Changing the Education Paradigm to Empower Youth

Our children face difficult times.

Simply being a kid can feel hard when there is so much pressure to perform academically. Today’s youngsters have challenging problems not faced by other generations, such as over-scheduling, and unprecedented access to computer/TV/phone screens.

Enter ROOTS TO BRANCHES. It seeks to improve young people’s lives.

The Marin county-based startup wishes to change the educational paradigm by empowering youth. Founded by entrepreneur and educator, Zach Laurie, the organization provides dynamic programs that encourage resiliency through hands-on curriculum, emphasizing humanity’s deep connection with nature and others.

Eschewing our modern age’s obsession with rote learning and continuous testing, Roots to Branches favors rites of passage activities that encourage youngsters to participate in timeless, uplifting traditions, team-building exercises to encourage empathy and leadership, and outdoor exploration to immerse students in distraction-free environments fostering mindfulness.

Zach engaged my company, INK to assist his organization with a grant-writing proposal last year and I was able to personally interact with him through several meaningful exchanges.

As I got to know him, I was impressed by his inspirational vision for empowering young people. Zach’s devotion to bringing needed change to a stifling educational system felt like a breath of fresh air. Below, please find my interview with him. I think you will enjoy hearing his ideas as much as I did.

Q: When did you begin your company and what services does it offer?

A: Roots to Branches began in 2009 as an after school rites of passage program for 7th and 8th grade boys. We then increased our offerings in the spring of 2012 to include in-school community service-learning, social and emotional skill building, and drug/media awareness education for middle and high schools.

Q: What brought you to establish Roots to Branches?

A: As a person growing up when ‘Generation Y’ turned to ‘Generation X’, I witnessed a lot of different pressures placed upon youth than when I was a child. Having a brother 10 years younger helped clue me into these changes as well. Differences include: increased technology access with its pervasive social media use that causes a distorted sense of self, an overall increase in anxiety around test scores and college placement, and increase in bullying, school violence and drug use. Our programs are meant as a way for youth to “let off the steam”, in a healthy way to channel normal day to day anxieties, while also giving them the social and emotional skills to navigate their lives with more awareness on how to regulate their emotions in a more positive and collaborative way.

Q: How does Roots to Branches help young people? Why is it unique from other organizations?

A: We like to supply youth with the agency to take care of themselves and those around them. We do this with hands-on activities where everyone has a role and a voice in the process. By participating in a lesson plan with activities and then sharing our experiences, we can co-create a language of trust and empathy building that the students can translate to other areas of their lives. It is incredibly rewarding to reach a student in a positive way and see their faces light up with “I have it too!” I feel this process separates us from other organizations in its emphasis on “how” we teach rather than “what”.

Q: What is your proudest achievement in regards to Roots to Branches?

A: In quantitative terms, we have reached hundreds of families with meaningful activities that engage youth to take matters into their own hands. Our projects have included community garbage clean up campaigns, creating youth centers, building and handing out homeless youth resource kits, and in-class lessons centered around the impact of drug use and media on the perception of Self.

In qualitative terms I have seen several seriously misunderstood youth on their way to being sent to “at risk” programs, who upon being given responsibility and something meaningful to work on, entered into a more mature and stable state. Now they come back to us and say “I don’t know how you did it, but thank you!”

Q: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to mentoring young people?

A: We believe that youth need to be reached where they are “at”. Most education today tries to impose on youth as if they don’t know anything. As an adult, I may know things, but my job with youth is more to serve as a mirror, saying, “You know things too, and if we work together, just look what we can do!”

Q: What are some ideas and/or people that inspire you?

Any educator that has spent time with someone not for financial or personal gain but because of the sincere desire to help. Working with youth is “rewarding”, but this reward can come with lots of work and struggle to reach students that need reaching.

Q: What can we as a society do to encourage our young people to be more engaged?

A: Spend quality time with youth, working side-by-side. Look for collaborative projects and say, “We can do this together”. Encourage young people to identify their strengths and dreams. Dance and sing. Play games with teamwork built in. Pretty much anything done with youth with a clearly defined goal and intention will help them do the same in their lives. We just need to realize we are painting on the same canvas all the time as humans living together.

Q: What are the unique challenges you see young people facing today that are different from a generation ago and how do you think your organization prepares youngsters to face them?

A: The generational differences I mentioned earlier. At Roots to Branches, we focus on having honest conversations on how things, like media, drugs, peer pressure, conflict, and cooperation help shape or destroy the communities we live in.

When youth have awareness of why things are the way they are, and are engaged in the process, they can become empowered to change their communities for the better. At the very least, we try to build an internal sense of agency by students having awareness ‘why’ things like empathy, conflict resolution, communication etc. are important to building better communities.

Q: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs starting their own company?

A: Do what you love for its own sake, then worry about making money later. Trying to build a business for money’s sake is important for the day-to-day grind, but only by building towards our dreams will we change our society for the better.

Q: What are your short-term and long-terms goals for Roots to Branches?

A: Short: Increase our staff to spread our programs across the San Francisco Bay area.

Long: Integrate our services and lessons in teacher trainings and school projects nationwide as an effort to build social and emotional skills into everyday education.

Q: What do you do when negative things get to you? How do you cope?

A: We like to “practice what we preach”, by modeling the same behavior we ask of students: identify negative emotions by taking space to feel them, breathe into frustration, and understand where it resides in our body, and have awareness that all suffering comes and goes.

Q: What advice do you have for other educators/teachers wishing to effectively reach children?

A: I would recommend educators (and people in general) look at each relationship with youth as unique- if we begin to see that education isn’t about test scores, but more about the quality of our relationships, we can begin building an educational system that teaches the ‘whole child’ rather than ‘core subjects’.

As much as core subjects are important, the truly defining moments when I was a student were how my teachers could relate to me by sharing their passions and life lessons beyond the subject matter.

For more information on Zach and his company, visit his website: http://rootstobranches.org/ or contact him @ (415) 226–9370.

This interview can be found in its entirety at: https://medium.com/inspire-makers/roots-to-branches-changing-the-education-paradigm-to-empower-youth-32870ad10e8f

 

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The Landscape of Education

Perhaps it is time to examine the patterns prevailing in today’s K-12 educational system that minimize and compartmentalize the student, creating what is in many respects a current crisis in education. This crisis can be seen readily in high instances of school violence, truancy, bullying, stress-anxiety levels that lead to at-risk behaviors, along with an overall erosion of the public school system on the national level. According to the Nation’s Report Card, statistics show that public schools have, in general, not seen an increase in performance of reading and mathematics for 17 year olds since the early 1970’s.

Perhaps this lack of increase in the efficiency of schools is due to a collapse of the vision of what education is truly for: rather than an institution of instruction that denies individual gifts and attributes, education needs to return to its roots of literally “bringing forth” abilities, ideas and creativity in students that will be the change-makers once they reach the societal level. Through interviews and working with students, parents, teachers, principals, wellness directors and administrators, we have seen clearly identified ways that a school can help students become active and engaged, leading to increased academic performance and personal well-being. These actions include family and community outreach programs that get parents more involved, social and emotional learning lessons that teach students social skills and emotional management, and community service with curriculum tie-ins that build empathy and student participation.

Ever-present patterns still persist that stifle creativity and lead to the anonymous student, the disengaged performer and a higher potential for at-risk behavior, truancy and “drop-outs”. Due to lackluster management, overarching bureaucracy, lack of funds and basic ignorance our public schools are at a crossroads: Do we continue down the same path of higher student to teacher ratios, devaluation of teachers in general, and metrics that only quantify the value of an education based on a test score? Or do we embrace the higher cultural ideals that seek to give students the tools and resources they need to engage in our community and eventually get quality jobs that improve, not only their quality of life, but the quality of life of those around them?

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Why Resiliency?

When asked about what we do when working with youth, the topic typically comes around to the subject of “building resiliency”. The word “resilience”, for whatever reason, is triggering for some and understood in different ways. Some believe the concept of being resilient means the ability to “bounce back” from a struggle or hard times, and continue moving forward. Others look at resiliency as a sort of “walling off” of the world, a way to stay immune to stress by creating a wall to protect ourselves. Finally, I have spoken to parents who look at resiliency as a focus on hard times rather than a striving for the good ones.

The answer to the question “why resiliency?” really depends on what the definition of the word “resilience” is. Taking a quick look at Merriam-Webster:

: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens

: the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.

In both examples, the commonality can be seen around the “ability to return” or “become again”. The purpose of building resilience, as used by our organization and for the purpose of working with youth, is to aid young people in the understanding and integration of educational experience so that it can allow for greater personal awareness. We believe a foundation of personal awareness is what gives an individual a strong and steady place to “return” to so they can “become themselves again”.

Life is full of stress, especially as a developing youth, so having the ability to return to oneself in a calm and steady manner is one of the greatest tools we can provide. The tool of “resiliency” is what we call an “actualizer”: it creates the context for other tools to be understood and used. Examples of tools enabled by resiliency include communication with integrity, wise utilization of personal strengths, humble identification or personal needs, cultivating the ability to communicate complex emotions, among many others. Examples of techniques to create resiliency include group exercises around mindfulness, collaborative projects that tell the story of each individual member, and reflective essays around personal place and meaning.

Why resiliency? Because life can be hard, and we need to have the tools to become ourselves again.

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The fallacy of teenage rebellion

Growing up as a teenager I was told by friends, teachers, my parents (among others) that my teenage years were the time for rebellion. It was assumed that a child between the ages of 14 and 18 would by definition lash out against adult figures, authority, the system in order to move through some innate urge triggered by hormones, peer pressure and social anxiety.  Then, once we graduate from high school, turn 19 and go to college a magical transition happens and we are told the time for rebellion is over- the focus shifts to choosing a major, finding a career, getting married, etc.

To be honest, I did feel a need to rebel, yet I was and am still not convinced teenage rebellion is given a proper voice in our society. Perhaps the act of rebellion, rather than a phase that one must go through that represents hormonal shifts and labeled as “teenage angst”, is actually a cry for a shift in the way our culture deals with education (more like ‘instruction’), and the destruction of our true selves in order to fit into a societal mold.

Before going off the deep end into philosophical quagmire, let us imagine a world where teenagers are NOT rebelling against authority. Picture a classroom where every child 14-18 is obediently absorbing every thought, belief and byte handed to them. In this world, where is the innovation? Where is the challenge of the current paradigm in order to make way for the future? The teenage act of rebellion is not merely a hormonal shift (although one might say the hormones enable the rebellion to exist), but rather a precursor vision that something being taken for ‘normal’ and ‘necessary’ needs to change. Rebellion, when given proper context and a voice, helps the world shed its old skin and step into a new, necessary way of being.

And what happens when rebellion is not given a place, or is merely stereotyped, told to go in a corner, and count to 10? Google search ‘teenage violence’, ‘suicide rates’, ‘youth drug use’, ‘bullying’, ‘sexting’, ‘depression’, etc. etc. and you will have your answer. The world as we know it is screaming that there is something wrong with youth, yet rather than look at the distress signals as a sign to create a system that can listen to the message, we place a label on teenagers to isolate them and continue with business as usual.

My thoughts on rebellion, especially when looking at specific cases of youth who are ‘acting out’ is that teenagers are using rebellious behavior to tell us they are looking for more responsibility, more personal meaning in the world, and a place in which to share their feelings. All we need to do is open up the space to listen.

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The Importance of Student-Teacher Relationships

An often overlooked aspect of an educational system based on grades / test scores / aptitude tests is the interpersonal relationships between teachers and students. According to an article in The Atlantic magazine titled Kids Get Better Grades When They Share Similarities With Teachers, facilitating an awareness of connections between teacher and student can have a positive effect on grades.

Taking this a step further, my feeling is creating a healthy relationship between teacher and pupil would have the most positive impact on the educational system as a whole. In order for youth to learn from someone, it makes sense they would need to listen and have respect towards that person. Perhaps most importantly would be to create an understanding of shared connections between educator and learner- a process which would ultimately lead to empathy.

And once you have empathy? That is another story for another time…

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Service Learning Methodology

Adobe Photoshop PDF

A framework for building resiliency education in the public school system.

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Modern Myth-Making

I recently came across a video promoting a book called “Story Wars” dealing with the importance of empowered marketing that can help give consumers the tools and knowledge they need to make informed and socially responsible decisions.

The video is brilliant in making the case to learn more about the book (I am almost tempted to order), yet the glaring message I took from the story in the video is that we as a culture are not connected to a meaningful myth that is self-sustaining. In other words, the myths we have attached to are mainly consumer based or based on a system that has nothing to do with the laws of the natural world.

There are few, if any, current myths having to do with what Climate Change, the ever-present war on terror,  or the continuous stream of media really means to us as individuals and a connected global society. Not only that, the stories we do have also fall short on the universally important themes of sustainability, self-reflection, empathy and creative individualism. Are we unable to tell our own stories, and therefore have to hire marketers to do it for us? Or are we just telling ourselves the WRONG stories: stories that are fear-based, lack the total imaginative potential of humanity, or will fit into 6 second bytes of time that we spend between 2 meaningless acts as we go about our day?

My thought is we have to re-learn how to interpret the events in our lives, as individuals and communities, to be able to tell and share the stories that truly signify what we are going through. When we can do this collective re-interpretation, we can approach the problems and trials of each day with a wisdom founded on understanding the context of our lives by having a deeper lens with which to view the world. This needs to start with kids as young as 5, before they are told their imaginations aren’t “real” and won’t matter in the world. I say we have “personal myth-making” class as a part of every student’s upbringing- start at elementary school and go until graduation. Then, hopefully, the stories we tell ourselves and others can be true reflections, not only of who we are, but of what we hope to be.

Oh:

The Myth Gap

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The Importance of After-School Programming

When I was deemed old enough starting in 7th grade, I was left home alone during the hours between school letting out and my parents arriving home from work. This spacious period of 2 hours was enough to relax in front of the TV, play video games, have an adventure outside, never do homework, and hang out with friends who also were left alone during that pivotal 4 to 6pm window.

What started as innocent play changed as some of my classmates began experimenting with drugs, mainly alcohol and weed. I started hearing about these endeavors at school, but because I lived far enough away from the town center I was often not a part of the activities. Hearing what my friends were doing and not being able to participate created a huge desire to know what was going on. This desire coupled with the time spent alone at home led me to experiment with trying what was in my parents liquor cabinet, or later attempting to make a pipe and smoke some weed that someone had given me. As 7th grade turned to 8th, I soon found myself a part of some of these “extracurricular” experimentation activities after-school as a way of satisfying a desire to fit in and ultimately understand what the buzz was all about.

If not for sports and organized after-school programs and activities I was involved in at this time in my life, I may have continued down the road of experimentation with substance to perhaps meet greater consequence. After-school activities starting as early as 6th grade gave me a structure that created greater resilience and a healthier environment, allowing me to develop safer habits with friends. Even if I didnt choose to get involved in some after-school events, my parents always encouraged me to stay busy with something that kept me ‘focused on what was important’. This encouragement was enough to get me to do things that ultimately shaped who I am today.

Many of my old classmates did in fact suffer greater consequence from repeated experimentation with drugs and alcohol that starting during the 6th-8th grade period. They were also the kids I remember as having little involvement in community after-school programming. Later in high school, they became the ‘ex’-cool kids that struggled to maintain good grades and stay out of trouble. I look back at the after-school opportunities I had to participate in; sports, hanging out in a teen center, playing games in the park, building planter boxes in a community garden; and I realize that giving young people a task to work towards together can greatly help in building the capacity within themselves to make smarter decisions while also collaborating on creating healthier ways to hang out.

I propose that communities get together and discuss ways to keep kids meaningfully involved after school- create a mini-sports league, build a garden, start a youth club, create team-building activities, etc. The possibilities are endless. In short, a community needs to create space to engage youth while also having a discussion about what youth are doing, in order for the youth themselves to understand the motives and consequence of their actions.

For more information on activities for youth in Marin County, check out these links and/or email for more information:

Coalition Connection: Working to change community norms with respect to underage drinking. Visit website for more info. http://www.thecoalitionconnection.com.

Ross Valley Coalition for healthy youth: A new coalition starting to create healthy norms and activities to build a healthy community and prevent youth alcohol and drug abuse. Email for more info at rossvalleyhealthyyouth@gmail.com.

The Fairfax Youth Club: A new after-school program starting in the Fairfax Community Center at 16 Park Rd, open M-Th from 4-6pm. There is an OPEN HOUSE on Wednesday the 17th from 4-6pm with information on healthy activities for youth.

Zach Laurie is the co-founder of Roots to Branches, an organization that seeks to create safe and dynamic learning experiences for youth. Roots to Branches runs in-school community service projects and after-school youth programs. Their website is http://www.rootstobranches.org.

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Service learning as a tool for prevention?

We recently facilitated a Ross Valley Community Meeting around underage youth alcohol and drug use, and the experience was truly eye-opening. Many community members were in attendance, and data was shared from a Healthy Kids Survey (here is a link to the site) that is administered to students throughout the state of California. Apparently, although Marin County consistently ranks in the top 5% in areas such as self-reported health, healthy air and physical activity, the county ranks in the bottom 25% in terms of excessive or binge drinking. Further analysis of the report shows that Marin County is one of the highest for adolescent drinking rates as well. 

A flyer for the event

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At the Community Meeting, presenters shared the Healthy Kids data and a student/teacher panel were present to answer questions. Many of the questions hit along the lines of why this problem was occurring: what is the reason so many youth begin to drink and use drugs at such an early age? Many answers were given: lack of communication with parents, no respect for the law, and several root factors were presented such as easy social access, insufficient enforcement of laws and inappropriate promotion of use. However, as the night went on it was obvious many people in attendance (including myself) wanted to start discussing solutions that would solve the problem. Given that the meeting was created with the intention of raising awareness, we continued to facilitate to ensure everyone was able to understand the issue as clearly as possible, knowing that a strategy of solutions was the next step. 

At several moments during the meeting there was acknowledgement that a primary motive, or the reason for youth onset of drinking and using, was still hard to come by. As I researched effects of alcohol and drugs on the teen brain (here is a website for specific effects of Marijuana on the developing brain), I realized that youth awareness education is paramount to helping tweens and teens understand the issue before it is too late. Looking deeper at the data; into “where the river begins” so to speak, I began to see areas where youth begin to feel disconnected from their peers and environment, and then potentially trend towards alcohol and drugs as a way to “fill in” these gaps. These areas are outlined in the Resilience Indicators and Connectedness portion of the survey. Students were asked a series of questions to find out if they had Caring Adult Relationships, High Expectations, or Meaningful Participation in both School and Community Environments. The resulting aggregate data shows “High, Medium and Low” connection levels to each. I was not surprised to find that as students got older (and alcohol and drug use levels went up), levels for each resilience indicator went down, especially in regards to Meaningful Participation in both School and Community. Could it be that along with the string of stresses associated with being a youth, that youth were drinking and using drugs because they were…bored?

This data dive resonated with my experience as a youth: a student who maintained good grades throughout high school, was a member of football and track teams, honor society and student council yet still occasionally drank and smoked marijuana. I also had married parents who had stable incomes. My data set would have driven experts nuts- why does this kid use? The answer may have been with the environment around me: social influence of others using, a stress-and-forward driven culture of getting into college, and the altogether lack of meaningful connection to my environment. But what does lack of meaningful participation really mean?

As we continue the process of community meeting facilitation, school and youth engagement, I am willing to bet that by including youth in the process of creating meaningful service in their community; ultimately connecting what “School” and “Community” actually are; they will begin to feel more connected to their environments for a longer period of time. Will this “service learning” increase the resilience indicators associated with underage alcohol and drug use, thus lowering adolescent drinking and drug use rates? Only time; and well-executed strategies; will tell.

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Inspiring Change Within

In a recent conversation with one of our youth group facilitators and a superintendent to schools, we discussed how the value of learning is really only met when a student can personally connect with the subject and make it meaningful. This led us to what we, as facilitators and teachers, need to do to inculcate this personal connection to learning within a classroom and student environment. We realized that in order for learning to be personally meaningful to students, the act of teaching had to be just as (if not more) personally meaningful to teachers and educators. Here is an emailed paragraph from one of our facilitators before she left to attend a Changemaker Workshop:

“When I think of future generations, what concerns me is their disconnection – from self, community, and the natural world – especially with the increasing use of cell phones and computers. It’s up to us to pass along to our children what it means to be connected, what it means to be a compassionate humans living in a way that serves all beings in the web of life. 

To further explore my role in that vision, I currently facilitate youth leadership and nature programs, where I support young people on the adventure to be their authentic selves, find their voice, build meaningful relationships, and experience themselves as important contributors to the community of life.
 
Will you join me in saying yes to empowered youth, yes to a healthy and harmonious world, and yes to a planet where all life thrives?”
 
When I read this, I can’t help but feel the excitement, personal connection and passion that she brings to her work with youth. Imagine if all educators could tap into this and share it with others? Our hope is to create dynamic learning experiences, both within and without the classroom, to teach youth to have the passion to bring their gifts into the world to make it a better place. We had better start with ourselves.
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