Saturday July 27, 2013

Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series on youth leadership workshops hosted by the SIT Graduate Institute.

BRATTLEBORO -- The Youth Leadership and Peacebuilding Programs, which have been hosted at World Learning for over two decades, bring students from all over the world and all over the United States for workshops, dialogue and fun.

The Jóvenes en Acción group, with 99 participants, has the highest diversity of English competency levels. The students in this program are 15 to 18 years old and come from all over Mexico, including Oaxaca and Baja, Calif. The main focus of their time in Vermont is English-language immersion, but they also attend workshops and do fun, teambuilding activities. The Jóvenes en Acción language classes are not based on a set curriculum or grammar and vocabulary goals. Instead, participants spend most of their language-learning time talking with each other in groups, discussing their lives, debating government, and explaining the projects they want to implement in their communities.

Hopefuls for the Jóvenes en Accion program apply with a specific project proposal in a small, local group. Their projects, with catchy names like "Hijos de Hoy. Padres de Hoy" (Children of Today. Parents of Today), are action plans to counter specific issues in their cities and villages.

One of the action groups, created by teens from the city of Penjamo in Guanajuato, is called "Cambia a Verda tu Semáforo" (Change your Street Light to Green). The project aims to fight youth labor, which keeps young children out of school. Diego, one of the students from Penjamo, said that children as young as 8 years old were taken out of school to go to work. The young project-drafters understood that oftentimes poor families have no choice but to send their children to work in order to support themselves financially, but these Jóvenes were committed to minimize this trend. Their plan is to work with school principals and families.

Kayla Rice/Reformer                     SIT International Leadership Camp participants walk high above the ground on wires while participating in ropes
Kayla Rice/Reformer SIT International Leadership Camp participants walk high above the ground on wires while participating in ropes course activities at High Five Adventure Learning in Brattleboro.
They hope to convince families that keeping their children in schools is a better long-term financial decision than pulling them out. If this is not possible, they will try to help parents find more educational work or skilled work for their children. This secondary plan reveals that the teenagers are realistic in their ideas. When it is possible to change a trend, they will change it. When it is impossible, they will modify the stark reality for a better alternative.

Other projects deal with alcoholism, improving education, bullying, and teen pregnancy.

Jóvenes en Acción is the result of a collaboration between the U.S. State Department and the Secretariat for Public Education of Mexico, as well as a collection of private sector companies. The program, which includes components in Mexico City, Brattleboro, Washington, D.C., and one of six host cities in the United States is completely free for participants.

Annie Kerkian, an English teacher working with a Jóvenes group at an intermediate level, explained that she did not have a set vocabulary list or grammar lesson prepared for the students; instead, she focused her time with the participants on helping them build confidence and activating the language skills they already had. Activities included talking about themselves, talking about their projects, and debating about government.

The majority of class time was spent with the participants conversing in groups. Plass commented that Kerkian walked around, assisting the process. Kerkian noted that the kids were all "very eager. Even the ones that say they're shy." She had special tactics to get the shyer kids to speak, including handing out ‘talking sticks,' which limited participants to speak only as many times as they had sticks. This, Kerkian explained, helped the kids be conscious of how many times they had contributed to the conversation.

Although, Kerkian did not have vocabulary lists for the participants, there was a "Vocab Bank" hanging on the wall of her classroom. As the students encountered new words that helped them to discuss their projects or understand American culture, the word went up on the wall. The "Vocab Bank" included words and phrases, such as "pumped up" and "hold accountable."

The Jóvenes curriculum is a leadership-based language immersion program. Often times language learners have enough knowledge of a language to convey their ideas, but lack speaking confidence. In another Jóvenes classroom, the participants spent one morning explaining their project ideas to others in their language group. These group and partner exercises helped the kids with their summarization and speaking skills in the intimate comfort of their peers. In addition to these types of activities, the participants also worked on public speaking.

Although the Jóvenes curriculum was largely separated from the IYLEP and UK program, the directors at the camp made an effort to have the teens engage with one another outside of the classroom as much as possible. They shared meal times, dorm rooms, and a campus-wide Olymics. These communal activities helped the spread of friendships and ideas.

For one stressful, crazy week, the staff at World Learning hosted around 140 energetic, opinionated, and often unpredictable teenagers from the U.S., UK, Mexico, and Iraq. This chaotic storm of young voices was a force for future peace and community building. As this article goes to press, the teenagers are located in a number of cities around the country, helping serve their host communities and putting their leadership skills into practice.

Lillian Podlog will be a junior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., this fall. She is interning at the New England Center for Circus Arts.