Embracing and Empowering Gen Z

David Bryfman, PhD
September 2018

David Bryfman, PhD

As summer comes to an end, we bid farewell to our campers and counselors for another year. Without hesitation we tell them that we can’t wait to see them next summer. It is tragic to contemplate that some of our campers will not return next year because of senseless gun violence that permeates our country’s schools — and yet that is what many American youth claim is what scares them most in this world (Graf, 2018).

It is one orientation to consider our summer camps as an oasis from modern society — gun violence included. It is another orientation to consider our summer camps as an ideal venue to embed within our youth not just resilience and grit, but also the knowledge, skills, and capacities to make their communities and country a better place.

In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, what can the American camp movement learn to help us further realize that the competencies we give our youth every summer can extend beyond the summer months? Furthermore, what can we proactively do to create further generations of youth who can change the world?

Like so many of us, I’ve been awed by the words, eloquence, and actions of the teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting. Out of tragedy, these teenagers have become not only spokespeople in the movement against gun violence in our schools, but also the new voices of Generation Z. Given the reputation this generation holds as narcissistic, tech-addicted, and depressed, these teens have also shown us the passion, morality, and conviction of the so-called iGen.

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself asking many questions about these heroic young people. When do they find time to grieve? Are these seniors completely opting out of classes in their final semester? Who helped them organize the porta potties and jumbotrons at the March on Washington? Some of these questions have been answered. Some have also led to right-wing pundits and conspiracy theorists doubting their authenticity and integrity. But for me, without devaluing their autonomy or their brilliance, I’ve had an intense desire to understand how these teenagers got to where they are today — the backbone of a revolution taking place right before our eyes.

Some things have been uncovered that offer explanations for their tenacity and success in elevating the issue of gun control and keeping it in the spotlight: the comprehensive debate program at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Gurney, 2018); the drama backgrounds of many of the activists (Schulman, 2018); the faith-based upbringing of some of the teenagers (Kessler, 2018). As someone involved in the education of educators, even more so I want to know who prepared these youth to meet this challenge.

Through my questioning and analysis, I have begun to see three distinct principles that have played a deeper role in the making of a movement led by teen activists. I believe that these principles ought to guide educators of today’s youth, including those at summer camp. Imbued in these principles is the progressive notion of education that is inherent in so much of what we do at summer camp, that learning should be constructed with the potential to transform both lives and societies.

Permission Is Assumed, Not Granted

Today’s youth don’t need permission to take on a cause, assume roles of leadership, or model certain behaviors. Of course, this may infuriate the many Boomers and Gen Xers who themselves had to patiently wait their turn to assume such power. Unlike previous generations of teens who saw adults as the opposition, today’s youth are actively encouraging adults to support their cause.

Instead of resisting or resenting these changes, it’s incumbent upon the educators of today’s youth to not only embrace this new power, but to promote and enhance it. This doesn’t mean that adult role models should cease giving advice, offering support, or even reprimanding our youth when appropriate. But it does mean that adults must accept that leadership no longer belongs to an elusive few; it is entirely attainable, within the reach of the many.

Perhaps more than any other setting in America today, summer camps offer our youth opportunities to experience some of the core attributes necessary to assume such roles with our emphasis on attributes such as responsibility, inspiring others, risk-taking, and learning from our failures. We also focus on the skills of community organizing, articulating a clear vision, and empowering others, which all must now be taught to our youth as an essential part of their teen years.

Technology Is Not the Enemy

Woe the smartphone. Like the radio, television, and video games that came before it, the smartphone is named by many as the downfall of society. Psychologist Jean Twenge, PhD, asserts that happiness, anxiety, loneliness, social skills, and preparedness for adulthood all reached major negative inflection points around the time that smartphones became ubiquitous for adolescents (Twenge, 2017). While her research is helpful in understanding today’s teens, I believe it is a gross overstatement to say the smartphone is the root cause of these problems. In fact, its core capacities to store data, take images, and connect people all over the planet will continue to advance and enrich.

These very same phones were the tools by which the Stoneman Douglas students mobilized millions of people to march in their moment of resistance. This technology allowed people all over the world to communicate with one another on apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, and GroupMe, some of which many adults hadn’t even heard of. Even if mainstream media loses interest, these teens now have the capacity to keep the story in the news cycle thanks to their ability to mobilize. The advancement of technology has helped change the rules of civic engagement.

Even as many of our camps ban technology use by our campers, we need to better understand that we cannot ignore it. Implicit in our decision to keep phones and screens away from our campers is acknowledgement of the infinite power of these devices. However, in elevating face-to-face human encounters for two months of the year at the expense of any mention of technology, summer camp runs the risk of becoming irrelevant for the other ten months of the year.

If camp is to continue to rightfully claim to be so integral in the overall lives of our youth, we must teach our children that there is an appropriate time and place for all that is ubiquitous in the world. To completely ignore technology is to declare that summer camp is only meaningful when it is isolated from the rest of a person’s being.

As we do with other issues, we must educate our children to be wary of technology’s pitfalls and its potential harm — including cyber bullying, illegal activities, and the proliferation of fake news. To do so with authenticity, time will show us that we must not adopt a policy of technological abstinence. Believing you can fully protect children from technology is naïve. Empowering them to engage in technology in safer ways has become our responsibility. Doing so in moderation during the summer months, as difficult and destabilizing as it might seem today, will ultimately ensure our relevance and continued impact tomorrow.

The Purpose of Education Is Life Itself

From the students of Parkland, we learn that their academic achievement may matter greatly. As these high school seniors apply for college, their GPAs and their acceptance (and rejection) letters are being broadcast before our very eyes. And yet even more importantly, we’re learning the education that matters most, to paraphrase John Dewey, is that which prepares students for life itself.

To be explicit, good education is that which enables people to answer the big questions in their lives – who am I? With whom or what am I connected? How can I bring about change in this world? These are the deep questions of life that these kids in Florida have shown us — even at their young age — they’re prepared to engage in. This is not to undervalue the math, science, English, history, art, and music classes that gave them the skills and the language they needed to articulate their mission. But somewhere along the way these kids were taught to be themselves, to be resilient, and to understand that when called upon to act, they needed to do so. At a micro-level, this is what we ask of our campers and our counselors on a daily basis.

These Parkland students did not choose to be thrust into the limelight. Given their circumstances and the deep loss they’re suffering, there is no doubt they would prefer to turn back the clock to before this tragedy occurred. But here they are, the right people, at the right time, with the right skills and knowledge to chart a course to change the trajectory of this country.

There are admittedly moments when I wish that education was all about teaching facts and knowledge — it would certainly make teachers’ lives a lot simpler if all they were required to do was teach from the textbooks. But when one understands that the true purpose of education is to transform the hearts, minds, and souls of people, then not only does it become a more complex task, but a more sacred one. At its very best, this is what summer camp has always been about. For summer camps to continue to be the vanguard of American society, this is what they must continually strive to be — the place where lives, communities, and ultimately the world, are changed.

The Recognition, Honor, and the Charge

The students of Stoneman Douglas High School deserve to be recognized and heralded. But the unsung heroes are also all of the educators in their lives who have empowered them to become the people they’re supposed to be — all of their teachers, coaches, camp counselors, clergy, and especially their families, who not only taught and prepared these teenagers, but also stepped back to allow them to truly shine. This knowing when to step forward and when to step back is precisely what we learn to do at summer camp.

Now it’s our turn to learn from all of these teens and their teachers, and go forth and educate tens of thousands more young people at camp each summer who I hope will be activated to leave this planet a whole lot better for their children than we have left it for them.

References

Graf, N. (2018, April 18). A majority of U.S. teens fear a shooting could happen in their school, and most parents share their concern. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/18/a-majority-of-u-s-teens-fear-a-shooting-could-happen-at-their-school-and-most-parents-share-their-concern/

Gurney, K. (2018, February 23). Last fall, they debated gun control in class. Now, they debate lawmakers on TV. Miami Herald. Retrieved from miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article201678544.html

Kessler, E. J. (2018, March 28). Florida shooting galvanizes Jewish teens to put their values into action. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved from jta.org/2018/03/28/news-opinion/florida-shooting-galvanizes-jewish-teens-put-values-action

Schulman, M. (2018, February 23). The spring awakening of the Stoneman Douglas theatre kids. The New Yorker. Retrieved from newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-spring-awakening-of-the-stoneman-douglas-theatre-kids

Twenge, J. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood — and what that means for the rest of us. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

David Bryfman, PhD, is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit organization empowering educators with leadership development and professional growth opportunities to help young people thrive as Jews and in the world. He has a doctorate in education from NYU and is a longtime educator in Australia, Israel, and North America. Today, he is a leading voice advocating for giving youth more agency in the communities in which they live.