By Sam Piha
Providing opportunities for youth to reflect on and express their thoughts and feelings are a critical strategy for any afterschool program. These opportunities are essential to promoting youth voice, healthy youth development, social emotional skills and resiliency, especially those who have experienced trauma. Strategies and activities include sharing circles, poetry and spoken word, journaling, videography, art and the theater arts.
We interviewed Johanna Masis (Program Director, Oakland Leaf) on the importance of using sharing circles to promote youth voice and self- expression in afterschool programs. Below are some of her responses.
Q: Why is it important to provide youth with opportunities to reflect on and/or express themselves and their feelings?
A: There is a misconception that the majority of youth have an adult in their life that sits down with them and gives them uninterrupted, dedicated time to converse about what is going on in their daily lives. Families are stretched thin...even more so with the stress of the current COVID-19 era. Youth's feelings can be minimized given the increased stressors of current life. Having a platform for 20-30 minutes* to reflect on or express themselves is self-care. It's free. It's crucial. It creates connections.
*Regarding the 20-30 minutes: As an organization, we were unable to find hard data about the ideal dosage and duration for a circle. This 20 minute increment is what we do at all of our programs daily solely based on being able to give each youth participant an opportunity to speak/share once the prompt has been provided.
Q: Do you think that sharing circles are a good way to provide these opportunities? Why?
A: Out-of-school time (OST) venues allow for these opportunities to happen; it's embedded in our everyday practice. Youth learn to wait their turn to speak. They learn to empathize with their peers. Many of them end up sharing similar experiences that cut across race, religion, gender, etc. Dedicated time to engage in reflection also creates opportunities to connect their learning from the day and builds critical thinking.
Q: Do staff need special training?
A: Staff needs training first with regards to managing their own bias and assumptions about youth and their circumstances. So often, adults default to how "THEY" grew up. Talking about your feelings may not have been culturally appropriate or even a concept. Secondly, staff needs to know how to hold space and sit in discomfort. We don't always have the answers and that is okay. However, it's important to seek out what continued support may look like on a case by case basis. At the forefront of these pieces of training is the reminder that staff are mandated reporters. There is a legal obligation to report any harm a young person is experiencing.
Q: Can you provide one example of a sharing circle you conducted that resulted in a meaningful opportunity for self- expression? What age were the kids?
A: I supported a 2nd-grade afterschool instructor with a circle after we observed a carjacking across the street from the soccer field on which our youth were playing. Because some of the youth heard the screaming from the victim and saw the weapons the carjackers had, the instructor quickly brought them indoors and circled up while I was on the phone with the police. We let them express what they saw, let them ask questions, asked what questions they had, and reassured them that we would ensure there was a follow up with their families.
Q: Can you recommend any good resources/ websites for afterschool programs that want to learn more?
A: I pulled some resources we used to create our Oakland Leaf Restorative Justice curriculum:
Johanna C. Masis is currently the Program Director at Oakland Leaf. She started her career as a high school teacher and later joined AmeriCorps. She taught abroad in Japan and has, since then, dedicated herself to promoting creative ways for youth to learn in different capacities. She has directed youth programs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bladium in Alameda and Denver, as well as language programs in Alameda and San Francisco. Johanna first joined Oakland Leaf in 2013 as the Site Manager for International Community School Afterschool Program. For the Fall 2014, she assumed a new role as the Site Manager for Oakland Leaf’s afterschool programs at both the International Community School and Think College Now campus. In December 2015, Johanna Masis become Oakland Leaf’s Program Director. As part of the Oakland Leaf community, you can expect to see her energy, compassion, responsibility, work ethic and natural leadership skills in full swing.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.