Tuesday, August 27, 2013

PC/BCNY Training at Camp Cromwell in New Jersey!

Earlier this month Project Coach once again had the opportunity to work with select members from four BCNY clubhouses. This particular week-long training marked the third summer in which the two organizations have met together at Camp Cromwell in Martinsville, New Jersey. It is a partnership that makes great sense. It is a great pairing of two youth development programs that aim to change entire communities by positively affecting and guiding children and teens who are the future of those very communities.
     This great combination of program leaders, graduate students, veteran coaches from both PC and BCNY, and eager first time coaches proved to be a powerful, motivated mix of driven individuals. As soon as we arrived at Camp Cromwell we were greeted with open arms by the camp director and his staff. We knew the week ahead would be full of positive experiences, productive lessons, and fun filled activities.

     The morning of the first day, however, which involved a seven hour training session beginning at the basketball courts, had called for rain. Not a good way to start things off. The project coach staff who was up, ready, and focused at 8am and set for the BCNY coaches' arrival, felt a little bummed. Was this really the way this week long training camp was going to begin? The moments that ensued, though, were completely unexpected. We had no idea that this wary weather was exactly what this BCNY group needed to jump start their Project Coach experience.

From the moment we hit the court the coaches brought incredible energy as we taught them the PC model for introducing and running a game. These motivated teens, most of them first time coaches, were running, sliding,  competing, and encouraging one another. What ended up being the highlight for many of the coaches from both programs was an incredible first impression for all involved. This moment set the tone for the entire weekend and the energy seemed to spill over into the rest of the week.

We crammed all different types of lessons, ice breakers, activators and activities into two long days of training for these future coaches who were set to take on groups of 6, 7, 8, and 9 year old boys from each of the BCNY clubhouses during the upcoming week. While the weekend training felt very full, all lessons and experiences were chosen to sufficiently prepare the teens for the intense and important role of coach. With so much information being thrown at these young adults, there were many moments of fatigue. However, the teens were resilient and took valuable components from each lesson and situation.
With the support of the BCNY staff and the willingness of the coaches to take on all of our challenges, this newly assembled team came out of the weekend ready to run soccer and basketball sessions for their young, neighborhood counterparts.

As the Monday morning sun rose on camp Cromwell, the BCNY/PC team was prepped and ready to manage, guide and entertain a massive group of children from various boys clubs of New York City.Talk about energy! These kids were quite a handful for our young coaches. Luckily PC staff and veteran coaches were there to provide support and feedback. As the children piled off the bus, the coaches only moments behind them, we knew it was go time and our skills would be put to the test.

The first day involved the Project Coach staff being extremely hands on, with most of the BCNY coaches having the chance to see how a PC "practice" runs. As the week unfolded, however, these coaches began stepping up and taking the lessons they had learned and applying them directly to their specific group. A part of the PC model that was extremely beneficial to this group was the immediate reflection sessions we held following the morning and afternoon sport periods. Each day the coaches improved drastically because of the way they were able to give and receive critical feedback among their peers. Shout outs were given to those who stood out in that particular session and video feedback seemed to be extremely powerful as many of the coaches were able to see themselves in action, highlighting areas for improvement as well as all of their strengths.
     Throughout the week the coaches experienced a roller coaster of moments and emotions. At times the young children made it tough for these coaches. Introducing a game, giving instructions, or getting water all proved to be difficult tasks during these moments. However, seeing the way our coaches responded to these frustrating instances and made adjustments on the spot, was a great thing to see. With a little guidance and quick reminders about topics covered during training camp, these coaches responded incredibly well with energy and enthusiasm.
   We had the group answer a few questions as part of their reflection on the week that had passed. The questions were; what were your top five highlights of the week? what were four things you learned this week? What are three things you will take with you to your boys club? And, How would you improve the training camp?
   The answers didn't surprise us, but they certainly excited us and demonstrated that the coaches learned many of the concepts and ideals we hoped they would. 

These were some of our favorite answers:

I learned how to be a well structured coach, watching kids and helping them out, how to make friends, and take responsibility.

My highlights of the week were; Hanging out with cool coaches that trained me and coaching with other coaches from different club houses. I learned don't be shy and always be energized! 

A highlight was meeting everyone in PC, they were polite and friendly. I learned sportsmanship, and used video feedback that helped learning and improving take place more rapidly.

One highlight for the week was creating a positive relationship with the kids.I learned how to talk to kids, remain calm, problem solve, and the best ways to talk to other coaches.

"I didn't know I could coach"
I helped little kids, learned how to keep them interested, how to get their attention, how to give feedback, and how to get them motivated....I learned how to COACH. I also learned how to really connect with the kids.

I learned new skills and techniques to handle kids when they're a upset or mad.And I learned that you can always learn new things!

What these coaches seemed to take away from the week long training camp is everything that we try to teach and what we strive for at Project Coach. Having a growth mindset, problem solving, communication, brining energy, planning ahead, giving and receiving feedback. These are just a few of the concepts and attributes coaches take with them after experiencing our program. But arguably the most important concept, a factor of life that we aim to focus our attention on this year with the youth of Springfield, is building and sustaining positive relationships. Everywhere we have gone this summer Project Coach has built bridges and extended its reach by developing hundreds of meaningful, individual relationships with staff members and students alike. 

The best part about the week we worked with all the BCNY clubhouses was simply the solid relationships that were formed in such a short period of time. As a whole these two programs were able to connect on a number of different levels. From directors and staff to coaches and players, the positive and genuine relationships that formed over the course of the week proved to be extremely valued and acknowledged by all. The bridge between BCNY and PC has been built and we know this relationship will continue to grow and develop even further into the future.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Graduate Student Reflects on First Month in PC: Teens Rise to the Challenge!

Anna Hallman, Project Coach Graduate Fellow

Anna Hallman is originally from Middlebury, Vermont. Anna spent her freshman year at Gettysburg College, and then transferred to Smith College. She graduated from Smith with a degree in Education and Child Study, with a concentration in Elementary Education. In her senior year, Anna volunteered at Project Coach running college application workshops, college tours, and a Spin-A-Thon fundraiser for the program. As a graduate student, Anna is looking forward to gaining experience in higher education, and to contributing to Project Coach alongside her fellow Red Shirts (PC Fellows). Below is a reflection Anna wrote on her first month of her Project Coach Fellowship. She clearly experienced what is so magical about Project Coach - the ability for a teenager to step outside their comfort zone, receive support and positive feedback, and to find new confidence and power. 

Our experience in Holyoke was fulfilling, challenging, at times, and enlightening. We began our work in Holyoke, with 20 students interested in Project Coach for a variety of reasons. They seemed to excel in their growth and understanding of PC within the first week. Certain students were clearly stronger than others with the coaching component, but as we explained to the students, everyone had his/her own strength, and could contribute to the team in unique ways.
From a literacy perspective, it was fascinating to observe the students strengths and areas of improvements with reading, and more specifically, reading out loud. Each week, we asked students to preview a children’s book - all of which are sports-themed. The preview would typically take place on Monday or Tuesday during class time. On Thursday, the students were asked to read aloud, in small groups, with the children of the Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke. For some of our high schoolers, reading out loud was one of the scariest aspects of our program. For others, reading came more naturally, and did not activate major anxiety. We encouraged every student to read at least once during the program, and I believe that the large majority did. The first week was successful, but of course, there was room for improvement. 
The second week proved most challenging. Before I go on, I must clarify two things: first, we are reading in a gym, which presents a deficit from the outset (the children struggle to stay focused in a gym, not to mention their burning desire to just play rather than listen to a story); second, the high schoolers received one lesson on how to read to children - with the exception of that, and as much positive encouragement and support that each of the Red Shirts could provide, the students were largely depending on prior knowledge and experience with reading (which could have been positive, or negative). However, despite the odds, the students persevered, and did an incredible job the third and fourth weeks. We spilt the children into smaller groups the last two weeks, spaced them out as best as we possibly could given the space, and loosely assigned one PC Fellow to each reading group. The other factor that seemed to make a difference was my prepping the children before the high schoolers arrived; I would do a picture walk with the book of the day, first to give them a heads up that, “Today is a literacy day,” and second, to activate their prior knowledge, and get a sense of what they already knew (which was often an astonishing amount). I felt so proud of the high schoolers by the end of the program. So many of them overcame great apprehension and anxiety in order to read aloud. And while it felt tedious at times, and as though we were asking them to complete a great task without a tremendous amount of prep, as a whole, they took the challenge in stride, and impressed us with their professionalism, their bravery, and their perseverance.
Like with so many things, it felt as though we were just getting to the “good part” at the end of our time in Holyoke. That said, I remember the month of July with fondness, and am encouraged by the students’ ability to learn as quickly as they did. Our work is a tremendous learning experience, not only for the students involved in our programming, but also for us. Our time in Holyoke was telling of many of the obstacles we may face this year, but also of the sense of achievement, happiness, and excitement that comes from doing the work.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Project Coach Director Reflects on Attending The Freedom Writers' Institute

         As the Director of Project Coach, I was recently given an amazing opportunity to travel to California and attend the Freedom Writer's Institute led by Erin Gruwell and many of her original students from Long Beach. As part of a cohort from Springfield Public Schools, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn more about reaching at-risk teens and to connect with other Springfield educators. Immediately after arriving, the fast-paced, intensely focused five day training began. We were quickly whisked away on a tour of Long Beach, made a stop at Wilson High (where Ms. Gruwell taught the Freedom Writers), and then arrived at the Freedom Writers' Foundation. The next day, we began the classroom sessions of the training which combined actual lessons Ms. Gruwell did with reflection on how to incorporate them into our work. With a three phased approach to both the training and the curriculum (engage, enlighten, and empower), the institute helped us understand how to build relationships, get teens interested in writing and storytelling, and help them become activists and community organizers.  While I was taken with many of the activities, this final piece of empowering and motivating youth to become agents of change resonated with me and the goals of Project Coach. I immediately began brainstorming ways to further empower youth in PC, to help them write and tell their stories, and to truly create activists. Another major takeaway was how many excellent, motivated, and dedicated educators Springfield has and that more collaboration between schools, after-school programs, and colleges would allow the work of these educators to truly blossom. Lastly, after speaking with many of the Freedom Writers about their lives I was reminded that our task as educators is not just to get students through high school and into college, but to help guide them through college and into careers.

Educators from Springfield in front of Wilson High 

         In the foreword to The Freedom Writers Diary, Zlata Filipovic (a teen who wrote and published a diary from the Bosnian war and who the Freedom Writers brought to California) writes, "I have realized that we cannot completely erase all the evil from the world, but we can change the way we deal with it, we can rise above it and stay strong and true to ourselves...most important, we can inspire others". This quotation captures the theme of our final days of training which I most want to inject into our Project Coach programming. In our last two days, we heard two Holocaust survivors speak, toured the Museum of Tolerance, and discussed how to empower teens to make real and inspiring change. While the whole of Project Coach asks teens to make change in their neighborhood by running high quality after-school programming and sports practices for young children, I realized we could be asking even more of our amazing teens. We have in small ways engaged our teens in some political events in Springfield and some community service outside of Project Coach, but after returning from this training I am convinced that our teens should be much more involved and active in the city of Springfield. Furthermore, I believe our teens have a wonderful perspective on urban education and should be sharing their ideas and solutions with the country. I would also like for our teens to gain more of a global perspective and become international agents of change. I believe that they are ready and able to take on these challenges. 

Springfield Educators, Erin Gruwell, and Freedom Writers in Long Beach

       In addition to the ideas about empowering youth to contribute on a larger scale, the institute reminded and reinforced the ideas I have always had about young people needing to tell their stories. Last year, Project Coach collaborated with WGBY to have ten of our teens complete digital stories about something powerful in their life. Many of them chose to tell about Project Coach while some chose to capture how dance or music influenced their life. Watching these videos months back, I remember thinking how powerful it was for them to write their story without any molding, editing, or remodeling from adults. Attending the institute, meeting the original Freedom Writers, and rereading the Freedom Writers Diary, reminded me that our teens have the power to alter their course and their life through writing. Not only is it incredibly healing, it creates a sense of control and ownership that many at-risk teens lack in their often unstable and unpredictable lives. By controlling their story, they learn to control their experience, their actions, and their futures. 

       As the institute took up almost all of our waking hours, involved many personal and emotional activities, and included deliberate bonding experiences, I became very connected and close to many Springfield educators during the trip. I met teachers from every high school, a school committee member, administrators and after-school youth programmers like myself. As our Project Coach teens come from these high schools and spend hours in many of these teachers' classrooms, I felt this was a hugely valuable experience. I was able to explain the program, discuss our challenges and our experiences connecting with schools, and talk to teachers about teens who might be a great fit for our program. We also had in depth conversations about urban education, the issues facing Springfield, and the solutions we believe in. We talked about creating deeper connections between the schools and youth programs in Springfield and how this wrap-around service could truly help at-risk teens. When leaving the airport, I found myself sadly realizing I would not see everyone again until the end of September (we already have a follow-up experience planned). I also wondered why this experience to connect with educators from Springfield was a rarity and hoped that this training could improve that. 

Project Coach Director with Erin Gruwell

     The final theme that stood out to me was the idea that as educators our job is not finished when our teens graduate high school. The original Freedom Writers are now in their thirties and still receive support, encouragement, and guidance from Erin Gruwell and from each other. Many shared about how hard the transition to college was and that without the support of fellow Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell, and the foundation they may never have made it through. As Project Coach recently learned by continuing to employ five of our veteran coaches as they began college, much of the support young adults need only begins when they enter college. As Paul Tough spoke about while visiting Springfield, the real evidence of a successful program, educator, or school is whether or not their teens make it through college. While high school is challenging, the financial, emotional, and mental stress teens experience in their first few years of college is unmatched. Many of our teens struggled to pay tuition, had family issues that almost pulled them away from college, or even dealt with debilitating health issues that threatened their success. Figuring out how to continually support and guide teens through this crucial part of adult life is the next evolution for any youth development program. 
      As Project Coach prepares to start another year, employ another 50 teens, and collaborate with both Springfield Public Schools and Smith College, we will work to incorporate all of these ideas about positive youth development. As the director, I truly look forward to our continued growth and improvement as a program and I am certain that attending this training will make us a stronger support system for Springfield youth.