Making Teens Equal Partners in Programing

Photo credit: Summer Excelerator/NYU Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life.

By Bess Adler

As any educator worth their salt knows, getting student “buy-in” is critical to the success of an educational program. This is especially true if those students are teens. One of the most important ways to get teen buy-in is to have them take part in program planning. Teens have phenomenal ideas, know what they want, and can speak to and engage their peers a lot better than adults can.

Sounds like a snap, right? Well, it is easier said than done. We know that teens are insanely busy. They are involved in their secular high schools, sports, clubs, stressed about grades and getting into the “right” college. Because of today’s teens’ numerous commitments, youth professionals and educators sometimes have the mindset that if teens show up to their programming, dayenu – it is already a blessing! How then do we get teens involved in program planning and taking on leadership roles?

I’m happy to be able to share an easy to implement and effective model that I observed this summer through my work overseeing The New York Teen Initiative, a program jointly funded by UJA-Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation and operated by The Jewish Education Project. The newest of our incubated summer programs, the Summer Excelerator, a program of the NYU Bronfman Center, engages teens in a 5-week program that combines teen internships with Jewish learning and leadership. What did they do this summer to make their teens equal partners in programming? They taught them design thinking in the context of planning their Shabbaton retreat and utilized it again to plan their closing ceremony. I was a fly on the wall for the planning of their closing ceremony, and I was impressed by both its efficiency and the quality of teen engagement. Best of all? It is an easy program to replicate.

Here is what they did:

  1. CHALLENGE: The Summer Excelerator program director, Beckie Hamroff, began the program with stating their challenge: “How might we share with each other, our family, supervisors, and Summer Excelerator funders, what this program meant to us?”
  2. EMPATHY: Beckie then instructed the participants, who had practiced this design thinking technique once before when they co-created their Shabbaton, to think of questions that would uncover their thoughts on the challenge. She recorded their questions (below) on the board, and then they engaged in two rounds of interviewing one another.
    1. What does Summer Excelerator mean to you?
    2. What are you most proud of?
    3. What do we want others to learn about the program?
    4. What is something you’re taking away?
    5. What do I wish I had known at the beginning of the summer?
    6. Did you feel yourself change?
    7. What skills have we learned/acquired?
  3. They then got back together as a group to REFRAME: What did your partner share about what they want to see? What are the things you heard during your interviews? What are the things you learned during your interviews?
  4. IDEATE: Teens were then instructed to take 10 minutes, use post-its and flip chart paper to generate creative solutions to the challenge in small groups, and then put their ideas into like-minded groups of ideas. Here were their guidelines:
    1. Use what you heard during interviews
    2. No idea is a bad idea! (Use “yes, and” language)
    3. Everyone contributes

The teens got back together to share the themes and ideas that emerged from their groups.

  1. ITERATE and TEST: In this final stage, the teens got into groups of four to make up a mock schedule.
  2. After finishing their mock schedules, they took a break for lunch and to let the ideas simmer, before coming back and having each group present their ideas for the program flow, leading to a vote on the final program.

The whole program, except for the voting after lunch, took only an hour. Each section was well laid out, easy to follow (even for an outside visitor) and very engaging. And at the closing ceremony a week later, all of the teens’ ideas were put into action.

It may not be easy to make space for teens being an equal partner in programming, but I think more youth professionals and educators would do it if they felt they had a proven tool to assist them and prioritized it. Try the above model and let me know how it goes.

Bess Adler is Director of New York Teen Initiatives for The Jewish Education Project. Learn more about The New York Teen Initiative’s incubated programs as well as almost 400 other summer teen opportunities at FindYourSummer.org