Media & Black Adolescents Series: A Look at the Tragic Mulatto in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn

By Bryce Wyles

This blog post is the second in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 

Highlights:

  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research. 
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this second of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “Crooklyn” a movie following the Carmichael family in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, and examines the tragic mulatto and reinforced internal racism.
Song straightens Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:13:11)

For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • Why might “socially ascribed blackness” be more influential in socializing Black children than their own perception of race? Does that perception even take root before socialization begins?
  • Viola does not visit Brooklyn, though she wants to. How might her perception of “Crooklyn” differ or align with Troy’s view of Song’s home?

Crooklyn

Chasing her children out of bed at 4 AM, scolding them for failing to clean the kitchen as she had asked, Carolyn Carmichael exclaims, “This ain’t no plantation. I’m not a slave…and I certainly am not a play thing!” (Lee, 1994, 12:50). The Carmichael family—Carolyn, Woody, and their five children—is the heart of Spike Lee’s 1994 movie Crooklyn. Occurring in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, Crooklyn sees the Carmichaels, alongside their friends and relatives, navigating the quarrelsome, blurred difficulties of the personal and the political:

  • The personal: raising five children on a low income; feuding with neighbors, drug addicts, school bullies; interacting with aunts and uncles that either nurture or lay judgement. 
  • The political: piecing through the social connotations of welfare and food stamps; opposing and affirming the politics of gender and sex roles; witnessing casual racism in Brooklyn and suggesting institutional racism at large. 

In what may seem a lighthearted digression in Lee’s career, the iconic director uses the Carmichaels to dissect life in America—the ups, downs, lefts, and rights—for a struggling Black family.

Lee’s film walks both a comedic and serious line. Themes of racism and poverty are striking, yet you can’t help but burst out laughing when Aunt Song’s poor dead dog flies out of a foldout futon. That scene truthfully captures the entirety of the film: it’s dark, undoubtedly, at times, but somehow it keeps Lee’s satirical charm. Crooklyn’s characters—most of them, at least—are loveable, funny, and relatable. Recalling Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, it’s clear that his filmmaking is distinct, and iconic, in its blend of humor and commentary.

The Tragic Mulatto

One of Lee’s most telling portrayals in the film is that of Aunt Song, whom Troy, the Carmichaels’ daughter, goes to stay with at one point in the film. Song immediately juxtaposes the Carmichael family—her affluent lifestyle contrasts the Carmichaels’ small apartment and low income. Her first remark to Troy, though, suggests a juxtaposition beyond just affluence; seeing Troy’s hair, Song belittlingly asks, “All those little tiny braids and things, what y’all call that?” “Braids,” Carolyn responds, with a painted smile, aware of Song’s distaste for Troy’s hair (Lee, 1994, 1:07:44). 

Other scenes at Song’s household include an array of White dolls adorning Song’s adopted daughter’s dresser. We see Song take out Troy’s braided hair in favor of straightened locks, in one scene commenting, “Don’t tell me you got the nerve to be tender-headed with these naps” (Lee, 1994, 1:12:59). Whether knowingly or not, Song has delineated Whiteness as an ideal, through the dolls she buys her daughter Viola and her insistence that straightened, flowing hair garner praise over braids and beads. Song could be said to have already answered the question as to whether “she should accept her socially ascribed blackness or reject it in favor of a more privileged whiteness” (Jackson, 2006, p. 33). This dilemma is one Jackson (2006) ascribes to the Black character archetype of the tragic mulatto. Jackson (2006) identifies the tragic mulatto as a Black woman who enters an identity crisis as she grapples with her morals in association with her race, often light-skinned enough to pass as White (p. 33-4).

Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.


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: Bryce Wyles is a second-year student at the University of Virginia majoring in English and Media Studies. He enjoys viewing and analyzing media ranging from Netflix shows to classic literature to press publications. Originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, he currently lives in Charlottesville, where he also writes for the student-run newspaper The Cavalier Daily.

Whose Ideal (and Who’s Ideal)?

By: Chris Chang-Bacon

I did my dissertation on “monolingual ideologies” in education. The idea of “monolingualism” made sense to me at the time (and still does in many cases). I was writing about states that had “English-only education” policies, despite evidence of the many benefits of bilingual education. To me, this was best explained by a deep-seated English-only bias of “monolingualism” (and the racism/nationalism that so often goes along with it).

Source: Chris Chang-Bacon’s personal blog.
A post summarizing my latest article in Teachers College Record.

The more I’ve written about the idea, however, the notion that all of the linguistic discrimination going on in schools was driven by “monolingualism” started to feel incomplete. Don’t get me wrong, there are far too many contexts where overt language oppression still takes place. But in other contexts, it began to feel too simple to explain all of it as a bias toward (English) monolingualism.

The history of U.S. education is often written as a long march toward monolingualism. This is appropriate in most cases: Schools have far too often been places where students were (and are) forbidden to speak languages other than English and overtly taught that learning English was the only avenue toward professional success or proving their knowledge.

However, it turns out that U.S. education has always encouraged multilingualism for some while forbidding it for others. Take renowned polyglots like Ben Franklin who were lauded for their cosmopolitan multilingualism: These figures gained fame at the same time that U.S. policies were attempting to forbid indigenous populations and enslaved people from speaking languages other than English.

So I realized I had to start thinking and writing about this in more complex ways. I’m trying to think less along the lines of “monolingual” and more along the lines of which language practices become “idealized” (and for whom). I bring out these ideas in my recent article for Teachers College Record. I write that,

“In addition to monolingualism as a language ideology, I argue that there is much to gain from a related, but broader framework of idealized language ideologies. Monolingual language ideologies uphold one specific language practice as the norm (e.g., so-called standard English). On the other hand, a framework of idealized language ideologies highlights the malleability of these supposed norms—involving (1) a set of idealized language practices (2) mapped onto an idealized speaker (3) in relation to certain institutional interests or power dynamics (see Figure 1). This framework helps to explain the entrenchment of problematic language hierarchies, whether through restrictive monolingual language policies or within educational programs ostensibly geared toward bilingualism.”

This has been helping me to articulate more clearly the underlying racism and anti-immigrant bias that informs whose langue practices are idealized–whether it be in monolingual or bilingual educational spaces. My thoughts on this are still being shaped by by engaging with related work from linguists, educators, and linguistic anthropologists (see article for massive list of name-drops, but here are two on my bookshelf at the moment). I’m looking forward to writing with this idea of “idealized language ideologies” more to see if it can help me better sort through the entanglements of language, racism, and nationalism in language education. Hopefully the idea that language practices can be “idealized” in different ways, for different individuals, and in different contexts can also help to better expose the host of other problematic ideologies that are ever-present in educational contexts and in society more widely.

For those interested in the full article, you can find it here (or a here for those without access to the journal).

Chang-Bacon, C. K. (2021). Idealized language ideologies: The “new bilingualism” meets the “old” educational inequities. Teachers College Record. 123(1). https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=23558

Read the original post on Dr. Chang-Bacon’s personal blog.


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: Assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. Former High School English teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts, ESL Faculty Manager in South Korea, and Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. Chang-Bacon’s scholarship is informed by the dynamic multilingual, multidialectal, and multimodal language practices young people bring to classrooms. Follow on Twitter @ChrisChangBacon

Media & Black Adolescents Series: An Unjust Law is No Law At All

By Jamie Kang

This blog post is the first in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 

Highlights:

  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research. 
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this first of five posts in the series, the youth writer reviews “The Great Debaters,” a true story centering around the debate team from Wiley, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Texas.
Source: Youtube, User Danille Desiree Mae
Video Reference: Video depicts the final debate of the film on the topic of civil disobedience which is referenced throughout the blog.

For parents or educators who may choose to use this movie as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • This film has a mainly Black cast, do you think that contributes to the less stereotyped depictions of the characters? 
  • Why do you think the filmmakers chose to make this film (set in 1930) in 2007? What aspects of the film are still relevant today?

The Great Debaters

For this blog, I watched the 2007 film “The Great Debaters”. The movie, based on a true story, centers around the debate team from Wiley, a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Texas. Led by their debate coach Melvin Tolson, the team begins to gain traction after they beat other Black colleges in the area and  go on to have an undefeated season. Their goal is to debate teams from white colleges, and they eventually advance enough to beat the reigning champions at Harvard, winning the national debate championships. In the movie, the team contains four students, but one member drops out part way through the season due to Mr. Tolson’s involvement and leadership in the rebellion of sharecroppers, which led to him being targeted by the police.

In this blog, I will mainly focus on two characters: the team alternate James Farmer and his father who is a professor at Wiley. At just 14, James is the youngest member of the team; mainly a researcher, not succeeding in actual debates until the end of the film. His father, Mr. Farmer becomes central to the story when he bails Mr. Tolson out of jail during his unjust arrest. Through their relationship, the film examines the racial socialization process. It also touches on important issues facing America during the 1930s, such as the deep racism in the Jim Crow South, lynchings, unionization of sharecroppers and workers. The movie centers around themes of civil disobedience, often spouting the famous quote “an unjust law is no law at all” which is still relevant today.

Civil Disobedience

I loved the film, especially as the questions surrounding the morality of civil disobedience as a weapon in the fight for justice feel very salient in today’s times. In the film, Mr. Tulson was risking his safety, career, and even his life to help the sharecroppers organize and fight for their rights. He received criticism that he was too radical and still involved himself in a fight that wasn’t his own. When faced with these judgements he responded “A hungry negro steals a chicken, he goes to jail. A rich businessman steals bonds and goes to congress. I think that’s wrong, now if that makes me a radical, a socialist, a communist then so be it” (Washington, 2007). In today’s world, we are still fighting some of the same injustices that existed in the 1930s. Jim Crow laws may have been abolished, but they never fully went away.

Racism and injustice are embedded in our housing and education systems, our policing, prisons, and more. Moreover, when people take a stand against these or other injustices they are sometimes labeled as radicals, socialist, and/or communists much like Mr. Tulson was in the film.

The film’s final debate on civil disobedience feels incredibly relevant in the wake of the nationwide protests in 2020 as part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. During the debate, one of the Harvard students tells a story about his dad, a police officer whose partner was killed in the line of duty. He comments “nothing that erodes the law can be moral, no matter what name we give it”. In his response, James explains “there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South. An unjust law is no law at all. Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience” (Washington, 2007). There is so much power and truth in his final arguments, especially in the context of today. I would echo his sentiment that it is our duty to take a stand against these injustices.

Civil disobedience and even violent protests are not any less moral than the way in which our system is currently structured.

According to Psychology professor A. Wade Boykin and writer F.D Toms, many Black people in America face a “Triple Quandary.” They explain that, “the Black experience in America is distinguished by the fact that qualities attributed to Blackness are in opposition to the qualities that are rewarded in society,” (Boykin & Toms, 1985). This is some of what James referenced in his argument. These examples help demonstrate how prevalent the themes of the film are in our contemporary society.

Read more from this critique by downloading this PDF.


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: Jamie Kang is a third year student at the University of Virginia from Arlington Virginia. She is studying Psychology and Youth and Social Innovation, but has varying interests including media and politics, and she enjoys working with children.

Mentoring Innovations: The Power of Groups

By Nancy Deutsch & Gabe Kuperminc

Highlights:

  • Group mentoring programs can be effective in fostering at least short- term improvements in a broad range of youth outcomes.
  • The multiple types of relationships between and amongst peers and mentors in group mentoring programs contributes to youth’s experiences in, and outcomes from, group mentoring.
  • Limiting the size of the mentoring group (i.e., the ratio of mentors to mentees) and incorporating practices that foster peer support among the mentors can support program quality.
Source: National Mentoring Resource Center

January is National Mentoring Month. When you think about mentoring, you probably picture an adult who has volunteered to take an active and supportive role in a young person’s life. If you’ve heard of programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, you’re probably familiar with the one-on-one approach to mentoring. But whereas one-on-one mentoring programs are widespread, did you know that group mentoring programs actually now serve more youth than one-on-one programs?[i] Group programs come in various shapes and sizes but are differentiated from one-on-one programs in that one or more adults work with multiple youth.

This may sound like a lot of settings you see every day, like after-school clubs, sports teams, or arts programs. Indeed, the basic ingredients for group mentoring exist in many places where multiple youth and one or more adults interact together over time.

But what makes group mentoring different from other programs that involve adults and youth is that it must include intentional mentoring activity and group processes, including meaningful, two-way interactions between one or more mentors and at least two mentees.

Formal programs that match mentors with groups of youth are very popular, with estimates that 35% of youth mentoring programs use a group format and an additional 12% use a combination of one-on-one and group mentoring.[ii] In other group settings, like after-school programs, sports teams, and classrooms, specific efforts may be needed to systematically foster mentoring relationships between the adults and youth.[iii]

In a recent review of group mentoring for the National Mentoring Resource Center, we found three main types of programs:

  1. The first type includes programs in which all activities occur in a group or team-like setting. An example of the first type is a program in San Francisco, CA called Project Arrive, where groups of six to eight students who are vulnerable to dropping out of school meet with mentors each week throughout their 9th grade year to build a sense of belonging in school and a supportive peer network.
  2. The second type of group program blends the popular one-on-one approach to mentoring with group activities. An example of this second type is the Young Women Leaders Program based here at UVA.
  3. The third type of program occurs in existing youth programs, like sports or arts organizations; these programs incorporate intentional elements of mentoring into existing youth programs, and usually include specific training of the adult leaders in topics related to youth development and mentoring and time during the program for explicit mentoring activities.

As group mentoring grows in popularity it is important for researchers and practitioners alike to be attuned to both the potentials of this program format for supporting young people, and also the recommendations that have been identified by the field so far for best practices (see, for example, the recently published supplement to the Elements of Effective Practice for Group Mentoring). In terms of the potential of such programs to have a positive impact on young people, our review uncovered evidence that group mentoring programs can be effective in fostering at least short- term improvements in a broad range of youth outcomes, including those in the behavioral, academic, emotional, and attitudinal/motivational domains. Evidence of longer-term effects is still limited. It should also be noted that there is limited evidence on incorporated programs, as most research has focused on conventional or blended group mentoring programs.

In terms of who benefits the most from group mentoring, our review found some isolated evidence suggesting that group mentoring is particularly effective for youth exposed to higher risk, but group mentoring appears to be potentially effective for youth from a variety of backgrounds.

Program effectiveness may be influenced by the socioemotional and relationship skills and histories that mentors bring to the program, and group facilitation skills is an important additional skill for mentors in group programs. Two features of programs that appear to be important for program quality include limiting the size of the mentoring group, or the ratio of mentors to mentees, and incorporating practices that foster peer support among the mentors.

Group mentoring shares many features of more traditional mentoring programs, but what makes group programs unique is the presence of peers and, often, multiple mentors. This allows for multiple types of relationships between and among mentors and peers that can contribute to youth’s experiences in, and outcomes from, group mentoring. In addition, attributes of the group, such as cohesion and belonging, mutual help, and a sense of group identity, may also contribute to youth outcomes. Researchers and practitioners are often concerned with the potential for negative outcomes, or “negative contagion effects,” particularly when youth exposed to significant risk are grouped together. Our review found that the potential for negative contagion in group mentoring programs does exist, but the presence of strong group facilitators and training for mentors in group programs, as well as intentional planning of assignment of mentees to groups, helps guard against negative consequences. Overall, group mentoring appears to be a promising approach to extend the reach of mentoring to a larger number of youth (and maybe even at a lower cost) than one-on-one mentoring, and to open up new avenues for promoting important skills and social connections that young people need.


Citations

[i] Garringer, M., McQuillin, S., & McDaniel, H. (2017). Examining Youth Mentoring Services Across America: Findings from the 2016 National Mentoring Program Survey. MENTOR The National Mentoring Partnership.

[ii] Garringer, M., McQuillin, S., & McDaniel, H. (2017). Examining Youth Mentoring Services Across America: Findings from the 2016 National Mentoring Program Survey. MENTOR The National Mentoring Partnership.

[iii] Banister, E. M., & Begoray, D. L. (2006). A community of practice approach for Aboriginal girls’ sexual health education. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry / Journal de l’Académie Canadienne de Psychiatrie de l’enfant et de l’adolescent, 15, 168–173.


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: Nancy Deutsch is the director of Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the School of Education & Human Development. She is a Professor of Research, Statistics & Evaluation and Applied Developmental Science and is also affiliated with the Youth & Social Innovation (YSI) Program. Deutsch’s research examines the socio-ecological contexts of adolescent development, particularly issues related to identity. She has focused on the role of after-school programs and relationships with important adults, and is especially interested in the process of adolescent learning and development as it unfolds within local environments for better understanding about how to create settings that better support youth, especially those at risk due to economic or sociocultural factors.

Author Bio: Gabe Kuperminc is Professor of Psychology and Public Health and Chair of the Community Psychology Doctoral Program at Georgia State University. His research focuses on 1) understanding processes of resilience and positive youth development in adolescence and 2) evaluating the effectiveness of community-based prevention and health promotion programs. He is studying the effectiveness of innovative approaches to youth mentoring, including group mentoring and combining mentoring with other youth development approaches (projects funded by the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention). He also works with youth-serving non-profit organizations at local, state, and national levels, studying the effectiveness of prevention and youth development programs. A common thread in his work is an interest in understanding how cultural factors play a role in developmental processes and health behavior.

As Educators, What Can We Learn from the Attack on the Capitol?

By Andrew D. Kaufman

A week after protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the pictures are still hard to fathom. While peaceful demonstrations are rightfully a part of life in Washington, this incident is unlike anything we’ve seen in two centuries.

The Senate chamber was breached by people wearing combat gear and carrying zip ties. A Confederate battle flag was paraded through the Capitol rotunda. Police officers were assaulted, the Speaker of the House’s office was taken over, and at least five people died. 

Source: Andrew Kaufman Blog

There’s a lot to digest when it comes to the events at the Capitol on January 6, and it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of the unprecedented tragedy. But as educators, we can also take a step back and help come to terms with the more significant forces at play here, helping our students understand the consequences of our actions. 

Without getting into the political weeds, I think it’s possible to highlight several timeless lessons for educators from the events of the last week:

The Truth Matters

Politicians don’t have the best reputation for truthfulness, but President Trump had destroyed the norms of the office even before losing the election.

According to the Washington Post, Trump had reached more than 20,000 false or misleading claims by August 2020.

After his loss, he began a campaign of blatant disinformation to promote the idea that the election was “stolen” from him, without any reputable information to back it up

Where we get our information is an important question (and worth exploring in another blog post). Still, we have to teach our students to rely on evidence to evaluate the truthfulness of a statement of fact.

  • Where does that information come from?
  • Where did that person get the original data?
  • Are there other sources to confirm this information?

Every one of Trump’s allegations was convincingly refuted by anyone willing to dig into the issue. Yet he was able to convince a sizable portion of the country to question the integrity of the election. It’s our job as educators to help create better citizens who can see when they are being manipulated.

Respect for Others is Paramount

A bedrock principle of the classroom is respect for everyone. Yet outside of the classroom, students see more and more examples in which people are scorned for who they are, where they come from, or what they believe. Trump may be the worst offender, but this is unfortunately a longtime trend in public life. 

As educators, it’s never been more critical to teach our students that you can disagree with other people without demonizing them. One of the most valuable ways we can do this is by modeling it. We also should offer students examples of how this principle works in the real world.

Take this instance from President George H.W. Bush, who wrote an unforgettable letter to President Bill Clinton after losing the 1992 election. Bush, like Trump, became a one-term president, yet he reacted with grace and respect to the person taking charge after him. As he ended his letter, “Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

Stand Up for What is Right

There are lots of villains in this Capitol saga, but you can also find examples of people doing the right thing in the face of pressure. Look at the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger—a fellow Republican—who was pressured by Trump to “find” him more votes. But Raffensberger, in a phone call leaked to the media, pushed back against the president time after time, even when Trump threatened his political future.

Other state-level officeholders did the same, responding to the president with facts and legal arguments when he argued for loyalty. Even Vice President Pence broke from Trump to execute his duties as president of the Senate to confirm President-elect Biden’s election.

For that, he was threatened with violence. 

Doing your job isn’t always easy, but it’s essential for our democracy to function. Educators can emphasize the urgency of following the rule of law and why breaking norms can lead to disastrous consequences. We should also teach students that getting to the right answer may help you pass a test, but doing the right thing will help you live a life of integrity and purpose. 

Our Institutions Saved the Day

Finally, we must remember that what saved this Capitol fiasco from being even worse is that our institutions functioned as our founders had hoped in a period of crisis. The checks and balances built into the Constitution were designed to keep any branch of government from breaking our democratic norms. In the contested states and at the Supreme Court, the judges followed the law.

State legislatures appointed their selected delegates, whether they agreed with the results or not. Even in the House and Senate, members of Trump’s party denied his wishes to overturn the election, and some are now even supporting his impeachment. 

It’s easy to find faults in our system. But it’s also crucial to see the beauty in its design that enables democracy to function, even when its leader has no qualms about ignoring the will of the people.

Educators are an essential part of helping students to understand the role of each branch of the government and how they fit into the big picture. By teaching this lesson, we help students appreciate the resiliency of our nation and regain their faith in the future. 

In these trying times, we can all think about how to best teach these lessons to our students. It’s important for them—and for our country—that we do so.

Read the original post on Dr. Kaufman’s personal blog.


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: A nationally recognized expert on teaching innovation and service-learning, Dr. Andrew Kaufman is currently an Associate Professor and Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. He supports faculty and teachers across the country in creating profound learning experiences that change the way students think, act, and feel, while making important contributions to their communities.

How Will We Address the Social-Emotional Learning Loss from COVID-19? Lessons from Camp Common Ground

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the second in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. If you want to learn more about the other researchers and practitioners who inspired this post, read the first post here.

Highlights:

  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • With COVID-19 and distance learning, students are experiencing more social-emotional learning loss than ever before. 
  • In the second and final post of this series, I further explore the “Four Factors for Youth Moral Development”: (1) safe-environment, (2) well-trained facilitators, (3) experiential pedagogy/youth power, and (4) accessible to most students. I use this framework to evaluate different interventions for doing social-emotional learning work in our current education environment.
Source: Color War Simulation from Zach Bell & Camp Common Ground

“I don’t know if my school is really a safe place to do this work,” I admitted to the 2019 Youth-Nex conference chamber, referring to the Color War simulation we run at Camp Common Ground.

In this simulation, campers experience inequality in an embodied way through a day-long competition where students hold positional privilege or disadvantage based on their assigned color team. Youth must navigate their emotional reactions towards their peers, and towards the authority figures (me and the other staff members) who are enforcing this inequitable system – and make hard choices whether to “rebel” and face consequences. For the full talk about Color War, watch the video here.

What I didn’t realize at the time of the conference was that school might be the only place in 2020 to do “this work” of developing our youth’s social-emotional skills, moral development, and dialogical abilities because in-person programming for Camp Common Ground (and so many other related programs) were cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

Camp Common Ground, is a two-week overnight summer camp for a diverse cohort of Bay Area middle schoolers, was co-founded by myself and current Executive Director Ron Towns, both Oakland educators. The camp includes carefully scaffolded skill-building workshops that lead up to integrative simulations, like Color War. Our program has led to statistically significant boosts in empathy, perspective-taking, self-esteem, and cross-cultural friendships. To learn more about the organization and our impact, click here.

As a middle school math teacher at an experimental bilingual public school in Oakland Unified School District during distance learning, I found that even the “normal” social-emotional learning this year was largely disrupted. I tried to engage students with “virtual restorative justice circles” and daily check-ins, but it simply was not the same. I found that the students who were most active over Zoom and Google Classroom were more likely to be affluent and with a quiet space in their home, and not necessarily the students who were in the greatest need of social-emotional support (though, all students need social and emotional support and development).

So how can we address this social-emotional learning loss from “distance learning” and cancelled summer and after school programs?

Can we use the disruption of COVID-19 as an opportunity to think more broadly about how to reorient our “education system” (or perhaps “holistic child development system”) to prioritize non-academic skills?

If so, where, when, and how do we implement this “re-prioritization”?

What I learned from the 2019 Youth-Nex conference is that for moral development, dialogue, and social justice education to be effective we need the following in place. I’ll refer to these as the Four Factors going forward.

  1. Safe environment with bonds of community, belonging, and trust, so that youth can be vulnerable.
  2. Well-trained adult facilitators who can responsively adapt their work to the developmental and identity intersections of their youth. 
  3. Experiential pedagogy and power structures that share authority with youth so that there is authentic co-construction of rule-based systems with meaningful stakes (e.g. hiring staff) and space for critical reflection and praxis.
  4. Accessibility to most students. In hopes of being realistic given the often under-resourced state of public schools and structural inequity that exist in our systems, I want to add one “realism-check” category so that we’re not just finding solutions for affluent youth.

Below are avenues I see to explore options for doing social-emotional learning work, and admittedly cursory evaluations of each option’s potential:

To read more about the pros and cons of each of these venues please see this downloadable PDF.

At the end of the day, a diversity of tactics is likely the approach we’ll need to take to address this overwhelming need – now more than ever – to teach our youth to be moral actors with a strong foundation of social-emotional and dialogical skills.

The gaps can be daunting; when I recently searched for “gender education nonprofits” there was not a single hit on the first page of Google that mentioned boys or men, so we have a long way to go on providing truly holistic identity development for all of our kids.

But as many of us take a step back during the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate our current systems, it may be time to think imaginatively and critically of concrete ways that we can support all students in becoming moral actors, in whatever context they are in.

Let’s look at our educational practices with that lens. Rather than just asking “can they score a point?”, let’s ask, “are they grappling with what’s a fair rule?” and “are they deciding how to score the points, and if they even want to?” May we approach these challenging tasks with playfulness and a love of learning (see the Calvin & Hobbes comic in the downloadable PDF).


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: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.

1-Year Later, Reflecting on Dialoging for Democracy and Teaching in a Pandemic

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the first in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. Read more about how to address the social-emotional learning loss from COVID-19 in the second blog post here.

Highlights:

  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • In the first post of this series, I examine the content from the 2019 Youth-Nex Conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice” and consider what it means for the future of social-emotional learning in public schools.
  • Reflecting on the presentations and panels from youth performances, practitioners and researchers, I provide a foundation for Four Factors I will refer to later (safe-environment, well-trained facilitators, experiential pedagogy/youth power, and accessible to most students).
Zach Bell presents at the 2019 Youth-Nex Conference.

One year ago in November 2019, I attended and presented at the Youth-Nex 2019 conference on “Dialoging for Democracy: Youth Moral Reasoning and Social Justice.” Since then, the world for teachers and after-school programs has changed dramatically. In this short series, I reflect on what I learned at the conference on moral development, dialogue, and social justice education, and then apply this to my experience as a P.E. and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher.

What’s required of the setting for youth to develop as moral actors?

Social and emotional growth requires vulnerability, and the opening panelists at the conference discussed the need for creating an environment of safety and trust for youth to be open to vulnerability. Similarly, the power dynamics in the space need to actually trust youth with authority if we expect them to practice being moral actors, not just rule-followers.

Shawn Brown, at Teen Empowerment Rochester, said it “Takes real time, and effort, and trust…young people come to us because they’re needed, not because they’re needy.” At TE-Rochester, the ten young people in their program had a 50% vote on adult staff hiring decisions. Emma Yackso, Director of the Side-by-Side Youth Leadership Council, an LGBTQ “youth led, adult supported” center in Virginia gives the youth council a say in all decisions each week, from the design of the space to curricular choices, from the date for prom to the strategic priorities for the organization.

How can these models of “youth led, adult supported” learning be applied in a school setting? Is that even possible without totally reimagining school?

Further panelists discussed the need for not just safe environments, but well-trained educators who have done their own internal work and can provide developmentally appropriate curricula. For example, Larry Nucci, PhD, Professor of Education at UC Berkeley, discussed the “Moral Development Curve,” in which 8-year olds and 19-year olds are more likely to have similar responses than 11 to 16-year olds to a situation where they see someone drop a $20 bill.

Gutsavo Carlo, PhD, Professor of Human Development at University of Missouri, explained the necessity of layering in cultural identity when cultivating moral development. For example, he found that understanding the concept of familismo, the family unit, was important in predicting prosocial behavior in Latinx communities. Emma Yackso, from the youth-led Side-by-Side center mentioned above, noted that she needed to “prep the adults in the board meeting about what it’s like to have kids there.”

It’s hard enough to find qualified educators amidst a national teacher shortage. How can we find, or train, educators with these complex identity and moral-development skills?

My panel was tasked with speaking to the actual pedagogical practices to cultivate these skills. This included elevating youth voices, like the Mikva Challenge’s “Project Soapbox” that supports youth in engaging in civic participation on issues they’re passionate about. Similarly, it included resourcing youth artistic creation, like A King’s Story, a play by Joshua St. Hill, a high school student, about police violence. 

In my talk, I shared about simulation and game-based pedagogy for moral development, looking at the co-construction of rule-based systems like in John Hunter’s famous “World Peace Game”, and Jane Elliott’’s famous 1968 blue-eyes brown-eyes experiment to process Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination with her third graders.

That sounds “cool”, but seriously, how can any of these pedagogical practices find their way into 48-minute academic period-packed school days?

Well, the truth is I don’t know. But I want to explore that with educators and collaborators at a distance. Using these experiences, I created Four Factors to evaluate possible routes to democratizing these critical moral and social-emotional skills in the context of the U.S. education system. These Four Factors are:

  1. Safe-environment,
  2. Well-trained facilitators,
  3. Pedagogy/youth power, and
  4. Accessibility to most students.

To learn more about these factors and an evaluation of different routes for addressing the social-emotional learning loss from COVID-19, please read the second blog posted here


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: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.

For Youth, COVID-19 Changed Everything, but the National Response Movement Gave Me New Purpose

By Isabella, a 16-year old in Oregon.

Highlights:

  • My name is Isabella and I am a 16-year old junior who wants to share more about my COVID-19 experience.
  • During COVID-19, I joined the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement (NYRM) and after 8 months I have some advice for others.
  • In this youth-led group, myself and others like me encouraged youth to share their experiences from the pandemic, did social media takeovers, developed policy recommendations, and organized a national roundtable discussion.

As a junior at one of the largest public high schools in Portland, Oregon, I have always cared a lot about my education, and have attended school everyday. From the age of four I have been dedicated to dance and have taken classes 3-6 days a week after school. Through dance, school, and other activities over the years, I have developed multiple different friend groups I’m equally close to and whom I rely on.

The pandemic changed everything. In less than 24 hours, every constant that I once had in my life had been taken from me, and from everyone I knew.

Life in the Pandemic & an Opportunity

For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I no longer had school, dance, or access to my friends in the way I had always known. It felt like someone just flipped a switch and nothing would ever be the same again; I felt panicked and anxious. To fill my days and distract myself, I took up running, I started reading more, and taking more time for myself. 

A couple weeks into the stay at home order, my Mock Trial teacher sent me an email telling me that he was choosing me to be one of his three nominees for the Mikva Challenge National Youth Response Movement. I was honored when I saw that email and knew I wanted to be a part of this, I wanted my voice to be heard. To my surprise, two days later I was notified of acceptance from Mikva Challenge, changing the way the rest of my year and summer would go. 

The Youth Response & Community

The National Youth Response Movement (NYRM), is a national group of 19 high school and college students from 14 states. Near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we gathered virtually to share our experiences and concerns for youth during this pandemic. We created a series of projects and initiatives for the spring and summer:

  1. Our first project as NYRM was to encourage youth to share their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. In creating this project, we wanted young people to share the issues that were most important and pressing to them during this pandemic, and then also create a call to action on how something could be done about it. This way, youth could be part of the national conversation about the next steps. 
  2. Our second project was focused on destigmatizing mental health and making virtual mental health resources more accessible to youth, since this is one of the major issues that we recognized was impacting young people during this pandemic. In order to do this, we held a social media takeover week on Mikva Challenge’s Instagram and my colleague Jennifer and I co-hosted an Instagram live to facilitate a conversation about mental health and self-care for youth. 
  3. Later in the summer, our team shifted focus to making schools more equitable, just, and student-centered. To accomplish this, we sent letters (which other youth can still do using the template provided in the previous link) to elected officials across the country about the importance of Social Emotional Learning in schools. We also held discussions on racial injustice and forms of activism with experts and other youth organizations, and created policy recommendations which we shared with stakeholders (like school board members, principals and teachers, and decision makers across the country). 
  4. As a culmination of our work, we planned and held a National Youth Policy Roundtable with 3 current and former members of Congress, 6 influencers, and a grand total of 91 youth participants from across the country who got to hear from and engage with these national decision makers about the quest to make schools more just, equitable, and student-centered places. 

We accomplished a lot this summer as NYRM, and have made our voices heard by many! 

One of the most amazing things about being a part of NYRM was the sense of family and community we accomplished through using Zoom. The tremendous amount of support and encouragement that everyone gave, along with the amount of fun we had, created a bond between us all. What made this NYRM family even better is that we’ve had each other through this time of uncertainty. We’ve had each other’s support, shoulders to cry on, and we are each other’s support system. This is what made NYRM so special.

Now more than ever, this sense of community and family is important for youth, whether it’s at home, with family, school, friends, or anywhere else.

Even if there was not a global pandemic, a support system is extremely important to have in one’s life, one’s mental health, and wellbeing. The really special thing about our NYRM family is that we share common goals and similar values. Working with such driven people inspired me. They empowered me, built me up, and they continue to do this for me today. 

Living during this pandemic has changed my life, and not necessarily in a negative way. There are many challenges that I am still experiencing, especially as we go back into the school year. If it weren’t for this pandemic, NYRM wouldn’t exist so I would have never had the opportunity to be a part of it. I have another family now, I know other people who share the same values I do and who will have my back no matter what. This has sparked a passion for activism in me that I have never felt before. The experience with NYRM has inspired my colleague Shanthi and I to start a local steering committee within our school called the “Youth Advocacy Coalition.” We will work with our principal and school administrators to implement more avenues for youth voices within our school community and district. 

Advice for Others

One lesson and word of advice I would like to share with schools, administrators, teachers, and parents/guardians regarding the development of youth during this time, is to take the time to really listen. Listen to young people, listen to your students, listen to your children, because the best way you can make change or help them is to pause and hear what they are saying.

To listen isn’t only the act of listening, but also the responsibility for action, like asking questions or advocating on the behalf of youth. Listen to what youth have to say, and then find out the actions you can take to help make said change.

I believe people underestimate youth. We are paying attention to what is going on, we are keeping ourselves informed around what is going on in the world, and we care about how this pandemic is going to impact our lives in the future and possibly forever. Right now, finding solutions to racial injustice and the importance of the upcoming election are more important than ever. Right now, action from the people, local and federal state leaders, and community members is necessary. Young people are the leaders of today and of the future, and our voices matter.


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: Isabella is a junior in High School in Portland, OR. She has had a passion for youth advocacy since elementary school. During the spring and summer of 2020, she was 1 of 19 student steering committee members of Mikva Challenge’s National Youth Response Movement team. They began as a response to COVID-19 addressing issues important to young people and raising awareness of these to local and federal decision makers. She is passionate about photography as an outlet for creativity and storytelling, and she loves spending time with her two dogs!

Voting: Video Blog from a Charlottesville Freedom School Scholar

Highlights:

  • In the summer of 2020, the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES) launched the first Charlottesville Freedom School.
  • Third to fifth graders from the greater Charlottesville area participated in a virtual summer school that on focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.
  • In this video blog, one student scholar shared more about what she thinks adults should vote for, why it is important, and what young people can do.

CRPES launched Charlottesville’s first Freedom School in the summer of 2020! Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Freedom School was virtual and had 70 students from the Charlottesville area participating. This year’s Freedom School focused on topics of voting, oral histories, and civic engagement.

Safalani was one of the outstanding 4th grade students. She created a poem or essay about what she wanted adults to vote for on her behalf. It was so fantastic, the National Freedom School staff chose it to be presented during the Children’s Defense Fund’s National Day of Social Action Pep Rally. The Charlottesville Freedom School was honored to have her as a scholar and can’t wait to see the incredible future she has ahead of her!


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.

Centering Youth Voice: School Climate & Culture in the Middle Grades

By Dr. Dimelza Gonzales-Flores

This blog post is the third in a series of three from the Remaking Middle School initiative. See the first post from the Research to Practice Design Team and the second post from the Professional Learning & Development Design Team

Highlights:

  • The middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life, including their education.
  • The Remaking Middle School School Climate & Culture Design Team created a toolkit to help educators understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades.
  • The toolkit provides a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school, recognizing that giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter.
Explore the full toolkit here.

For too long we’ve brushed aside the importance of the middle school years. Policymakers talk about the critical need for access to quality early childhood education and the necessity to graduate with real-world skills. Agreed. But what about the middle school years? To put it plainly, what we’ve done isn’t enough. Our schools are not equitable. The student experience is not optimal. We need to reimagine the middle school experience for all students – and we should start with school climate and culture.

The School Climate and Culture Design Team was tasked with taking a closer look at school climate and culture in the middle grades. The team discussed a number of core challenges related to school climate and culture, and a common theme that emerged was the influence of youth voice in shaping school climate and culture.

What makes the period of early adolescence development unique is that youth are beginning to develop complex thinking skills and perspective taking . These skills are critical as they give young people the ability to initiate a deeper exploration of issues within their school. With these new burgeoning skills, adolescents can begin to ask questions about the world around them and how societies and institutions, like education, function. Thus, the middle school years represent an optimal developmental period for centering youth voice and inspiring youth to take action regarding issues impacting their life. Giving early adolescents a voice in school empowers them and makes them feel like they belong, they are valued, and their contributions matter. These competency feelings also help middle school youth fully engage and create space for a positive school climate and culture.

It is widely recognized that school climate and culture impacts the ways in which students successfully achieve learning outcomes. When youth are given the space for innovation and their voices are centered, the school climate can be shaped to promote equity and fairness, and the school culture can allow opportunity for youth to respond to their own learning needs. Engaging youth voice must be considered an essential element in creating a school climate and culture that promotes engagement and success for all youth.

Centering youth voice in school climate and culture requires middle school educators to think critically about when they need to step up (and step out) to best support adolescence during this critical developmental period. To truly center the voice of youth, we must create space for all youth to lead in shaping school climate and culture. This is particularly important for those youth whose voices often go unheard because they are minoritized based on race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, ability, or other identities. To successfully accomplish this goal, our middle schools must move beyond school clubs and siloed events emphasizing student voice, and weave specific practices into the daily fabric of school life.

As a Design Team, we believe there is tremendous opportunity to empower young adolescents in helping to shape and improve their school culture and climate such that students are engaged and growing – academically, socially, and emotionally – to their fullest potential. With this in mind, our team created a toolkit to help educators in schools to:

  • More deeply understand the importance of youth voice in the middle grades;
  • Understand how youth voice can be a central component in building and sustaining a positive school climate and culture in the middle grades; and 
  • Provide a beginning set of resources and references for educators to adopt practices that center youth voice in their school. 

The toolkit includes several components:

  • The rationale statement helps readers to understand what youth voice is, the importance of the youth voice for young adolescents (and how it aligns to the developmental needs and capabilities of this age), and how youth voice can have an impact on school climate and culture.
  • The inspirational stories and examples illustrate youth voice in schools and specifically how youth voice can positively impact school climate and culture. 
  • The getting started section is a set of beginning prompts and resources that educators can use to advocate for and support the implementation of youth voice practices in their schools to promote positive school climate and culture.

Explore the full toolkit here.

The toolkit was designed to be utilized and implemented in any given conditions. The diversity of resources in the last part of the toolkit exemplifies the range of conditions in which this toolkit can be used.

We recognize that we are sharing this tool during an unprecedented time in education as we navigate the complexities and challenges of COVID-19. While school may look different this year, whether virtual or in-person, one might argue that school climate matters now more than ever. We hope that this resource encourages educators to keep student voices and ideas at the core to ensure young people are getting what they need most during this time. 

We encourage you to share your feedback on the tool via the Remaking Middle School Design Teams Feedback Survey


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: Dimelza currently serves as the Director of Academics & Social-Emotional Learning at Higher Achievement, where she designs out-of-school programming to support in-school learning. She is a former middle school teacher, avid advocate for English language learners, and a proud cat-mom.