Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen, MAJCS/MSW
Director, URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp
Just between us youth workers, we all know that other people just don’t get it – other than knowing that we work with young people, they have no true understanding of what we do and what it takes. That’s why people can say “it must be so much fun to get to play with kids all the time!” and “getting to be at camp all summer must just be great!” And we just grin, nod, and say “it sure is.”
The question I have been asked multiple (and I mean multiple, as in significantly more than twice) times in recent weeks is some variation of: “So, are you gearing up for summer?”
But I just can’t grin and nod at this time of year. I just have too much on my mind, and on my plate, to play the game. I can’t take it anymore.
EVERY time I have been asked the question, my response has been the same: “What other choice do I have?!? Summer is going to get here whether I’m ready or not!”
I try not to sound desperate, because that’s not what I’m feeling. And, it’s not frustration, or anger, or disappointment, or anything particularly deep. It’s my verbose, and interactive, way of saying “Sheesh!” (Sheesh, an interjection, used to express disappointment, annoyance, or surprise. Fun fact: According to Merriam-Webster, the word was first used in 1972 - I presume by an exasperated youth worker!)
I know the people who are asking are just trying to be courteous, to show interest in me. If I really had to explain to people what I REALLY do – the hours, the broad range of skills and abilities required, the depth of commitment required, the aggravations, the rewards, etc. – it would take a long time, require several visual aids, and…
It wouldn’t matter. I’m not in youth worker to receive validation from the larger world (although it would be NICE). I am a youth worker because it gives me the opportunity to help build the Jewish future. Because of the work I do, I am able to impact the lives of so many young people in so many meaningful ways. Every day, in so many varied ways, I get to make a difference in the lives of others. And that’s a pretty good reason to get out of bed every day.
Now leave me alone! Summer is going to get here whether I’m ready or not! But I’d rather be ready.
Originally Posted at http://lanetwork.facinghistory.org/and-the-award-goes-to/
When I was 12, I was stuck at home the entire summer with my leg in a brace, recovering from knee surgery. My Dad, never one to miss an opportunity, decided this would be the perfect time to give me a crash course in cinema. A film buff, my Dad had waited all twelve whole years
of my life to show me the films that shaped, inspired and entertained him and now, because I couldn’t outrun him, he was going to pass those films on to me.
Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, the Marx Brothers, all of Chaplin and most of Woody Allen. Dog Day Afternoon, The Deerhunter, Dr. Strangelove, Singin in the Rain, Godfather (only 1 and 2 of course) and the entire Mel Brooks collection, this Dad-curated summer of cinema exposed me to films that shaped my Dad’s point of view and, in turn, began to shape mine.
Two movies, seemingly unrelated, struck a nerve with me as I sat there that summer. “All the Presidents Men” a 1976 film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The film was based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their time at the Washington Post as upstart, young reporters and how they uncovered the Watergate Scandal, bringing down the Nixon administration, forcing Nixon’s resignation from office. These two men fought back against editors, politicians, pressure from everywhere to stop searching for answers. But they persevered and found the truth; two people standing up for what was right and making an impact heard the world round. Their unflagging curiosity and drive and their belief that the American people deserved better were unbelievably resonant to me. Even at 12 I admired their strength and began to question what I would do in a similar situation.
So too with Gerry Conlon, the character played by Daniel Day Lewis in the 1993 drama”In the Name of the Father,” based on the true story of the Guilford Four, four young Irishmen and women wrongly accused of bombing an English pub in the midst of British/Irish violence in the 1970′s. While a decidedly different film, this movie focused on a small group of people who fought for what was right, fought for their innocence and didn’t give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. This man, Conlon, watched his father die in prison with him and lost many of the best years of his life as he fell victim to the rage felt in his community. The fact that Conlon stood up, spoke out and never lost hope reverberated with me so strongly and I launched, headfirst, into a phase of never-ending reading about “The Troubles,” something I never would have known anything about if not for this phenomenal film.
I was 12. With a brace on my leg and Dad sitting next to me, but as I watched those films, I felt something-a sense that I, too, could make a difference. Sure, I wasn’t an Irish freedom fighter or a DC journalist, but I understood what it felt like to be counted out and looked over. So many of our students do. The movies I was lucky enough to watch that summer helped me see outside myself and learn about the history of those who came before me. Film continues to spark my imagination, inspire me to take action and move me to speak out.What are the movies that made you think, challenge assumptions and motivate you to action?
These films are amazing tools we can use to help our students connect to the lessons, stories and concepts we bring to them every day. So, take a second to share some of the films that lit a spark in you. I can’t wait to watch them.
By Ira Miller, Director of Informal Education, Washington Hebrew Congregation
Several years ago I took over the 8th and 9th grade “religious school” program at my congregation. Since that time, some good and sensible changes have been made to improve a fairly traditional program. The program was well received, we had decent attendance and most telling, very few complaints (and let’s be honest, this is often the measuring stick we’ve used in the past!). But I was never really happy with the program. I didn’t want my standard to be “no complaints” I wanted it to be “excellence” and “excitement.” Our students and teachers weren’t engaged in the programs and I wasn’t eager to run it on a week to week basis. It was good enough, but not nearly good enough for what we were capable of.
Fast forward to September, 2012 and a program that isn’t simply acceptable to us but is actually something we take great pride in. We went away from a weekly night school model and became more flexible and accessible for more of our students. Our new program takes place on a variety of weekend days and a few weekday nights throughout the semester.
The basic philosophy of our new program was that every event had to be a special event. When teaching a weekly class over 12-14 sessions, there are bound to be days when you just throw something together and hope to survive. Our fundamental belief was that everything we did had to be worthwhile and at a high level. In order to make this work, we decreased the number of sessions but not the number of contact hours.
The highlight of our programming was our weekend day programs which brought out the best in our programming and the best in our students. Our programs were experiential, interactive, fun and used our surroundings as our classroom. We learned about being part of a community while rafting down the Shenandoah River. We explored Jewish values while standing at the MLK and Jefferson Memorials. We learned to “welcome the stranger” by going into downtown DC and understanding how cities welcome visitors.
Our students learned in new, different and enjoyable ways. They were more rested on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon then they would have been on a Tuesday night after a long day of school and extracurricular activities. They got quality social time with their friends while riding on busses and taking part in the programs. They got to use their camera phones to take pictures and answered questions via text messaging. They bonded together as a class and shared moments that simply can’t, or don’t, happen in a classroom.
And when we did bring them together during the week, we maintained the same philosophy that every program was a special program. We partnered with our local Jewish Social Service Agency to run a program on Holocaust Survivors in our community living below the poverty level. We ran a special leadership program and more.
We were originally concerned that the lack of regularity would hurt our attendance but in the end it helped us. Students who could never come during the week suddenly signed up knowing they would attend just on the weekends. Students who were busy on the weekends came during the week and enjoyed it so much that they started finding ways to attend on the weekends too. Our overall registration went up and active participation increased as well.
We knew that immersive experiences work. We knew that memories are made when you get on a bus and go with students. We knew that students act and react differently when standing in a park, at a landmark or on a city street than they do when they sit in a classroom. It was simply up to us to choose not to ignore these realities any longer. It was up to us to stop saying “we can’t do that” or “we don’t have time” and to start saying “how can we do this” and “how do we make the time.”
By Matt Jerome, Prozdor
From a very early age, children are sent the message that they need a role model in their life. A person for who can aspire to be compared. Very often, this will manifest itself in the form of teachers, sports team’s managers, parents and yes even clergy and Jewish Professionals. We are told to look at their teachings (both formally and informally) and incorporate those traits/skills into our own lives.
The following question naturally arises…who should you pick?
I believe there is a more important that must come prior to answering this one. That question is do you want a role model, mentor or a coach. What is the difference? There are distinct and important differences in the 3 different types of people that can have influence over your life. Making the right choice will determine your interaction with the individual.
In a comparison between the 3 types, there are many commonalities. They all embody a person that has qualities and/or skills that you would like to emulate. They will have something that they can teach you. Very often, the teachings are not lessons that come from a text book or a study. More common than not, they manifest themselves in the form of life lessons and failures that occurred in their own life.
A role model is an individual in which the behavior is observed from a distance. It is very likely that the role model is someone that the individual and the role model have never come into contact. They have certain qualities or practices that are admired. A few examples of this include athletic abilities, charitable contributions and success their selected occupation. Emulating these attributes is perfectly fine. The drawback to having a role model is the lack of 2-way interaction. It is purely an observational relationship with no form of discussion. There is little to no way to get life lessons from the role model.
The largest difference between a role model and a mentor is the one on one interaction. A mentor is someone that the individual works with on a fairly regular basis. Usually, they are in the same occupational field or the mentor served as a teacher of the mentee at a previous point in their life. The concept of a mentor is based on behavior. For the mentee, it answers many of the following questions “What did you do get here?” “Have you encountered this problem?” or “I want to succeed but am unsure how?” It involves observing the mentor (similar to a role model) but also includes the opportunity for discussion, evaluation and progress through 2-way communication between the mentor and the mentee.
We’ve all had some sort of coach throughout our lives. When you think of coach, you think of sports. A sports coach looks at a player’s skill, evaluates it and gives them advice on how to do it better. The basis of this relationship is the same in any form of coach. People have skills. The individual and their coach have a task based relationship. This is contrary to the behavior based relationship mentioned for the mentor. A coach looks at you work and gives you advice on how to improve your results.
It’s great to know the differences between all of these. But how can it be incorporated into Jewish teens? This has everything to do with teens. Every day, we encounter students in programs and communities that need guidance. Look at the issue they are facing and determine what type of person they need. But you may find that you are serving all of these roles at once. They will observe you from a distance, ask for help on life or even just how to be better at something. Take a minute and look around. You may already be a role model, a mentor and a coach for someone in your life.
By Barrett Harr, Director of High School and Youth Programs, Temple Shalom, Dallas
The URJ’s Portraits of Learning study recently found that only 20% of students educated by our congregations are engaged in congregational life post-b’nei mitzvah. This statistic implies that the traditional model of programming for adolescents is broken. Times are different, our students are different, and the needs of their families have changed. Three and a half years ago, under the guidance of our congregation’s Senior Rabbi Andrew Paley, I was challenged to come up with a new model for post-b’nei mitzvah education. The plan was to expand our school from grades 8-10 to 8-12, increase attendance and engagement, and better meet the needs of the families within our congregation. At this point in the experiment, I offer the advice below.
Don’t be afraid to try something new. The task force of parents and students I formed created a model that was philosophically different than our previous school and youth offerings. We offered our families a choice of days and times to attend classes and gave the students the freedom to choose their classes or design their own independent study experience. We added the expectation that our students would regularly attend not only religious school, but also services, summer camp, retreats, or youth group events, as well as engage in acts of tikkun olam. We were basically training our students to be model Jewish citizens. We gave them the freedom to choose, and in exchange we raised the bar for what we expected from them. Our entire model is credit based, so students are only eligible for Confirmation when they earn a set number of credits, regardless of the grade. Students may also graduate from the program when they earn a set amount of credits. In a time where our families were already overstretched and our students were under an immense amount of pressure to achieve, this model was going to be tough to swallow. Since our goal was to create a model where our students would be practicing the skills we felt necessary to become lifelong Jewish learners, the risk was high, but success would yield immeasurable rewards.
Give it time. Although we all know the change is necessary, many families do not feel the urgency or even the need. In order to make a significant change, you need to give yourself the time to truly test your new model. As you might imagine, the drastic changes we made created quite a bit of commotion within our congregation and our community. Some families embraced the responsibility and the choice of the new model, seeing that moving the burden to the students to direct their own experience would lessen the battle about attending classes. Others felt the opposite—since being a part of the confirmation and new graduation class was no longer simply a matter of attending a set number of classes during the year, other families were upset by what this would mean for them. We have always felt that creating lifelong Jewish learners is a partnership between the synagogue, the students, and the parents. With this new model, we all share the responsibility. Three years later, I can tell you our gamble was worth it. We are seeing the highest levels of engagement in our formal and informal youth programs, have the largest youth group in the region, see youth participating in all areas of congregational life and retain almost 70% of our students post-b’nei mitzvah.
If it doesn’t work, try something else. You may miss the mark. Articulating clear goals at the outset will let you know if your efforts are paying off. Don’t let missteps discourage you into going back to an older model (which you already know was ineffective). Even if we achieve success, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to keep up with the needs of our students and families and regularly assess if we are doing so. An atmosphere that supports experimentation in the name of doing the best we can for our teens and families is crucial to ongoing success. We can afford to fail as long as we learn from our mistakes. Solutions are only going to be found by communities willing to try new things. We can’t afford not to.
By Ira Miller, Director of Informal Education Washington Hebrew Congregation
One of the many things that stuck out on the first FULL (very full) day of the 2011 URJ Biennial was a call from some to move Confirmation to 12th grade as a method to keep our teens engaged throughout high school. While I understand the rationale for this I am not in agreement with this suggestion. Living in a time where teens are used to quick returns and instant gratification this is the wrong move. It is hard enough to convince teens to stick it out for 3 more year that we would lose all but the most committed families by asking them to make a 5 year commitment between Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation.
Instead I would recommend that we add another milestone along our teens Jewish Journey by encouraging congregations to offer their own "diploma" or at the very least a graduation at the end of 12th grade. I would love to see a national 11th and 12th grade URJ curriculum that would include the following:
*In 11th grade a year of in-depth study of Israel. Students at this age are ready to learn the full story of our homeland, deal with her struggles and challenges and learn in a serious and meaningful way about the prospects and opportunities for peace in the Middle East.
*A movement wide transition to sending all of these 11th graders to Israel during the summer between 11th and 12th grade. This trip would be made substantially more meaningful after a year of study and would better prepare our students to walk onto college campuses knowing where they stand with Israel. (Yes, I realize that currently this is the "CIT/Machon" year at most of our URJ camps but I think that could happen at a different time and that an Israel experience is another important tool for our camp counselors to have. But that's for another blog).
*This Israel experience must be prepared for starting at Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I suggest asking EVERY Bar/Bat Mitzvah student to contribute $500 (as a goal - could be lower or higher for those who need/want) towards their Israel experience. This money would be matched by a partnership of congregations, Federations and the URJ and would be pooled together to maximize interest earning potential. When a student participates in a URJ Israel experience they would get their original contribution plus the matching plus some accrued interest towards the cost of their trip. Students who choose not to travel in this way to Israel would get their initial deposit back (without interest). Additional partnerships must be created and leveraged to make these trips as affordable and attractive as possible in order to compete with the allure of the Birthright experience in college.
*A 12th grade curriculum that would harness the energy from these Israel experiences and would bring them back to our communities. This curriculum could include college credit courses for our most serious students, teaching opportunities for those who want to share their love of Israel (these high school seniors would be wonderful role models for our 6th, 8th and 8th graders) and/or other college prep type programs to give our teens a greater comfort level as they prepare to become active Reform Jewish leaders on college campuses nationwide.
Completion of this two year program would be recognized by the URJ and local congregations and students would be celebrated as graduates of the program. This could and should be as widely recognized and celebrated as confirmation is now.
We have heard time and again at this Biennial that it is time for a paradigm shift and this is one that I believe would fundamentally change our movement at all levels and most of all provide new and exciting opportunities for our 11th and 12th grade students we currently struggle to engage.
written by Lindsey Morgan
The latter part of the evening began with one simple phrase “and the aye’s have it.” With that, all of our hard work and dedication had been affirmed. The Reform Youth Professionals’ Association is officially an affiliate recognized as a partner of the URJ—a partner in doing the incredible work of engaging our youth and teens. “Can you believe this is real?” Hours later I am still sitting here and wondering how we have traveled so far so quickly. While this conversation has been ongoing for years, I can’t help but think about the progress that has been made in such a relatively short time.
Just one year ago, our name was brand new. We were not sure what the appropriate punctuation of professional’s professionals PROFESSIONALS’ was, we did not have a logo, we certainly had not decided on a color scheme. We were a group of committed individuals that knew we wanted more yet we were not really sure where we were going next.
This evening I sat in Bobby McKey’s Dueling Piano bar. I was surrounded by countless friends, peers, partners in the work of informal Jewish education. I had no idea there were so many people affiliated in some way with the professional work we do to engage youth, let alone people that would take the time out to celebrate our launch. There MUST have been at least 200 congregational youth advisors, assistant camp directors, URJ staff, clergy and supporters of the work we do sitting in one place. We are real. We are very real and now we know that there are Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, and Jewish Professionals that are more aware of who we are and what we are trying to do. I have to admit I think I am still floating on air.
For over two years the Leadership Team has worked together to get to this place, and here it is. As I was sitting on a stool greeting by the front door it occurred to me how monumental this experience was. Not listening to the dueling pianos (though, Jay Rappaport did play a MEAN piano, and upstage the locals) but sitting in a room as a Youth Professional with other Youth Professionals…who were once my youth groupers or campers. Then I realized this perfectly illustrates what we are as an organization trying to do. We are here to take each and every youth professional and work with what they have to help make them the best they can possibly be. If we fill our Reform Congregations with people who care about youth and help teach them how to be dynamic youth professionals, we will succeed in working ourselves out of our own jobs.
The experiences these now young-adults had at summer camp, in our TYG, at regional NFTY events contributed to developing a career path that includes creating an environment for teens that was once (hopefully) created and fostered for them.
Ten months ago, at NFTY Convention and Youth Workers Conference in Dallas, Texas Rachel Mersky-Woda wrote a blog for Convention about generational leadership. When I was 17 years old, I stood on Masada as a teen participant traveling in Rachel’s “camp” through Israel. Though she was not my madricha, I remember looking up to her and thinking, “wow, I want to be liker her when I grow up.” At NFTY Convention, more then ten years later, she wrote about the joy she felt being surrounded by youth professionals she once served as staff for. As everything in Judaism seems to come fill-circle, I rejoice this week and take in every moment I stand side by side with professionals who were once my teens.
Whether your role is as a congregational youth professional, camp counselor, lay leader, clergy, formal educator, or supporter…we could not have achieved the success we already feel as an organization without your support. THANK YOU for being part of something truly dynamic, dare I say historic.
(and to Heather Kufert- never in a million years would I have thought you would be where you are today, but I could not be more proud. There were a lot of late nights, long talks and tears when you were a teen…my first year as a youth advisor you were a freshman in high school! Now I am so proud to call you a fellow youth professional! Just think about which teens YOU could be sitting here with 20 years from now!)
Written by Matt Jeromeoriginally published for Jewish Boston
Jewish Education celebrates all kind of intellectual and pedagogical heroes. Volumes have been written about the philosophical underpinnings of the field and the icons of the field, in addition to countless case studies of inspirational teachers, heroes, educators, and thinkers who have changed the lives of their students.
Even with all of these phenomenal figures, past and present, there's one leader that probably doesn’t get recognized as being a role model for Jewish experiential education and teen leadership. That person? Dewey Finn
, the character portrayed by Jack Black in the movie School of Rock
Before you dismiss this idea, take a moment and dissect the film. Dewey Finn is a slightly over-the-top musician that assumes the identity of his best friend and takes a long-term substitute teaching position at a local prep school. It’s a less-than-auspicious beginning… at first he does not know what to do with the students, and essentially gives recess the entire time when they are not with specialists.
During Music class, he passes by the room and notices that the students are surprisingly talented. He takes everyone and teaches them how to use their classical music skills in rock music. In addition to those playing instruments, he also utilizes the talents of others in the class for managment, wardrobe, lighting and even designated a few students as official “groupies.”
But Dewey does have an ulterior motive. He is determined to win the upcoming "Battle of the Bands" competition with its $10,000 prize, and convinces the students that the concert is actually a competition between other school bands in the state.
Later, it is revealed that Dewey is not who he says he is. The students, after working with Dewey and creating a strong relationship with him, realize that the whole thing is a sham. On their own, they decide to proceed with the Battle of the Bands competition and they end up winning the prize.
So where’s the connection to Jewish Education and teen leadership? The entire movie is a model of how one person can be a role model to young people. How can someone leverage their own talents, the interests of their students, and a desire to promote a culture of excitement and set an expectation of mastery in order to create effective learning? It’s a question that we have struggled with for Jewish teens for generations.
This case isn’t a perfect example, but it is educative. Despite Finn’s dishonesty, he captures something special and constructs a place where learning happens. While the initial spark comes from his own selfish interests, he is able to harness the potential and enthusiasm of his students to take them to a place of real success.
This is also a story about the power of relationships. It took a Dewey Finn to activate the potential of the class. Our classrooms, camps, and synagogues face the same challenge. Today's teens are constantly looking for someone they can respect and have a strong relationship with. They need people in their lives that they can look up to and be inspired by, and can push them to new heights. This person can, and has, come in many forms. Clergy, youth professionals, educators and anyone that works with teens can serve in this role. By giving students experts in the subjects they teach, and allow our teachers to teach and our students to learn what they are passionate about, we will be able to set them up for success. Our challenge is to connect our passions with the students’ desire for mastery in a way which also satisfies our Jewish educational needs, but by starting with mastery and passion and then working back into specific content, it’s a much more constructivist, student-centered approach.
Written by Brett Lubarskycross-posted from BrettLubarsky.com
Last spring, I wrote about why I thought every classroom needed to include iPads for student learning.
Fast forward a year, and many downloaded apps, and I stand by my previous blog post.
I'll cut right to the chase. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)
Press has released iT'filah: The Mishkan T'filah App
. I downloaded it on the first day it was available for a few different reasons:
1) I was curious about how it would be formatted, and what different technologies would be incorporated into the app. Not surprisingly, there are multiple surprises included! From the ability to navigate effortlessly through the e-Siddur, to the option to listen to selected prayers and blessings with a simple tap on the screen, I consider this a very successful first attempt.
2) Continuing from my last point, I then thought about how the app could be used in the educational setting. Whether in the classroom or sitting at home with a B'nai Mitzvah tutor, this hits a home run for many reasons. Our students (read: digital natives) are hard-wired to tap, scroll, search and record. They do it all day long, and they need to be doing more of this in the Jewish educational setting. Center-based learning opportunities? Check. Individual enrichment? Check. Smart-technology-based lesson ready? Check.
3) This is the first (of my knowledge) Reform-friendly siddur application for the iOS. There are a large number of apps that have been around for a while, but none of them connect to me like the book I pick-up when I enter the sanctuary on Friday nights. To be able to pray out of my iPad...is a thought I haven't had yet. But now I'm wondering: what will it feel like to be holding the digital device vs. an actual book? Will I find it enhancing my worship experience, or taking away from it? I don't want to distract others, but also am interested in providing an example that there are different ways to connect (pun intended) to the worship experience. Does an iPad belong in a sanctuary, even one that is using screens, a wide array of microphones and musical instruments? The iPad is all of these, but in a different case.Rabbi Marci Bellows (fellow tech-lover and URJ Eisner & Crane Lake Camps enthusiast) has a thoughful piece in The Jewish Week.Here's an interesting blog post by a colleague in the field that poses the counterpoint.
So...in summary...my jury is still out...kind of.For the Jewish educational setting: homerun.
Kol ha'kavod to Rabbi Dan Medwin and CCAR for making this happen. As always, I'm excited to see what the next steps will be as we better utilize technology to enhance our learning and connections to Judaism.
written by Lindsey Morgan
I am sitting in my office trying to think of the right way to summarize what it means to be a youth professional for the teens that walk through my door each day. Some of them think “all you do is play with us and send out flyers.” Others are sure I just sit on facebook all day. And while all three of the above are integral components to my job, it is really far more complex. I truly believe that I am here and in this profession to help teens through one of the most difficult stages of their life. A childhood friend of mine joked the other day, “you couldn’t pay me a million bucks to relive high school.” I chuckled, thought for a moment and replied, “I do it every year.”
Though I have only been in my current position for two and a half years, I am currently serving in my 12th year as a youth professional. When I think back on the cycle of the years and the ebbs and flows, there is one thing I have learned more from my teens than I EVER took the time to learn for myself. I have learned volumes about THE COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS!
One of the most exciting things for me about being a youth professional is the place we hold in the eyes of many of our teens. We are able to be an adult in their life that takes a vested interest in their success without the perceived judgment from parents (for grades, sports or the cleanliness of their room), performance driven goals of coaches and subject-specific emphasis from teachers and club sponsors. We are there to look out for the “whole teen” if you will. We just want them to be successful and know there is someone that cares how they are doing.
As our juniors begin looking towards college decisions and our seniors work through their application process there are a number of things we can do to help them through the process without being overwhelming. It is nice to let them know you care.
Ask questions and don’t give answers
The more you know about their decision making process the better off you are. Each teen is different and what is right for one may be totally off for another. Ask where they are applying, why they are looking there, what other schools they are considering, do they have a desired major, is there a plan for grad school post undergrad. You get the picture. The reality is, their parents have probably asked all of these questions—but they often don’t talk about it the same way with them. You are a great sounding board for your teens. Just having someone listen to them without interruption is a nice change of pace.
Listen to their answers
If you have been doing this for a while, you might know the difference between the answer teens feel they are supposed to give and the answer they really want to give. Being able to give them the time to just talk will often offer you an opportunity to ask questions a different way so teens can clarify their own thoughts and answers in a new way. Sometimes there is more to “I am just applying to XYZ” than appears on the surface. Give teens an opportunity to share what is behind the answers.
Find out what they think their parents think
Yes, you read that right. Ask your teens what they think their parents think. Sometimes it takes a non-parental unit to remind them that their parents actually have a lot to offer the process. As trusted adult figures in their lives, it is important to remind teens to talk with their parents about the process. What is reasonably affordable? How many schools are realistic? What happens financially if I get in to a school that is a bit more expensive? How much of the application fee and eventual tuition fee are the teens expecting parents to pay? Do their parents want them to apply to a school that they are simply not interested in attending? The more realistic teens can be through the application process, the easier the decision-making process will be. Just having another adult say things their parents say (who aren’t their parents) can be beyond helpful. (parents will thank you for this one too!)
Encourage creative essay writing
Think about how many teens are applying to each and every school out there. I like to remind my teens to think about writing something that nobody else on the planet could be writing. They have to set themselves apart. Face it, if they are applying to Indiana University or Brandies or Wisconsin—their summer trip to Israel might not be such a unique essay. Their 8 summers at summer camp might not make them unique either. (I learned that one the hard way.) But, a specific experience they alone had CAN set them apart. Writing about what they personally saw from standing atop Massada is something nobody else can see. Talking about the value of teamwork, being a part of a greater whole and scoring the winning points at Maccabia during the rope burn might be the difference. Talk through the ideas-help them get specific.
Remind them why they are unique
It is my belief that each and every teen should feel special for who they are. Take the time to remind them why YOU think they are unique. What do YOU think they are good at. If you can tell them why you think they are unique, they can take that and think about what THEY think they are unique and then use that to tell the colleges why they are the best choice for the college or university. Value their individuality!
Check in often (especially on those nervous Early Decision-ers)
I don’t just mean once they are waiting for the decision. I mean—while teens are working on their applications, when they are deciding where to apply, when they think they are done applying. Once you get through the whole process; where to apply, what to write, applying, and waiting…oh the waiting is the hardest part! Having someone to just check in casually on progress is nice. Not the neurotic Jewish Mother saying “you SHOULD be working on your ESSAYS right now, not video chatting with friends until all hours.” The casual, “how’s everything going? Your essay good?” can mean the world of difference.
Know what resources are out there
I am not by any means an expert on this college thing. But you know what, I know people who are. Know your resources. If teens have college questions and challenges beyond your grasp and listening ear make sure you know who to send them to. It is great to have an idea of the regional college structure, how each of their high schools goes about the application process and what SAT and ACT scores are considered “good” these days (did you KNOW there were 2400 points on the SAT now…) in order to be helpful. However, sometimes the most help you can be is knowing when to direct teens to someone that knows more about the topic.
As I sit here I am surrounded by hundreds of pictures of teens with whom I have worked over the years. Many of them have graduated from college now and some of them have even become youth professionals in their own right! I look at these teens that have come through the programs with which I have worked and there are ivy leaguers, teens that transferred schools, teens that took a year off before college, prestigious scholarship award winners, some following their greatest dreams that never believed they would actually succeed in that field, some looking for a safe paycheck, some in jobs that will lead to more school, some in their dream job. There are kids studying abroad in Mali and London, Paris and the Czech Republic.
Each one of these teens is unique in their own regard and learning as they travel the journey. Everything I have shared here are things I have learned along the journey. Again…I want to clarify I am in no means an expert…I am not by any means a college counselor. I do not claim that the information above is by any means comprehensive. What I do want you to know is that there is such incredible value in the work we do with the teens with whom we work. I aimed to share with you are some of the tid-bits that helped me help them. I have learned this stuff through the years and I am still learning more. If you have any great tips, we hope you will share them with the community as well!