Project Based Learning has become an essential arrow in the quiver of youth development and education. But are we doing it right?
Today, I’m in Columbus, Ohio at the Prevention Action Alliance 2017 Adult Allies Summit. I’m excited to present here, among so many people who see themselves and their work as essential to the lives of youth, because they’re taking the right tact.
As I present on youth engagement through Project Based Learning, I’m reminded of research I’ve done on youth-driven programming across the country. So often, when they’re leading projects youth choose to take action and make a difference in the world around them. They want the vibrance and vitality of leading change, creating difference and fostering transformation in their own lives and the lives of their families, communities and the world.
That’s a tremendous opportunity! Think of the differences we could make as adult allies if we simply made space for young people to lead the projects they learn from, allowing them to create positive, powerful change in the world around us! Wow! Exclamation points!
My research through The Freechild Project has shown me that Project Based Learning should have seven main components:
POWERFUL Youth Engagement—At the core of all Project Based Learning should be youth themselves. Planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, decision-making and advocacy provide potential learning opportunities throughout Project Based Learning as youth are scaffolded for action and supported in transformation.
REAL Learning—Project Based Learning should have meaningful, substantive learning in its core. Learning shouldn’t be fake, pretend, meaningless or inconsequential.
PRACTICAL Problems—Focused on actual challenges and meeting real needs, Project Based Learning should lift the lives of youth and their communities by facing practical problems head-on.
LASTING Efforts—Sustained impact should be a goal of Project Based Learning at every turn. Focused on creating real change, young people and their lives should be transformed.
OUTWARD Outcomes—Looking towards the world around us, Project Based Learning should be conducted toward and presented to people who aren’t involved, including adults, youth and families.
CRITICAL Thinking and Action—Project Based Learning should center on social justice through positive, powerful action. Youth should consider the roles of oppression and empowerment, and the genuine possibilities for them to change the world.
AUTHENTIC Action—Keeping it real is at the center of Project Based Learning when youth focus on what actually needs changed, what problems and challenges they actually face and are trying to solve, and what difference they make.
These components can allow the adult allies of youth—including youth workers, counselors, teachers and others—to enact meaningful, positive and powerful transformation in the lives of their participants. I’ve also learned that only then can we see the all of the positive outcomes that Project Based Learning fosters, including skills focused on Project Management; Time Management; Organization; Teamwork; Research; Procurement, and; Problem-Solving. Other outcomes include knowledge about Social Change; Community Building; Project Design and Implementation; Leadership; Social Justice; Courage in Action; and Creating the Future.
If there are higher goals for youth engagement, I still haven’t seen them!
If you want, I hope you’ll share your knowledge and ideas about Project Based Learning in the comments section below.
“If you have to write about it, you don’t know what humility is.”—My dad
Let me start by saying that I don’t know what humility is. For more than a dozen years I’ve consciously struggled with the word and the concept of humility, and I’m still not sure. I do know this: If you want to change the world, humility is definitely a requirement.
The dictionary says humility is simply defined as the quality of being humble. It also says that to be humble is to lower something in importance.
This means developing and maintaining a modest view of our own importance in public and personal regards to who we are and what we do. Sometimes, we are given struggles that humiliate us, cause us to get humble and send us down the road with compromise in our hearts. That is the core of humility: Accepting that everyone, everywhere screws up and is screwed up.
That doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in the world, and that doesn’t lessen our responsibility to make a difference in the world. It does mean that while we’re working for social change, we shouldn’t be arrogant. Being proud and selfish can mean not seeing our faults and hoarding our accomplishments without sharing props with the people we worked with. That selfishness is typical in a lot of activist campaigns, where peoples’ egos and conceits become obvious. Its selfish to think the world owes you anything; to think the good guy always wins; to think the world works in a balance that will benefit you particularly.
Being right is the enemy of understanding. There’s a difference between knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know; one suffocates curiosity while the other leaves the door open to possibilities. In the same way that being perfect is the enemy of being good, so it holds true that being right is the enemy of being humble. Screwing up and being wrong, as well as tripping and falling, are all pathways to humility. They won’t automatically make you humble, but they can help you get there quickly.
“Humility is a sign of self-confidence; it means we’re secure enough to alter our views based on new information and new circumstances.”—Peter Wehner
Despite all the things we may have accomplished in the past, there will always be opportunities ahead. Our ideas, activities, outcomes and struggles do not make us better than anyone else, more correct than anyone else, or less faulty than anyone else. Being humble means acknowledging our mistakes, accepting responsibility for our inabilities, and working in earnest to make progress within ourselves as well as throughout the world around us.
Its a leap for some people to understand, but just to check whether you’re paying attention, I’ll say the reality for me: True humility means accepting our equality with everything else on Earth, including past and present, old and young, rich and poor, human and animal and insect and plant and dirt. All of it.
No matter what happens, in trying to change the world we should always really, really try to be respectful towards everyone, all the time. Humility is an absolute requirement for changing the world. Look at yourself honestly, strip yourself of your pride, puffed up chest and closed eyes. Look at yourself and what you’re trying to do and allow yourself to develop a humble attitude. Then, correct your defects, ask others for help and keep taking action to make the world a better place.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our successes, but it does mean that we shouldn’t be arrogant or boastful. Don’t brag. Feel quiet confidence, because in the long run your character will speak for itself. C.S. Lewis once wrote “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” Understanding that is a pathway towards being humble.
5 Ways to Be Humble
Learn to be humble and always strive to become a better person.
Find your moral compass and strive for constant conscious contact with what matters most to you.
Stay humble while you’re trying to change the world.
Stop being selfish and start being selfless.
If you want to change the world, be humble.
Oh, and if you think you are humble, you’re not. If someone else tells you you’re humble, you lose it. If you are striving for humility everyday in every way in everything you’re doing, you cannot become humble.
Its cliche to say we live in trying times. But suffering is never cliche, and social justice isn’t a fad.
More than ever, people need to connect and make meaning of their own life. If we were merely passive recipients of a pre-made society, we wouldn’t need connections beyond those that are obviously beneficial to us, and any meaning in our lives could be dictated to us from a form.
We’re not just consumers though. Despite what some schools, business leaders and elected officials tell us, our society is not a product for anyone to consume. Instead, we are all actively making our lives right now – no matter what the rat race looks like for any of us.
Unfortunately, that idea of people-as-consumers may be winning right now. We eat food that’s pre-made; memorize lessons from curriculum that’s mass manufactured; follow regulations intended to standardize our everyday lives; and buy things that weren’t made for individuals, but for consumers.
Transformation Is Required
More than ever, its become obvious that things have to change. We must engage or die. Over the last decade, I’ve researched engagement throughout our society to learn that the places with the most meaningful, most sustainable connections are the most engaged. I believe we must take action to engage as many people as possible everywhere we can, as often as we can, or we face individual, cultural, and ultimately, social death. The end of our society. The end of our communities. The end of our lives.
Our communities, classrooms, cultures and homes have to be places of active, meaningful and authentic engagement. Our souls must be lifted and our hearts connected through determination and intention, and our volitions need to be called to a higher place. Instead of working from a place of crass consumerism, we should acknowledge the place of movement calling our hands and feet beyond apathy and into action. All of this must be sustained throughout the future of our species.
If we don’t do something different, our hearts will rot on the vine, our muscles will wither from atrophy, and our minds will shrink from starvation. For some people that’s already happened; for others its happening right now. We have to intervene, prevent and empower people to do things differently right now.
There are countless areas where we must connect in our world. Neighborhoods require our attention; governments need us. Faith communities rely on engagement; social change is sacrosanct in my book.
Here are three crises in particular where we face the ultimatum to ENGAGE OR DIE.
Education: If we don’t activate everyone, everywhere as active learners right now, we face the whole system decimation of education throughout our society. While a lot of attention is given to public schools right now, the reality is that higher education, community centers and nonprofits are suffering right now, and things will only get worse. We must engage in education or we will die.
Family: Our families are suffering for many reasons. A lot of people are talking about the elimination of the middle class and the effects that’s having on families. However, we must also acknowledge the roles of the human family; our larger communities; and the need to acknowledge nontraditional families. We must engage with the notion of family or we will die.
Health: I don’t work out enough. Sure, I walk a lot and eat healthy, stay away from drinking and staying out too late. Our health is a lot more than any of that though: instead, its the ecology that surrounds each of us. Food, water, shelter, sleep and oxygen are essential. The rhythms, cultures, thoughts, emotions and abilities around us are part of our health, too. If we don’t engage in health, we will die.
If you’re interested in having a conversation about what we can do about this, get in touch with me. I would like to facilitate workshops with all kinds of nonprofits, give talks at a variety of conferences, and reach into the hearts and minds of people everywhere who want to engage or die.Contact me for more details.
“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
While a lot of things in our world want us to watch shiny, flashy stuff going on around us, the practice of personal engagement encourages us to look inside. That doesn’t mean you have to sit uncomfortably and call out “Om” for answers, or spend hours journaling alone in your backroom.
When I look inside, I’m most often in a contemplative space.
When you take a look inside you might be sitting in traffic or getting dressed for work; walking your dog or grocery shopping. Of course, you can meditate, do yoga, journal or paint, or do anything that you know gets you inside of yourself, and away from the world.
Becoming personally engaged means we learn to do look inside on purpose, instead of by accident. Personal engagement is a choice we make in our every breath, whether consciously or unconsciously. Engaging in a practice of personal engagement means that you are choosing to become engaged on purpose.
Here are a few ways I looks inside myself.
Get alone. Whether I’m rushing through the airport or cooking dinner, when I want to look inside myself I have to get alone. That means turning inside myself and away from everything going on around me. When I do that, I can hear the small inner voice that animates my heart, and I can hear what it says. Sometimes I need to go away from everyone else, while other times I can be alone in the middle of a crowd. Either way, getting alone lets me look inside myself.
Still the racket. Good ol’ Carl Jung. “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” I have big eyes that like to see the world around me. I love traveling, exploring, being enticed by motion and getting absorbed in doing things. However, to look inside myself I have to still the racket. I have to acknowledge the things distracting me and then consciously, deliberately look away and turn them off.
Hear the small inner voice. In the middle of everyone is a small inner voice calming waiting to usher us through life. This voice is our connection with the middle of us. For me, it can come in the dark of night when I’m rolling around and unable to sleep; as I walk down the street and I’m approached by someone for a few dollars for a coffee; or when I’m rushing around and trying to do too many things at once. Its can be inconvenient! But its always true. Your small inner voice is waiting to talk with you.
Looking inside is an avenue towards personal engagement. In his classic work, Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse wrote,
“‘I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha.’ He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.”
What are the ways you look inside you? I would love to hear your ideas – please share them in the comments section!
The sound of flip flops slapping across the old oak floor of the gym greeted me every hot summer night of 1995. That year, I was a determined youth worker in the neighborhood I grew up in. The news blared to the rest of the city that our hood was racked by gang violence, drug abuse and rampant vandalism and theft. I thought it was home.
I was a goofy 20-year-old white guy who moved from Canada as a kid to grow up in a hood I knew nothing about. I was jumped more times than I could count for ten years of my life. Crips and Bloods and Vice Lords roamed our blocks at all hours, with drivebys, drug deals and all kinds of crap happening all the time.
I could have been afraid of life then, and I wouldn’t have been wrong. But instead, I found inspiration in the strife and disruption; motivation from the pain and struggle. My parents struggled to teach me better, and their friends expected more from me. Adults who mentored me, including ministers, nonprofit workers and cultural teachers in the community, helped me decide early who I was and what I wanted to do in my life. My fears didn’t have a choice but to be allayed.
Eventually the sound of flip flops slapping went to the back of my mind, but the fear of living hung around somewhere in the back of my mind.
Growing Into My Future
A lot of life has conspired since I moved from my hood. I’ve made mistakes, learned lessons, built some things, destroyed others, made amends, held hands, grown vegetables, prayed, stolen, travelled, taught, broken stuff, and all the other sundry things some people do when they’re living. I’ve loved some people who’ve stayed on straighter and narrower paths than me, and envied others who veered so far astray that they never made it back.
It was when I was a youth that I found my trajectory in life. Growing up as a homeless child of a Vietnam veteran, border hopping ad naseum and unable to develop healthy attachments to the world around me, I struggled to make meaning in the world around me. However, as my life became more stable and I grew more adapt at learning (both through formal education and self-learning), I became more capable of finding meaning, constructing knowledge, critically evaluating, and sharing what I’d been through, as well as going into new experiences again and again. Transferring learning from one situation to the next, keeping an open mind in new situations, and critically thinking about what I’d experienced and learned let me become a knowledge creator, instead of simply collecting learning from other places.
All these experiences, from the “slap, slap” of flip flops to the challenges, rewards and realities of daily living have constantly startled me into living larger and more spectacularly than I ever expected to. The fear of living stayed in my imagination along the way though, as I moved from being a youth program worker to becoming a youth researcher and trainer, and then as I transitioned towards writing and speaking more. I’ve found that knowledge isn’t armor: As I’ve learned more, I’ve become more vulnerable and insecure. Where I stand, the world is becoming less and less firm under my feet, and I’m becoming more anxious to move. For a while now, I’ve been afraid of confronting the reality that I face today, rather than living in a projected fantasy that simply isn’t what’s happening.
This insecurity is the fear of living.
I am not a fearful person. I am generally not an immature person. However, just like everyone, I have my moments. Sometimes I am a chicken; sometimes I flinch; and sometimes I disappoint myself and others.
The days when I’m not busy ill-serving myself, I expect that I will grab a hold on my life, and do what Charles Fillmore affirmed to himself every morning at the age of 93:
“I fairly sizzle with zeal and enthusiasm and spring forth with a mighty faith to do the things that ought to be done by me.”
I want to live that! There’s the book I’m afraid to write, and the physical shape I’m afraid to get into. There’s the studying I’ve been neglecting, and the speeches I haven’t given. So many flights to be taken and world to experience, and the classes I want to teach. I want to love another person freely and endlessly, and raise more kids – I love kids! There are places I want to go with my family, including my awesome daughter, my wise mom, my spectacular sister and my best friends. I want to have great long conversations with old friends, and make new friends in places I want to be. There are so many things and places and people and opportunities and experiences I feel I’ve only been preparing for in all my life, and so much ahead of me that I look forward to.
Those aren’t the words of a fearful person. I hold onto life truly and honestly, and I hope for all that’s ahead of me to happen, good, bad, ugly and lovely, all of it. They didn’t come to me overnight.
Five Ways I Challenge the Fear of Living
In order to move ahead in my life, I have used a lot of different ways to embrace what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and when its getting done. Here are five ways I face the fear of living.
Affirm what works in life. Whether or not your life is filled with suffering and pain or happiness and fulfillment, there are things that work in your life. When I’m feeling most fearful of living, I affirm what works for me by writing it down, drawing it, and otherwise naming it. Sometimes that kicks my butt back into seeing hopefully.
Listen to people who aren’t afraid of living. I talk with people about life a lot. In my workshops, I regularly lead participants through exercises that let them celebrate what they’ve done by sharing it with other people. If you can’t see fearless people in your own life, then listen to music, read poetry, watch movies and do what you can to listen to people who aren’t afraid of living.
Give thanks. When I’m afraid, I find that I’m refusing to face things in my life. Whether its a deadline, my bills, projects, my relationships, or any other situation that I don’t want to face at a particular moment, I have to face my fears. I start doing this by giving thanks for the things in my life that work, have worked, expect to work or simply want to work. Sometimes I give thanks for other things too.
Name what doesn’t work. When I’m struggling, I have to be honest about what doesn’t work in my life. Instead of spouting off random disappointments, I get deliberate and actually name what I’m struggling with. That can be a firm, strong and pointed way to face my fears and make a change. If I lied because I was afraid of living, I name that. If I ghosted people because I was afraid of living, I name that. If I screamed, cursed, cheated, stole, manipulated or otherwise didn’t something that didn’t work, I name that. There’s power in facing my fears head on.
Take action. I have to do something to make a difference. When I’m feeling afraid of life, I try to face it head on, and the best way for me is to do that is by taking action. That action can be as varied as the ways I show my fear of living. Facing my fears often starts with making honest amends to others. My apologies can be a simple “sorry”, or much more. I have to get vulnerable though, and be earnest with the people I’m apologizing to. Other times it means getting back on my bike after the crash and giving it another go around. I’m scared to do that, but I still will. It means actually talking with people who I avoid, even when I don’t want to talk to them. It can mean being candid, and sometimes it means being bold. I want that book published, and I’m going to tell the publisher that I’m a good risk just because of that determination. But in some way, I take action.
I might never overcome my fear of living, entirely. I might not feel like challenging it somedays. However, I can always face it, and the steps above are how I’ve learned to do that.
I may not know much about living or loving or being, but I know that when I follow my own intuition and do what’s right for me, my life feels more familiar to me, more knowable, and mine. That’s a good, firm and real goal for me, because when something is mine, I’m not afraid of it.
Working with the people in the places where I do, I am often forced to adopt a label. These last few years, I’ve taken to alternatively calling myself a speaker, facilitator, speaker, author and other things. While none of those are inaccurate, none really captures what I do.
What I really do is help people learn to engage more people, more effectively. Using a lot of different methods for doing this, I have spent my entire life doing this. While few of the titles I’ve ever had captured this, my livelihood remains the same.
Want to know how to engage anyone, anywhere? Here are three ways.
How To Engage Anyone, Anywhere
Learn What Engagement Is, and What It Isn’t. Many people want engagement to mean everything to them and their business, organization or life. They want to be engaged all the time in every way they can. In reality, engagement will not allow you to do that. The definition of engagement is “any sustained connection to anything within or around ourselves.” The key phrase there is sustained connection. From an ecological perspective, sustained doesn’t just mean long-lasting, but also includes healthy, welcomed, effective and meaningful. Learn the difference between what you’re trying to engage others in, and what engagement is not. Do you really want people to engage in your topic, activity, place, culture or otherwise?
Speak to the Heart, Touch the Mind. Don’t try to engage with the ways people think about things. Instead, engage with individual peoples’ Heartspace. Heartspace is the engine of personal engagement, and is entered through feelings, emotions and experiences as well as thoughts and ideas. Work with people, not at people; create opportunities for people to do for themselves without creating opportunities for you to do more for them. That’s speaking to the heart and entering personal engagement through Heartspace.
Stop Trying to Engage Other People. Basically, the challenge is for you to accept responsibility. If you’re concentrating on engaging other people, you aren’t focusing on engaging yourself. If you’re engaged in yourself, other people will want to become engaged in whatever you’re engaged in. Like attracts like. The converse is true too: If you’re disengaged, others will not engage in what you’re trying to engage in. That means that if people aren’t becoming engaged in what you’re trying to engage them in, its truly because you’re not engaged in it yourself. The principle behind this concept comes from the Mahatma’s charge that we, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Those three ways to engage anyone will work in schools, community programs, government agencies, businesses, at home and throughout society. What do you think? Share your thoughts, ideas and responses in the comment section below!
There are a lot of people working to change the world right now. They’re caught up in writing the Great Handbook, building the Perfect Website, organizing the Ultimate Protest, and securing the Most Support for whatever they’re doing. Everyone thinks they’re doing their part, hopes they have the most effect, and wants to make a difference.
I’m one of these people. For most than two decades of my life I’ve been working to change change the world. Starting as a young man, I was involved with movements for environmental justice, self-empowerment, anti-racism, and youth voice. My career has built on that action, and has focused on youth engagement, student voice, and community empowerment. I have continued volunteering and donating my resources towards those causes too.
I’m at a point in my life when much of this action seems like its no longer effective, and some part of me struggles with whether it actually was. I even wonder who reads this blog anymore, since I rarely hear from anyone.
In my 20s, I heard a lot of older people harp on the notion of acting locally and really focusing energy on local change. I blew that out of the water with my world-focused work through Freechild and SoundOut, as well as my national and international consulting practice. Now, I understand why they insisted on acting locally; otherwise, you feel like you’re yelling into a vacuum.
The noisy, noisy world doesn’t allow us a lot of room for comfort, if we’re engaged authentically within ourselves. It insists we learn to get quiet and do small things, rather than trying to scream over the din of daily life.
This work of changing the world reminds me of the lesson about the seekers: “Not knowing how close the truth is to them, Beings seek for it afar — what a pity! They are like those who, being in the midst of water, Cry out for water, feeling thirst.”
The world is already changing, and a new world is being born every day! Let’s take comfort in that, and allow everything to be what it already is. The world is changing, changing, changing… Is there anything more we need to do?
I’ve learned to go under the log laying over the trail more often than trying to climb over it. I get my knees dirty, but get to see the sky when I’m coming back to my feet. Standing afterwards, I can see where I dragged my feet, and my palms are dirty. But I wore jeans for this journey, and with a rustle of the leaves on the path, my tracks are gone.
All of life offers these movements, including blocked paths. It might not be pretty or expedient to crawl underneath these obstructions, but sometimes we’re forced to by our own will or lack of desire to climb. Other times, we’re simply following our mind’s logic. This is life.
What does your mind say to do most intuitively right now? Where does your heart take you? What are you yearning to be connected with?
“This is the threat to our lives. We all face it. We all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes?
…If the person doesn’t listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life and insists on a certain program, you’re going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a programmatic life and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. And the world’s full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.”
For all my attempts to explain personal engagement, it comes down to this: Engagement is a mystery in which everything works the ways it works, no matter how I try to understand it.
Not a path
As much as I want to rely on them, engagement is not a process or a pathway. Instead, its a million stars scattered across the night’s sky, pulsating and gyrating to a universal heartbeat I can only dream of. The rhythm is mostly beyond my grasp, while the melodic tune that’s played is felt and never actually heard. The beauty is that everything is engaged right now exactly how it should be, no matter what is happening, right now. And now. And now.
Engagement is not linear, and it doesn’t lead from here to there to there. As a culture, we are fixated on sequence. However, engagement doesn’t necessarily lead toward anything in particular. I am almost wholly incapable of articulating the apparent bookends of engagement in our lives, which are birth and death. I can’t really describe what happened to me accurately at birth, since the experience became nearly imperceptible once I found the words to describe it.I surely won’t be able to explain the feeling of death, because like almost everyone on the planet, this show will be over once it happens.
Change in an instant
In between, my life has been devoid of grand resolutions to my engagements. While I like to point to jobs and relationships and moving, in the vast majority of engagements throughout my life there has been no final conclusions, and few great endings. Everything can change in an instant, and without ever expecting it I can be in touch with people I thought lost to the sands of time eons ago. Logical, sequential successions in my engagements are rare as well, as I generally don’t hop from one stepping stone to the next in a clear way. Instead, I wiggle and waggle according to the whims and winds of the moment. I’m not an udder-less boat drifting on an ocean; I am a star among a universe. You are too.
If you’ve walked through your engagements on clear and narrow paths, congratulate yourself on lively conversely to the massive majority of humankind. However, you might want to acknowledge that there is a forcefulness, a personal violence, that is inherent in that way of engaging in the world. It requires constricting the soul and submerging our nature in order for our Ego to reign supreme. Ego, that solemn force of will over our lives, demeans the inherent spirit of all creatures by lording itself over the pieces in the puzzle in order to make a picture. In reality, there is no picture.
It is what it is
Instead, engagement simply is. Everything exists in perfect relationship to everything else, without there being a logic or model hard at work behind what’s going on. The gods aren’t shooting lightning bolts and nature isn’t out to get you.
The opportunity here is to relax into engagement and to relax into life by knowing and being with the things that sustain you, that you feel most connected to. Go where your heart is, love as much as you can, and trust that everything is going to be exactly how it should be. That is the mystery of engagement, and where Heartspace truly is.