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Photo: theCramm
Olivia Seltzer is the 15-year-old founder and sole writer of
theCramm. She started theCramm after the 2016 presidential election to help young people keep abreast of news they care about. 

I am dazzled by the young people who are making themselves heard above the din of these trying times: environmentalists such as Greta Thunberg and ThisIsZeroHour, gun-safety-advocates such as David Hogg and Emma González, who both survived the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida — and many others. Now from TeenVogue, a remarkably mature truth-telling magazine, comes this story about a teen who saw a void and started her own news outlet. And she’s not the only one.

Rainesford Stauffer writes at Teen Vogue, “In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, Olivia Seltzer, now 15, noticed a shift at school.

” ‘Basically overnight, all we could talk about was politics and what was going on in the world,’ she tells Teen Vogue. Many of her peers in Santa Barbara, California, had parents who were undocumented immigrants, so the issues in the news hit close to home. Suddenly the personal felt very much political. ‘This massive interest in the news and politics came with an equally massive gap in the media,’ Seltzer continues. ‘Traditional news sources are primarily written by and geared toward an older demographic, and unfortunately, they don’t always connect to my generation.’

“That’s a problem, and an urgent one. Though a free press is crucial to democracy, more than one in four local newspapers have closed since 2004, and more Americans are getting their news from social media than traditional print media. Keeping young people engaged is necessary to foster civic engagement, and Seltzer wants to help close the gap.

“In February 2017, she launched theCramm, which offers a daily look at major stories from around the world, distilled into a newsletter that lands in email and text inboxes each weekday. Every day, she rises at 5 AM to read the news before school, poring over outlets, including the BBC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, Politico, and Reuters, among others, to ensure readers are receiving an ‘unbiased point of view with the news.’

“Seltzer works with an editorial team that helps research stories and finds inspiring individuals to interview for the newsletter, an advisory board comprised of ‘trusted adults,’ and ‘theCramm Fam,’ ambassadors from around the world who promote theCramm. …

“A recent survey by Common Sense Media found that 78% of American teens ages 13 to 17 say it’s important to them to follow current events. Young adults are more likely to consume news through social media sites than they are traditional news organizations, online or in print, but that isn’t necessarily a negative when it comes to news. Teens who use social media are more likely to be civically engaged, and smartphone users who engage with social media report they’re more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds, and feel like they have more diverse networks. …

“Instead of staring at cable news, they’re pioneering new ways to engage with the stories that meet them where they are. This isn’t just a matter of style, like how theCramm breaks down big stories into witty, need-to-know facts; it’s medium too. Seltzer … decided to create an option for people to receive theCramm via text. ‘I don’t think other news sources or a lot of people are aware that young people don’t really use email addresses,’ she says. …

“Sofia Frazer, a 16-year-old activist, runs the account @dailydoseofwokeness, which has over 30,000 followers and features story highlights on Sudan, mental health, and the 2020 presidential candidates, among others. After reading about the murder of Virginia teen Nabra Hassanen and the livestreamed police killing of Philando Castile, Frazer realized important stories weren’t being discussed with the depth they deserved. ‘In this day and age, the news is more inflammatory than it is informative,’ she tells Teen Vogue. …

“Frazer feels that Instagram makes it possible to get young people thinking about current issues. … She says, ‘If we want to continue the global conversation about young people taking the lead, people need to know how to access these kids and how to grab their attention.’…

“Within Instagram, there are different ways of reaching audiences and starting conversations. [Sixteen-year-old Anjali Kanda, an admin for the Instagram account @brown.politics,] engages followers via polls on Instagram stories and records videos, like the one she recently posted explaining the scandal surrounding financier and accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. ‘People also tend to reply back to stories with questions or actually wanting to start an open discussion,’ she says. ‘I’ve gotten some really thoughtful insights from people replying to stories.’ …

“Seltzer points out that textbooks exist for math, science, English, and history — areas of study and focus from kindergarten onward. Media literacy doesn’t receive the same kind of attention in school. ‘We don’t have any source to learn about politics and what’s going on in the world,’ she says. ‘We’re just expected, when we turn 18, to all of a sudden be able to vote and know who we’re going to vote for. It takes time to actually cultivate a political knowledge and standing.’ ”

More here.

 

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Photos: Local Council of Daraya City
This image from 2014 shows young people who rescued books for a secret library in besieged Daraya, Syria.

As much as I love stories about good things happening in bad times, I always wonder when I post them whether the oasis in Kabul or the library in Syria is still going. Was it there in July when a news outlet’s article was written? Was it there yesterday? Sometimes I search the internet to find a follow-up on, say, the multireligion soccer team that was never expected to win. Sometimes I leave it to you.

Despite the ambiguity of this July 2019 comment from VOA, a book on the heroic library started by Syrian teens is still worth talking about:

[Abdul] Basit and his team of volunteers were among those who had to flee Daraya to northern Syria, leaving the library behind. Unable to take the books, the members tried to conceal the library by blocking its entrance with pieces of shattered concrete. Despite their efforts, Syrian government forces were able to find the makeshift library. The fate of thousands of books remains unclear, according to Basit, who has been unable to return home.

At The New York Times, Dunya Mikhail reviews Mike Thomson’s book Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege.

“In a region that sways ‘on the palm of a genie,’ as the Arabic saying goes, where bullets and explosions are more familiar than bread, you would not expect people to read, let alone to risk their lives for the sake of books.

“Yet in 2013 a group of enthusiastic readers in Daraya, five miles southwest of Damascus, salvaged thousands of books from ruined homes, wrapping them in blankets just as they would victims of the war raging around them. They brought the books into the basement of a building whose upper floors had been wrecked by bombs and set up a library. As Mike Thomson recounts this unlikely story in Syria’s Secret Library, this underground book collection surrounded by sandbags functioned, as one user put it, as an ‘oasis of normality in this sea of destruction.’

“There, the self-appointed chief librarian, a 14-year-old named Amjad, would write down in a large file the names of people who borrowed the books, and then return to his seat to continue reading. He had all the books he could ever want, apart from ones on high shelves that he couldn’t reach. He told his friends: ‘You don’t have TV now anyway, so why not come here and educate yourself? It’s fun.’ The library hosted a weekly book club, as well as classes on English, math and world history, and debates over literature and religion.

“Advertising the library’s activities without compromising its security was a dilemma; patrons relied on word of mouth for fear that it would be targeted by the Syrian Army. By the time the library was founded, Daraya, a site of anti-government uprising and calls for reforms, had been under siege by the army for more than a year. Its 8,000 remaining residents — from a prewar population of about 80,000 — faced near-constant bombardment and shortages of food, water and power….

“Thomson, a radio and television reporter who covered the war in Syria for the BBC, dedicated months to interviewing the library’s founders and their friends via Skype and social media. When the internet went down in Daraya, his sources recorded comments on their phones as audio diaries they could send on to Thomson when the connection was restored. His book is a compassionate and inspiring portrait of a town where, one of the founders tells him, ‘fuel for our souls’ was an essential need.

“The books ‘help us understand the outside world better,’ another founder, a local dental student, said. Likewise, Thomson’s book may help the outside world better understand Syrians. …

“In the same spirit of piling books under Daraya’s shattered streets, local artists painted graffiti art on the walls of ruined buildings. In a moving image drawn by Abu Malik, a local artist nicknamed Banksy, a little girl stands on a pile of skulls writing the word ‘hope’ high above her head.” More.

Are you good at research? Maybe you could help me find out what has since happened to the library. I volunteer with displaced Syrians and others at a resettlement agency in Providence, and I feel a personal interest in this war-torn country.

The artist Abu Malik next to his mural amid the ruins of Daraya in 2014.

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Photo: Nina Westervelt for the New York Times
Thursday Williams and Rosdely Ciprian on the last day of Broadway performances for
What the Constitution Means to Me.

Imagine getting an opportunity as a teenager to be in a Broadway show — and not because you’re you’re especially good at theater! In this instance, two girls were chosen because of their experience on debate teams.

Elizabeth A. Harris writes at the New York Times, “Sitting in the balcony of the Helen Hayes Theater on Saturday evening, two teenagers munched on Welch’s Fruit Snacks and said goodbye to their Broadway show, ‘What the Constitution Means to Me.’

“Rosdely Ciprian, 14, and Thursday Williams, 18, make up half the cast of ‘Constitution,’ a play by Heidi Schreck that was extended three times Off Broadway and played five months at the Hayes, a longer and more life-changing commitment than they had ever expected.

“In the play, Ms. Schreck revisited her personal history of giving presentations about the Constitution as a high school student. Ms. Ciprian or Ms. Williams appeared toward the end of the show — they alternated performances — for a formal debate with the playwright over whether the founding document, with its history of enshrined inequities, should be abolished.

“The young women, who were cast because of their involvement in debate at their respective New York City schools, embodied the future generations who would face down the country’s unmet promises. …

“They sat down to talk about their experience, and what comes next. Ms. Ciprian will continue with the show for its 11-day run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., while Ms. Williams goes off to college. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

“HARRIS How are you feeling?

“WILLIAMS I’m sad, I’m happy. I’m sad that this is the end — you know, I’ve been on the show for one year and I have so much fun onstage. So I’m going to miss that part. But I’m happy I get to start a new chapter of my life. … I’m going to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

“CIPRIAN Lucky you! Going to college! I’ve always wanted to act. But this gave me more of an intense feeling of what it’s like to act. So I would love to do that, but I would also like to go into the medical field. I don’t know if I can do both. But I’ve been bit by the theater bug. All the lights! All the people watching me! I love that.

“WILLIAMS Before I started this show, I wanted to be a lawyer, and now I want to run for office. I’ve had the opportunity to meet senators and politicians. It was a real eye opener. …

“HARRIS How did you balance Broadway with being a student?

“CIPRIAN Broadway and high school — that was weird. I would have to leave at 12 o’clock for some matinees and have to email my teachers to do my work and take tests online, and submit them. …

“WILLIAMS When I got this part, kids in my school were like, ‘What do you know about Broadway?’ And I’m like, ‘Absolutely nothing — but I’m on it!’ …

“HARRIS Who has come backstage to say hello?

“CIPRIAN Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barbra Streisand.

“WILLIAMS I [had done] the Sonia and Celina Sotomayor judicial internship program. I met Sonia Sotomayor for five seconds at the elevator, and when they snatched her away from me, I said, ‘I’ll see you soon!’ not knowing when I was going to see her or how I was going to see her. But this show gave me the opportunity.

“HARRIS What happened when you saw her at the theater?

“WILLIAMS She looked me in my eyes and she goes, ‘I’m really happy that you chose college.’ … Sonia Sotomayor came from the Bronx, R.B.G. came from Brooklyn, I’m coming from Queens. Seeing these people say ‘I love you and I’m so proud of you’ really makes me think I can get to their level.

CIPRIAN We’re kind of obsessed with three things: R.B.G., unicorns and doughnuts. Those three things are our vibe.

“We have a life-size poster of R.B.G. in our green room. When she came, everybody was freaking out. And I think the audience members knew she was here, because the show brings up R.B.G. multiple times. …

“WILLIAMS She said, ‘Sonia and I have been talking about you.’ It’s so like — I just really want to go college and I want to get my 3.9 G.P.A. and I want to go to Columbia Law School and I want to be a lawyer — right now! I want to start tomorrow.”

One of my brothers took our sister and her husband to this show in August, a month before she died. I thought that was great because she had talked about it a lot, convincing me to read the interesting New Yorker review. Apparently, it was a play that really got audiences thinking about some of the things that are problematic in that much-revered document.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Bruce Mendelsohn
A teen at a Youth Services center in Massachusetts takes a turn at conducting musicians from the Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble.

Years ago, just before Christmas every year, I would receive a funding request from a volunteer who was concerned for teens held in state custody. He would write that these young people were largely forgotten at the holidays, and he would take whatever donations he could round up and go buy them small gifts. I always thought he sounded like a very kind person.

This past holiday season, I heard about a similar outreach to youth in trouble and wanted to tell you about it.

Cintia Lopez reported at WBUR radio, “On a recent morning, a teen living at the Metro Regional Center, a Department of Youth Services facility, nervously stood in front of a string quartet in a windowless recreation room. Trying his hand at conducting a group of classically trained musicians, he tentatively moved his hands like a conductor, setting the tempo for the musicians as they played Bach’s ‘The Art of Fugue.’

“His peers laughed in the background, while the musicians offered words of encouragement. When he got a better feel for the music, he began to dance, pointing his fingers up and down, bobbing his head and rolling his arms to the rhythm of the music.

“ ‘It kind of gave me a warm and kind of calm feeling and then as the tempo got a little bit higher it kind of gave me like a little adrenaline rush,’ another teen said of the classical performance. …

“The teens were being visited by musicians from Sarasa, a Boston-based chamber ensemble. Artistic Director Timothy Merton said he likes helping the teens talk about the music.

“ ‘They don’t have much contact with the outside while they’re there. And certainly not with arts programs,’ Merton said. He founded Sarasa about 20 years ago. … The group now performs in youth service facilities about a dozen times a year.

“For the teen, Sarasa taught him that he can listen to classical music to calm down when he is feeling angry.

‘I think it’s a very good experience for the youth here,’ he said. ‘Just to show culture that people aren’t always exposed to and it’s kind of like getting everyone to see other parts of cultures and kind of the diversity that the world has.’ …

“Later in the visit, violinist Rodolfo Richter played Krzysztof Penderecki’s ‘Cadenza’ for a second group of teens. The teens perked up at the speed at which Richter played, seemingly with ease. One teen likened the piece to an old ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon. …

“Here are teens, who in some ways have been hardened by life’s turns, awed by the sounds of a cartoon, revealing how much innocence they still possess.

“Seeing the teens connect with the music reminds cellist Jennifer Morsches of her own discovery of classical music.

“ ‘That’s where I learned much about classical music, watching “Bugs Bunny,” ‘ Morsches said. ‘And a lot of people react, young kids, react that way. It’s true and it does sound like Tom and Jerry chasing.’ ”

More at WBUR, here.

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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor
Iceland has cut teen alcohol and drug use with fun after-school activities and a 10 pm curfew (age 18 and under).

Sometimes it takes a huge, intractable problem to motivate people to find serious solutions. That’s what Iceland discovered after it was overwhelmed by an epidemic of teen substance abuse.

Sara Miller Llana writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “In the late 1980s, when Björgvin Ívar Guðbrandsson was a teenager, alcohol and school dances went hand-in-hand. While he was later to drinking than his peers – more interested in playing soccer and guitar – when he did start around age 16, he would smuggle alcohol in his guitar case into school events.

“ ‘I think the adults just turned a blind eye,’ says Mr. Guðbrandsson. ‘The culture was, I think, “they’re just kids. As long as they aren’t fighting, it’s okay.” ‘

“Today, as a teacher at Langholt school in Reykjavik where he once studied, he says that if a student were to show up drunk to a dance, it would  be such a scandal that the school principal would likely call child protective services.

“In reality, that rarely happens because substance abuse on a wide scale has essentially become a ‘non-issue,’ says Guðbrandsson. Alcohol and school dances, in other words, don’t go together in Iceland today.

“This school is hardly alone. Teen drinking – as well as teen smoking, marijuana use, and abuse of other drugs – has plummeted across Iceland in the past two decades as academics, policy makers, and parents joined forces to clamp down. …

“Beyond adolescent alcohol and drug use, Iceland has shifted thinking on youth culture itself, making it by many accounts more innocent and carefree. It has expanded parents’ notions of childhood and the importance of family time, while reinforcing the maxim that it ‘takes a village’ to raise a child, says Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, director of the national umbrella for parental organizations in schools, Home and School, one of the key players in the federal-state government program now known as Youth in Iceland.

“She calls it an ‘awakening’ that has taken place at home, school, and beyond. ‘I think people are not confused anymore about, “is this kid an adult or not.” ‘ ”

Just-say-no substance-abuse prevention programs didn’t work.

“Substance use kept going up, says Inga Dora Sigfúsdóttir, cofounder of the Icelandic Center for Social Research and Analysis (ICSRA), which is the data hub for Youth in Iceland. ‘A group of people came together, sat down and said, “we need to find a different approach. This is obviously not working.” ‘

“One of the problems was an ambiguous view of the line between child and adulthood, she says.

“One of the most absolute rules to take effect was legal curfews: Kids ages 12 and younger must be home at 8 p.m. in the winter and 10 p.m. in the summer. Thirteen to 16-year-olds must be home at 10 p.m. in the winter and by midnight in the summer, even when the sun is still blazing. …

“Parents began to sign agreements, through schools and parental organizations, with various pledges such as not allowing unsupervised parties in their homes or spending at least an hour a day with their children. …

“Municipalities funded and expanded after-school activities, from sports to gymnastics, to music, art, and ballet. The basic idea is to keep kids busy – and out of trouble – and help them find meaning in their lives that dissuades them from seeking alcohol or drugs in the first place.

“At its heart, it takes the onus off the teens themselves – the opposite of the D.A.R.E. approach – and places it on the community. …

“ ‘It does not concern teaching individual children about responsible choices, or even about making them responsible for their own behavior,’ says Álfgeir Kristjánsson, a former data analyst at ICSRA who is now an assistant professor of public health at West Virginia University. ‘The Icelandic approach … is to strengthen the societal and protective factors and drive down risk factors.’ ”

Makes such sense. When I was a teacher decades ago, I really didn’t buy into the idea that students who got in trouble were always making “choices.” If there was trouble at home, for example, kids were often tumbling into risky behaviors because of depression or other psychological stressors. The Icelandic approach seems to have opened the eyes of more adults to the complexity of the issue.

More here.

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Love this story by Leigh Vincola at EcoRI News.

“The Harvest Kitchen Project is one of the many arms of Farm Fresh Rhode Island that keeps local food circulating in our communities. The program takes area youth, ages 16-19, who are involved with juvenile corrections, and puts them to work making sauces, pickles and other preserves.

“The teenagers participate in a 20-week job-readiness program that prepares them for employment in the food industry. The program touches not only on kitchen skills but the on the many aspects of work in the culinary industry, from sales and customer service to local farm sourcing to teamwork and cooperation. …

“For the past several years, Harvest Kitchen has operated out of a commercial kitchen space in Pawtucket.”

But when Pawtucket Central Falls Development (PCF) “approached Farm Fresh with its rehabilitation plan for 2 Bayley St., a downtown [Pawtucket] multi-use building that would include affordable housing, retail space and job-training opportunities, the match seemed perfect.” More  at EcoRI, here.

I’ve been buying Harvest Kitchen’s applesauce at the Burnside Farmers Market, and I’m being completely honest when I say it’s the best applesauce I’ve had in years. That’s partly because I love chunks in my applesauce, but also because it’s sweet with no sugar added. If you return the empty jar, you get 25 cents back on the next jar.

Harvest Kitchen offers cranberry and strawberry applesauce, too. Other products include dried apple slices, peach slices in season, whole tomatoes, pickles with veggies, dilly beans and onion relish.

In addition to PCF, organizations that have helped to make this happen include Rhode Island Housing, RI Department of Children Youth and Families (Division of Juvenile Correction), Amgen Foundation, Fresh Sound Foundation, The Rhode Island Foundation and TriMix Foundation.

Find sales locations here.

Photo: FarmFreshRI

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Do you ever read Kevin Lewis’s Sunday Globe column, “Uncommon Knowledge”? He covers new research in the social sciences. Thanks to him, I learned about this study on helping minority boys get engaged in education.

“A disproportionate number of students struggling academically are minorities, ” he writes. “Can we do better?

“In what they claim is the first credible study of the effect of an ethnically grounded education, researchers at Stanford analyzed the effect of a ninth-grade course offered in several San Francisco public schools covering ‘themes of social justice, discrimination, stereotypes, and social movements from US history spanning the late 18th century until the 1970s’ and requiring students ‘to design and implement service-learning projects based on their study of their local community.’…

“The researchers found that taking the course ‘increased attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23 credits (or roughly four courses).’ They call the results ‘surprisingly large effects,’ which were concentrated among boys.”

The paper, by Thomas S. Dee, and Emily Penner, is The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies Curriculum.” It was posted at the National Bureau of Economic Research in January.

More here.

Photo: Stanford University
Teacher David Ko instructs an ethnic studies class at Washington High School in San Francisco. A Stanford study found students benefit from such courses. Here, Ko is explaining an assignment about the role of advertising in reinforcing cultural stereotypes.

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