Today I went to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a contemporary art museum holding some of the most inspirational pieces of art from the 20th Century. It was spectacular. A close friend had recommended that I visit and I was very drawn to the forbidding architecture and the marvellous creations inside. As an adult who is open to new experiences, I was excited to see some of the more unusual exhibitions, including an 18ct gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan, and a replica of the Algerian desert city of Ghardaiamade out of couscous by Kader Attia. I took the time to read about the exhibitions and tried to understand the motivations and contexts of the artists. Although I could appreciate the novelty and enjoy the exhibit, I was also very aware that this form of expression is not accessible to me. I do not know anyone who is an artist, and I have never considered myself an artist. In fact, at school I remember getting into trouble a lot in art class and often getting low grades.
The way I feel about art, no matter how irrational or narrow-minded it is, helps me to relate to how some of my students feel about reading and writing. Not everyone has grown up in a household full of stories, where they have been told that stories are accessible from a young age. Our testing system also means that many students feel that reading and writing is something that they fail at, it doesn’t represent them and is not relevant. This is understandable, however there are ways that these perceptions can be changed and this perception shift is one of the biggest strengths of the organisation called ‘Youth Communication’ based in New York.
There are two inspirational parts to the programme. Firstly, they make the process of writing and being an author accessible to young people, who may not have had this opportunity before. They have two incredible writing programmes that result in the publishing of the magazines, 'Represent' and 'YC Teen'. Secondly, they have a reading program based on the stories that are published in the magazines. I will explain the writing and reading programmes in this blog...
Firstly the ‘Represent’ writing programme works with young people in foster care, who are homeless or within the youth justice system. The young people are referred to the programme through their teachers, therapists or they can self refer. When they come to the centre the meet the editor of the magazine, Virginia Vitzthum, who speaks to the young people about their lives and they decide together what stories they want to write about. The stories are then published in the Represent magazine. The positive effect of this is explained by Otis, a young author for the magazine, in this extract from his story…
'I read some Represent stories online. I saw that other writers were writing amazing stories and sharing personal experiences that I didn’t think any foster kid would reveal. I thought “If they’re brave enough, maybe it’s time I come out of the dark.” At first, I felt embarrassed and even fearful about telling people about things like my cerebral palsy or getting my ass kicked or my biological parents giving me up when I was 2. Growing up, my adoptive family liked to keep things private. But it was a relief to let things out. Plus, I enjoy getting feedback on my writing.'
Representing: Writing my stories freed me- Otis Hampton. Published in Represent Magazine
YC Teen Magazine
A similar programme called 'YC Teen' led by Holly St. Lifer, also publishes a magazine and the stories come from young people who have been recruited from their high schools. These young people come from a wide-range of backgrounds, but they have all heard about the opportunity to tell their stories and have applied to tell their stories in the magazine. They write about challenging topics that are relevant to young people. Here Anthony, a young writer for the magazine, gives his perspective on reading and race:
'I don’t understand why they think reading is dumb. To me, being a reader means being open-minded, intellectual, and willing to learn new things. Reading has helped empower me and teach me important things that I might not have known about otherwise, like African history or world leaders. Also it’s just fun to get into the story, especially if the writing is witty, and learn new vocabulary that I can use later in a conversation.
But black youth culture prizes guys who play ball, bag girls, dance, and rap. Simply reading a book is considered passive or introverted. Or it’s considered a “white thing”—something black kids, especially black boys, shouldn’t be caught doing if they want to be popular. Unfortunately, I think some kids hold themselves back academically for those reasons. I know I feel slightly wary around books after hearing my peers say that people who read have no lives.'
What's Wrong with Reading?- Anthony Turner- Published in YC Teen Magazine.
The Represent and YC Teen publications may be different and the authors of the magazines may be different, but what they have in common is that they are written by young people, for young people. They send a message out to their readers and authors, that writing is accessible. As soon as the budding authors arrive at the Youth Communication office, they are treated with professionalism. The office is a genuine publishing suite and they are given deadlines and high expectations. The young authors then start a process of writing that involves multiple editing opportunities. Every time they submit a draft of their story, their editor will return it with a mixture of positive and improvement comments. The high expectations and professional environment mean that the young people are being challenged academically, but the supportive and personal comments, mean the young people are also being supported emotionally.
This writing process has a transformative effect on the young people who take part in the writing activities, as Holly comments one of the writers told her that YC teen is ‘like a second home to me’. When one student's grammar was not improving after numerous editing opportunities, Virginia realised that it was because they really liked receiving the feedback and the editing dialogue was really special to them. The young authors know that they are central to the work of Youth Communication and that the magazines would not be published without them, so feel a level of respect and that writing is relevant to them.
‘Writing helped me when I was going through difficult times with my family- when they didn’t or couldn’t understand me, or when they didn’t understand why I would cry for no reason. Writing helped me when I needed someone to talk to. Writing is like both my friend and my family, because it’s always there for me whenever I need it.’
How Writing Helps Me- Terry-Ann Da Costa Published in ‘The Struggle to be Strong’ by Youth Communication.
However, the importance of the writing program does not end here, and the even more exiting thing about what Youth Communication do, is that they use the young people’s writing to create a curriculum that will make reading accessible to other young people. The curriculum is designed to be taught in after-school programs and involves reading and discussing the stories that the other young people have written. Some of the most relevant stories that have been written for the magazines are published into anthologies and then used as texts for discussion.
Through reading these stories, the young people in the after school programs are able to see that other young people who are similar to them are authors. They are able to see that texts for reading can be relevant to them. Keith Hefner, the founder and director of the organisation explains that all the stories chosen for the anthologies capture a transformation, they are designed to show the reader how they achieved that transformation, and not written to tell the reader what they should or should not do in a certain situation. They are written to be compelling not preaching, and they help the reader to see that they are not alone in a situation. All the stories are written to fit in with the spectrum of social and emotional learning as designed by CASEL (Centre for Academic, Social and Emotional learning), so they cover topics such as
Insight, or asking tough questions
Independence or being your own person
Relationships or connecting with people that matter
Initiative or taking charge
Creativity or using imagination
Humour or Finding what’s funny
Morality or doing the right thing.
The emotional benefits have been tracked in their data collection:
75% of teens reported that reading the stories helped them wrestle with moral dilemmas
More than 50% of readers reported that the stories make them feel less alone and helped them understand people from backgrounds different from their own.
Over one-third of teens reported that they felt more optimistic about their future and more confident after reading our stories.
Jillian Luft who has helped design the curriculum that goes with the stories, explains that the curriculum is designed to fit in with the common core curriculum, so that the readers are also developing their academic skills from the texts, although this is not the main aim of the program and has not been measured.
Youth Communication in Action
The books are used by a number of different after-school programs in a number of different contexts, including Leap NYC an after school program I visited in the Bronx, where one of the program leaders was exclaiming the value of the trending curriculum designed by Youth Communication for middle-schoolers. He told me ‘the children love it and it helps them relate to the process of reading’.
Making texts relevant is such a simple change for teachers to help their students connect with reading and writing, and this is a topic that has come up with a number of programs I have visited. I have heard lots of good ideas for how to pick relevant texts, but having young people in similar situations to your students actually write the texts, seems like the best way to ensure relevance and is a good way to change perceptions of reading and writing for the students who are the most reluctant.
Now I just need to see some art by teachers in their late 20’s to help me see that art can be accessible to me too! I’ll start looking…
A selection of texts published through Youth Communication.