As we work on the Transforming Teen Services for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion project, one thing I have to be reminded frequently is that creating Connected Learning programming does not require providing for all three spheres: interests, relationships, and opportunities. Frameworks like Connected Learning begin as more descriptive than prescriptive: they say, “This is what’s been happening,” not “This is the only way to make it happen.” People like myself latch onto the aspirational qualities of this description and feel that if they can’t create a Connected Learning experience that encompasses the whole model, we shouldn’t even bother trying.
WE ARE WRONG.
Interests are the sine qua non of Connected Learning, so if librarians or educators start there by genuinely figuring out what youth are interested in and building their programming around that, they’ve gotten started in that direction. When CL happens spontaneously, the relationships and opportunities often come about through the course of the activity. When I started doing community theater as a teenager, I built relationships with peers and adult mentors and I had opportunities to learn things about theater production, to serve on non-profit boards, to act as a stage manager and a publicist. These aspects were not built into the environment explicitly for my benefit; they were natural byproducts of me participating in my interest.
So if you’re a librarian or educator considering implementing Connected Learning, please don’t be overwhelmed by the multiple spheres and various possibilities. If you’re building from youth interests, you can bring in the other components over time.
The creators of Project READY had the same problem: we shared frameworks that it’s easy to feel you must implement perfectly or not at all. We discussed Dr. James A. Banks’s framework for multicultural education, which has four levels of integration, ranging from the contributions approach (what we sometimes call the “heroes and holidays” approach to culture) all the way to the social action approach, in which students actually work to solve social issues. It can be easy to see models where youth contact government officials and make social change and think, “Well, I don’t have what I need to do that, so this model has nothing for me.” But there are two other levels in the model, the additive approach incorporating new multicultural content without changing curricular structure and the transformation approach which involves reshaping curriculum to center multiculturalism rather than adding it on. If your current approach is at the contributions level, moving to the additive approach is preferable to giving up on the whole framework.
As with improving the nutritional quality of your diet, adding more movement into your day, or any habit change, moving in the right direction is preferable to not moving at all. For example, if you learn you have some youth at your library interested in cosplay, maybe you start by hosting some simple no-sew project events. Then over time you can find out if there is a cosplay charity organization in your area and find out if any of those cosplayers would be interested in sharing their expertise, and the youth might build relationships with them as well as each other. And those cosplayers might then introduce the youth to opportunities like participating in contests or engaging in charitable cosplay themselves. You didn’t start with all three parts, but you moved in the direction of Connected Learning at each stage.