At UP for Learning, one of our foundational beliefs is that every youth has the capacity to innovate, collaborate and lead, to become an agent of change and contribute to the life of our communities now and in the future. 

Recently we finalized a document we shared with many stakeholders prior to the pandemic striking titled 64 Ways to Amplify Youth Voice and Agency Through Partnership.  Many of the ideas listed on this document relate to work that is done in person. However, we have seen teams find a variety of ways to continue amplifying youth voice and agency during remote learning. 

Agency is the sense of control we feel in life and the belief in our capacity to influence our thoughts and behavior as well as our ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations, Youth agency increases when we intentionally foster connected relationships between youth and adults and make sure that youth voice is at the forefront of this work.  

 One way to foster positive connected relationships is to purposefully build in time to connect and laugh together.  Using lighthearted and engaging connection questions to kick-off team calls brought much laughter to our work throughout the last three months. A specific activity that prompted much laughter was to have participants wear their favorite t-shirt and explain why it is their favorite. The activity allowed us to connect in different ways than we normally would have and enabled us to learn small nuggets about others we may not have learned otherwise. Another tool we used to elicit laughter was to create fun poll questions for people to answer when they entered a virtual space, for example: Would you rather skydive with a skunk or bungee jump with a porcupine? Opening meetings with these types of activities set a positive tone for the meeting and strengthened connections among participants..  

We found that just like when we are together in the school building, it is vital in a remote setting to create a space that will promote deep dialogue and a sense of community by employing powerful “circle practices”. Circles give people a chance to be in community together and give everyone an opportunity to be heard and seen, both important elements to enhance a sense of belonging and connection.  One way we used circles with teams during remote learning was by creating a Google document that had a picture of a circle on it with smallers colored circles that had the name of a participant in each one.  We also used a “talking piece” by having the person speaking say, “I now pass the talking piece to…” Another option we used  for employing circles was to just write a list of people’s names in the chat for the talking order.  Creating a circle order helped keep everyone engaged and offered a simple way for people to fully listen to one another.  

Connections were further solidified among our teams when we intentionally embedded opportunities for youth and adults to share stories with one another.  These stories started emerging immediately after we moved to remote learning as team members took time at the start of each meeting to share frustrations, joys, and unexpected experiences as they  adapted to this new landscape. These stories offered youth and adults a glimpse into one another’s world outside of school as they talked about all of the things they were encountering being at home all day.  Our teams also had a chance to meet pets, children, and sometimes even parents or siblings who were introduced in the stories, during Zoom calls. 

Moving the work from small groups to the broader school community, our teams found new ways to share and display student work.  One team organized a contest by sending out an invitation through the school email system that invited peers to create a poster to raise awareness about the risks of vaping.  The team then worked with their local prevention coalition to share the winning posters on social media and hang print versions around town. 

And, on an even broader scale, we saw our Youth Advisory Council find a way to engage community members as mentors and tutors through their Connecting VT Youth survey which allowed them to make connections among youth across the state to find both common interests and the things peers need help with including academic, extracurricular, or interpersonal support. The survey garnered hundreds of responses, allowing students to connect in ways that did not seem possible just a few months ago.  

These examples solidify the notion that when we provide space to see what is possible and are intentional about creating opportunities to amplify youth voice and agency, incredible connections and work can happen.  

As one member of UP’s  Youth Advisory Council said to his peers at the start of the pandemic, “The best way to keep ourselves physically healthy is to stay away from one another, but the best way to stay mentally healthy is to remain connected to each other.  We live in a time when these are not mutually exclusive, when the tools available to us are uniquely suited to both keeping us physically separate and intellectually and emotionally together. “