Top Three Things I’ve Learned at AALEAD

By Eileen Chen, VA Programs Intern
Photos Courtesy of AALEAD Staff

VA Programs

Coming into this internship in the fall, I was excited about all the things that I could offer to the youth in the programs. However, after spending the past few months with them, I feel as though they have given more to me than I have given them. Over the past three and a half months I’ve spent with AALEAD, I’ve gained much more insight into the psychosocial environment that youth learn and grow in than I ever would have in the classroom of a developmental psychology class. The top three things I’ve learned so far are that…

Less is more.

Whether you have less people or you’re giving less directions, either way, I’ve noticed when you give the youth just enough bricks to build the framework, they’ll find their own way to build the entire house. During a perspective-taking/mental health exercise I led in programs, the youth were separated into groups of three or four. I told the youth a very short and vague story and asked them to rank each character in the story one through four, with one being the guiltiest, and four being the most innocent. Afterward, I asked each group to share their rankings with each other. Suddenly, they were role playing, debating, drawing pictures on the board, and coming up with all sorts of back stories for each character to make a stronger case for themselves. The level of enthusiasm and creativity the youth displayed through this simple activity was truly impressive, along with 100% of the classroom participating, which I’d say is rather rare. Sometimes less truly is more.

Adaptability is key.

We go into programs with a detailed lesson plan, with a certain curriculum that we want to follow. We say to the youth: “we have this objective and that objective, and if there’s anything that I want you to get from today it’s this.” But sometimes, the classroom just isn’t vibing with you that day. You want small groups, but they want a big group instead. You need pairs for this activity, but the three best friends just won’t separate. You assigned partners because you wanted to mix the room up, but now everyone is mad at you and you just can’t get anything done. One day, I was facilitating a mental health workshop on depression—the first workshop I developed myself—and in the middle of my PowerPoint, the classroom was just not having it with me. I could tell the youth were feeling especially chatty that day, so I stopped and turned it into a more interactive and personal discussion instead. Sometimes you just need to throw everything out the window and make something new on the fly!

Watch out for the quietest of the bunch—they’ve still got something to say.

During a workshop on bullying, we brought in a man drawn on a large piece of paper (kind of like Flat Stanley); we named him Bob. The youth were instructed to shout insults at Bob and each time they did, they would rip a piece of his body off. Afterwards, they tried to tape him back together, only to find that Bob will never look the way he once did. We went around the room and asked youth to reflect on why Bob will never be the same, and when the time came for her to share, the softest voice that you could only hear in a silent room spoke the most poetic words that no one expected to hear. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I do remember the applause the broke out after the moment of silence we all had to take just to fully absorb what she had just said. It was definitely one of those “I wish I got that on camera” moments.

VA Programs

This internship has been an unexpected in many ways—starting toward the end of my Fall 2015 semester, and won’t be ending until the end of my Spring 2016 semester in May—but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m excited for all the things I still have left to learn from the youth and the AALEAD staff in my remaining months here.

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