Eleven Start Strong community projects have been up and running now for nearly two years. At a May 3-4 meeting in Atlanta, members got to share with each other the most innovative and effective programs they’ve come up with to help middle school students learn about healthy relationships and how to avoid potentially violent ones. We wrote about that meeting and the Start Strong national initiative on May 6.
But here’s a look at six innovative programs, all developed at the local level, that we found particularly interesting.
Keep It Strong song and dance
“Middle school teens love interaction, as well as entertainment, but they also value learning from older teens,” writes Jacqueline Davis of Start Strong Atlanta. At the 7th grade classes they visit, Start Strong Atlanta Youth Leaders perform “Keep it Strong” songs and dances, as well as a teen dating violence prevention play. Then, they lead Q&A sessions. “Our youth leaders are very creative and enjoy remixing songs by favorite artists to create positive messages about building healthy relationships. They also recite poetry, spoken word and monologues (all created by them) with various messages — qualities of healthy relationships, signs of abusive behavior/unhealthy relationships, etc. tips on helping others, etc. We have several teens who are great song/poetry writers so they usually create the lyrics … . In the songs, the messages are positive, easy to sing along, and provide an avenue to get the younger teens involved so that they will remember the messages. Other teens work on creating dance routines to the songs, and then they practice for performances. The youth leaders always get the middle school students to participate and they thoroughly enjoy it.”
Sound Relationships Nutritional Musical Labels
“Music, like food, can feed our brains and give us energy,” says Casey Corcoran, director of Start Strong Boston. “But songs can affect our health and the health of our relationships.” So high school “peer leaders” in Boston came up with a novel tool. The Sound Relationships Nutritional Label helps music lovers evaluate how healthy – or unhealthy – songs are. Middle school students, as well as other listeners, can tally the number of healthy relationship themes present in a song, as well as such unhealthy relationship themes as possession, disrespect and manipulation. Then, other listeners can use the labels as guides. “It’s important to have youth involved in this effort because teenagers are the main audience of the music,” says peer leader Shaquilla Terry, age 15, of Boston. “It’s important to actually listen to and think about the lyrics of a song and not just the beat.”
The Break-Up Summit
Start Strong Boston also came up with the “Break-Up Summit,” which probably has gotten more media attention than any Start Strong initiative yet. The theme of the first summit was “Face It, Don’t Facebook It” — the point being that impersonal or public messages sent via social media, texting or e-mail are among the worst ways to break up. Some 200 teenagers came to that July 2010 event. Now, Start Strong is working on ways to replicate the Break-Up Summit through other Start Strong groups nationwide.
Hkup with Respect
Start Strong Rhode Island’s Hkup With Respect appears to be the most robust of several social media apps developed by the 11 Start Strong programs. It gives teens and preteens a place to tell their stories — in 140 characters or fewer, of course — and then for others to rate those stores “Cool,” “Not Cool,” or “Not Sure.” The slickly designed site also allows users to post videos and participate in text polls. “We believe that the more people think and talk about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, the better they can be at protecting themselves and their friends from digital and dating abuse,” says an About Us page. Hkup seems to be striking up a chord: More than 1,100 people “Like” it on Facebook, and the catchy name has helped Start Strong Rhode Island launch other products, including …
Hkup with Respect’s “Drama Decoder” has a geeky, old-school-style appeal. It’s a cardboard slide ruler that can be whipped out in a fun way in the middle of conversation — or even during a date — to get kids to talk about what’s “Cool” or “Not cool,” in their interactions.
Love What’s Real writing contest
Start Strong Idaho may seem to have gone even more old-school last fall with a writing contest that culminated in their publication of an anthology of junior high and middle school students’ poems and essays. But the truth is, creative writing still engages kids — at least kids in Idaho and certainly when it comes to a topic that interests them. More than 1,000 teens, aged 11-14 submitted their work for the contest. According to Kelly Miller of Start Strong Idaho, the “Love What’s Real” book was “printed and distributed during February, National Teen Dating Violence Awareness & Prevention Month (along with a study guide) to all middle schools and public libraries as well as to the winning authors and their English teachers.” Will the organization hold a contest again? “Absolutely!” Miller answers.