You Can Teach Them, But Can You Reach Them?

One of my co-workers told me that her son’s girlfriend writes emails to her (the mother) exactly like she speaks, excepts she uses abbreviations as if she’s texting. In the time it took her to create all those abbreviations, she could have written grammatically correct sentences, since emails have no character limit.

A teacher I met last year has teenagers, and they asked her to add a texting package to her cell phone so they could communicate “easier.” The teacher said, “Why do I need to text you when I can just call you?”

Them: “We don’t want you to call.”

Her: “But I want to talk to you. I want to hear your voice.”

Them: (Matter of factly, without an attitude) “But we don’t wanna talk to you, Mom.”

With all of our high-tech devices, we’re more accessible, but we’re also more disconnected And kids’ social skills are getting worse as a result.

What are we going to do about it?

I consider teenagers to be young adults (YA). As adults it’s our responsibility to mold and shape them into the kind of people we want them to be, and to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need when they come of age to fend for themselves in this world.  Social skills, knowing how to present yourself with poise will take anyone farther than another person who only has the “know-how.”

Train Up A Child

Anyone who knows me knows that I love public speaking, and I love to share knowledge.

I was a judge at the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Temple’s 3rd Annual Youth Oratorical Contest, which showcased over 30 contestants from ages 3-17. Each contestant gave a speech about African American figures, dead or alive, who have made an impact on our history, and how those figures have inspired them. It was really inspiring and encouraging to see so many youth involved, but the event is only once a year. Last year I was a coach, which required more involvement, but even judging was hard. The kids were so good, and most of them didn’t use any notes (I still do)!

I did my share of coaching this winter, however. Last week I finished working with 20 or so youth at a local middle school (7th and 8th graders), conducting a Toastmasters Youth Leadership Program (YLP). The YLP is an 8-week set of meetings focusing on various aspects of public speaking for youth, ideally ages 8-17. It’s almost like a Toastmasters meetings for youth (Toastmasters membership requires you to be at least 18 years old), but since it’s not an ongoing program, it focuses on the basics. (For more details, check out this article about a Toastmaster who ran a YLP to help troubled youth, or this story about an 85-year old Toastmaster who has spent over 20 years running YLPs back-to-back.)

Over the course of the 8 weeks, several of my students were inconsistent with their attendance because of competing elective interests. For the boys, it was because of sports try-outs and practice. The girls had band or orchestra practice (sometimes until 8 pm, from what I heard). I suggested changing our weekly meeting day, but everyone had a conflict on other days as well.

A couple of students told me they were going to quit because of other students’ behavior. I discouraged personal verbal attacks on students (for example, when a student did not prepare her speeches repeatedly, another student, who clearly did not like her, called her out during the class). One of the objectives of the YLP is to learn and implement parliamentary procedure and principles of chairmanship, so clearly I had my work cut out for me.

What I Learned

A few weeks into the YLP, I left wondering how much we really accomplished, and whether I was actually getting through to them. How do you reach youth who won’t put in the work outside of class? I was especially handicapped because I am not a teacher at the school throughout the week, and I did not have enough tight communication with the teacher liaisons at the school. Here are some of my other takeaways:

  • You have to be prepared for anything. I always had an agenda but I was flexible. Disruptions occur, and misunderstandings ensue, especially between students. I had a lot of girls in my class, and they made more fuss than the boys.
  • When you’re introducing a concept to teens, you have to be ready with examples that relate to their interests. I did not always “speak proper” when I was explaining concepts to them. I had to make sure when I was teaching about a new concept, that they “got it.”
  • It’s hard to keep up with the kids when you only see them once a week for 90 minutes. I think I could have made more of an impact by meeting with them twice a week for an hour, or had a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.

The Grand Finale: The School Tour

During the last session, not much was planned, and I had the lowest attendance ever. The remaining students decided they wanted to give me a tour of their school (which they frequently complained about in their speeches).

The school has three floors, and I was almost sick from what I saw. One of floors of the school had no windows, the bathrooms were disgusting, the lockers were a cinch a to break into, the classrooms were congested with chairs and clutter (piles of old unused books and cabinets). The nicest area I saw was the library, and a couple of classrooms that were decorated and better maintained than the rest. I felt terrible that the kids had to spend so much time in this building every day.

The 12- and 13-year olds I worked with are opinionated but still impressionable. I so much wanted to mentor these kids on more than just speaking, especially if you consider my ongoing book project that I’ve been doing. Taking pride in one’s appearance, being respectful when listening to others’ opinions, tolerance, and common courtesy are just a few of the basics. The experience was valuable, because my books for the female YA market. Even though the faculty member initially contacted me because he was concerned about the boys at his school, it’s my hope that everyone took away something positive that they can use, even though I’ll never really be sure how much I got through to them.


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