Open Connections

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Owning One's Education

In the Open Connections Glossary of Terms, Peter Bergson defines many of the terms and ideas that so many of us first encounter at Open Connections. Often summarized by umbrella names like Process Language and Process Consciousness, there are quite a few concepts that are especially unique to OC (e.g. the Balanced Response) and others that we may all be familiar with, but which take on new meaning or significance when we join the OC community. In the section on “Clientship,” Peter writes:

The term clientship is used broadly to mean a combination of responsibility and authority. Another way to think of it is in terms of ownership. When you are the client over a particular domain, it means that you are recognized as the one who holds the key position, along with which you have the right to make decisionsand take action to accomplish various goals and tasks.


It is precisely this sense of “clientship” that we put particular emphasis on in the Shaping Your Life program: the idea of taking ownership and responsibility over one’s life, over one’s education, and over one’s role in the group. As the oldest group of young people enrolled at OC (15 to 18 years old), these teens are in a unique time of their lives. They are straddling two worlds: one foot is still in the world of youth and the other is firmly planting itself in the world of adulthood. During their years in SYL, we want to provide multiple opportunities for the teens to take ownership of their lives so that they are better prepared for that day when both their feet land, side by side, in the world of adulthood.


By way of reminder, the Shaping Your Life program meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays we mainly focus on math and science while on Thursdays we focus on the humanities and life skills.


A few overarching ways in which we seek to develop a sense of ownership of one’s life and role in the group are through communication and conferences. In the SYL program, all communication about field trips, events, deadlines for projects, feedback on individual writing, and any other form of communication happens directly with the young person. Apart from asking parents to save a few special dates in the beginning of the year, we really do not communicate with the parents; rather, we expect the young person to be in charge of their schedules and responsibilities. Another way we include them in ownership of the program is to have the teens work in pairs to write the Program Updates. We find this to be an excellent Real Work opportunity. Starting this year, we decided to have the young people participate in their own parent conferences. In preparation for the conferences, each young person filled out a survey about where they see their development in areas ranging from specific academic content areas, to their own personal development, to how 

they interact in the group. In the survey they were also asked to identify specific goals for their development that can be addressed as the year progresses.


One way in which our Tuesdays are structured to encourage ownership is with the small choice groups which are offered in six week increments. At the beginning of the year youth are involved in brainstorming a list of possible topics to be offered and then throughout the year they rate their preferences for each session to ensure that they are motivated to learn about the topics. Among the topics offered this year were local environmental issues such as the Mariner pipeline, the stock market and bitcoin, graphic design, 3D animation, immunology, and cryptography.


In one offering on hurricanes and flooding, the key focus was on building a floodplain simulation. Here, taking ownership was key to the success of the whole group because each individual was dependent on all of the others in the group for the end product to be realized. Based on a study of Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing flooding, the youth envisioned building a floodplain simulation that could demonstrate how different environmental factors could affect the flooding of a watershed area. One youth took it upon herself to be the project manager and through collaborative discussion, helped the other six youth each take ownership of one aspect of the project. Engaging in the creative process, different youth constructed clear acrylic boxes to represent different environmental factors—rainfall, a dam break, meadow vegetation, an oil spill, a holding pond, and a parking lot—and fit them into a larger box that held two different landscape options—a deep river and a lake/river scenario. The group set high expectations for the quality of the finished product as they wanted to be able to use the model as an educational tool for teaching others about flooding’s impact on the environment. Since each person’s part was interdependent, each youth had an ownership stake in the final outcome and this fostered pro-social interactions as everyone chipped in to not only do a professional-looking job on their own part but to help others as needed.


Another aspect of our Tuesdays is that we seek to have the youth apply quantitative literacy skills to multi-step real-world scenarios. One such scenario was that of being an owner of a company that wraps and ships clothing. Youth were asked to determine what the most cost-efficient method would be to place a given number of articles of clothing into boxes and wrap them. Each youth had to take ownership over many different tasks, including measuring actual clothing items, choosing what shape and sized box would fit the items and minimize waste, calculate shipment totals, costs, and percentages and manipulate data on spreadsheets. Since the problem was so open-ended, the youth were not striving for any one right answer but rather a logically sound, well-thought-out process that they could then share with their peers so as to convince them of its potential. The beauty of the project was that not only did the youth collaborate with one another as they measured, did calculations, or worked with a spreadsheet, but they ultimately enhanced one another’s learning as a whole as they listened to each other’s ideas, saw completely different perspectives than their own, and evaluated the merits of the various strategies. Ownership of learning and partnership went hand-in-hand.


On Thursdays, the main way in which we provide the youth an opportunity to take ownership is through the various planning and fundraising activities for the annual overnight trip. The teens are responsible for every aspect of the trip, including, but not limited to, choosing a location, planning a detailed itinerary, booking museum tickets, reserving hotel rooms, renting a 15-passenger van, reserving a restaurant for a group meal, and budgeting for every possible expense.


The SYL Facilitators have affectionately started referring to the fundraisers as skill-raisers. As if the trip planning was not enough of a Herculean effort, the fundraisers have their own lengthy preparation, not to mention the 8-12 hours of the actual events. The learning curve for these events is quite steep. The first fundraiser is typically a dinner of sorts. The teens have to figure out how to cook and serve a three-course meal for 150 guests. Every year we have been greatly impressed by the group’s willingness to take ownership of the success of the event. This year was no exception. Just one example, and there were many, is from the cooks. They took time out of their Friday to go shopping for the ingredients, and then they showed up hours before anyone else to begin chopping and cooking the meal. They were also the last ones in the kitchen, helping to finish the clean up. In every group, whether it was hosts handling tickets, payments, and seating charts, or the “Pitt Krew” performing in an original play while also making salad and hauling and washing dirty dishes, or the wait and drink staff who had to keep the event going smoothly, interacting with all of the guests while the Facilitators (according to the script) were not on campus and certainly not in sight, the young people rose to the occasion.


The Silent Auction is the second fundraiser and also requires the young people to take ownership of the success of this event, which is months in the making. Their duties include securing the donated items and the management of all of the details, inventory, bidding, and delivery of the auction items. They also plan and execute the event itself and send dozens of thank-you notes out after the auction is completed. The fundraisers are annual events but for the first year teens in SYL the experience is totally new. In their subsequent years they get the satisfaction of putting their own upgrades or special trademark on the event. This year, for example, we had two seniors who made changes to the Silent Auction that will certainly be repeated. One young person came up with the idea of having an “hour of entertainment” to fill the time while all of the final bids and winners were being determined. She planned and hosted a Jeopardy-style trivia game that was incredibly well received by the guests. We had another senior who taught himself complicated formulas to build a spreadsheet that can answer just about any question you may have about any aspect of the Silent Auction. He is actually in the process of writing a manual so that next year someone can take up his mantle and continue the master spreadsheet.


These are just a few examples of the ways in which we see the young people in SYL recognizing that their lives are their own clientship. We help them to take ownership of their own lives and their place in the OC community. The goal is that when they graduate, they will have had lots of practice handling responsibility and working together so that they will be ready to take on greater challenges with higher stakes, trusting themselves and their proven ability to take ownership.