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Youth tackle teen homelessness

Kimberly Lee is a ReWA youth instructor
cartoon drawing of "Juan" who is homeless and sleeps in a car with his family

Youth used storyboards to facilitate online discussions and brainstorm solutions to teen homelessness.

Back in February when we had no idea what was in store for us.

In partnership with the Seattle Reparatory Theatre (the Rep), ReWA’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) program was set to focus on storytelling and public speaking – skills particularly helpful for English Language Learners. Little did we know how meaningful these skills would be as youth faced a global pandemic and were affected by the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The goal of ReWA’s Project-Based Learning program is to engage students and inspire learners with hands-on, real-life learning to promote leadership. At our first session with the Seattle Rep actors in February, they led the class in team-building and voice-projection exercises, and the youth created a values-based outline for how class time would be governed, with their priorities being “punctuality, honestly and fun”.

ReWA’s youth instructors presented a complementary storytelling curriculum in which students chose a significant social issue —Teen Homelessness—and explored it using the skills they learned from the Rep actors. Youth learned to work on their own voice cultivation, that is, having the courage to use their voice, and they also learned how to take constructive criticism from peers. They learned problem-solving, critical thinking, writing, and presentation skills—all 21st Century Skills that are priority for Seattle Public Schools. 

screenshot of storyboard of covid-19 affects youth homelessness

Youth engaged with their peers and instructors weekly over video calls.

Youth worked on ‘voice cultivation’, that is, having the courage to use their voice, and they also learned how to take constructive criticism from peers.

Then, March came and Seattle Public Schools – and PBL – moved to online instruction. Homeschooling was not only a massive shock to parents’ but also to students’ academic and social life. In the face of these challenges, ReWA’s youth instructors made weekly group and individuals check-ins. This was not just to check in on program work, but also to see how families were coping with the pandemic and to provide resources, as needed. 

As part of these check-ins, we’d use journaling prompts and the ice-breaker exercise, “Roses, Buds and Thorns” as a way to share ups and downs of their week, and come up with innovative ideas to meet future challenges.

In May, youth attended an online storytelling workshop offered by Nike. They learned how to craft their own personal stories, identified personal values, and honed a pitch statement for when they apply for internships. For many, this was the first time they spoke about their own journey, and how they have learned and grown from adversity.

For many, this was the first time they spoke about their own journey, and how they have learned and grown from adversity.

Looking back to when we started the online training in public speaking, I remember many of the youth were camera-shy. By the end of the program, they spoke with confidence, looking directly at the camera, and had their pitches polished—and under a minute.

Moving class online caused us to streamline our curriculum by using storyboards to brainstorm solutions to the issue of Teen Homelessness. Storyboarding helped foster conversation in which teens were asked to consider others’ perspectives, an important part of their social-emotional learning.

As part of the final project, the youth filmed their own “oral commentaries” on teen homelessness, offering several creative solutions, such as:

  • vouchers for tiny homes where families can stay temporarily
  • community garden for families to access
  • resource pamphlets for homeless teens

By preparing and performing these ‘oral commentaries’, youth had a chance to practice public speaking, voice opinions and back them up with evidence.  

Although many youth still have substantial disparities in their remote learning environments – because of limited access to computers and/or wifi – the goal of the PBL program was to make our online meetings and activities engaging, educational, and fun. Looking back, although this cohort was catapulted into distance learning, we were consistently blessed by one student’s hopeful disposition each week as he relayed this simple, impactful sentiment, “I am thankful for waking up today.”

Looking back, although this cohort was catapulted into distance learning, we were consistently blessed by one student’s hopeful disposition each week as he relayed this simple, impactful sentiment, “I am thankful for waking up today.”

PBL is following that same guiding light of gratefulness. Despite a worldwide pandemic accompanied by civil unrest for racial justice, our class stays hopeful. As our students, community, and the country push forward, we make it a point to remember to be grateful for each day, stay positive, show up and understand what it means to be mindful of our neighbor. 

*Homelessness statistics from Schoolhouse Washington report