Monday, January 18, 2016

Four years of growth...

This is what over 700 eager boys look like at 9:00 in the morning. We outgrew the gym so have moved to the arena:)

Last May Grow Boys Red Deer hosted it's fourth annual Knights in Training Conference (KIT) for over 700 fifth grade boys from our community schools, our largest group yet. We have grown in numbers each of the four years we've hosted KIT, and for the past two years we're proud to say we hosted every single school from both Red Deer Public Schools and Red Deer Catholic Schools that teaches fifth grade boys. We have grown in so may ways since our humble beginnings as nothing more than an idea to support boys growing up in what can be a challenging world. 

We strongly believe we are still on the right track with this mandate, and developments have occurred since we started with the idea that make it even more relevant and sustainable, but in order for that to happen we need to reflect and strategize proactively. This post is a state of the union so to speak, about where Grow Boys Red Deer is today, and where we think we need to grow from here to ensure we are continuing to support the happy, healthy growth and development of boys in our community. The statements that follow, like everything we do needs to be grounded in collaborative dialog in order for the best possible path to be realized forward. It's not a report card. It is a hopeful set of statements regarding where we strongly feel Grow Boys Red Deer needs to take action to continue moving toward our mission and vision.

Statement #1:
Grow Boys is not the Knights in Training Conference (KIT), and the Knights in Training Conference is not Grow Boys. Grow Boys plans and hosts KIT. It is simply one of our projects, and we need to pursue other projects that will help represent our mission and vision. We need to expand our base of support within our community to enable other creative and supportive people to work with boys and men of all ages so they may be happy, healthy and well adjusted members of the community.
Background to Statement #1...
Grow Boys Red Deer is a grassroots group of caring and hard working people  (100% volunteers I should add) who believe that boys of all ages need support in order to continue growing and learning in positive ways. Our mission and vision are both clear and uncomplicated:
Our Mission is to…provide opportunities for local boys to discover, improve and share their skills in a variety of contexts.
Our Vision is… A society where the unique social, emotional, physical and psychological needs of boys are supported without bias or stereotype.

We believe strongly that self esteem is tied to learning. Helping boys of all ages discover and improve their unique abilities is the way we support and enable their learning. Providing opportunities for boys of all ages to share their unique abilities is the second element of our mission, and the way we help them grow positive images of themselves. We believe that boys who feel good about themselves are better prepared to continue learning without extraneous stress and anxiety, which in turn allows them to grow happily and in healthy ways so they in turn can support others as they have been supported. This is the process of actionable hope; the element that Grow Boys Red Deer is founded on.

The Hope Wheel is a visual representation of our mission and vision. We subscribe to a circular or concentric view of human development and everything we do follows this path. The journey of the Hope Wheel is one of learning and growth, and can apply to any circumstance where learning and growth are possible. Beginning with respect, the Hope Wheel starts in a context of newness; infancy. Here in the domain of infancy all is new and all is possible with a little support and a purpose driven perspective.

Respect- Respect is a curious element… we know it when we see it, but it’s a hard thing to explain. On our Hope Circle, respect is the phase of dependence. It’s up to us to provide context for young boys regarding what it is we want them to learn, and how we want them to grow. We’re framing respect as purpose. Before we can develop skills and perspectives, we need purpose. We have to know why we are doing something before we can learn how. The domain of respect is where we establish purpose; the place where we answer the question, “why?” Sessions that represent the domain of respect at KIT are presented in the spirit of answering "why?" and framing purpose through being a good student; someone who respects the teacher and the learning process, no matter who that person is or what the topic is. 
Understanding- Understanding is the domain where we begin to explore the concept of independence, the domain of the young child. Once we have purpose, we can move away from the sheltered phase of dependence to explore the world more confidently and purposefully. Stable and confident young men feel safe breaking away from the dependent phase if we've done a good job supporting them with purpose; the implicit sense that they belong to something much larger than themselves, something good… a secure base. Sessions that focus on understanding are those that require a bit of calculated risk; to try something new and to become committed to whatever outcome occurs, self reflect on that and perhaps try again without fear of making a mistake. 
Relationships- This is the domain of interdependence, also referred to as the domain of the adult. In the Relationships domain, young men begin to understand the enabling power of belonging to a network- a cohort of significant others who support them and help strengthen their secure base. Learning how to communicate meaningfully and honestly in the Relationships phase teaches our boys how to seek help when they need it and not take on the weight of the world alone. We offer sessions to specifically address this direction. Throughout the day as the boys travel with a new group of kids most of which they don't know ahead of time, they learn about relationships through having to build them... talk to others, get to know them. The process is somewhat daunting for many, but that doesn't make it negative.

Responsibility- The domain of Responsibility is the place boys arrive at where they feel compelled to share their knowledge, skills and perspectives with others. This is the domain of maintenance meaning they are now elders; those “who know,” and as those who have already traveled the path they have a responsibility to nurture those who have yet to experience the journey. As those who know, they become part of the secure base for others who are finding their place on the Hope Circle. Our high school volunteers act in the role of elders as they guide each clan group throughout the day during KIT. Sessions that address this domain touch on big topics like our refugee camp session where the boys learn what it's like to live in a refugee camp, and why society needs to take care of displaced people in need.
In order for Grow Boys to further our efforts in support of boys and men of all ages, we need to help people understand this background to what we do, and why we want to do it. Ours is not simply an effort to give the boys something to do on the same day that Go Girls is taking place. It is most definitely an effort to explicitly teach and support the four directions mentioned above in support of happy, healthy growth and development.

Statement #2: 
The mandate to host KIT was born out of the desire to support boys within our community, and the idea resulted from a grassroots meeting that took place five and a half years ago. Invited members at this meeting represented many different aspects of support within Red Deer, and all agreed that boys are growing up in a challenging world these days, and could use our support. This meeting saw the beginnings of Grow Boys as a concept begin to take shape, and it also hatched the idea of an annual conference to support what would become our mission and vision.
Background to Statement #2... 
As it turned out, the desire of school based administrators back in the early days of planning KIT was to host the conference on the same day as Go Girl, a preexisting event that addresses health/wellness and physical literacy issues confronting girls at the fifth grade level. We had already decided to host fifth grade boys at KIT owing to the fact that this is the last year of elementary school within our community and pre-adolescent boys are about to enter an entirely new stage of learning and development in middle school. It seemed natural to start with this age group, and then expand our reach as time went on to work with boys and men of all ages.

We did feel at the time, and still do, that our KIT conference would be more relevant if held in the fall of each school year. This is something we will need to talk about in depth moving forward. We have great respect for what Go Girls does each year, but their's is a different kind of conference targeting a very different and specific mandate to get girls moving and thinking about their personal health and wellness. We have been characterized as the male version of Go Girls, and this could not be further from the truth. Our conference context is very different. Our focus surrounds the concept of hope framed as action in multiple domains of respect, understanding, relationships and responsibility. We intend to teach boys at KIT how to take action and be bold about trying new things that may ultimately lead to a long term commitment to an activity that helps them feel good about themselves and to share that feeling with others in any combination of social, emotional, cognitive and/or physical contexts.

Statement #3:
Boys experience just as many challenges to their growth and development as girls do, and need our help to navigate the pitfalls and barriers they encounter. Our framework in the Hope Wheel provides a secure base to work from in providing this help. 
Background to Statement #3:
It's folly to make such misinformed and stereotypical statements about boys like, "if we could just give boys more opportunities to be active more often they'd be much more focused and subdued and in turn will be able to learn better," or "boys just aren't into school like girls are." If it were that simple, and if as we speak we were doing everything right to support boys, why do they continue to experience problems? Boys are emotional beings. They have feelings, anxieties, struggles and disappointments like every other human being. Most importantly, each one of them is unique and needs to be recognized for the positive elements he brings with him to school every day.

It is our moral and professional imperative to be responsive to our boys individual growth needs, and to teach them the skills they so desperately require to navigate a fast paced and challenging world. To that end, here's a short list of learning experiences we nurture at the Knights in Training Conference every year:
  • By mixing up the boys from different schools, including the high school mentors who facilitate our conference, we are gently encouraging them to be social; to step outside their circle of regular friends and stretch their comfort zone, meet new people, share experiences with them. Is this a tad bit disruptive? Yes... all effective learning is.
  • By providing session experiences touching on each of the 4 domains of the Hope Wheel, we intend for each boy at the conference to begin to understand why these elements are important in learning and life. Every participant attends four unique and engaging sessions, each representing and corresponding to one or more of the 'four directions' as we call the domains of the Hope Wheel.
  • By soliciting the help of high school boys as mentors and facilitators during the conference we illustrate for the younger boys that giving back is a cool and good thing. The older boys share their insights about middle school and high school, and they report getting as much out of the volunteer experience as the younger boys do. This will be the first year that our high school boys will have participated as 5th grade boys in the first year of our event, which is pretty great.
  • We expose the boys to unique sessions that are not readily available to many of them in the community, and that teach them about deep contexts and domains like empathy, effort, commitment, support for others, challenge, goal setting, emotions and more. We include fun, 'come try it out' sessions like archery, skateboarding, drumming, hip hop dancing etc. and we offer an opportunity to meet folks from all walks of life in the 'Living Library.' Each participant leaves at the end of the day having been exposed to so much rich experience and knowledge enabled by passionate adults who want to share their experiences and skills with them... something we hope each of them are grateful for.
We could go on, but the best way to realize how much learning occurs at KIT is to come to the event. We have hosted many over the years, and all have been impressed with the levels of engagement and activity. There is so much to know, to do, to be and to live in a young boy's life at home, in school and in the community. Our event is nothing if it isn't simply an effort by a whole whack of solid, responsible and caring adults to lighten the load a bit for our boys as they grow to become happy, healthy well adjusted young men in society.