At a professional development workshop, a group of fellow youth workers and I brainstormed ways to help youth feel empowered and to have cultural pride. We all work with youth outside of traditional classroom settings and face similar time constraints.
One of the suggestions I offered to the group is to include mini-lessons about role models who reflect the identities of the youth. These mini-lessons are particularly effective in the after-school context because they’re simple—but can pack a punch.
A lot of U.S. history is about dead white men, but we all know that there are many more people who can be celebrated and that other parts of our history should be discussed. When youth can hold pride in people like them, they can build up greater resiliency to those who want to denigrate or dismiss them.
These mini-lessons have been successful with the youth I work with—mostly youth of color living in poverty, many of whom are the children of single and/or incarcerated parents. My co-workers and I make a point of celebrating people who reflect the identities of the youth and who have made tremendous contributions to their communities and our country at large. Here’s a short list of examples:
The mini-lessons are age-appropriate and range from coloring sheets and brief readings to small research projects culminating in short presentations. Whenever possible, we tie the lessons to things the youth are already experiencing or to a relevant topic in the news. For instance, this past spring, our youth in fifth grade and up had the chance to take dance classes with a professional dance troupe and do a public performance. We watched performances by Maria Tallchief on YouTube, and then the youth researched her history. Next year, we’ll talk about Misty Copeland and look at her dance performances.
This fall, one of the first lessons I plan to do with third- through fifth-grade youth is to play some of Nina Simone’s music and talk to them about her role in the civil rights movement. I’ll ask youth to reflect on the ways music can draw people together, and ask them to make connections between this idea and the annual jazz festival that takes place in their neighborhood each spring (which many of them participate in).
Youth look forward to these mini-lessons about people who reflect their identities, and more than once, I’ve seen them announce their new knowledge to their parents at the end of the day.
One challenge of our current education system is that, while we’ve collectively acknowledged the importance of social emotional learning, we have yet to really incorporate into lessons and interactions the things that will help youth be proud of who they are—including their interests, hobbies and heritage.
But mini-lessons are one place where this incorporation can take place. Done right, they can make a big difference in a small amount of time.
Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
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