This Bookclub is L.I.T.!

Summer reading. Two words that can mean joy and indulgence to some, and yet inspire dread or fear in others. When Princeton-Blairstown Center was looking to re-imagine its Leader-in-Training program, one goal was to weave in literacy in a deeper, more organic way, to help kids connect with both texts and with one another. But how?

Enter, the Leader-In-Training (LIT) book club. Whether used in a school setting or in one like PBC’s LIT program, a book club has the advantages of offering a student-centered and social way for students to share and engage around texts they’ve read. 

Other benefits of student book clubs are that they:

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Considering that community and student reflection are two overarching goals of the LIT Program, the book club model is truly a perfect fit for our setting.  Once the decision was made to form a book club, we turned to other questions, such as:  

-          What would participants read? How would the book be selected?

-          Who would lead conversations around the text?

Eventually, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give was selected for its popularity among students, literary appeal, and social commentary themes; And thanks to a generous book donation from one of our partners, we had enough copies available in the Peyton Library to get started.

The benefits of regular reading are much deeper than just enhanced comprehension, vocabulary, and language fluency, though.

“Broad and deep reading habits can sharpen intelligence, make you a better communicator, and improve emotional intelligence, among other benefits,” says John Coleman in this Harvard Business Review article. A separate article by Coleman is entitled: “For those who want to lead, read”. While that headline basically says it all; but the research and anecdotal evidence that backs up the lead is truly remarkable. Regular readers tend to be better communicators, and better writers, too. Avid readers also typically have a wider understanding of a variety of subjects, and often can better empathize and see things from others’ points of view.

All these skills are essential for effective and well-rounded leaders, and we are happy that the LIT book club (a construct that is perhaps older than printing itself!) is another tool available to us to build both stronger readers and stronger leaders.

ACEs and the Importance of Developing a Growth Mindset

During Princeton University Reunions last month, Princeton-Blairstown Center co-sponsored a panel with a number of other like-minded organizations affiliated with the University. This year's panel focused on the effects of toxic stress on the lives of children. For far too many of the young people that the Center serves, research shows that toxic stress coupled with environmental factors can have a significant impact on the educational attainment, physical and mental health, and socio-economic well-being of their current and future lives.  

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include traumatic events and experiences like the divorce, loss, or incarceration of a parent; physical or emotional abuse or neglect; living with an adult who has an addiction or mental illness; being a victim of violence or witnessing violence in your household or neighborhood; and regularly experiencing economic hardship.

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According to Child Trends, nearly 50% of young people in the US have experienced one or more ACEs and 10% have experienced three or more ACEs, putting them at high risk. Nationally, 61% of African American children and 51% of Hispanic children have experienced one or more ACEs as compared with 40% of white non-Hispanic children.

Despite these alarming statistics, research also tells us that many of these young people are incredibly resilient and can overcome the odds. Carol Dweck's research shows that a growth mindset -- a mindset that perceives a challenge as an opportunity to learn, rather than a setback to overcome -- results in persistence and resiliency.

The Center’s programs have been intentionally crafted to help young people develop a growth mindset through a focus on problem-solving challenges, while also developing social connectedness through team building. We also help young people develop confidence, self-esteem, and self-regulation skills (social-emotional skills), all of which Dweck's research found crucial to developing a growth mindset.

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This summer, we will welcome 550-600 young people from Newark, Trenton, and Camden to our Blairstown Campus for our Summer Bridge and Leader-in-Training Programs where, in addition to participating in engaging, hands-on academic programming, they will develop the skills associated with resiliency so that they can overcome the ACEs they may have experienced. Their time at Blairstown can be transformative.  

Ready to Climb!

Most of us are familiar with the adage “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” While the origin of this statement is unclear, it is a fine example of the kind of impact even basic experiential education can offer.

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The Association for Experiential Education (AEE), of which the Center is a member, defines experiential education as “challenge and experience followed by reflection leading to learning and growth.”  Every day at our Blairstown Campus, our facilitators work with students and their chaperones to provide intentionally designed opportunities for challenge and experience. Facilitators are trained to reflect on the experience afterwards and to help students relate what they learned through the activity to their daily life in the classroom and at home. During an early Girls’ Adventure and Leadership Weekend, Emily, a shy eighth grader, experienced this first-hand when she agreed to climb up the vertical playpen on the climbing tower. When the girls in Emily’s group headed off to the climbing tower to don their equipment and tackle the three-story structure, she dutifully strapped on the required harness and helmet.  And she watched. She watched girl after girl say, “ready to climb!” and make her way up the tower – those who were fearless went all the way to the top, and those who proclaimed themselves to be scared of heights, but climbed further than they thought possible. But, every time a facilitator asked Emily to climb, she said “no thanks.” Chyann was the facilitator with Emily’s group and was kind but persistent in asking. Each time Emily said no, Chyann asked, “are you sure?” and Emily would shrug her shoulders.

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Finally, the last girl finished her climb and Chyann announced it was almost time to head back, with one last questioning look at Emily. She gave Chyann a slight nod and the whole group erupted with cheers as they realized their friend was going to climb! Along with a friend as a climbing partner, Emily got about half way up the tower. She turned around with a giant smile and look of accomplishment for her friends on the ground. Once back on the ground, Chyann talked with the group about the experience of climbing up the tower and how it related to their everyday lives. The girls who were originally afraid of heights talked about how having the harnesses and friends belaying on the ground made them feel less afraid to start to climb and how when they are at home, they can take a chance on something that might be a little scary if they have support around them. According to the article, Tapping the Hidden Team-Building Power of Ropes Courses, in addition to providing the opportunity to test physical skill, when well-facilitated, the ropes-course experience also provides other opportunities for growth, such as introspection, confidence building, self-awareness, and team building.

For Emily, throughout the rest of the weekend, she had a spring in her step and was much more vocal during group activities. She was already showing improved self-esteem that weekend by speaking up when one of her cabin mates pushed ahead of her in the line for dinner. Her chaperone reports that when she sees Emily holding back in group settings, she can offer a little nudge by asking, “Ready to climb?” and Emily smiles and steps up to speak her mind.

The Play Gap

Last week we played at work! We had a new team member join us and we decided to practice what we preach. We got one of our program team members to facilitate an hour of team building for our back office staff. First, and most importantly, we had a lot of FUN! We also learned a lot about each other in a pretty short period of time. Through play we LEARNED that we are competitive, enjoy solving problems, and notice different things. Through repetition of several of the exercises we learned to listen and observe each other, work in closer harmony, and celebrate the small wins. We learned that just like at work, we each have a part to play in the team’s success. We learned all this while having fun and being much more engaged in learning.

Play is the freedom and opportunity for young people to engage with and learn from the world around them.  In today's busy and often over-scheduled world, most young people have fewer opportunities to engage in real play and develop critical social-emotional skills.  Neuroscientists, psychologists, and business leaders all believe that young people will need to demonstrate strong communication, collaboration, creativity, and creative problem-solving skills to succeed in the jobs and world of tomorrow as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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In the United States, from 1981 to 1997, children's playtime decreased by 25%.  Play is much more structured today with adult-organized, time-limited play dates, many of which take place indoors.  Ninety-two percent of young people say they want more play time and 93% say play makes them feel happier. One in 10 young people play less than two hours a week and 8% of young people say they have no time to play. Outdoor play is even more scarce with 56% of young people having less than one hour of outdoor play a day, 20% having less than one hour of outdoor play a week, and 10% having no outdoor play.

In 2018, parents of 6-11-year-olds reported that they were playing with their children less than 5 minutes per day.  Eighty-one percent of young people wish their parents would play with them more while 83% say they learn better when it feels like play.

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At the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC), we understand how important play and hands-on learning in the outdoors is for young people and we practice it with every group that comes to visit our campus in the woods.  Research shows that "deep learning and higher order skills development are enhanced by play that is joyful, builds on everyday meaning, is active and engaged, iterative, and social." PBC's problem-solving initiatives and challenge courses provide all the essential components described in the research and with the guidance of our highly trained facilitators results in learning that is transferred back to home and school.

Young people from low-income communities are less likely to have safe and sufficient green spaces to play in. Because of you our students have a safe 264-acre campus to play in where they can learn, grow, and lead in an ever-changing world. 

Students Learn From People They Love

A recent New York Times opinion piece by David Brooks entitled, Students Learn From People They Love, talks about the social emotional learning (SEL) movement’s acceptance as an important and valid educational methodology.

“The good news is the social and emotional learning movement has been steadily gaining strength. This week the Aspen Institute (where I lead a program) published a national commission report called “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.” Social and emotional learning is not an add-on curriculum; one educator said at the report’s launch, “It’s the way we do school.” Some schools, for example, do no academic instruction the first week. To start, everybody just gets to know one another. Other schools replaced the cops at the door with security officers who could also serve as student coaches.”

The work that we do at the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC) around social-emotional learning is exactly what The Aspen Institute report says is at the heart of education. “The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad; it is the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the “real work” of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed.”

The reason so many independent and charter schools come to the Center every fall, year after year, is that our intentional programming helps faculty and students form positive, supportive relationships with each other.  These schools understand that their time at PBC forms the basis for teaching and learning for the school year.  By taking both teachers and students out of their comfort zones and going through a carefully sequenced set of exercises that build team and crucial 21st century skills like critical-thinking, communication, cooperation, and creativity, PBC helps schools build “climate and culture.” It’s the key to future learning that groups take back to the classroom. 

Schools that come to the Center understand how incorporating social and emotional learning enhances students’ education. According to the Aspen Institute’s report, “It is a mistake to view social and emotional learning as a “soft” approach to education. Quite the opposite. An emphasis on these capacities is not the sacrifice of rigor; it is a source of rigor. While many elements of a child’s life improve along with the cultivation of these skills, one of the main outcomes is better academic performance.”

One of the three core goals of PBC’s award-winning Summer Bridge Program is to build supportive relationships with students and the adults in their lives, recognizing that “students learn from the people they love.”  Our teachers and chaperones speak regularly about how important and impactful this is for them and their students. Follow this link to hear one of our Summer Bridge Program teachers from Wilson Elementary School speak about the benefits of building a relationship at PBC.