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Teaching Teens to Speak to Adults and Developing Intentionality in Conversation

by Darren Schwartz
Philanthropy Officer at Jewish Community Foundation San Diego

I am a proud father of two wonderful little girls. My eldest is four years old and has an insatiable curiosity about things she encounters on a daily basis. She wants to know how walls are made, where rainbows come from and what will really happen if she doesn’t eat dinner. My wife and I do our best to answer her questions and often consult our good friend “Google” when we don’t know. 

Her curiosity does not end with us. After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I learned the importance of encouraging children to take advantage of interactions with real experts. When we go to visit a doctor’s office, museum or even the grocery store, I ask my daughter to think of a question that she can ask of a professional at these places to learn more about the world around her.

This practice of questioning and critical thinking for my daughter is important for many reasons. It gives her purpose and intentionality during mundane errands, it broadens her scope of knowledge and perhaps most notably, it takes the burden off of me for having to know EVERYTHING. Most importantly, she becomes comfortable speaking with people of varying ages and expertise (Don’t worry, we also teach her about ‘stranger danger’.)

In thinking about the work I do with through the Jewish Teen Foundation (JTF) San Diego, I often encounter teens that have difficulty speaking with adults. In our group setting or in one-on-one conversations, most teens are articulate and insightful. However, when a new adult is introduced to the group many teens lose their voice.

The JTF program asks participants to be actively engaged. When teens stop using their voices, asking questions and making observations, the program suffers. To help the teens put their best foot forward, we dedicate a significant portion of our curriculum to the development of professional and leadership skills. These skills-building exercises are designed to increase confidence and enhance communication.

Five key areas of emphasis:

1.       Professionalism

We ask that all participants come to JTF meetings and site visits in formal attire. This break from normal teen attire elevates the experience and creates a sense responsibility. They feel that they are more likely to be taken seriously.

2.       Effective Communication

Teens learn various skills in verbal and nonverbal communication. Most importantly they learn about active listening. They practice listening and then summarizing back what they heard. This skill helps them focus on what another person is saying which will lead to deeper conversations.

3.       Pre-meeting Prep

When we have speakers come and present at our meetings, we provide the teens with a bio for each speaker. We ask them to come prepared with one question for each speaker and provide space on our meeting agenda to write down additional questions. This gives them purpose during presentations.

4.       Group dynamics

Group dynamics are really important. Many people are not comfortable speaking in large groups. I try to create opportunities for small groups of teens to meet with speakers after their presentation.

5.       Repetition

We do exercises that require teens to ask questions, give elevator pitches or make short presentations several times within a short period of time. This allow them to become more confident in what they are saying and allows them to interact with the person they are speaking to. 

These exercises allow teens to come from a position of confidence and allows them to be a more active part of their own education.

All of the teens that I work with are college bound. Most of them will find themselves in large universities with classes that top 500-600 students. They must have the skills to interact with professors, administration and other students to truly take advantage of their education. The sooner they find their inner four year-old and start asking questions the better prepared they will be for their future.

 

Jewish Teen Foundation San Diego was formed in the first cohort of JTFN's Foundation Board Incubator. Click here to learn more

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