On Thursday, October 20, the Afterschool Alliance led afterschool programs and champions across the U.S. in celebrating the 17th annual Lights on Afterschool. Every year, this event highlights the powerful, vital role that afterschool programs play in keeping kids safe, inspiring them to learn, and helping working families. I think it’s a great time to make sure that we shine an especially bright light on afterschool educators—the quiet superheroes who make a difference in the lives of children and youth every day—and to think about how we can support them. There are many ways to do this, including ensuring that afterschool educators are fairly compensated for their important work, building program leaders’ capacity to mentor educators and foster continuous quality improvement, and making sure that all programs have the resources they need to provide young people with rich learning experiences. In this post, I discuss some specific instructional strategies that, when they are the focus of professional development for afterschool educators, help them make the most of out-of-school time learning for children and youth.
OST learning environments offer the time and space for afterschool educators to help children and youth dive deeply into meaningful inquiry-based learning and expose them to exciting future careers. This can include supporting them in exploring STEM and empowering them to become youth media-makers (read an article in which my colleagues Tony Streit and Wendy Rivenburgh share “Four Reasons Why Media Making Is Critical for Youth”). When it comes to training afterschool educators in facilitating inquiry-based projects, we have found that many educators need support with guiding youth in coming up with questions on topics that they really care about. Often when youth are asked to come up with project ideas, they will go with what is immediately available to them—something that they like, such as sports or music, or a topic that they think they should pick, such as climate change or social media. It is important to distinguish between what youth like, what youth think you want them to focus on, and what youth really care about. When youth dig down to the things that matter the most to them, they design projects that they are far more dedicated to exploring.
Since 2001, EDC has been home to YouthLearn, an initiative in which Tony, Wendy, and I lead professional development experiences for educators that prioritize project-oriented, inquiry-based learning to inspire youth ownership of their learning experience. YouthLearn’s philosophy is that the most powerful learning occurs when youth are engaged in projects that are purposeful, designed to have impact, and connected to issues that they care about. This approach to teaching and learning has become the foundation for all our project work, which includes curriculum for youth media educators, trainings for afterschool STEM professionals, and professional development for news literacy educators.
If you look across all of EDC’s afterschool training and curriculum, you will see four, core instructional practices referenced time and again that support educators in facilitating inquiry-based learning:
- Create a positive learning environment that supports creative idea development, self-expression, and peer-to-peer sharing. Provide opportunities for young people to explore and engage meaningfully with topics of interest to them. We integrate writing prompts throughout our materials for afterschool educators to support them in encouraging young people to engage in creative and expository writing about issues they care about. We also share team building and hands-on collaborative activities that educators can use to provide excellent opportunities for youth to share their thoughts and learn about one another.
- Lead structured brainstorming activities. Idea development is a critical stage in any project, and two techniques we advise afterschool educators to use often with young people are Target Mapping and Webbing. These techniques rely on organizing ideas in such a way that, instead of just sticking to a more general brainstorm, youth are pressed to get more specific with their questioning and, further, to brainstorm how they will find answers to their questions.
- Make connections to young people’s experiences outside of the program. Drawing on youth’s knowledge of and experiences in their communities is one meaningful way that afterschool educators can make these connections. Community Asset Mapping, a technique that has been around for years, is a great way to do this. It can be as simple as having youth draw a map and identify the resources that they know exist in their community, such as people, organizations, businesses, and public spaces. You can extend this activity by going out into the community and interviewing community members and documenting with photos to create a more dynamic map.
- Reflect on the learning experiences throughout the project. There are many ways for afterschool educators to guide youth in reflecting on what they are learning, from journal writing to one-on-one interviews to group discussions. We have found providing opportunities for reflection throughout the project, not just at the beginning or end, helps youth develop reflection as a habit of mind that deepens and enriches all kinds of formal and informal learning.
In addition to scaffolding inquiry and making for rich afterschool learning, these practices also cultivate key competencies in youth—collaboration, communication, and creative thinking—that give them a head start to success in post-secondary education and careers. Interested in learning more? I encourage you to contact me to share your questions (firstname.lastname@example.org), as well as your own efforts to support afterschool professionals. And, go to the Afterschool Alliance’s website to find a “Lights On Afterschool” Event near you. Together, we can keep shining a light on afterschool—and on meeting the needs of afterschool educators—year-round.
- Learn more about all of YouthLearn’s resources and follow YouthLearn on Facebook.
- View the Youth Media Resources that we developed for the Adobe Foundation on Adobe Education Exchange, explore our free AYV Youth Media Guide, and read inspirational stories about youth media-makers and youth media-making educators around the world.
- Visit the Resource Library we have developed for the Administration for Children & Families as part of our work leading the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment (NCASE).
- Read a related report that EDC produced, “A Learner-Centered Design Method for Educational Technology,” and check out EDC’s free OST-related resources on our STEM Learning and Research Center and National Partnerships for Afterschool Science websites.
- Find out more about our work to support OST programs and enhance OST learning throughout the U.S. and around the world.