One of the highlights of my job is working with teens.  I am proud that I have had the opportunity to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for nearly twenty years.

An article from Psych Central entitled, “How Teens Choose Their Friends” asserts that contrary to popular assumption, teens most often choose friends based on “the [academic] courses the adolescent takes and the other students who take the courses with them.” The article goes on to cite research from the American Journal of Sociology that states: “The researchers found that students who take the same set of courses…focus less on social status, such as how “cool” someone is [and] the peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort, as well as their social world” Students in this research were also “less likely to judge classmates on visible characteristics, such as race and gender.” I would argue that such characteristics can also include disabilities. This certainly makes the case for meaningful inclusion.

One of the hallmarks of the successful program that I oversee is that in addition to maximizing our students’ opportunities to learn, grow and engage with Jewish life experiences we also intentionally maximize our teens’ potential for building strong Jewish friendships, all in a fully inclusive environment. All of our students, regardless of ability or need, have the opportunity to participate fully. And it works. They build meaningful relationships and they learn, side-by-side.

But even when we understand and embrace the importance of cultivating authentic, meaningful relationships among teens, the practicality of helping students actually do it can be daunting.

Here is an activity, specifically geared for teens, which can help you to do just that:

Step 1: Engage in a conversation about the power of words. Discuss how easily words can hurt a person and how it is just as easy to use words to lift someone up.

Step 2: Brainstorm together positive words that might be used to describe a friend or someone you care about. Push teens away from generic words like “nice” and “fun”.

Step 3: Have one teen sit in front of a white board. Gather the other students around him/her to write positive phrases. No peeking! Take a photo of the student and the board when it is complete.

Variations:

  • Do this activity once a week until every student in the class has had their turn.
  • If you have a white board that is rarely used, consider turning it into a display. Keep the original activity up along with the photo and encourage students to add to the board throughout the week. You can even display each photo around the border.

Photo and lesson idea credit: Melissa Farnsworth