The celebration and nurturing of the individual is one of my favorite values here at Open Connections. It’s a value I feel is sometimes overshadowed by our emphasis on community and collaboration, but one that is no less upheld in the community. It is not a forgotten value, but a foundation of the community, and one that everyone understands is here.
This celebration of individuality is apparent in Group Tutorial III, where identity is discovered and nurtured on a weekly basis by the young people themselves. In this program, youths ages 11-12 find themselves in a time of life when they first start questioning their identities. How do I appear to my friends? Where do I see myself in ten years? Which world issues concern me most? Navigating and making one’s mind up about these things might take some years, or a lifetime, but solidifying these building blocks in an identity requires self expression, and that requires each youth to find his or her own voice.
Finding one’s voice can be a very cloudy process between the ages of 11 and 12. During both my time as a youth and now as an OC Facilitator, I’ve known a number of young people, myself included, who seem compelled to follow convention, to yield under pressures that urge them to be what others call “normal,” or to fit into a mold that perhaps they aren’t meant to fit in. These pressures can be quite damaging to a developing identity, and while it is impossible for us to be completely impenetrable to them here at OC, in Group Tutorial III we build an atmosphere that nourishes the diversities of identity by giving young people the opportunities they need in order to find their various voices.
One of the simplest but most important of these voices is participation. Young people are asked to participate in many ways, everything from contributing to discussion, to simply reading aloud from an article or book. By sharing their actual voices, young people start to find an internal voice within their identity. Reading aloud can give them more confidence to discuss the reading later on, and discussion can lead them to form fact-based arguments and opinions that further solidify who they are to others and to themselves. This fall we saw an example of this evolution in a new youth who came in not knowing anyone and clearly not yet comfortable enough to participate a lot in the beginning. Throughout the fall she was encouraged to share her likes and experiences, through which she’s developed certain levels of camaraderie in the group. Again, finding a participating voice might seem simple enough to some, but it’s a big step for others. It has opened this youth up to a sense of comfort and identity that should lead her to finding a voice in future projects, even in leading the group at times.
Backpacking on the participating voice, the leading voice is one of the key voices youth find here in Group Tutorial III. While each young person leads the group at least once a year in a Comprehensive Project, they are encouraged to find leadership opportunities every week. One Thursday, a young person asked to teach everyone a new group game. As a Facilitator, I had to let go, for I admit having some concerns that a young person might not explain the game clearly, or that her peers wouldn’t take to the game, perhaps leading her to feel hurt. As young people often do, this youth proved more than capable, explaining the game thoroughly and clearly, even demonstrating when she needed to, and on top of that the group loved it, brainstorming together what improvements could be made to it and how to play it better. Yet even if the activity had not been a hit, I see now in hindsight that the young person’s enthusiasm to lead was the most important thing. It’s just one example of a youth finding her leading voice.
A yearly activity that requires leadership from each youth, and one I mentioned above, is the Comprehensive Project, each on a topic of a young person’s choosing and presented by that young person. Each young person is asked to develop an arguable thesis for their topic. Throughout the fall, youth began to research and choose their topics, not only developing their research skills, but also learning how to form an argument through research. Seeing this in action revealed to me how honing these skills helps the young people find a certain academic voice, one that is conceived at first by natural curiosity as they examine possible topics to choose from, and is then formed by and used for arguing a theory. Watching this process from a Facilitator’s view has also helped me to reflect on my own Comprehensive Projects when I was a young person here at OC, and I can see how I continued to use the academic voice that I first molded at OC all the way through college. In fact I am using it now as I write this article, finding that voice in what I’ve observed in Group Tutorial and using it to communicate my point to whoever is reading.
One prime example from this fall of a youth finding his academic voice was a youth researching honey bees for his Comprehensive Project. While I’ve only known him for a year and a half, and while he has never struggled to develop theories and make cases for them in my time as his Facilitator, I had the pleasure of watching his topic metamorphose from a mere idea to a thesis, and then, most exciting of all, switch directions altogether. Originally he had the thought that western honey bees might be hurting our environment, arguing that they are technically an invasive species, since they originally come from Europe. In his research, however, he learned all the ways in which honey bees benefit our environment and agriculture, and he began to instead form a thesis for how the bees could be helped. Whether this youth has decided on this topic for the spring or not, I don’t know, but the fact that he was willing to change his mind due to research showed how he is developing his academic voice through hypothesis and conclusion.
Another element of the Comprehensive Project is the written paper, in which the youth state their theses and present the appropriate research to uphold their arguments. This is the academic half of the written voice we develop in Group Tutorial, the other half being creative. In my time away from OC I realized that not everyone has developed their written voice. I certainly hadn’t fully developed mine by the time I went to college, and I can’t say whether anyone ever completes this development, as there are always further developments to be made. I do know that it was the writing I did for my Comprehensive Projects that first started the development of my written voice.
This fall, I’ve witnessed continuing development on the creative side of the written voice, as we devoted a large portion of our Tuesdays to creative writing. It’s been a privilege to be working with many of the same young people over a span of two years, for this year I get to see the developments that have taken place since last year. A number of the youth are more and more comfortable with their written voices as they become enthralled in their own characters and short stories. We’ve also seen youth develop their written voice as they’ve grown much more comfortable writing Word Presents1 and Balanced Responses2 this year. Many of the youth enjoy reading their work aloud, exercising both the written voice and the participating voice.
The example above is just one combination of voices. A person we call “well rounded” will use all of these voices and many others throughout his or her lifetime, but once we are adults, we tend to stick to our present voices and never change them. This is perhaps an expectation we put upon ourselves more than anyone else does, in an effort to finally feel sure in our identities. Identity is not a fixed thing, though, and the Group Tutorial setting allows young people to change their voices in a time of their lives when it is most vital that they be allowed to do so. The goal here, I believe, is to nurture the youth in ways that help them understand that their identities can always be changing/evolving, which seems natural if learning is to be a lifelong process. Youth might know who they are in this current stage of life, but they don’t know who they’ll be in the next or how their beliefs and opinions will change, and we adults certainly can’t know what kind of adults they’ll be; that is, of course, for them to decide. All we can do as Facilitators is provide an atmosphere that encourages open mindedness and understanding as we help these young people find their many voices.
1 OC Facilitators and young people write Word Presents to each other to express appreciation for each other.
2 Balanced Response is a tool for honoring ideas and building on them rather than squashing them. Balanced Response is fully explained in the OC Glossary of Terms which can be found in the OC Parent Resource Library.