Eight years ago when we first began thinking about community-based reading promoters, a group of Guatemalan advisors cautioned us saying:
“We’re going to tell you the truth about teens. You can’t build a successful literacy program that depends on teen-age kids! At that age they are just too distracted and unpredictable.”
Despite warnings from the “experts,” we piloted our first group of seven teen reading promoters and never looked back. In fact, many of the anticipated liabilities associated with working with this age group have become keys to our success. Here are three truths we have discovered over the years.
It’s not that they are distracted. They crave variety. Between 12 and 18 years of age our brains are wired for novelty. Teens sometimes struggle to focus on routine and repetitive tasks. So, our facilitators use a wide variety of experiential methods to engage their heads, hearts, and bodies. In turn, our teens are taught a wide array of techniques they can pair with dozens of different story books.
It’s not that they are unpredictable. They embrace risk more readily. We provide our youth leaders with healthy opportunities to take personal and collective risks. In fact, we have learned that young people will take risks to benefit their communities that adults won’t take! In the face of their own fears, our youth leaders have initiated and built community libraries, put on community-wide reading fiestas, and made presentations to elected officials.
It’s not that they are unreliable. They value peer approval. In the same way that peer pressure can lead to bad choices, it can also lead to responsible ones. Our youth leaders identify strongly as members of a team. As evidence of this, they proudly carry the colorful Reading Village book satchel everywhere they go. They know that the way you earn the respect and admiration of your peers is to become a skillful reading promoter and dependable team members.
These truths translate into a number of imperatives for our field staff in Guatemala – 1) work with the teens in ways that are dynamic, flexible, and experiential, 2) encourage healthy risk-taking, and 3) build a strong sense of team connection and peer accountability.