[The following is a guest post written by Margo Wolfe, Ph.D. She is an educator and writer who works primarily with teens and young adults in traditional and nontraditional learning environments. Her scholarly work and writings focus on service-learning in an Earth-based setting. Her forthcoming book is entitled Turning the Wheel and Mentoring our Pagan Youth: A curriculum guide for instructors of Earth-centered Teens.]
Roads are slippery when wet. The other driver might not be paying attention either. Humans are not superheroes like in the movies. We don’t always arrive at the nick of time. Sometimes we are too late.
As teens, we never really understood these lessons. We listened, maybe, but many of these lessons never really stuck. As adults they make more sense, and we wonder why our kids don’t understand these lessons. It’s like we have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager, full of energy and angst; full of emotions and indignation that sometimes have no place to go.In my regular work with adolescent Pagans I draw from my capabilities and provide additional experiences with which to connect. That connection is so valuable, so instrumental, in their understanding; not just in establishing their faith, but also in the practice within their faith, and all other realms of their life. That real-life experience is what guides them in their learning, and it is up to their mentors to craft those experiences so that the message is loud and clear.
One of the main lessons for my students concerns community. Teaching them about deities and rituals is important when learning about their own faith, but what about their connection with others? How does that affect their faith?
We tend to throw around the word “community” quite a bit in our religious circles, and yet its definition is left up to interpretation. Because of the varying perspectives, our young people are often confused as to how they should respond. Defining community is like defining your set of beliefs; they are diverse and expansive and somewhat enigmatic. Yet, in the Pagan sphere it is often a word of pride; we love to connect, to educate one other, and to support the work of our artists and teachers. How we define community for our adolescents and help them connect to that community is really a lesson that is so precious and so precarious all at the same time.
One way in which mentors can make the connection between community and our young people is to provide space for experience. My preferred way to do this is to structure service-learning opportunities that not only connect the youth to their religious community, but also connect the religious community to the youth. It’s not the same thing; the bridge needs to have two directions.There is a fear that teens and young people are generally up to no good and that they are all disconnected, just waiting for the next narcissistic opportunity to wreak havoc on unsuspecting adults. People are afraid of teenagers. I’ve seen it over and over again in my 20+ years of experience.
In addition, teens are often afraid of adults, always wondering what they are thinking and not quite understanding what these strange, older people are asking. This lack of trust and paranoia creates a chasm that neither group is willing to fill, unless they are given some task with which to build a bridge. Service learning, within the context of Pagan studies, is a clearly-defined way to do that.
Service learning needs some context and defining here. It is not just learning and it is not just service. It is a blending of the two in a harmonious and beneficial synergy. It allows for a continual dialogue with all participants throughout and after the process. Not all service must be tied to learning and not everything must be an educative experience, but most experiences are. It is up to the mentor to guide that experience so that the educative value is positive.
Community service is different. While community service is a wonderful thing, and something that I encourage everyone to do, service-learning brings a completely new level of culture to the program. Service-learning is bridging the knowledge and the skills developed in the learning environment and applying those skills and that knowledge to a service within the community. Within Paganism, this can mean so much more, as we are often left out of traditional service programs and projects.
One area for service-learning exploration is in working with elders. Due to the general distrust between adults and teens, especially seniors, stereotypes tend to drive interaction. Teens are always in trouble and selfish, while seniors are judgmental and want everyone to get off their lawns. What both groups tend to forget is that they are more alike than different. That is where the learning comes into play. Developing a clear way for them to interact seems to break down those barriers and ease the general mistrust that flows between them. It is about building relationships.
At a campground where I facilitate teen programming there is an older gentleman who worked security who is not afraid to voice his mistrust with the younger population. When someone over the age of 21 misbehaves, his immediate reaction is to put harsh restrictions on the teens. A few years ago, a couple of adults were enjoying their mead entirely too much and causing all sorts of a ruckus. His response was to place a severe curfew on anyone under the drinking age.Our response was to get this man to look past the age, and perhaps his own shenanigans of his youth, to see that the teens were not causing the problem. Our young people are relatively quiet, polite, and more focused on playing card games than anything else. So we made a game of it. Whenever they saw this man they were to wave to him and say hello. If any of the teens got him to laugh (a difficult task for anyone), she or he would receive a prize. A small little mission, but one that made others in the camp witness how the teens were interested in building a bridge, even though they were just as frightened of the old security man.
A more formal form of working with the elder population is one that we are just beginning. We have so many older generation Pagans with worthwhile stories. Like so many seniors, they feel as if no one cares about those lived experiences that created the world we enjoy. Our new project is to capture these stories, with our teen population as the portal. Armed with just a few leading questions to begin the discussion, each teen will sit with an elder and record their stories. With their permission, those stories will either be transcribed or the audio/video posted for others to enjoy, showing our elders that their experiences are respected and honored.
I could give a long list of possibilities for these types of opportunities, but that’s not the mission of service-learning. What really seems to work best is for a dialogue to begin between the adolescent learners, the mentors, and community organizers who would be involved in the process. Part of that bridge-building is to develop a project that is tailored to the needs of everyone involved and that stirs the passions of young people, permitting them a space to work with their energies and sometimes indignations while making a difference in their spiritual communities. When their voices are heard from the beginning, the educative value grows exponentially.
That is why we are really here: to provide hands-on-experiences that allow Pagan youth to find their voices and see that others find merit in their opinions; to allow them to become part of our growth and definition. They have no more need of Pagan craft projects, but need to craft their own reality in Paganism. They are our future leaders. If we don’t guide them in the process, how else will they forge a new future.