New Learning OpenTogether The Deep WIth

Transitioning to Teaching Online – Contemporary Issues in Youth Development, Chapter 1: Ourselves as Youth

This is another post in my series on developing my Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers class as an online course for this fall. The series begins with Part 1.

This is “Chapter” 1 of the interactive and experiential OER I will develop with my students this fall. This will likely be module 1 / week 1 of the course.

Chapter vs. Class: I’m still working out the relationship of each “chapter” in the OER to the actual operation of the class. For now, I’m going to lay out the activities that I think would be valuable to understand for a given “chapter”, and later I will figure out how these fit into my class plan, given the structure of time we have together, the technological affordances available, and so forth. I’m actually getting rather excited about this approach, as I feel it allows me to work toward what I think will be the activities we need to accomplish to get to the aims, rather than figuring out first how much time I have to do them.

Chapter Overview: We either are or once were categorized as “youth” or “adolescent.” This is typically an experience of being manipulated or controlled by others because of our involvement in this category (a category we are entered into by others, usually because of our age). Occasionally, it can be an empowering experience. What is this category “youth”? What have been our experiences of being categorized in this way? What social effects does this category have on us? What political effects? What cultural effects?

Learning Aims: As a result of participating in this “chapter”, participants will be able to:

  • Understand that the stories/messages they receive about “who to be” are a lens for understanding youth development.
  • Connect messages they received as children to their positionality and identities.
  • Apply this lens to understanding a youth program.

Part 1: Messages We’ve Received

At some point we all were – and many of us still are! – considered youth. The concept of “youth” has a long and varied history (though not always called by that name). Some consider terms like “youth,” “adolescent,” and “teenager” synonymous. These same people are likely to consider all of these terms to define a period of time in a person’s life, between childhood and adulthood, defined both by a certain age (let’s say maybe 13 – 20 something) and by a set of maturational processes. Maturational processes is a fancy way of saying that we as we grow older we also grow “better.” Fundamentally, there’s a judgment built in – that we are angling to become “good” adults and that to do so, we must become “better” – more mature. Though different societies and cultures differ in how they decide someone has reached maturity, Western ideas of maturation have long involved transitions from infancy (a lack of nearly all capabilities) to adolescence (a period with growing capabilities, but also many problems) to adulthood (the endpoint!).

To “fill” a hole in our development, we are taught that we must get better. And, if we must get better, there’s something wrong with us! Throughout the lifespan (childhood, adolescence, and adulthood), we receive thousands of messages about our failures (and hopefully at least a few about our successes). Regardless, our development is viewed through a judgmental lens. Therefore, our first task in thinking about youth development is to think a little bit about our own development, and especially to consider the sorts of messages we got about how to become better human beings (to be understood as: to become good adults!).

Read: Cheri Huber – Selections from There is Nothing Wrong with You

Write: 1 page reflection on the following questions:

  • Take a picture of, or type a few sentences from, a paragraph that struck you from Cheri Huber’s piece? What struck you about this?


  • What messages did you receive growing up about “what’s wrong with you?” Where did these messages come from?


  • Which messages did you stop believing?
  • Which messages do you still believe?
  • How do the messages you receive show up in language you use? (e.g. “I’m so stupid” or “I think too much” or “A person like ______ shouldn’t do _______.”

Part II: Messaging as Youth Development

As you read in Cheri Huber, these messages undoubtedly have a profound affect on how we grow up and who we become. Though we are taught to believe that youth development means progressing through a series of psychological and physical stages (to be discussed in Chapter 2), one could argue that the messages we receive about who we are / should become are a significant source of the ways we grow up. Some youth workers, like those of the Reggio Emilia Approach to preschool, see this messaging as a way that we close out possibilities for who we can be and how we can be. This poem by Loris Malaguzzi sums up their perspective.

Read Aloud: The Hundred Languages of Children


  • What are the “languages” we were told to forget?
    • Explicitly stated examples: Boys don’t cry. You are bad at math. She isn’t good at school.
    • More subtle examples:
      • There are fewer and fewer art or music classes (therefore, art isn’t an important mode of expression like English writing).
      • Writing an essay or a research paper is supposed to be about what other people have thought rather than creating our own ideas.
      • You are consistently graded poorly in science because you like to connect one idea to another idea, but have trouble focusing on the details of just one thing.

Investigate: Here’s a few options for investing this further…

  • Interview: Ask a friend or family member with smaller kids to describe their kid in as much detail as possible during a time they were marveling about something. Jot down a couple of notes.
  • Try: Doing something you were told – either explicitly or subtly – that you shouldn’t / couldn’t do. For example, I was told I was terrible at drawing! But I did an online drawing class and was surprised by how much better I got very quickly with a bit of instruction! Jot down a couple notes on what it’s like.
  • Watch: Find a playground (social distanced, masked) and read a book. Listen or watch for how children play – what is striking to you? What “languages” show up? Jot down a couple of notes.

Part III: Intersecting Messages and Identity

The messages we receive deeply impact our identities. One of the reasons it might be difficult for many LGBTQ+ youth to “come out” is all the negative messaging they receive from their family, community, school, peers, or media. If the core message about your identity is “there is something wrong with you,” it can become much harder to claim that identity for yourself or publicly.

If we extent this to thinking about being a youth worker, the messages we’ve received about others will significantly impact the ways we can understand them, and therefore work with them. In the video below, Ernesto Sirolli talks about being an Italian aid worker on the African continent. He tries to describe a way of listening that, to me at least, also means setting aside a lot of messages he received about the people he is working with.

Watch: Ernesto Sirolli – You Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen

Write: How could we approach youth development like Ernesto Sirolli describes first approaching international development?

Pair and Discuss: When Ernesto Sirolli says “shut up and listen” – what stories / messages might get in the way of being able to do this? (Hint: He’s a white, Italian, cis-gender, man; probably has absorbed a lot of stories about black, African peoples).

Collective Jamboard: If we were to “shut up and listen” to young people, what stories / messages might get in the way of being able to do this?

Part IV: Seeing Messages All Around Us

Take a look at this Reuters article: Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

What’s the messaging we are getting about young people? Stay away from them! Why? Because they are leading the rise in fresh coronavirus cases. Why? Because they don’t care – look they are hitting nightclubs and beaches!

Let’s check out another article from NPR News, this one on social media use: Social Media Use Linked to Anxiety, Depression Among Teens, New Study Finds. A few quotes:

Most adults experienced their childhood and teenage years without social media. Conrod says many adults developed a “more balanced perspective on what everyday life is like” since they did not have digital access as kids.

In 2018, roughly half of U.S. teens said they spend too much time on their cellphones, according to the Pew Research Center.

This consistent use can blur the lines of reality for adolescents whose brains are still developing, Conrod says.

This frame is a classic one! We (adults) did it better, adolescents are doing it wrong, and we need to help them fix it! And if we fail to do so, we’re going to have trouble as a society! It isn’t that there might not be some truth to these claims – but who chose to study teens in this way, and why? Who decided that the ways adults were doing things when they grew up were better? I’m not sure, but the judgment is pretty clear: youth are harming themselves!

Messages about young people are hidden in everything around us! This category of person (young) absorbs explanations, criticisms, theories, hypothesis, arguments, and blame from every corner of society, and about nearly anything. Is there a social problem? Seems like young people are the cause! This messages serve at least two purposes: (1) they give us a (very large, diverse) group of people to blame and (2) they give us a way of describing/understanding this group of people – their thinking, motivations, behaviors, and so on.

No matter what we do, we’ll carry some of these messages with us into the ways we think about and work with youth. But, I think we should make an effort to be more conscious about the ways think, act, and talk about young people. How often are we repeating these messages? What kinds of affects do they have on the people around us?

Activity: Dissect the messages about who young people should be / develop into that come from these youth program documents. Use to have students collaboratively analyze and dissect the messaging in these programs.

Participants: we are creating public comments that others can read on these documents using, so I’d like to recommend approaching this from the point of view of someone who is wondering, rather than criticizing. A few examples:

  • I wonder whether the hidden message in “risk reduction” is “without our help young people in this program are going to do risky things”.
  • I am noticing that a curriculum focused on positive youth development starts with a lot of ideas about negative experiences young people have. I wonder whether that ends up as an implicit message?

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