Engaging teens in discussion

teenchatoutsidegroup.jpgJacob and Brian over at Re-thinking Youth Ministry have posted a list of 10 ways they use to enable discussion with teenagers. They are:
1) The Continuum
2) Hypotheticals
3) Graffiti wall
4) Fishbowl
5) Vote
7) Images
8) Talk Partners
9) Role Play
10) Talk Tokens

If you want the fuller explantations then click through to their post, or I have included them in the extended entry on ‘continue reading.’
I use lots of the above strategies but thought I’d try and throw some additional thoughts, ideas and suggestions into the mix!
11) Build Trust: Remember you can’t instantly have deep discussion. Use a ‘Throw and Tell Ball‘ or the like, start with discussions that are low key and non threatening but demonstrate you are interested and listening. Know if you are working with teens there will be off-the-wall mad questions … and how you handle these is a test of whether discussion really is safe or not. (see also the Bosworth Googly)
12) Stick it notes: I’m a big fan of stick-it-notes and find that teenagers are very happy to scribble individually or in groups on stick it notes. The notes mean that young people who don’t like speaking out in a group feel more comfortable and/or there can be a degree of anonymity. You can also divide up a response really easily by say people sticking their responses/questions/thoughts to either the ‘Agree’ or ‘Disagree’ sides of something.
13) The neutralised Question: How might ‘someone in your class’ at school or ‘someone in church’ answer that.
14) Making Stuff: Asking for a creative response, give out pipe-cleaners or plasticine and invite teens to make something that represents how they feel about the given issue!
15) Their questions driving the discussion: Build trust, introduce the topic and ask them to write the questions that will form the discussion (let them do this anonymously …. oh and you may want to encourage them to write ‘open’ questions not ‘closed’)
16) Overturn Fear of getting it wrong: You have to work hard at creating the idea that discussion is cool, that you are not using questions to arrive at the ‘right’ answer. That the discussion is genuinely important in and of itself.
17) You don’t have all the answers: When teens know that you don’t have all the answers and there are questions you are wrestling with it can be really freeing
18) Environment: Think about the environment in which you are discussing. If it feels like school they’ll respond acordingly. Work hard too at taking out the power dynamics (eg not sitting higher than the group, being part of the group not removed from it etc)
19). The debate: Randomly divide the teenagers up into, for example, ‘support’ and ‘Oppose’ groups on a particular issue. They have to argue their position regardless of their personal conviction on the issue. This can be quite liberating and lead to a great discussion of the issue without anyone feeling vulnerable about their own position or thoughts.
Please add your thoughts/ideas via the comments!

The work below is from Rethinkng Youth Ministry, please do not lift, appropriate or use without creditting Jacob and Brian.
1) The Continuum – A non-threatening way to get teens thinking without the fear of saying something “stupid” is to indicate an imaginary line down the middle of the room. One end represents “agree,” the other “disagree” and every gradation of opinion in between. Start off by making a statement related to your discussion topic such as “It’s okay to be dishonest to avoid hurting some one’s feelings.” Teens then place themselves anywhere along the line that indicates how they feel about the statement. You can even ask some people to explain why they placed themselves where they did on the line. This is a low-stress way to get kids thinking, for them and you to see where other group members stand on the topic, and gets them moving around.
2) Hypotheticals – Write up some very brief (paragraph long) hypothetical situations that relate to your discussion and invite small groups to discuss their reactions.
3) Graffiti wall – Put up blank sheets of paper around the room, perhaps with different questions on them. Invite the youth to stand in small groups at each sheet, write or draw their responses, and then when you say “Next!” they move to the next sheet and respond there, also taking time to see what other groups have written.
4) Fishbowl – Put kids in a circle and take turns pulling questions on the topic out of a hat. Then you pass the question around the circle and each person either passes or responds. I usually don’t allow any feedback on any one’s responses until everyone has had a chance to share.
5) Vote – Have a mock election with a ballot covering the issues you want to discuss and have everyone fill out the ballot at the beginning. During the discussion, have someone tabulate the votes. You could divide groups up into those who are pro/con on the issues and have them develop their arguments and give stump speeches. At the end, either reveal the results of the vote, give them a chance to vote again and see if you get different results now that they are (hopefully) more informed, or simply ask for a show of hands of those who have altered their opinion since the beginning of the discussion.
6)Posters – Before discussing a particular issue, invite small groups to brainstorm how they might illustrate the topic graphically. Invite the small groups to create a poster that promotes their ideas and questions and then show the posters to the whole group.
7) Images – provide images that relate to the issues you want teens to discuss and ask them to select one or more that corresponds to their feelings or thoughts and explain why they connected with those images. (e.g. on a discussion about gay marriage you might get photos from magazines of different types of couples, a wedding cake, a single person, a church, etc).
8) Talk Partners – Many people, particularly introverts, are uncomfortable just sharing their thoughts to a question off the tops of their heads but given time to think through their answer, they are more likely to respond. When posing a question to the group, invite teens to turn to a person next to them and share their thoughts. This gives each person some time to “rehearse” their possible answer without the stress of sharing it in front of the whole group. After a minute of two, call the group back together and invite those who are willing to share their answer or share something thoughtful that their partner offered.
9) Role Play – If your youth are uncomfortable or shy about sharing their own thoughts, ask them to share the thoughts of someone else through role playing. Create a “persona” for each participant and provide them with a written description (e.g. “Cory is 18 years old and works for his dad. He has no plan to go to college when he graduates so he doesn’t see anything wrong with cheating on tests in order to pass his senior year.”) As you discuss the topic, invite youth to respond as their character might.
10) Talk Tokens – Sometimes the challenge to getting teens talking is that some talk too much and some talk too little. To try to break that pattern, provide everyone with the same number of tokens. I like to use poker chips but you could use anything: pennies, buttons, playing cards, etc. During your discussion, each time a person speaks he or she must toss a token in the middle of the circle. Once their tokens are gone, they become a “listener” while they wait for everyone else to use up their tokens. The tokens are only redistributed after everyone has used up their turns to speak

One Reply to “Engaging teens in discussion”

  1. Great additional suggestions, Ian. I’ll have to add these to my repetoire. I especially like to post-it notes idea. Works well with adults, too.

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