Category Archives: About K-12 International Education News

International Education News: 2017 in Review

Happy New Year! As we here at International Education News start 2018, we thought we would look back at some of the posts from 2017.

This year, we explored topics ranging from the high-performing Estonian education system to a new approach to drugs education in the Americas. Statistically, our posts covered over a dozen countries, including multiple posts on South Africa and Finland. In 2017, people from 165 countries visited our website. Most of our visitors come from the U.S.A. We also had a significant number of visitors from the Philippines, Singapore, and the U.K. Our most viewed post from 2017 focused on educational change in Malaysia. Over on Twitter, our top Tweet focused on a question of “why Finland’s schools seem to be slipping.”

We rounded up headlines about notable global education news such as the PISA well being report, PIRLS, and PISA Collaborative Problem Solving results.

We also covered a number of stories here in the U.S. as part of our ongoing examination of educational improvement efforts. These posts included informal learning institutions like the Beam Center and Right to Play.

Moving into 2018, look for new posts each Wednesday and follow us on Twitter @intl_ed_news

Headlines around the world: PIRLS (2016) Results

At the beginning of December, we scanned the headlines around the world to explore PISA’s results around collaborative problem solving. As we have done in similar posts, we offered a number of headlines from around the world that analyzed the recently released PISA results. Following up on that report, we set to once more scanning headlines for the recently released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results. Where the general response to the release of the collaborative problem-solving PISA scores was positive, responses to PIRLS varied a great deal. Headlines in the U.S. and South Africa highlighted problematic results. Newspapers in places like the UK and Ireland praised improvements and touted gains.

PIRLS Image.jpg

Source: TIMMS and PIRLS International Study Center, Boston College

 

Below are some highlights from around the world:

France

Counterpoints—December 14, 2017

https://www.contrepoints.org/2017/12/14/305426-neurosciences-sauver-lecole

Vous Nous Ils—December 14, 2017

http://www.vousnousils.fr/2017/12/14/comprehension-de-la-lecture-des-histoires-plutot-que-des-dictees-610614

Telegraph—December 5, 2017

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/05/french-primary-pupils-take-dictation-day-humiliating-fall-world/

 

U.K.

Aol, UK News—December 14, 2017

https://www.aol.co.uk/news/2017/12/14/more-11-year-olds-meeting-government-targets-in-three-key-tests/

The Guardian—December 7, 2017

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/07/ministers-are-reading-too-much-into-this-test

Schools Week—December 5, 2017

https://schoolsweek.co.uk/pirls-2016-england-rises-one-place-in-international-reading-measure/

 

Bulgaria

EU Scoop—December 5, 2017

https://www.euscoop.com/en/2017/12/5/4-graders-smart-kindergarten

 

U.S.

Cato Institute—December 7, 2017

https://www.cato.org/blog/few-pirls-wisdom-new-reading-results

 

Ed Week—December 5, 2017

https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/12/05/global-reading-scores-are-rising-but-not.html

US News and World Report—December 5, 2017

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2017-12-05/other-countries-surpass-us-students-in-international-reading-comprehension-test

http://www.bipps.org/wapo-u-s-schoolchildren-tumble-international-reading-exam-rankings-worrying-educators/

 

U.A.E.

Emirates—December 11, 2017

http://www.emirates247.com/news/dubai-students-improve-in-international-reading-scores-2017-12-11-1.662866

 

South Africa

News 24—December 6, 2017

https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/teachers-parents-at-the-heart-of-the-solution-to-sa-childrens-reading-problem-expert-20171206

Business Live—December 6, 2017

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/editorials/2017-12-06-editorial-high-illiteracy-is-alarming/

Herald Live—December 13, 2017

http://www.heraldlive.co.za/opinion/2017/12/13/letter-government-not-heeding-warnings/

Politics Web—December 8, 2017

http://www.politicsweb.co.za/opinion/reversing-our-crisis-of-illiteracy

 

Beam Center: From Summer Camp to the Core of Schools, Part 2

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been exploring programs in NYC that work both within and outside of schools. In this post, we present a few key take-aways about educational program design and improvement from our conversation with Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn, founders of Beam, a program in NYC designed to “build communities of making and learning that enliven student curiosity, bridge the opportunity gap and prepare youth for the way the world works.” Beam was originally founded as a building-oriented summer camp and has iterated its approach to collaborative, project-based learning as it expanded into schools. It now operates after-school program, weekend programs, teacher workshops, and in-school electives and FabLabs.

Taking Beam as a case of how an out-of-school program devises strategies for expanding its impact by plugging into the traditional core of schools, Beam shows similarities to other programs in NYC that we have looked at, such as Outward Bound Schools, which has developed modular programs schools can select and add to their offerings, and Right to Play, which has sought to scale its impact through leveraging its niche in early childhood education and designing teacher professional development programs. Internationally, the pattern of developing a promising program outside of schools, that then has the potential to reach more students by “plugging in” to schools resembles the approach of Mehackit in Finland and Tandemic in Malaysia.

 

Last week, we shared the first part of Beam’s story focusing on its origins as a camp in New Hampshire and its move to create an afterschool program and workshop space in Brooklyn. This week, we focus on the development of Beam’s approach to integrating project-based instruction and FabLabs into schools.

 

POSITIONING THEMSELVES IN A NICHE where their approach can flourish

At the same time that they had worked their way into schools, Brian and Danny also found themselves embedded in a larger movement to support youth development and digital citizenship that has come to be known as connected learning: interest-driven, production-centered, and academically-oriented learning supported by human relationships and technology.  Rob suggested that Brian and Danny become members of Hive, a then-two-year-old organization that came out of the MacArthur Foundation’s work on digital and media learning and which overlapped with the interests of Digital Ready. Hive sought to create a network of media- and tech-driven youth development opportunities in NYC and offered grant funding and opportunities to learn from and collaborate with other organizations involved in digital learning and youth development. The convergence and buzz around connected learning was felt by Brian in every Hive meeting he went to.  As he explained, “I’m the oldest in the room by twenty years, I’m the only one with business experience. So, to me, I was in graduate school. I was, woah, I’m learning all this stuff, this jargon and – I learned what STEM was, what else was going on in the city along these lines, and what I didn’t realize, I was also learning something that was very cutting edge, this notion of connected learning. It made total sense to me, because we’ve been doing it in camp for a long time, so I felt a certain ability to participate in a conversation knowing none of the language but being able to describe what it looks like”.

From their work with Digital Ready and Hive and the discovery of convergent interests and goals, Beam uncovered a variety of opportunities that enabled it to expand its offerings both inside and outside schools. In the 2013-2014 school year, Beam became a contracted vendor with the NYC school system (this lowers the barriers for schools in participating with out-of-school partners) and reached 572 students, through its after-school, in school, and camp programs. In schools—at least, at Brooklyn International—Beam collaborated with teachers to create interdisciplinary units. Rob DiRenzo highlighted a solar lamp elective that Beam co-planned with BIHS for grade 9-10, “in which students created their own lamps while learning about electronic sensing systems, soldering, and plastic fabrication using reclaimed materials.” Beam launched an  Apprenticeship program, an internship-like experience supported by ExpandED Schools, another organization in New York City that worked to create expanded learning opportunities through facilitating partnerships between community-based organizations and schools. This enabled kids who loved their Beam experience in schools to deepen their skills through an after-school Beam program, and be able to go back to school able to assist with Beam courses and take on leadership roles with the in-school programs.

 

PLUGGING IN a program that fits the constraints and supports of schools

Throughout this evolution—from summer camp, to afterschool and weekend programs, to school electives, to internships and professional development, to—Beam found it was most successful (in terms of serving the most students with a sustainable, high-quality experience) when they can plug their program  into the structure of the school day.  Working with high schools like Brooklyn International, which had more flexible scheduling and course requirements, helped. However, Brian and Danny found that as a stand-alone elective, the Beam experience didn’t really take root in schools. Through a series of projects that meaningfully involved teachers from different disciplines, Brian and Danny found they could integrate a Beam project into the curriculum. One of the stand-out projects of this sort was the production of a Digital Poetry Machine, which involved the collaboration of the English and physics teacher. Brooklyn International students documented their problem-solving strategies and development of skills involved in producing and programming a wall of magnetic laser-cut wood words which could be arranged into short poems and posted to Twitter. These sorts of interdisciplinary projects, integrated into the core curriculum in collaboration with teachers, fostered deeper school partnerships. Brian and Danny also maintained, through interviews with us and conversations with Hive and schools, that they were not educators. They were self-described experts in collaboration, and so fully respected and enlisted educators as the experts in teaching and learning.

 By the end of 2015, Beam was expanding their focus to include middle schoolers and their teachers, in addition to enhancing the quality of their other projects. It piloted “Insight Into….”—free weekend workshops for middle schoolers—which was evidence of a budding idea that the Beam experience might be even more valuable if students could access it at earlier ages and then engage with Beam for more time (and, thus building more skills and more leadership opportunities) before college. It also piloted its Connected Teaching Fellows project with an inaugural cohort of 24 “teacher-designers” from NYC public middle and high schools. A year later, with a Hive Digital Media Learning Fund grant of $100,000, Beam partnered with the New York City Men Teach Initiative, which focuses on recruiting men of color to teach in public schools, to develop professional development that prepares these future educators to bring digital media and technology-infused projects into their classroom.

Through these programs, teachers and other educators had a chance to engage with materials and tools in the Beam studio, learn technical and design skills, have the support of a Beam domain specialist, and design a curricular activity. Brian’s reasoning is that “we needed to develop a tangible collaboration with the teachers by being part of the school day. The work we do in the classroom becomes the core of a new kind of school community. Instead of the regular stratifications—teachers, students, administrators, high-achieving students, low-achieving students—now you have a blending of roles, an accessible forum for achievement, an incentive for all to be learning and a common aspiration.” His reasoning begins to articulate a theory held by organizations like ExpandED Schools and Hive—that elements of informal education, such as mentoring relationships and learning through doing, were valuable within the school day.  Out of school learning opportunities like the projects of Beam camp can be hard to transfer into the regular school day because they often run counter to the the age-graded, subject based “core” of conventional schooling, but Brian and Danny continue to look for opportunities to change that core.

As another step in that direction, in 2016, developed its first in-school FabLab at Brooklyn International, “an advanced digital fabrication laboratory with cutting-edge tools and resources.” The FabLab’s package the tools, resources, and expertise that have gone into Beam’s projects in a form that fits current demands and funding opportunities. In 2017, it has plans to build 5 more in-school FabLabs in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Downtown Brooklyn, and Gowanus with funding from Borough President Eric Adams ($100,000/schools, as part of an investment in STEM education). The key, as they put it, is for them to avoid “getting dusty”; rather, they have to makes sure the various initiatives — the projects during the school day,the Connected Teachers training, the FabLabs, and a new Beam Apprenticeship program which trains and pays for students to support and teach their peers in the FabLabs — are means to learning experiences rather than, as Brian puts it, a “shiny end” in itself.

 

Continually Prototyping and Responding to a Changing Landscape

Growing recognition brought with it resources that allowed Beam to expand its offerings further. It moved to its current location in a renovated warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which functions as a space for school and afterschool programs, workshops, professional development, and incubator. With twice the amount of space, and space completely customized to its needs, Beam was able to offer more programming. Danny describes the space as a “hub” and “lab” where instructors design and prototype projects to bring into schools, and where Beam can host programs like professional development with teachers and summer day camps for younger students. It also hosted out of school workshops—making themselves accessible to students who don’t happen to attend their partner schools, and making connections to people interested in becoming partner schools in the future; these workshops were often offered in partnership with various schools and organizations in NYC.

In conversations about the future of Beam, its work for youth in New York City is a priority. Beam Camp is seen as valuable only insofar as it supports the work of Beam Center—perhaps as a program incubator, place for staff development, or ultimate Beam graduate experience.  For Danny and Brian, Beam is still a young, learning organization that’s benefited from connections and conversations with like-minded organizations including Digital Ready and Hive. Brian reflects that, at this point, “we can’t say ‘here are the results’ but we can say that the way people react to us – schools, principals, students –  indicates to us that we’re on a path where a lot  be learned by researchers and other educators; it’s also a path that we feel leads to more equitable access to high quality learning experiences in public education.”

Beam Center: From Summer Camp to the Core of Schools (Part 1 of 2)

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been exploring programs in NYC that work both within and outside of schools. In this post, we present a few key take-aways about educational program design and improvement from our conversation with Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn, founders of Beam, a program in NYC designed to “build communities of making and learning that enliven student curiosity, bridge the opportunity gap and prepare youth for the way the world works.” Beam was originally founded as a building-oriented summer camp and has iterated its approach to collaborative, project-based learning as it expanded into schools. It now operates after-school program, weekend programs, teacher workshops, and in-school electives and FabLabs.

Taking Beam as a case of how an out-of-school program devises strategies for expanding its impact by plugging into the traditional core of schools, Beam shows similarities to other programs in NYC that we have looked at, such as Outward Bound Schools, which has developed modular programs schools can select and add to their offerings, and Right to Play, which has sought to scale its impact through leveraging its niche in early childhood education and designing teacher professional development programs. Internationally, the pattern of developing a promising program outside of schools, that then has the potential to reach more students by “plugging in” to schools resembles the approach of Mehackit in Finland and Tandemic in Malaysia.

 

This week we share the first part of Beam’s story focusing on its origins as a camp in New Hampshire and its move to create an afterschool program and workshop space in Brooklyn. Next week, Part 2 focuses on the development of Beam’s approach to integrating project-based instruction and FabLabs into schools.

 

PROTOTYPING a promising learning experience in “open” conditions

 

Music industry executives, thought partners, and friends Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn founded Beam as a summer camp in 2005. Beam’s launch reflected both Brian’s memories of what he called an “idyllic” childhood camp experience and a shared concern that 21st century kids lacked the experiences in collaborative, hands-on making that could cultivate curious, capable, and confident life-long learners and doers. To put “making” at the center of each summer’s experience Beam camp focuses on a single, project —designed by a creative professional—that all campers and counselors helped to make a reality. Projects involve large-scale, multi-part, pie-in-the-sky creations like a giant Nexus Canopy in 2005— modular wood and canvas units that could be rearranged into theaters, mazes, and other spaces; Creatura in 2014 — a 20-foot human-powered vessel floating on the camp lake; and Pipe Tree in 2016 — a “fully-functioning, human-operated pipe organ” nestled amongst (and shaped like) the trees in the forest. Through the process, campers (and Brian, Danny, and the counselors) learn the relevant skills in areas such as woodworking and digital programming, have opportunities to dabble in skills beyond the needs of the project, and develop independence and pro-social skills more typically associated with summer camp.

Beam 1

Nexus Canopy

Canopy

Creatura

Beam Tree House

Pipe Tree

These aesthetically and technically impressive projects made the joy of accomplishing something “bigger and better” than the campers could have imagined a central goal. “All we were worried about was getting the project done and getting it done well,” Brian explained, “because of the way kids felt when it was done.” Over those first few years of camp, Brian and Danny constantly reflected on and improved the Beam approach to project-based learning. In the process, they came to see the inclusion of an expert—the artist or architect who designed the project—as one key ingredient. The expert lent authenticity to the endeavor, provided professional insight to guide the process, and brought a sort of creative stardom that inspired campers.  Beam camp also had the benefit of time and space of a few weeks set in the New England forest over the summer and relevant, real and high-quality resources, materials, and equipment.

Brian and Danny spent 5 years learning how to run a summer camp by doing it, just as their counselors and campers were learning creative, constructive skills by contributing to the project.  In this time, the projects became more complex, and the relationship between the expert maker, domain masters, and counselors became clearer and more intentional. Still, as ‘cool’ as the projects were, it was hard to define what exactly kids were learning and Brian and Danny resisted calling themselves educators. Although one parent wrote a letter asking Brian what tangible benefits her child had gotten out of the experience, other parents and campers responded enthusiastically. Brian and Danny knew qualitatively that the experience was impacting campers and worth making available to students who couldn’t afford or didn’t receive a scholarships for the limited space of camp. When Danny and Brian came to NYC in 2011, aspiring to bring the Beam Camp experience to more students through schools, they continued to iterate their approach to a new set of time, space, and school constraints.

PURSUING SPANDRELS OF OPPORTUNITY

This iterative approach opens up an organization to spandrels of opportunity: challenges that force creative responses and unanticipated avenues for growth. As Brian reflected on their approach, he observed that “what we’ve learned are all the dead ends you can take when you do a project, you have to edit the project so they are getting something authentic…”

Brian and Danny encountered more ‘dead ends’ when they attempted to work with NYC schools. As they had with Beam Camp, they jumped into NYC planning to figure things out on the go. While they were incorporating as a 501c3 (a type of non-profit organization) and trying to figure out how to create school partnerships, they ran an after-school program inspired by the weekend-long Inventgenuity festival, which had been successful in attracting lots of families and school-aged children. They tried varying the workshop time and configuration (4 weeks, 6 weeks, 8 weeks) but found that it was harder to break from the model of an expert teaching kids skills for a small “table-top” project for a few periods. It lacked the magic of camp—the bigger imagination of an immersive, intensive project that tapped into kids’ curiosity and imagination and led to, by most accounts, transformative experiences.

it wasn’t clear how to start a relationship with a school and after-school or weekend program were not producing the same intensive, deep experiences as Beam Camp. Without anything Brian or Danny could have planned for, a serendipitous opportunity arose. While they were serving students through afterschool and weekend programming, Brian and Danny made a “fortuitous” connection with  Rob DiRenzo, from the New York City Department of Education’s Digital Ready, a major initiative to expand technology use and student-centered learning in New York City schools. Rob was visiting the Invisible Dog gallery and, since it was an open space, happened upon Beam in the midst of a project with high school students. In Brian’s words, Rob “was interested in what we were doing, and we told him a story about this project we had done with teens, because that was the thing we wanted to do again, and he said, oh well I’m part of an initiative at the DOE that’s doing that exact thing.” As Brian explained,  Rob “put them in a room” with funders, other local organizations and staff from the DOE, “and I realized we had stepped in shit because we had a plan to do the kinds of things they wanted to do with teenagers in schools and that’s where we started to have to figure out what we were actually doing.” That one meeting introduced them to their first funder, and Beam started working with Brooklyn International High School in 2012.

Brian describes Brooklyn International as an especially perfect “petri dish” for the kind of projects and youth development work that  he and Danny were interested in.  More than just a place to experiment, Brooklyn International also served as a kind of crossroads where Brian and Danny’s vision for Beam literally intersected with a growing demand in education and New York City more broadly to foster passion, and project-driven learning opportunities, especially in digital media.  In fact, in 2013, Beam’s work at Brooklyn International was featured at the official launch of Digital Ready.  The press materials included a quote from Brian, explaining Beam’s contribution: “Thanks to Digital Ready, students from Brooklyn International High School will learn programming, carpentry, metalwork and digital storytelling skills while building a giant interactive sculpture as part of our BeamWorks Project…We think this kind of mentor-driven collaboration enables teens to discover the value of meaningful work and passionate interests of their own…” From their origins as a camp in New Hampshire, Beam was suddenly front and center as part of a signature project of the largest public-school district in the US.

Headlines around the world: PISA (2015) Collaborative Problem Solving

This post originally appeared on thomashatch.org

When PISA results are released, my colleagues at internationalednews and I often scan the headlines to see how media around the world are responding.  This month OECD released the results of the Collaborative Problem Solving assessments carried out for the first time in 2015.  The OECD notes that the assessments attempt to measure the extent to which students can “maintain an awareness of group dynamics, ensure team members act in accordance with their agreed‑upon roles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts while identifying efficient pathways and monitoring progress towards a solution.”  Among the highlights in OECD’s summary:

  • Across OECD countries, 8% of students are top performers in collaborative problem solving, but, on average, On average, 28% of students are only able to solve straightforward collaborative problems, if any at all.Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70
  • Students in Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the United States perform much better in collaborative problem solving than would be expected based on their scores in science, reading and mathematics, but Beijing-Shanghai -Jiangsu-Guangdong scored much lower than would be expected.
  • Girls perform significantly better than boys in collaborative problem solving in every country and economy that participated in the assessment. On average across OECD countries, girls score 29 points higher than boys.

 

 

 

The release of the results garnered considerable attention from a wide range of countries, and, in a departure from the usual gloomy portrayals, many (though not all) headlines were either neutral or put a positive spin on the results.

Alberta students great collaborative problem solvers, international test finds

Edmonton Journal – Nov 28, 2017

Australian students among world’s top performers with this surprising skill

The Sydney Morning Herald – Nov 21, 2017

Brazil among the worst in new OECD study

VEJA.com – Nov 23, 2017

PISA 2015 latest report: Young people playing video games are worse off problem solving in the team

(Estonia) Delfi – Nov 22, 2017

Finnish 15-year-olds among best performers in new PISA tests

Helsinki Times, Nov 28, 2017

Pisa test: how well students solve problems together

(Germany) derStandard.at – Nov 20, 2017

Hong Kong pupils among world’s best group problem-solvers (but Singapore tops the chart)
South China Morning Post – Nov 20, 2017

Korea tops PISA scale in collaborative problem-solving

The Korea Herald – Nov 23, 2017

Survey ranks Japanese children’s problem-solving skills near world’s best

The Mainichi – Nov 21, 2017

According to the latest PISA study, Spanish students do not know how to work correctly as a team, and it is worrisome

Bebés y más – Nov 27, 2017

Scottish school children lag behind English at problem solving
Telegraph.co.uk-Nov 21, 2017

Singapore students top OECD global survey in problem solving through teamwork
The Straits Times – Nov 20, 2017

Pisa: UK does better than expected in collaborative problem-solving
TES News – Nov 20, 2017

US ranks No. 13 in new collaborative problem-solving test

The Hechinger Report – Nov 27, 2017

 

–Thomas Hatch

 

 

 

 

Building Hope In South African Education

For the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US, we are reposting one of our pieces from South Africa about the possibilities and challenges of building an infrastructure for hope.  We encourage you to get to know any of the organizations mentioned here or in any of our other posts and consider supporting their important work.  
This post was originally published on www.thomashatch.org

I’ve only spent a week in Johannesburg, but it is hard not to be overwhelmed and inspired. Overwhelmed by the realities that many Black students in the Townships and the poorest communities still experience – strikes, violence and other disruptions that mean they may not get to school at all.  But even when many of these students are “in school” as one of my colleagues here told me, “they are getting no education.” In fact, The Economist recently declared that South Africa has “one of the world’s worst education systems”, while the BBC pointed out that roughly one out of four South African students failed their end of school exam last year.   All at the same time that many students continue to excel in long-established and high-performing private and ex-model c schools(formerly white schools).

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Inspired, however, by the efforts of so many working in and with schools and school systems here to create and expand real opportunities for learning.  Those include the “new private” or “low-fee” private schools that are designed explicitly to keep costs low.  Some of those, like LEAP Science and Math Schools have been around for several years and have already expanded.  Others are new, like Streetlight Schools, developed specifically for Jeppestown, an area where many students make former industrial buildings home.

Inspired as well by those in after school programs, summer programs, museums, and youth development programs that seek to create meaningful learning opportunities outside of schools.  Some programs, like IkamvaYouth, the Kliptown Youth Program, and Olico provide places for students to get help with homework or additional instruction, get support from peers, mentors, and teachers, and get the access to electricity, books, computers, and the internet that many can’t get at home.  Ultimately, ideally – after years of walking from school to these after school programs and then from the programs back home, keeping up their daily and weekly attendance – the hope is that all their work will pay off with access to university placements, scholarships, or jobs.

While the Kliptown Youth Program is unique to Kliptown in Soweto and Streetlight Schools is built directly into the Jeppestown neighborhood, other programs and school networks like IkamvaYouth and LEAP have expanded across provinces, and some like City Year South Africa build on programs in the US and elsewhere. But regardless of the unique aspects of the work in South Africa, I was struck by the shared challenges and the similarities in the development of these South African organizations and those I’ve been studying in New York CitySingapore and Malaysia.  All of these groups have to wrestle with the fundamentals of organizational and instructional development: they have to pull together or create the basic materials – registration forms, curricula and assessments, training manuals, and workshops; they have to find ways to attract students, recruit teachers, tutors, and other staff and volunteers; and they have to establish the relationships that create and sustain a safe and trusting environment inside their organizations while they spend time building broader networks of support among parents, community leaders, funders, and, sometimes, politicians. They have to do all of this, even when the electricity or the internet goes out; when their own equipment is stolen away (as at the branch of IkamvaYouth I visited); and when the whole political system is embroiled in controversy and conflict.  In South Africa, they have to do all of this as well amid a shift from a focus on the possibilities of post-apartheid democracy to a focus on the realities of sky high unemployment and limited, and costly, opportunities for higher education.  Coming to South Africa makes strikingly clear that the greatest crisis is a loss of hope. But experiencing the work being done by so many in Kliptown, Jeppestown and in so many other places across South Africa shows that hope is not just a dream about the future, it is built, day by day, step by step, like a ladder that allows us to reach higher than we ever have before.

— Thomas Hatch

Connecting Youth Voices for New Ways to Approach Drugs and Education

What does it mean to educate young people about drugs and the War on Drugs? For anyone growing up in the 1980s or 1990s in the U.S., it likely meant programs like D.A.R.E. This educational approach to drugs and the impact they have on societies has often involved vilifying those struggling with addiction and offering a simplistic solution of “just say no.” In many countries in Latin America, education about the role of drugs in society follows a similar narrative. The outcomes of these kinds of educational programs are both controversial and heavily criticized. Offering a productive alternative, a group of educators and activists from across the Americas has developed a complex and innovative educational organization, Catalyst, to examine the War on Drugs and the role drugs play in our societies. For this interview, we spoke with Atenea Rosado-Viurques, a cofounder of Catalyst, and Diana Rodríguez-Gómez, the lead curriculum developer and head facilitator of Catalyst’s summer program.

The idea for Catalyst emerged from conversations between a group of four friends from across the Americas. Mexican-born Rosado-Viurques and her Canadian friend and colleague, Theo Di Castri, met in high school at a United World Colleges (UWC) program in India a decade ago. The original team also included Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela (Guatemala) and Nataya Friedan (US) who met Di Castri while studying at Columbia. All four shared frustrating experiences as youth encountering education about drugs and came to study different aspects of the War on Drugs during university to gain a better understanding of the conflict.  The four began discussing a project that would bring together drug education, the War on Drugs, and a complex response to more “traditional” educational programs about these issues. They knew that they wanted to create an educational program for youth that involved storytelling and explored personal relationships in light of structural issues. Though they had established these pillars, they did not know what specific shape such a program might take. They only knew that while many people in health and legal fields have begun addressing these issues, there are not yet enough people explicitly working on education or with youth.

Catalyst Team.png

The Catalyst team. From left to right: Theo Di Castri; Atenea Rosado Viurques; Nataya Friedan; Diana Rodriguéz Gómez; Benji Fogarty Valenzuela; Camila Ruiz Segovia. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

Gradually, the idea for “a program to bring together youth from across the Americas to discuss the War on Drugs” took shape.  Catalyst received organizational support from UWC to develop a program to help extend UWC’s “values and mission to a wider audience.” By including Catalyst as one of its programs, UWC aimed to “bring its unique approach towards international education to confront one of the most pressing conflicts facing the Americas at present.” Adding to this support, Rodríguez-Gómez’s curricular vision helped shape what the program would look like on an everyday basis. Finally, after months of courting the Open Society Foundations, Catalyst secured a generous grant that allowed the program to launch.

With financial and organizational support in place, the team began recruiting youth participants to attend a summer institute in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Using local networks, word of mouth, and NGOs, the team received 160 applications, though they only had the funding to offer scholarships for 20 people. In order to identify these 20 participants, the Catalyst team ran through a selection process that included essay writing about drugs and community organizing. They then conducted interviews with 30 finalists before selecting 20 participants. They also had to create a preparatory curriculum to help the kids, the vast majority of whom had never traveled outside of their home country, navigate boundaries like passport applications, financial issues, and customs.

Having assembled a team, recruited participants, and mapped out a curriculum, Catalyst launched as an 18-day summer program in July of 2017. The inaugural session involved 17 adolescents from 6 countries across the Americas and took place in  Cuernavaca, Mexico. The program was fully bilingual and made use of simultaneous translation to facilitate communication between exclusively Spanish speaking and exclusively English speaking participants. Catalyst maintains an overall purpose of gathering youth voices whose lives have been impacted by drugs and the War on Drugs and providing them with a foundation to conduct a  critical analysis of the conflict. In accordance with this overall aim, the curriculum is structured around 5 specific principles: identity, diversity, critical consciousness of history, justice, and social change.

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In the Catalyst classroom. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela

Premised on the notion that “the personal is political” the Catalyst curriculum guides students through an exploration of their own identities and the ways in which the War on Drugs has shaped them. From there, students begin exploring the ways in which their personal narratives fit into the wider historical narratives that underpin the conflict. Throughout the program, the students are encouraged to link their personal perspectives and experiences to the social, economic, and political dimensions of the War on Drugs. Youth-led, interactive activities form the bulk of the daily work at Catalyst. Rosado-Viurques described one such activity, in which youth “placed themselves on a map of the Americas” as a way to start telling their stories about the ways in which the War on Drugs  drugs had impacted their lives. As they conversed with each other, it became clear the ways in which the violences of the War on Drugs are distributed differently and asymmetrically across the hemisphere. Through such conversations, participants developed a transnational perspective on the War on Drugs and learned important lessons about the complexities of drugs and drug policies.

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A bilingual curriculum: live translation at Catalyst 2017. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

Each day, students also heard from a different guest speaker. Guest speakers included journalists, activists, academics and artists from Mexico, the US and Colombia. The goal of these talks was to expose students to a broad panorama of different perspectives and to show students how theory can be translated into practice. Over the course of the program, the students were tasked with creating artistic projects that conveyed what they had learned at Catalyst, and on the final weekend, students exhibited their projects at a public exhibition in Mexico City.

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Guest speaker, local activist Pietro Ameglio, speaking to the students of Catalys. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty ValenzuelaA Catalyst student presents her final project at the exhibition in Mexico City. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

In contrast to traditional drug education programs, Catalyst moves beyond the dogmatic repetition of the “just say no” mantra. Instead, it opens a space of curiosity and nonconformity in which students can formulate difficult questions and connect apparently distant phenomena through an examination of the structural conditions that undergird the War on Drugs. The program equips students to think critically and transnationally about drugs and the strategies that have been employed to eliminate them and their users from society. Both Rosado-Viurques and Rodriguez-Gomez expressed the importance of fostering a new transnational network of young people who are committed to ending what is ultimately a transnational conflict.

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The inaugural Catalyst cohort. Students came from the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru & Ecuador. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty.

From the inaugural summer program, Catalyst has begun expanding its work. The youth participants have taken the lessons of Catalyst 2017 back to their home countries where they have each been assigned a local mentor to assist them in getting involved in drug policy reform activism their communities. Some members of the Catalyst team recently spoke at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University as a way to “continue to generate an open and evolving curriculum” . Similarly, team members have spoken at various forums in New York City, Mexico City, and Florence as a way to spread the word and open space to expand the program and curriculum. Catalyst 2018, another iteration of the same program, will also begin accepting applications early next year. As Rodriguez-Gomez puts it, the 2017 summer program was “a seed for continuing work.”

Catalyst’s spirit comes from a desire for a more robust education about drugs and the ways in which the War on Drugs impacts peoples’ lives. It’s founders believe that all young people have a right to a comprehensive drug education so that they may join the conversation about drug policy reform drug as well informed, critically thinking stakeholders. As the Catalyst website reminds, the program specifically opens up a space for youth voices who have so often been the target of drug education without “granting them space to speak for themselves.”

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Flavio (Peru), Isaiah (US), Ricardo (Ecuador) sport temporary Catalyst tattoos hand-drawn by Ricardo. Photo Credit: Benjamin-Fogarty Valenzuela.