Have you ever given a talk or prepared an activity that does not really engage your teen audience? Have you ever felt that your teens at camp (or at home!) are not interested in what you have to say to them? It may be that you are simply not connecting with what those teens are looking for, and need. This blog post is about an idea that helped me connect with my teens at camp: helping teens to ask questions.
The Problem: How to Really Connect with what Teens Need to Know.
This is a question that all adult mentors will ask themselves at some point, especially if they realize all the effort they are putting into helping teens is not working, or at least does not seem to work.
We may want to teach teens about true friendship, pure love, how to be a real man or woman, a relationship with Christ, and more. But when we speak about these themes, sometimes they seem interested, other times they seem bored. There could be many reasons why they are bored, and this deserves an article in itself! But this article will focus on one simple reason: the youth mentor is not connecting with what those teens sincerely and truly want to know.
It may well be that they really want to know more about those subjects, and that they have pressing questions and concerns they need to express. So how do you connect with these, as diverse as they may be, instead of providing answers that don´t connect? More fundamentally, how do you first discover what these questions, concerns, needs really are? They may in fact be as diverse as the number of teens in your audience!
ONE Solution: Survey them!
By the very fact that they are adolescents, I knew they the teens at my camp had concerns. So my question was: how do I help them express those questions? I decided that I would try a method (read about it here: ECyD Book) to unearth and discover their questions, concerns, needs…
This is only one solution that I tried at my summer camp, which worked well. Since my summer camp had a different daily theme, I decided to create a themed survey for each day. Unfortunately I have lost the actual surveys, but the questions went something like the ones below:
- What questions do you have about life?
- What questions do you have about making friends?
- What questions do you have about girls and dating?
- What questions do you have about God?
- What questions do you have about praying?
- What questions do you have about your family?
As you may have noticed, the questions asked for questions. That is, the answer to each of the questions in the questionnaire was also a question. This is a small detail I included in my surveys because I also want to teach teens to formulate their concerns, needs, experiences in the form of questions (I will write about this in the future).
The daily themes of the camp were: true friendship, pure love, being a man, friendship with Christ, my vocation. For each theme I developed a questionnaire with five to six questions. Each day I scheduled 10-15 minutes for them to answer their own questionnaire.
As they finished, they would turn in their questionnaire and proceed on to outside camp activities. They had the option of answering all the questions, or leaving them blank. They also had the option of writing their name. They could also write in as many questions as they wanted. I simply asked them to try their sincere best for each question.
Right afterwards, one of my dad chaperones would compile all the questions into a Powerpoint slide. All questions were listed without reference to its author. Fortunately, I still have this file and you can download it below. You will see that I was able to compile A LOT of questions, more than I could possibly answer every day!
Once the questions were compiled, at some point that evening, or in the morning the next day, I would go over as many questions as possible, offering as many answers as possible. This is what I did with the questions:
- Comment on how many total questions I had received
- Go through the list and point out common trends, or peculiar questions
- I would also point out which questions were superficial (a few were funny or silly), and which ones touched on deeper subjects
- For some of the deeper questions, I produced more related questions for them to think about
- For some of the superficial questions, I reworded them to show them how they can turn it into truly deep questions.
- Some of these questions lent themselves to humor and they made the teens laugh when they saw them. I wanted them to laugh some, but I was careful not to ridicule the question or the anonymous person who asked it.
- Some questions sparked new ones from the teens, who would raise their hand to ask a new question. Most of the time, however, they wanted to answer the questions!
- Lastly, sometimes I gave them immediate answers to questions, other times I asked the audience to answer a question. Other times I revealed the difficulties in answering some questions.
- …and more.
All in all, I spent about 20-30 minutes going through each day’s compiled questions. I was never able to answer all of them. Once all the questions are compiled, and projected for everyone to see, I could use them to present a spontaneous, informative, and even humorous, talk that answered the actual questions of my teens. Any youth minister can do the same. Results: Increased Learning, Increased Interest, Increased Depth The questionnaires were an interesting “experiment”, which later developed into my talksheets. After reflecting on my experience, I observed the following:
- A striking difference between teens that knew how to reflect and those that were more superficial. This was clear proof that helped teens understand this aspect about themselves.
- Though the questions can be obtained spontaneously by asking them to raise their hand during a talk, nevertheless it was helpful to many of them to have 10-15 minutes of silent personal time to reflect and write questions.
- Only a small portion of the teens had excellent questions throughout the whole questionnaire. Most had 1-3 excellent questions, with the rest more superficial. However, as a group, there were plenty of great questions to discuss.
- Even those that appear to be “little angels” would have a lot of questions about some themes. Appearances can be deceiving!
- Some questions were more abstract, such as questions about morality or specific beliefs. Others were actually personal questions, that really touched the teen´s heart. One of these was: “Why do my friends love me more than my parents?” I had to be extremely careful answering these existential questions.
- Many found it interesting to discover what other teens had asked. As well, some teens were interested in answering others’ questions.
- The questions became an excellent outline for me to unpack and develop a theme. After the camp I could take several groupings of questions, and develop them into more substantial talks for future retreats or camps.
- Their interest was generally high, even if often I did not have any stories or examples to go along.
- The questions totally surprised the dad chaperones that were accompanying us at the camp. They had no clue their sons at camp would ask such questions. By the fourth and last day of camp they were writing down their own questions!
If we’re going to make a difference in the life of our teens, I believe it’s very important to be able to discern both what they need and want to know, before we provide an answer. This technique is one step forward towards doing precisely that! And the possible applications are many:
- youth camps, retreats…
- youth groups
- CCD and classroom settings
- even parents could try it…
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