From an interview conducted by U.S. China Relations Fellow, Li Sai
"When I was sitting at the “secret discussion” held by 212 leadership in Edina high school, I was constantly amazed by the capabilities those 17-year-olds have showed, either when they were making difficult decisions on selecting the next cabinet or trying to figure out the best way to announce the news. What’s more, those discussions were happening almost without adult intervention", said NYLC's Director of Training and Leadership Development, Julie Rogers Bascom at the beginning of our interview on this cool Minnesota morning.
Julie continues, "I use 'almost' because the teacher was indeed sitting next to me." Julie, who most of the time was observing while sometimes bringing up key questions, is the person behind 212 Leadership at Edina High School.
1. The sentence that has changed her life path
Julie is the Service-Learning coach at Edina high school while also serving in her capacity at NYLC. She speaks slowly, but every sentence she says would provoke you to think for a few seconds. She graciously masters the power of slow.
Her career working with youth begins with the education experience of her own children. Julie’s children were born in Oakland California and attended a local independent school. Unlike other private schools, this one was special. Over half of the students were of color with 40% receiving tuition assistance. However, students who graduated from this school, ranging from their social emotional learning to other soft skills like critical thinking or communications were just off the charts compared to their peers in other schools.
So, what is the secret?
The answer is that the school has a service-learning program where every student is engaged throughout the year. Julie was deeply touched by the effectiveness of this approach and believed that service should always be part of her children’s lives. Shorty after that, the family moved to Minnesota where Julie’s children went to Edina. At that time, Edina did not have something like service-learning. So Julie approached the teacher asking whether she could lead a unit on service-learning. Call it fate or destiny, not long after that trial the school received a grant from the federal government to implement service-learning. Excited about the news, Julie hurried to the school interested in knowing more about how the money would be used. “The teacher asked me what would you do if you had this grant, so I told her ideas I had in my mind.” And next, Julie heard the sentence that would later change her life. “Well, when can you start?” That’s how Julie got the job. Since then, she has been nurturing young people grow through service and this year is her 15th year since she received that job offer. It seems that this unexpected job offer stems from her children’s education, but perhaps it has been written in her life code way earlier.
2. The light on a Christmas morning
Julie grew up in a farm in Minnesota. Her family and the neighborhood are all Christian, for whom Christmas is a big deal in the community. One Christmas morning, Julie’s father came back home with a piece of bad news - one of their horses had fallen into the pond! How absurd! This had never happened before and it hit on a Christmas morning, who would come to help? In half an hour, Julie’s father made three phone calls. A few minutes later, 12 farmers showed up in front of the house with ropes and all kinds of tools they could think of to get the horse out of the pond. Without doubt, they collectively saved the horse and a Christmas time that could otherwise been sad for Julie’s family. Until now, Julie still holds vivid memory to that morning. The kindness of the neighbors is like a light to her, not only lit up the festive atmosphere but also her pursuit of the common good. Julie chose to pass that light to the younger generation, in order to honor the legacy of her father’s generation and to support young people to make themselves, the society and the country even better. However, when some students come to Julie asking to volunteer or service, instead of getting them immediately onboard, she usually asks them what they are interested in or what they are passionate about. “Many students do community service because they want to look good on their resumes.” Julie is very cautious about that because to her, service is not a checklist or a project to be done, but a genuine heart for solving problems. “Service-Leanring is not a project but a process.”
Julie further illustrated with a story about blankets. One day, a group of elementary students wanted to tie blankets into fleece so that they can give to homeless people. Consuming quite amount of time, they finally delivered the blankets to a homeless shelter. To their surprise, the woman at the reception was almost offended. The students were very disappointed, “that’s how you appreciate our hard work?” The next year, a teacher who had been trained in service learning encouraged the students to find out the reason. During their investigation, a student called the homeless shelter. What he heard was, “we love your blankets but you didn’t make up for the size of what we need. They were too short for the men who sleep here.” Finally, the students understood why. For their first try, the goal is actually to tie up blankets and get the project done, while the second is to find out what is needed.
I have seen many service and volunteer programs, either initiated by children or adults, are actually to make people who did it feel good, without meeting the real need. Then how to avoid such a result? Julie’s answer is asking good questions.
3. What does a good question look like? What is a good question? How to ask good questions?
This is not a ability only required by journalists. A proverb says asking the good question can solve half of the problem. Some good questions can make strangers suddenly become friends while some can provoke deep thinking which is particularly important to young people. Julie has introduced me a tool she finds transforming, the Question Matrix. Take hunger for example, referring to this matrix, you can write questions like what is hunger? When does hunger happen? Which factors would trigger hunger? Who would be affected by hunger? How might we tackle the problem of hunger? To name but a few. As the question becomes harder, the students begin to think deeper and more comprehensively. In fact, the attention on asking questions reflects the shift on teacher’s role. “I would rather be a coach than a teacher.”
Julie remembered one of the 212 leadership member once said to her, “this group is nothing like other groups I have ever been because you don't tell us what to do. You just ask us questions and help us figure it out.” To Julie, this was the one of the most rewarding moment in her career life. With all those years planting the seed of facilitation and watering with good questions, she finally harvested the blossom.
4. Have you practiced respectful conversation?
Handling student conflicts is inevitable to a teacher. Knowing how to manage conflicts is not only useful for a teacher but every one of us, after all who has not have some friction with others? I remembered a few years back, I was in an interview and one of the questions was, give an example of a time you have a conflict with someone and how did you deal with that? I thought for a long time. Not because I never had such experience but I always choose to avoid confrontation. It seems to me that all controversy would lead to quarrel and eventually a breakdown.
But is it true? Maybe not if I have tried respectful conversation.
Respectful Conversation was brought up by Minnesota Council of Churches as a protocol for discussing difficult topics. Since 2012, more than 3,000 Minnesotans have participated in over 100 Respectful Conversations on a variety of divisive topics such as gay marriage or “race” relations. Julie came across this approach right after the 2016 presidential election, at which time anger needs a rational outlet. When people with different opinions begin to sit down and talk, magic happens. 70% of participants report: “I have a stronger sense of empathy for those whose viewpoint is different from my own.” Over 95% agree that they felt listened to, and this process is different than a polarizing debate. Even months after their conversation experience, people report greater awareness of their own listening attitudes, more curiosity about those they would previously have considered opponent, and even transformed family relationships.
American researchers have long criticized about the lack of robust discussions of public issues in the classroom. Given the current environment of increasing ideological and cultural diversity, many teachers are fearful that open discussions may be hurtful to marginalized students. Together with Minnesota Council of Churches and Minnesota Civic Youth, Julie has been promoting Respectful Conversation in classrooms which includes the following steps.
2. Three questions
3. Final reflection
Norms are protocols agreed by the group, for example, practice respect, listen carefully, respect confidentiality, so on and so forth. One of the important norms is speak for oneself using the “I” statement. Julie said American schools and out-of-school programs often teach students how to debate, but when discussing controversial topics, starting with “you” can go emotional and extreme. That’s why offering “my” opinions and feelings is critical.
Respectful Conversation entails three questions. The first is what in your experience or background or values leads you to your feelings/opinions, the second is what are your hopes and the last is what are your fears. Each question lasts one round where students can choose pass or pass for now. Teachers should also give students some time to think beforehand. All this is to reduce students stress and anxiety when they face with tough questions. Once the three questions are completed, the conversation comes to a final reflection session, aiming to help students reflect individually and as a group. Teachers don’t want to experience awkward silence but they also don’t want to see someone talking endlessly. Thus, a timer is a must. Last but not least, all the steps mentioned above don’t necessarily have to be done by teachers. Instead, Julie always trains students to be facilitators of peer discussions.
5. What is the key word of your life?
In her spare time, Julie is involved in an organization called “Doing Good Together” which helps families with resources and ideas of how to raise children who care and contribute. One Saturday when Julie was attending their retreat, she met a man outside the building who looks like experiencing homeless or similar situations. When the guy learned what she was working on, he said, “well my mom had eleven children, seven are foster kids and she still made sure that whatever anybody in the community needed they got it. Even until today, we still need an organization that teaches people how to be kind to each other, that’s so…”
Julie didn’t finish the rest of the sentence. But she didn’t have to. She is doing so by her behaviors. No matter as a volunteer or consultant, she always tries to be closer to the common good. Since working with NYLC four years ago, Julie has been enthusiastically promoting service-learning to ensure young people are able to make responsible decisions that will benefit all of us. Although there are high mountains to climb ahead, she believe the goal of our education should be creating active citizens and service-learning certainly is the solution. For Julie, civic engagement has become the center of her life.
If she didn’t send her children to that school in California, if she didn’t volunteer to lead that service-learning unit in Edina, if she didn’t grow extra curiosity to ask about that grant, Julie said she might be a housewife now. This job has opened the door to a professional career, gradually making her an expert in the field, more importantly, it continues to help shape the world a little girl saw on that Christmas morning.
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