8 Steps to Running a Countercultural Program

Students at St. A&M are engaged while working on a group mosaic. 

Students at St. A&M are engaged while working on a group mosaic. 

Here at B-SAFE, we work to make young people feel safe, feel big, and feel connected. Part of that work involves helping kids to stay excited and engaged all day long, whether that be in their academic rotations, on field trips, or in their groups with their lead counselor. As a member of the Academic Team who also serves as a teaching specialist, I have had the unique opportunity to deal with student engagement on two different levels. Not only have I been able think about how best to engage our young people when writing curriculum, but I also get to witness it happening firsthand in the classroom.

Of course, as we all well know, sometimes young people aren’t as engaged as we may have originally planned when writing up our lessons or putting together our supplies for the day. While this can often be frustrating for both us as staff and the young people as students, it are these very moments that can make or break the true impact of the work we do at SSYP.

When students are disengaged in the classroom, many might immediately move to the traditional framework of classroom and behavior management to get them back on track. However, at B-SAFE we avoid these models of managing others, because we firmly believe that the only person’s behavior you can manage is your own. Instead, we follow what we call “The Eight Steps to a Smooth Running Program With Lots of Smiling Kids Learning Lots of Cool Things,” or “The 8 Steps” for short. In this model, we focus on the idea that everyone has the ability to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. This means that instead of disciplining or rewarding young people for their actions, we work to redirect them through discussions about the issues behind the disengagement.

We believe that all young people, just like the rest of us, want to have power and feel safe and supported. In practice, this means that we recognize that what might be perceived as a disruptive and disengaged student could actually be a student who doesn’t understand the material and doesn’t know how to express it. We assume the best intentions in all of our young people, and it’s that starting point that makes all the difference in our work.

Ultimately, at B-SAFE we are running a countercultural program that centers the needs of young people rather than having them work to fulfill ours. Through both writing curriculum and working in the classroom, I have seen firsthand that allowing young people to feel safe, big, and connected means using moments of disengagement as opportunities for growth.

y Emily Boyk, Academic Team

Emily Boyk is a rising junior at Wellesley College who is spending her first summer with St. Stephen's on the B-SAFE Academic Team. A student of political science and women's and gender studies, she is passionate about youth empowerment along the lines of race, class, and gender, and is thrilled to be working with SSYP this summer on such issues.