On Thriving in the New Year

My last blog post was written around Halloween from the NAE4-HA conference at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. The conference itself was an exciting whirlwind of teaching, networking, leading in my role as VP for Professional Development, and meeting a whole bunch of new people who want to help youth thrive! I came home to weeks of phone calls, meetings, and other things needed to set up the next phase of development on the 4-H Thriving Model. That time is a bit of a blur for me, but I also remember it as marked with the feeling of being in the flow like James Carse describes in Breakfast at the Victory, and loving every busy minute of it.

By the time Christmas rolled around I found myself reluctantly caught up in all the preparatory holiday things as we got ready to host family, which now includes two delightful (and very active) young grandchildren. I was definitely caught off guard this season, and found myself scrambling rather breathlessly as Christmas drew near.

One morning I found myself in Trader Joes, the feeling of being in the flow replaced by tension when I heard Kenny Chesney’s Christmas in Dixie coming across the store’s sound system. Now let me say straight up, I am not a country western fan, and while I had heard this song before, I had never heard the song before. When I got back in my car I pulled it up on my phone and found myself instantly in a better mood, with a feeling of the spirit of Christmas for the first time in the season.

For those of you unfamiliar with the song, it is a sweet, if not a tad sappy, imagining of Christmas peace from sunny California to Memphis, Tennessee among other places. For me, that busy morning, the song evoked the special names, faces, and places I have encountered in my 4-H work, and how fortunate I have been to meet so many people and visit so many lovely places. I thought of all of you, my colleagues, getting ready for your own holiday celebrations all across the country, with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and good fortune. The network of 4-H professionals we have is inspiring, and I feel so lucky to call you my colleagues and friends.

Also inspiring, and very exciting, are the number of 4-H and youth development professionals from across the country who have stepped forward to lead the next phases of “Advancing the the 4-H Thriving Model,” which is now an officially sanctioned national 4-H Program Leader’s Working Group (PLWG) task force. Three sub groups are getting underway as we start the new year. One will focus on professional development for 4-H professionals and volunteers. The second will conduct additional research on the model to determine “what works for what youth under what conditions?” And the third will provide guidance for organizational alignment across our complex 4-H system to ensure a uniform understanding and implementation of the 4-H Thriving Model.

When I began work on the 4-H Thriving Model in 2013 I had no idea this was where we were heading. In many ways the work is really just now beginning, but I can’t wait to see what happens as the working groups guide our next steps. What I do know is that I am relieved to have so many smart, creative, and dedicated colleagues working on the project now, and the gratitude I felt that rainy December morning in the Trader Joes parking lot is stronger than ever!

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

Mary E. Arnold, Ph.D.
Professor and Youth Development Specialist
Oregon State University

On Honalee

I am writing this Sunday night from the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents (NAE4-HA) conference that begins tomorrow at the beautiful historic Greenbrier in West Virginia. I flew into Roanoke, VA on Friday night where I stayed overnight, then rented a car and drove the 8o miles or so on a crisp Saturday morning up to the mountains of West Virginia, where I attended the NAE4-HA Board of Trustees meeting yesterday and today. I currently serve as Vice President for Professional Development for the association, and as always, I enjoyed our two-day meeting as we dove deeply into how we can best prepare 4-H Youth Development practitioners for the work they do with youth- complex and demanding work to be sure.

For most of my journey East, though, I was pondering something that, well, haunted me. Haunted seemed the best word because it really had to do with something I witnessed on Halloween night as I walked my best buddy dog Romey around our neighborhood, long deserted of the the children that filled it just hours earlier.

I noticed that a fair number of houses had bowls of candy set out, with notes instructing the kids to take one candy each, and, oh, by the way, happy Halloween too!

I get it. I do. Our weeks are packed. Our days our long. The demands on our lives sometime leave little room at the end of the day for anything else than dinner and bed.

But here. In my neighborhood. Where the littles had dressed as witches, super heroes, princesses, ghouls, and yes, even a taco, not to mention a lion or two, there were many who did not greet their cheerful “Trick or Treat!!” but instead left candy to be picked up and taken home in a pillow case with no witness to bear to their creativity; their imagination. As if the candy was the most important part.

I didn’t miss one. Not one. I waited to open the door and looked forward to seeing the costumes and handing out candy. I shrieked at ghouls and bowed before princesses. I was humbled before lions, and marveled at super heroes. And I told each of them Happy Halloween!!! And as one whiskered little kitty said over her shoulder as she headed back down the driveway: “Thank you! Happy Halloween to you too!”

As I walked later that night around the neighborhood I hoped that the couple on the corner who are folk singers just might be singing tonight. But they weren’t. Their house, like the others was dark except for a few orange lights in the bushes. The neighborhood was telling the children it was time to go home. The imagination of childhood that could take hold for a night was over for this year.

One night, not long ago, I walked quietly past my singing couple’s house and stood in the shadows with Romey while they sang Puff the Magic Dragon together, that beautiful song of imagination. Song of and kings and princes , sealing wax, and valiant dreams. Of a dragon and a little boy that love each other, and kingdoms that are created in the world of the mind.

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar

I could not help thinking of the candy left in baskets on steps, with no adult to open the door to enter into the magic of Halloween. Of the moments of imagination that are slowly dissolving in our world. It seems realistic. The next morning was a school and work day. There were things to be done and deadlines to be met. And sleep to be had before it all began again.

Before what began again, I ask?

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold

On the Promise of Adolescence

For most of the summer, except when I was traveling, I had a regular schedule to my days. I usually started with an early morning walk to Starbucks with my little dog Romey (whom, while I got my coffee enjoyed a cookie from his friend Steve who is always there before 6am, leaving a cookie by the pole where I tie Romey if we arrive too late). Then we headed home to do some reading before hitting the computer to continue the work on advancing the 4-H Thriving Model.

Most days I looked up from my computer near 10 or 11 am, and needing a break, Romey and I headed back to Starbucks (this time across the field rather than the long way around) for a second cup of coffee to sit and think through the morning’s work and make a plan as to where we needed to head next. But as summer turned into fall, it was later and later before I headed back for that second cup of coffee – everything in the morning was taking more time and thought to accomplish before I felt I could take a break.

And so it was that I found myself as September rolled around, arriving for my second cup of coffee closer to 3pm than 11am. Never mind, though. I enjoyed the break whenever it came, and one particular day tucked a new book in my backpack as I headed across the field – a new consensus study report from the National Academies that I had eagerly been awaiting entitled The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth.

At Starbucks I got my late coffee, and tucked into a quiet corner to dive into my new book. And then…before I finished the first page, a ka-zillion girls came in, enjoying their stop for a treat on the way home from the middle school up the road. My quiet reading corner was assaulted with giggles, texts, and frappacinos, shattering my usual quiet reading time. School had started.

Here I was wanting to read about the promise of adolescence while at the same time being quite annoyed by the abundance of adolescents around me! The irony of my irritation was not lost on me. When I realized the reality of the situation, I invited some of the girls to share my table, which they did with sweet smiles, and healthy chatter of school, activities, friends, and families. It was a lesson in remembering what our work is all about!

But about the book… it is written by the Committee on the Neurobiological and Socio-Behavioral Science of Adolescent Development and its Applications, with the assignment to “synthesize these exciting advances in the science of adolescent development and draw out their implications for the social systems charged with helping all adolescents flourish.” Of note is the statement that this knowledge “has not yet penetrated the everyday understanding of informed citizens and policy makers, including many who serve young people.”

Indeed it is a rich and complex time of scientific discovery in child and adolescent developmental science; science that must inform our everyday practice as we work together to help youth thrive. As the youth development program of the Extension Service, 4-H practitioners have an obligation to bring the emerging science in child and adolescent development from the university to the people with whom we work. And with so much unfolding about youth development, this obligation is perhaps more important than ever.

So look forward to more on the topic of the promise of adolescence as we head into the 4-H year. I’ll share what I am learning with the hope that you as practitioners can turn that learning into practice. As we do, I invite your feedback (and blog posts!) on how you are using the information to help youth thrive.

Until then. Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

On Thriving in Maine

Where Knowledge is Teachable

This week I headed to New England on my helping youth thrive tour, and on Tuesday we followed Route 1 up the Maine coast from Portland to Orono, home of the university of Maine. As promised when we locked in the dates for this visit, the autumn splendor of the northeast was in full swing (I heard last night this this week is the peak of color for many locations). Seeing the New England fall trees is something I have always wanted to do, so a slow drive on a beautiful day was definitely a treat. Let’s face it, Oregon is a state full of natural beauty, but it simply can’t match the brilliant reds against the deep green pine among bursts of yellow and orange that is abundant in Maine right now. It was a breathtaking drive at every turn of the road.

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of introducing the 4-H Thriving Model to the 4-H staff at the UM campus in Orono. As I have conducted these trainings I have learned over and over again the importance of grounding this academic work in the lived experiences and practices of real youth practitioners – the people on the ground, working directly with young people and witnessing the powerful effects that 4-H can have on them. To do this I start the day by asking them to reflect on four questions in small(ish) groups:

  1. What draws youth to 4-H
  2. What benefits do youth gain from being in 4-H
  3. What role do 4-H volunteers play?
  4. What makes 4-H unique from other youth-serving organizations?

After some discussion each group then prepares a poster that captures their discussion and answers to the questions.

At the end of the day, we return to the posters and I ask the groups to “code” their posters with little shiny stars, placing a different colored star on their poster where there poster illustrated each of the components of the 4-H Thriving Model. The result is a colorful poster covered in shiny stars – a perfect graphic portrayal of how they are already implementing the 4-H Thriving Model in the programming they are doing.

The question I ask the groups to reflect on is whether they see every element of the 4-H Thriving Model reflected on their posters. The answer is always “yes.” It is so rewarding for me to help these dedicated educators see the power of their own work. And also so see a palatable relief that the 4-H Thriving Model is understandable and not foreign to their everyday reality at all.

From here, the educators often feel empowered by the model, and excited to think about how they can use the model to improve what they already do – to make their educational efforts with youth even more effective.

By far, though, my favorite part is the end of the day when I ask the educators to reflect on the value of what we learned during the day. Everytime I so I learn something new. At the end of our time together in Maine one educator stated simply: “I now have clear knowledge of what I have to do to be an effective youth educator, and knowledge is teachable.” Meaning among other things, that gaining an understanding of the 4-H Thriving Model has given her the tools she needs to teach others, including her 4-H volunteers, how to do effective, research-based 4-H programs with youth.

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold

On Being A Flashlight on a Dark Night

I am sureĀ  by now that you might think I have disappeared from the blogosphere, and to a certain extent you would not be wrong. I have been underground for a few months, navigating the dizzying amount of teaching and travel that seems to show up on my calendar every spring. As I near the end of this schedule I am finding time to come up for air and reflect on all that I have learned over the past few months. One advantage of a packed travel schedule is a lot of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms to catch up on reading, followed by the resultant thinking and sorting through that all that reading entails. I am left feeling much more informed about our field of youth development and how it applies to helping youth thrive, and also a wee bit overwhelmed trying to decide how best to share all this wonderful information! Continue reading