Transcription of the episode “Student stories: SEL through writing and sharing lived experiences”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:17] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Our guests today are Keith Hafner and Betsy Cohen of Youth Communication. Keith founded Youth Communication, a program to help teens express their lived experiences through writing, in 1980. He served as executive director for 40 years and is now senior advisor. Betsy succeeded Keith as executive director. Welcome, Keith and Betsy.

Betsy C: [00:00:41] Hi. Thank you for having us. 

Jon M: [00:00:44] Could you tell us what needs Youth Communication addresses and how it works?

Betsy C: [00:00:49] Sure. Youth Communication really exists for two reasons, one of which is to make the stories of New York City’s young people, particularly its most vulnerable young people, heard and to give them a platform by which to share their stories, to help others.

The second piece is on that other side, which is to give New York City adolescents who are at risk of becoming disengaged, who don’t feel represented by the content they get in school, to give them an opportunity to read stories by peers like them going through similar challenges, to help them build their social and emotional skills  and to build relationships with their peers and with their teachers. The stories that our young people  write really serve to benefit their peers in a more widespread fashion.

Jon M: [00:01:41] What effects do you see the stories have on students who read them?

Betsy C: [00:01:46] Our stories are, I think, really uniquely engaging. We tend to hear time and time again that kids who won’t read anything else can’t put our stories down.  Right. So particularly kids who may be struggling or may be not feeling super engaged in their academic content in school or in other programs that they get, they feel represented, engaged and involved by the stories that we provide.

Keith H: [00:02:19] And I would add that the teens often write about challenges that they face and teenagers and adults, often when you’re facing a serious challenge at first, often think you’re the only one who’s facing it and it has something to do with something about you personally, which is partly true. But when you read a story about a young person who is describing a challenge they have faced and you face the same challenge, you suddenly feel a sense of relief that you’re not the only one facing this. And also, whether you realize it consciously or unconsciously, you realize it’s partly a social problem. It’s not just your own problem, because other people are facing it and they are, they’re having similar experiences. So that sense of relief and sense of solidarity that kids get from reading, hearing about other kids and how they’re managing challenges is really important. 

But then it goes, you know, many, many steps further. The first one is that because of the way our writing program works, the kids aren’t just telling tales of woe. In fact, that part of their stories is minimized.What they’re really focusing on the stories is how they have managed the problem. What specifically they have done, how they’ve used social emotional skills to manage problems, overcome them. And so the reader not only feels that sense of relief and connection to someone else who’s facing the problem, they can see that it’s a manageable problem and someone just like them has indeed managed it and has showed them how they’ve done it. So the stories serve, you know, very practical functions in those ways.

Jon M: [00:03:53] Do you want to give any examples of some of what you’re talking about?

Keith H: [00:03:59] Sure. I’ll give you an example of a story by a kid who was writing about his first day at work and he was a cashier at Macy’s and his cash register broke down and the line began to grow and people began to grumble and he was getting frightened really and feeling like he just needed to flee. There was nothing he could do about this. And at some point, someone, uh, there was some point in which another employee came over and asked what was wrong and then began to help him and he calmed down a bit. And then some customers learned it was his first day and they started. being supportive of him. “How could they treat him this way on the first day?” and that sort of thing. So what his story is really about is how he turned a situation that could have led to instant and utter failure. You know that something went wrong. He responded badly or angrily lost the job, and then, you know, it didn’t, hadn’t worked out. Instead, he writes about how. you know, a classic technique, getting help from a colleague, helped him to maintain his cool. And even he, I think he even used some strategies like breathing deeply and things like that. And so we use this story in a curriculum about career readiness and everyone, no matter every teenager, every adult feels anxiety on the first day on the job. And when you’re anxious, you’re likely to overreact. And so this story provides a beautiful example and instruction about how to manage difficult feelings on the first day on the job.

Amy H-L: [00:05:40] What does the writing and editing process look like? 

Betsy C: [00:05:45] We work with New York City teens often for weeks, if not months, at a time to develop their stories. We recruit kids from all over the city and particularly recruit kids who have experienced some sort of trauma or some have had an experience that would be useful and instructive for another teen like them. So we have a particular focus on working with kids in foster care, but also recruit kids who have experienced homelessness or have been adjudicated in the past, have difficulty with parents, or maybe was the shy kid in class who’s thinking about how they overcome that shyness to get what they want. And they work with a full time professional editor in our office over the course of, again, several weeks or months to write their story. And as Keith was saying, stories really condense the part of, you know, what happened to you, and really spend the most luxuriate in the time of what did you do? What skills did you use, what strengths, what resiliencies did you rely upon to get through it? And that’s really, I think, important to how authentically it appears to the reader. You know, not dwelling on a tale of. victimization. But survival, I think, is incredibly important and that can take a very long time to get through. 

But again, the reason I think that this writing program in particular is so unique is that, you know, of course the students learn to write and they learn to write very well, but their purpose is not in improving their writing skills at first. Their purpose is really in helping someone else. And that is something that makes these stories incredibly transformative because there’s a really sophisticated way that they unpack who they are and what strengths they have. That feels very affirming to their peers on the other end when they read them.

Amy H-L: [00:07:30] When you’re talking about a period of months, I mean, that’s pretty serious writing.  Do many of the writers drop out? 

Betsy C: [00:07:40] I wouldn’t say many. I mean, Keith might have a different answer to this, but I wouldn’t say it’s many. I think that to go into a little bit of detail, we have kind of two parallel writing programs and they function mostly the same, but a little differently from each other because of the population.

So we have one editor who works with kind of our general population. The writers there apply to the writing program. It’s usually treated as an internship for them or, you know, an after school activity and their time mostly is pretty concentrated, but they’re there for a semester or for the summer. Sometimes they stay on longer to write a story if they’re not done, but mostly it’s pretty structured.

And then we have another editor whose entire focus is on working with youth in foster care. And that just works differeently. We don’t have an application process for them. Any foster youth who wants to write for us, we work with them and try to make this process approachable and supportive for them, and sometimes they will go away and come back, but because the editor is such a unique adult in their lives, where they’re supportive and they’re asking probing questions, kind of like a therapist would, but they are also treating the writer like a professional. You know, our editors are professional journalists. They’re not social workers, they’re not teachers. They’re there to get the story and the writers really respond to being treated like a professional with something to say. So long answer short, it’s, I think, more uncommon for a person to go totally AWOL and drop out. It happens from time to time, but not often. 

Keith H: [00:09:19] And they often come back a year later when they’re ready. But one thing about this difficult, why it takes a long time to write a story. I’m reminded of our most recent issue of our foster care magazine where the topic is lying, based broadly speaking. And so when you’re an editor working with a young person or any person, any writer, to produce a story, truth is one of your most important concerns. The story has to be truthful and yet young people are untruthful often in early drafts. And the editor’s job is to work that through. But it’s also the writer’s job to work that through. So it’s, on the one hand, it’s frustrating for the editor because you know, why don’t you just get to the truth, but it made us think a lot about, well, why are kids making up things? And we talked with them and we talked with therapists. We talked with a lot of people about this. To discover that lying is  often a protective function for young people and that when they make themselves feel better or make the bad person worse or could completely invent something, it’s often a way of of managing pain and managing experiences they’ve had in a way that  makes life possible in the short run and that, you know, they may come through with in the long run. But as we talked about this with a writer who had had this challenge, we began to feel we could address it directly and she could write about her own lying and how that helped her and then how she has come to another place where she can look more objectively at her past.

So that takes a long time, to go through that process with the writer, just from a psychological standpoint, but also from a writing standpoint. So that’s, that’s an example of why it takes a long time to write the stories. It’s also an example of why the stories are so valuable for adults who work with young people, because if  someone, if a young person lies to you, you get frustrated with them. You just want them to tell you the truth. But this allows you as an adult, as a teacher or a counselor or a caseworker, to put that lie  into context and make it part of the conversation and not something that you judge the young person for.

Jon M: [00:11:28] Wow. You’ve been talking about the student’s vulnerability and also about, you know, something like lying. So what happens. I mean, it’s pretty clear that whole trust relationship must be getting built up between the editor and the writer. What happens if a student wants to express racist or sexist or homophobic thoughts or other forms of prejudice or bigotry? How do your editors work with the writer around that?

Keith H: [00:11:58] So this is a really complicated question, and I think in some ways you can, you can look at it from two buckets. One bucket is reasonable people can disagree about a lot of things. They can and do disagree on affirmative action, they can disagree on abortion, they can disagree on gun rights, they can, you know, a lot of topics, right. And so, say the editor is a strongly pro-choice editor, but the teen really strongly believes that abortion should be prohibited. The editor’s job is to  help the teen write that story to the best of their ability. A challenge comes in when the stories have to be fact-based. So for example, that story can’t be based on something saying like that, you know, “fetuses are viable at 10 weeks” or something like that because that’s just not true.  But it can be based on a moral or ethical position that the young person is coming from. But then you lean over into, say, somebody who thinks that homosexuality is evil, right. The question there becomes, again, you have to go to the facts if they think it’s evil because homosexuals make bad parents.  Well, the evidence actually doesn’t show that. And oftentimes people believe all kinds of things that support their  ideas that are not true. So sometimes when you work through with a young person the things that are not true, they actually change their beliefs. Other times they recognize that their beliefs are just pretty much pure bigotry and they don’t really want to write that. But other times they may feel that they have still strong, you know, moral or ethical reasons for those beliefs. And as long as they can keep it in that domain, it’s fair game. Even if it is something that you know, we wouldn’t agree with or that readers wouldn’t agree.

Amy H-L: [00:13:40] So we’re an ethics organization and I guess my question is, is there a focus on looking at the students’ experiences through an ethical lens? So perhaps revisiting their actions and those of others and talking about how their actions have impacted other humans, animals other than humans, the planet, that sort of thing.

Betsy C: [00:14:10] So I would say that the secret sauce that makes our story so unique and effective as instructional tools is the depth of vulnerability and reflection that goes into them because they are made with the purpose explicitly of helping other people. So when you go through something and you decide that you want to write a story about it so that others can benefit from your experience, you’re already considering the other and the impact you can have on other people in a really deeply ethical way. I think.

Just as an aside, we’ve been asked several times by partners or other folks whether we can have a writer visit or speak when we use their stories in a training or in a workshop. And we often say no for many reasons, but chief among them is that the story’s power stories lies really in the reflection that went into it, which is not generally replicated well in person. And that level of vulnerability is really unfair to ask a writer when they go in to speak to strangers. But in any case, the story itself in that space really does an incredible job of laying bare what I think is a deeply ethical exercise. The writer is often wrestling with ethical questions really vulnerably in the decisions that he or she made the whole way along, which again, as a tool to use in what would be an ethical curriculum, it really sparks learning that can be deeply transformational in how young people learn to treat, consider other people.

Keith H: [00:15:29] Yeah, and I’ll give maybe another example. For many of the kids in the foster care program, they’re in foster care because they were mistreated at home, and they have often strong feelings about their parents or other people who mistreated them. And yet at the same time, they actually want to maintain relationships with those people in some way in many cases. In first drafts of stories, they’re often very harsh on those people. And there’s this group at Harvard, I forget the name, it’s like a negotiation project. That in the talking about, you know,  in conflict resolution, that one of the issues you want to do is figure out what percentage of the blame do you take. Right. Even if it’s only 10%, it takes two to tango. And not that kids should be blamed for foster care situations. But that idea of seeing your own role in any situation and seeing the role of the other person and maybe what is the cause. What are some of the antecedents of that other person’s actions. That happens in this reflective process that Betsy talked about, and I’m trying to think of it in an ethical perspective. Certainly, we believe that all human beings have dignity and that our job is not to trash even ones who have done very bad things. I’m losing the thread here a little bit. 

Betsy C: [00:16:52] I’ll pick up where I think you might be going, which is that Keith has had a really firm and strong sensibility as the last read of every story we’ve published for the last 40 years, thinking about, you know, is this fair? Is that, are they fact-based? You know, often kids are writing about parents. We don’t, as a rule, interview the parents for their side of the story, which is a little tricky, but even so, Keith is very, very aware and sort of trains the editors to be very cautious about making the story fact based, right. So you can’t say, my mother was a horrible person who was trying to hurt me all the time. You can say, my mother hurt me and here’s how she did that. There’s a very clear difference there. And I think that there is an understanding that the very creation of the writing process that is I think based on what Keith was saying, all people have dignity. There’s always more perspectives on a certain story, but that the truth from a single person’s perspective, particularly a vulnerable young person’s perspective, really matters and we have something to learn from it. 

Jon M: [00:18:01] You’ve been able to scale your impact by training teachers. How do teachers use the Youth Communication program and materials?

Betsy C: [00:18:09] Yeah, great question. So right now we work with teachers in a couple of ways. We’ve developed social emotional learning curricula. We have eight of them right now, all based on different themes. And teachers use those in groups of students, typically in advisory classes and afterschool programs. We’ve worked with groups in the juvenile justice system and probation. And sometimes in English classes or even health classes, and we train the teachers to use those curriculum. We also train them just using the stories around their mindsets about young people. So we’ve done, we started doing these a few years ago. We were training a group of staff. This was before I started at Youth Communication. I believe it was from the Department of Juvenile Justice at ACS to use our gender responsive, our girls empowerment program. And then one of the leaders came in the training and asked if we could come back and do that, but stop at the point where we start talking about how to use the curriculum and just do a training about how to be more supportive to kids struggling with gender issues. And so we’re really seeing a lot of promise and important work there because that’s, I think, where we can have one of the biggest widest spread areas of impact.

But in the very straightforward way of doing it, we provide stories and lessons in curriculum. We also continue to provide magazines, which really were the core of our publishing program for about 30-35 years, and we still publish those quarterly. Two magazines, YC Teen and Represent, which go to new York City public schools and foster care agencies, respectively. And we also provide lessons in each of those magazines, which are free.

So we have a pretty steady following of, of New York City public school teachers or guidance counselors, or even principals who order, you know, big stacks of our magazines and then use them with young people in a variety of ways. And then we also have much more direct partnerships with schools, afterschool agencies, city agencies, to train people to use the curriculum on a regular basis. Usually it’s about a class period a week where, you know, a teacher would use one of our curriculum with a group of 15 young people for the class period.

Amy H-L: [00:20:31] Could you give some examples of how teachers actually gain insight through the program about their students’ lived experiences?

Betsy C: [00:20:40] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that the stories are really profound case studies for what young people go through, what drives their behaviors, what’s going on sort of beneath the iceberg. To use that metaphor, which is in a lot of our trainings, is when we see a young person acting out, it’s really easy to get frustrated or to be impatient with them or to not see their full humanity if they’re being disruptive or even violent in your classroom. And what our stories do is to really unveil who the person is beneath the behavior. And that’s incredibly important for young people to know. But I think it’s almost more important for teachers to really be able to see what it is that these young people are going through that I might need to keep in mind when I see these behaviors that might be problematic for me. 

And I think, to switch into another area of where this is so important, is in culturally relevant education, right. We have heard from many people, and I feel very strongly that there are few things more culturally relevant than content produced by peers, right. So there’s an incredible opportunity to learn what young people think and where they’re coming from and what their beliefs are using one of our stories, or even just, you know, learning more about what it’s like to be homeless and what a young person will go through and really be able to see, well, what are the markers of what behavior, what kinds of things I might see to be able to know how to be supportive.

Keith H: [00:22:14] Yeah. One thing that’s frustrating about being a teacher is that when you’re in front of a group of kids, they all have on their school mask and it’s hard to get to know them when they’ve got that mask on, which they pretty much keep on most of the time in their relationship with you as a teacher and yet, beneath the mask, all kinds of things are going on that are impacting their ability to learn in the classroom. So in our training of teachers, when we read the stories, our stories become sort of proxies for their own students, they can see a kid, they start reading a story and, “oh yeah, I know this kid. This is pretty familiar.” And then they start to get deeper into story. And they see the backstory about the kinds of issues that the kid is wrestling with, taking care of siblings at home, losing out on a big dance competition. Having suffered, you know, having lost family in another country before they came here. These kinds of things. So it just reminds teachers that behind the mask, there’s a whole lot going on. So that’s the first thing that happens in the training. 

But then when teachers start using the stories, because the stories are so credible and so authentic, kids tend to open up. They almost, I’ve taught them a lot, and they almost forget that the teachers are there, they’re so engaged in the story and talking about what the young person in the story is going through, that they begin to bring up many of the kinds of issues that are behind the mask in the conversation with each other around the story, and this gives the teacher real time insight to their own students and what they’re going through.

And then it, it gets yet another layer. When a teacher does that, the kids begin, just the very act of doing that, of bringing in the story that seems so relevant to them that it prompts that kind of a discussion, they begin to trust the teacher more, that the teacher knows them and sees them just because they have done that. And that starts a sort of a virtuous circle. It’s in the classroom where the kids do open up more, the teacher is more open to hearing them and then that it strengthens that relationship, which is the foundation of motivation and learning in the classroom. 

Amy H-L: [00:24:28] What are some of the challenges that teachers face in implementing the program?

Betsy C: [00:24:34] The easiest one is structural, right. If there’s not a time schedule to do this work with kids and an environment where they can have a circle of kids gather, feel safe, feel attended to, right. You know, as I think all of us will know, having an advisory group meet once a week, where there’s a 15 to one ratio of kid to adult, if that’s not happening, then that makes the whole thing much, much harder.

One other piece that comes up often in the beginning, that gets easier over time, I think, is the buy-in from the kids. And that only gets better if there’s buy-in from the adults. So, you know, often, in a variety of educational contexts, kids will be resistant to read out loud in class. And that’s a part of the design of what we do. They do read alouds and they might be really resistant at first and the teacher might be unexperienced with, you know, techniques to help all kids feel welcome in the circle to kind of, you know, make the rules adaptable, what it means to read aloud. And that’s something that we help them do in the training.

But there is sometimes resistance at first, and the only times we’ve seen that not improve drastically over time, and in fact flip everything on its head where kids again, who are resistant to read at first, over the course of the few sessions are bringing the books into the circles themselves and asking to borrow the book after class to keep reading. It can be really magical how that transforms how a young person engages with the book. But the only times that we see that not improve is that the teacher also feels uncomfortable with reading. Or sometimes when we work with folks in the afterschool space that at first, this feels too much like school because they’re being required to read or write in this scenario, but we kind of think that that’s okay and that it’s good to give kids a structure and a welcome environment to make reading a part of their their everyday and to challenge them to rise to that occasion.

Keith H: [00:26:34] Yeah. The teachers sometimes worry that using stories like this might open a can of worms about emotional issues that kids are going through that they’re not prepared to deal with. And they, you know, they’re not counselors and they’ve got other tasks. And what they learn over time when they use the programs is that, well,  kids do to some extent, you do learn more about the challenges in their lives. The predominant feeling that you get when you get kids talking about these issues, as an adult, is their resilience and their ingenuity and their creativity in addressing challenges that, you know, you as a teacher can’t do anything about, but you, instead of feeling, “Oh my God, I’m overwhelmed by these kids’ problems,” you, you have this opposite reaction of, “Oh my God, these kids have a lot of problems. Wow. They are really resourceful and working on them.” So you begin to see their strengths and not their weaknesses. 

And another thing that happens is that when you create that atmosphere in the classroom, adults overestimate how much they are the ones who help young people deal with these problems. An awful lot of how young people deal with problems is through peers and peer support. And when you build a classroom that has this greater openness and young people begin to share with each other the kinds of things they’re going through in a way that begins with this really humanistic story that we bring in, which is never blaming anyone, is really concretely solution-oriented, that you create a kind of conversation in the room in which when young people open up and begin talking about these stories among themselves in the classroom, they become a support group for each other. And that actually reduces the burden on the teacher to have to be responding to all of these emotional things that the kids are happening are going through.

And in fact, like we have one, really a classic example of this in one of our stories it’s in one of the curricula, where a girl really has it out for another girl in a school and there, I don’t remember if they fight, but they’re they’re on the brink of fighting. Maybe they do, but anyway, it turns out, as is so often is the case in life, that both girls are facing the same problem and they implicitly recognize it in the other, they’re on the brink of homelessness or something like that, and the other is a mirror of their own problems and they just want to break that mirror, right. And they then go in a counseling session and they find this out, and they actually, you know, reconcile and become friends. So we have that story that shows that process of how the kinds of acting out that happens, it happens in school so often because kids unconsciously are at each other’s throats can be reduced and even circumvented by you having kids talk about these stories in classrooms and bringing that stuff to the surface in a supportive and helpful way. 

Betsy C: [00:29:24] The only thing I would just add very quickly to that is, you know, I think that Keith was hitting the nail on the head that the most successful sessions and the most successful facilitators doing this program are ones that just know how to get out of there, get out of the way, and let the kids and the story do the teaching in that moment. I think that it’s a true facilitation opportunity where it’s just being there to make sure the conversation happens, but not intervening. And that I think is also a really authentic way that that we’re promoting youth voice, not just with the stories, but with creating classrooms that are student centered  and creating an opportunity for teachers to practice getting out of the way and letting student voices come to the center.

Jon M: [00:30:07] So speaking of that, teachers are obviously working within a larger structure almost all the time. What’s the role of principals and other administrators in making the program as effective as it can be? 

Betsy C: [00:30:21] I mean, I think it’s like any school initiative, especially when when you have people coming in to do training or curriculum from the outside. The more bought in and involved the administration is, the better it goes. We’ve had schools we’ve worked with where the principal is there  in the training session. So we had a principal last year who was leading groups himself, and that makes the process so much more meaningful because it really provides, you know, certainly a level of prioritization for the teachers to know that, that, oh, my administration, my boss takes this seriously, I’m going to take it seriously, too. And then the kids took it seriously. But by that token, it all kind of flows together. And it also, I think, provides a better opportunity for real conversation and community building among school staff, which we know is so important. The more involved the administration is, and the more aligned they are to the prioritizing time for social emotional learning during the school day, and  really intentional time. 

And we also, I think, work with schools who come at this from a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s a subset of the school’s staff. They’re doing this, we worked with a high school last year that’s, you know, one of the larger schools in the city, and they trained 10 people to use our girls empowerment program. But that’s just a drop in the bucket of their staff, right. So it’s really easy for it not to have an impact around the whole school if it’s just a fraction of the school staff doing it. So the more comprehensive this is, the bigger the impact it can have in terms of improving, you know, school climate and culture in the way that Keith was talking about, where it really can adjust mindsets and relationships across the board.

Amy H-L: [00:32:04] So right now, teens, along with the rest of us, are on lockdown due to the pandemic. How might the program help teens who are experiencing grief and isolation?

Betsy C: [00:32:17] Yeah. That’s a great question. And it’s one that we’ve been wrestling with now for what, seven weeks or so, since the schools closed. So we’ve just to answer, I think, logistically we switched gears really quickly when corona hit to start providing remote virtual content. So we have our curricula that are all designed to be in groups, in person, in our trainings, and we knew that at least at first, that was going to get not just deprioritized, it wouldn’t be possible for folks to do in the immediate while they were adjusting to remote learning, so we started producing free lessons for people with English language arts content. We started producing free webinars for folks to help them think about how to engage students in social and emotional learning during this time, and we started producing a digital bulletin of new stories coming out now from our young people about their experiences in pandemic. What we’re finding as school closures are going on longer and people are planning for the possibility of schools in New York City possibly staying remote for next year, that intentionally attending to our students’ mental health and their feelings of safety are more crucial now than ever. And we want to be able to help schools engage their kids and to facilitate those kind of deep reflective conversations where the mask is able to come off, as Keith said. Everyone’s going through a trauma of their own kind right now. And being able to address that intentionally, I think, is really important as we think about what this moment means in the next year.

So we’re in the process of looking at our curricula and thinking about adapting them for virtual learning. We’re figuring out how to do the group activities and, you know, establish those connections between students in a way that can be done virtually using the stories and the lessons that we already have developed.

But I do think that people need to be ready to talk to their kids now and continue to talk to them about what their life has been like in corona. We know that, you know, especially our most vulnerable teens are the ones that are losing family members, that our adolescents, especially, are missing out on really important milestones. Graduations, proms, going to college in the fall. You know, all of these things are going to have ramifications for our kids for sure, for many, many years to come. And giving, creating safe and supportive places for kids to lean on their peers and their teachers as their community, as of how to get through this, I think is the most crucial work we can do.

And the stories that we have, we are producing stories about what it’s like to go through pandemics. So they address the challenges our kids are going through the same way any of our other stories, describing a common experience that they can relate to. And because the writer is kind of a proxy by which they can talk about, you know, decisions being made or experiences being had, it makes it really safe for them to decide to share what they’re doing.

And I think the stories really are, you know, a door opener to building relationships, I think. And that’s why for as long as human civilization has been around, we’ve told stories in groups, right. And that’s been a way people are like, I always have this kind of like campfire visual in my head when I think about what it’s like to read one of our stories. It’s a very, you know, basic human thing to be able to bond over common experiences and process, tragedy and trauma with a story to lead you there. And I think that that’s going to continue to be powerful and necessary as we navigate the world that we’re in now.

Keith H: [00:35:54] Yeah. And a couple of examples just from recent stories that, you know, again, this idea that it’s so reassuring to know first, that you’re not the only one feeling this. We’ve got a story up right now by  a girl who spent the entire year rehearsing for the school dance program. And she is a girl from a moderately low income family. She couldn’t take dance classes. She learned everything she learned on YouTube and did it in her apartment. And she also had a self-esteem issue. She had been bullied by some of the other kids and this was really important to her to win this solo in the year-end dance contest. And right when she found out she had won, the school was closed down. So, you know, it’s a classic disappointment story that will, is a great stepping off point for, and she’s going to survive. You know, that it’s not just, you know, Oh, that’s the worst thing in the world. She’s continuing. And that’s a great conversation starter for other kids. 

We have another story by boy who self-quarantined before the mayor ordered it because he felt that social isolation was an ethical issue and that it was very important that we begin to do this. And he wrote a letter to his teacher saying why he wasn’t coming to school that week, that he just didn’t feel that it was the right thing to do under what, based on what he was learning about how the virus was spreading.

And then there are justice issues. We have a story up. The City University of New York has a very good program where they put kids in foster care in college, in dorms, and then allow them to live there year round because those kids don’t have anywhere to go, you know, spring break and things like that. And they, when soon as the pandemic broke, they moved to evict those kids as part of closing down the school. And one of our writers led the protests against that and wrote about it and in fact won the assurance that kids who had no other place to go could stay.

And then one of the things that we’re doing, we know that this relationship building is critical and during remote learning, it would behoove  schools to do a lot more of that, but they also feel tremendous pressure to cover this content that is so hard to cover now. So we’ve created a biweekly newsletter of English language arts lessons based on our stories where, if you will. ELA is in the forefront and Common Core standards, but still social emotional learning is right underneath. It’s the second thing that people are getting out of the story. So one of the first lessons that went out was on, yeah, the Tony Morrison piece was on who defines you. And so we have a, we had a story by one of our writers about like who is it that actually gets to say who you are and what your identity is? And Tony Morrison has wrestled with this in one of her books, one of her characters does. And so we had a great ELA lesson that looked at that. So that’s, of course, that’s English language arts and interrogating a piece of literature to see how it works. But it’s also social emotional learning, especially for teenagers. Who defines you, who is your identity. To what extent is it independent and to what extent is it enmeshed within a group and all that kind of stuff. So we’re offering those resources as well during this period.

Jon M: [00:39:08] And we’re going to include links to your website and to any other materials that you would like us to post on our website. Thank you, Keith Hefner and Betsy Cohen of Youth  Communication.

And thank you, listeners. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. We are posting annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We offer professional development in social emotional learning with focus on ethics in the New York City area. Contact us at hosts@ethical We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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