It’s time. We raise the volume of our little white stereo, blasting Katy Perry’s latest musical sensation, we straighten our matching blue shirts, and on “1, 2, 3…” we swing open the doors with exuberant, smiling faces.
“Hello, ladies! Come on in!”
Thirty middle-school girls find themselves ushered into our summer classroom -- a space filled with white easel pads, sharpies, colorful post-its, and ribbons. Some turn toward each other in whispers and nervous giggles. Others immediately tap our shoulders, asking where they should place their bag, water bottle, and sweater. A few linger behind, ending a seemingly difficult conversation with their mothers and stomp into the room begrudgingly. In the corner, we see one girl dressed in dark, baggy clothing, leaning against the wall with her eyes glued to her phone. One girl is chatting with someone about a third of her height, while another one braids her friend’s hair, batting fake eyelashes as she laughs. Welcome to middle school.
“Can we get a raise of hands? Who knows why they’re here today? What this workshop is all about?”
Sometimes, hands shoot into the air, and we look into a sea of enthusiasm and eager eyes. Other times, we see crossed arms and skeptical faces. Either way, we’re here on a mission -- we have two and a half hours to give these girls the confidence to become leaders, the inspiration to bring positive change to their community, and the tools to start bringing their mission statements to life, starting today.
Coaching leadership workshops for middle-school girls across the country was one of the most rewarding but challenging experiences we’ve ever had. We each brought diverse backgrounds and skillsets in the teaching profession, ranging from summer camp counseling, to working with low-income youth at third-world educational institutions, to researching human behavioral phenomena that apply to the middle-school age range. Even so, we quickly discovered on the road that there were still so many areas in which we could grow -- as teammates, as leaders and teachers, and as young women seeking to understand and empower the middle school girls that we all used to be at one point.
Fourteen weeks, over 1200 middle school girls, 32 states, and countless diverse communities later, we’re back in the Bay Area and excited to share with you 6 key insights that we’ve picked up along the way. Hopefully, some of these learning points will help you effectively connect with younger generations of women, too.
OUR TOP 6 INSIGHTS
1. Every girl takes turns being "the leader."
Many girls come from learning environments where the first hand raised to volunteer, is the hand chosen to read aloud to the rest of the class. In these cases, where the leader is self-selecting, everyone else must default to becoming the follower. Over time, there lies the risk that girls learn to identify themselves in all circumstances -- academic, social, athletic, etc. -- in a binary way, as either the “kind of person that leads” or the “kind of person that follows.” We can work to break this norm in ways that make each girls’ leadership mandatory. For example, an activity is never done until every girl has read aloud, stepped into the improv circle, or shared her mission statement. And no matter how loud or quiet each girl might seem, give all girls equal attention and energy. They all have things to add to the workshop -- some just might be naturally more open than others to share!
2. Sometimes, all you need to build a community is a creative team name.
At the beginning of every workshop, we split the girls into teams of 3-5 and then divided ourselves amongst them, so that we could each closely mentor one specific group. To break the ice, each team then came up with a silly team name. From the “Periwinkle Polka-dotted Tigers” to the “Bubbly Rainbow Panda-dogs,” each team name was designed by the entire team’s goofiness and creativity. The most important part of the process was not coming up with the name, however -- it was continuously referring to it throughout the workshop. “C’mon, panda-dogs! We got this!” “Tigers, let me hear you ‘rawwr’!” The more actively and directly we integrated their team names into the workshop experience, the more our teams bonded, laughed, and collaborated with each other.
3. everything the girls say is important.
Sometimes, girls just want to be heard. Whether they’re telling you about their favorite ice-cream shop down the street, why they’re Team Jacob instead of Team Edward for Twilight, or that one time they read a book all about dolphin habitats, the fact that they want you to know means that they’re looking for ways to connect. Just about any way you can help a middle-school girl feel her voice heard is a good one, and it will likely open even more doors for your friendship to grow.
4. girls look up to you to set the tone.
Is this funny? Serious? Sad? Important to remember? Based on how you both articulate yourself and react to what else is being said or done, you’ll be surprised by how naturally the girls will follow. Don’t forget that you are the emotional steering wheel for any given moment, activity, or conversation!
Another good trick is to try to directly engage with at least one girl in the audience as often as possible - there are endless opportunities, even in these quick interactions, to help make them shine or positively reinforce their contributions. Being engaged also means equally sharing your energy and attention between girls who might bring a spectrum of enthusiasm to the workshop. For example, while it might initially feel easier to be excited about teaching a girl who is already extremely engaged, some of the most rewarding teaching moments derive from showing that same enthusiasm to girls that appear shier or more withdrawn from the group.
5. give girls a reason to show or tell you that they're good at something.
Beneath many girls’ insecurities (especially at the middle-school age) about their intelligence, popularity, or beauty, there lies the inherent need to be loved, valued, heard, and recognized. Giving girls opportunities to share their skills with you -- better yet, showing how much you admire them and encouraging them to compliment each other as well -- boosts their confidence in beautiful ways.
6. To connect with middle-school girls, first connect with your own middle-school self.
If you want young girls and students to feel comfortable being themselves around you, one of the best (and often times, most fun!) approaches can be unleashing your own goofiness on their level. For many of our workshops, we would kick things off by setting expectations and norms for our time together, where we would mention the "Cool Card."
"Everyone has one -- you guys do, your parents do, and we do, too -- and we know it especially comes out when we're meeting new people for the first time. But for this workshop today, we're all going to rip up our "Cool Cards" together."
Beyond being silly with the girls, it was helpful to bring up common examples, language / slang, and cultural references that would resonate with them. Finally, getting on the same page and connecting with girls even included sharing some of our own middle school experiences -- the good, the bad, and everything in between.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
It's been a few months since we returned to the Bay, and as a team, we've each found ourselves moving in exciting but different paths.
Natalya is living in San Francisco and working as a Business Analyst. Katie is finishing up her senior year in Product Design Engineering at Stanford. Rachel is living in Palo Alto and working at a global software enterprise company while launching a venture on eyewear design and manufacturing on the side. Jenna is in Seattle working in design education technology.
But our summer experience is living on for us, in more ways than one:
As a full team, we'll be presenting at the SXSWEdu Conference this upcoming March in Austin, Texas, in our workshop entitled, "Empowering Girls to Design a Better Future." We're also collaborating with community leaders to develop a scalable and accessible version of our workshop curriculum that can be shared nationwide (RV or no RV!) for years to come.
Thank you for all of your support and love over the past year, whether as a Kickstarter backer, community partner, corporate sponsor, design mentor, RV-decorator, middle school girl attendee, family host, or even just a friend sending prayers from afar that we'd travel safely along the way :) This list of 6 key insights barely scratches the surface of the incredible growth and learning we've experienced throughout our journey, and none of it would have ever been possible without all of you!