate thesis to explore how design could help students cope with their stress.
Tell me about your work at Beam Center.
As a Project Designer at Beam Center, I work with schools, teachers, and young people to create projects that put youth at the center of the learning process. In non-pandemic times this usually means collaborating with teachers to design and implement hands-on projects that combine technical skill building, academic content, and student-led creation. I’ve had the opportunity to help young people learn to solder and build their own speaker boxes, design and print their own wood block carvings, and learn to cast and wire the circuit for individual silicone rubber buttons.
As we’ve moved online, we’ve had to experiment with ways to translate some of our core principles -- namely, hands-on learning and youth agency -- to an online experience.
Tell me more about your work with the Beam Center Remote Internship these past few months.
The Beam Center Remote Internship was one of our first attempts to bring these values to the remote learning context. We guided nine high school interns -- ages 17 to 20 -- through the first iteration of a program we were calling Learn Anything.
Rather than focusing on more traditional career readiness activities -- like mock interviews or resume writing -- my co-facilitator, Jhanna, and I wanted interns to reflect on their own interests, questions, and curiosities. Some of the topics that our interns chose to learn more about included hip hop music production and sampling, deep ocean exploration, photography, and social work. By exploring genuine interests they were learning as much about themselves as they were about their topic.
Ultimately, a couple of our main goals were to help the interns understand that:
Being confident in your own interests -- no matter how big, small, silly, or socially acceptable they may seem -- is incredibly valuable because that’s one of the things that makes you who you are; and
The process of being constantly curious and following your questions is just as important as the knowledge gained.
It sounds like the Learn Anything program might require a certain kind of learning environment to be successful. Could you speak to this?
The internship was designed around a core principle of self-reflection, so we knew from the outset that the tone and atmosphere would be extremely important, especially in the digital context. In my experience, it’s not too often that young people in traditional classroom settings are given the space to do deep self-reflection. So it’s not a surprise that young people aren’t always well practiced at the admittedly hard (and sometimes scary) process of digging below the surface and sharing pieces of themselves with a larger group.
With that in mind, we knew that we would have to be very intentional about creating a sense of community amongst the interns; one that valued authentic sharing, listening, and vulnerability.
How did you go about cultivating a space for vulnerability with your interns?
Throughout the eight weeks of the internship, we implemented several things to help cultivate a culture of vulnerability. Some of these were singular activities, others were more structural routines:
Power Hour: Power Hour is a weekly tradition at Beam Center. It’s a time that we come together and have the opportunity to share something we did or saw that made us feel powerful that week. We wanted to incorporate this tradition into the internship, so every Wednesday afternoon we had a Zoom call specially dedicated to Power Hour. While we sometimes had a targeted ask for these calls, the prompt was usually very open -- share something that you did or saw this week that made you feel powerful. Jhanna or I would always start, but each week every intern who was present on the call shared something with the group -- even though sharing was not mandatory. Power Hour was a time for us to check in with one another and feel connected to the group. It was a time that the interns knew they had the freedom to bring up anything that might be on their minds.
Interest Interviews: We had the interns take part in a series of interviews focused on interests and careers. First, they interviewed either me or Jhanna in small groups about how we got to where we are now. They asked us questions like “What parts of yourself do you draw upon for your work at Beam Center?”; “How did you end up working there?” In a similar exercise, we invited our coworker, Gloria, to one of our Zoom calls. As a group, the interns took turns asking Gloria questions about her past, her present, her interests, and her ultimate path to the Beam Center. While the primary goal of these interviews was to show the connection between interests, curiosity, and careers, they also served another purpose: Conducting these personal interviews helped build an authentic connection between us and the interns. For the final interview activity, we flipped the script. Instead of having interns interview other people, Jhanna or I interviewed each intern in a series of individual calls. We used these conversations to probe and try to uncover their interests or curiosities to help them decide what topic to dig deeper into for the remainder of the internship. We listened to them, asked questions, took notes, and then shared the notes for them to read. Much like when the interns interviewed us, these conversations allowed us to get to know our interns much more intimately.
How did the role of vulnerability evolve following the murder of George Floyd?
Our call with Gloria happened the Thursday following the murder of George Floyd. The interns had been interviewing Gloria for about 20 minutes when one of our interns, Jazmine, said “Hold up, do ya’ll see what’s going on right now in Minneapolis?”
We shifted the conversation in real time and started talking about the demonstrations that were happening. One of the first questions was Where even is Minnesota?
Many of the interns were not born in the United States, so we put the question to the group and took a few minutes to look it up together. Just seeing the map in front of us opened up more questions: Why are people rioting? What is this all about? It wasn’t long before we were discussing what the role of police should be in a community (If they are supposed to protect us, why do they keep killing people?).
We revisited the topic several times in the following weeks. We talked about the protests happening in New York City and what it means to protest responsibly during a global pandemic. We all asked questions and shared thoughts, but most of all, we processed everything together. A week or two after our initial conversation about Minneapolis, one of the other interns shared that he was thankful for this community because it was the only space that he really felt free to talk about everything that was going on.
What advice would you give educators who are looking to create that space for vulnerability in their own classrooms come the fall?
Creating a space for vulnerability often means rethinking the traditional relationship between student and educator. It might call for ceding some power in the classroom or introducing personal stories. Ultimately, it is a way to bring even more human-ness into any interaction with young people. I’ve found that the following things can help open up the space:
Modelling vulnerability -- Ultimately, vulnerability begins with you as an educator. In our first Power Hour, we asked interns to share a photo that was important to them with the group. I went first and shared a photo of me holding my younger sister who at age 30 has never been able to walk or talk. By sharing openly and honestly about what it was like growing up with a sister who has severe cognitive and physical differences, I allowed others to do the same.
Move from expert to lead learner -- A safe space doesn’t only come from sharing about personal lives, it can also come from leaning into the learner’s mindset. One of the interns, Vanessa, wanted to learn more about photography, so I pointed her to some resources. But no matter how much you read about the rule of threes or leading lines, the best way to learn photography is to do it. It’s a scary step, and is definitely easier with a friend. So I offered to start a photo pen pal-ship with Vanessa in which we would share a photo a day and reflect on the process. I’m not a great photographer by any means, but by being willing to learn with her, I helped Vanessa take that intimidating first step of just trying something out.
Get to know your students’ stories -- Everyone has a story to tell, and almost nothing is as affirming as having someone to listen to it. After the 1-on-1 conversations, one of the interns -- Jackson -- said "When i read the notes you took about me, it made me feel like I was a famous person or something." Showing young people that their voices and stories are valued goes a long way towards building trust and community.
Thanks for your time today, Reid. Looking forward to hearing more about the work you’re doing at Beam Center.
Zachary Cohen is an international educator who has lived and taught in Morocco, China, South Africa, and the United States. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Management at Drexel University.
Follow Zak on Twitter: @cohen_zak