It’s no secret that the teenage years are a critical stage in life in which young people need a great deal of guidance and support. As a high school teacher, I noticed that in particular, many girls in my school were dealing with low self-esteem, depression, and, frankly, a lot of drama. But the real wake-up call for me came when four students in the English Learner department at my school became pregnant.
I realized that the girls at our school needed a safe space to discuss issues they were facing without judgment. With this in mind, I started a group the next school year called Girl Talk, with a mission to inspire high school girls to have a voice, be decision makers, develop problem-solving skills, and create visionary change in their schools and communities.
When I first started Girl Talk a decade ago, preventing teen pregnancy was our major focus. In the years since, the group has evolved. Although we still discuss the importance of preventing teen pregnancy, students are now regularly asking to discuss other topics, such as how to overcome feelings of depression, distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and developing leadership skills. The group itself has also grown. Our weekly meetings, once attended by 10 students, are now attended by about 25 to 30 students each year.
The past few years it has been wonderful to see how the students—the majority of whom are students of color and English learners—have blossomed. Girl Talk is one of the most active clubs in our school, and participating students, who span all grade levels, are viewed as leaders because of activities that they organize for the whole student body.
I often get asked for suggestions on how someone would start a club like this at their school and have developed a list of recommendations:
Establish ground rules: In order for students to feel comfortable, it is essential to establish ground rules for meetings, with the most important rule being “What is said here stays here.” Since we focus so much on the importance of girls empowering each other, it helps set the tone for a safe, trusting environment where everyone is comfortable to share.
Students are also informed that if they share certain information—such as if they are being harmed or having suicidal thoughts—I am obligated as their teacher to report it and get them help.
Let students take the lead: I try to give girls in the group as many opportunities as possible to develop leadership skills so that they recognize they have something to contribute to our school—and in life. Students lead and run every Girl Talk meeting, and when they have ideas about things they would like to see go differently at our school, I let them schedule meetings with the principal and propose their ideas.
They also share ideas about what projects they would like Girl Talk to focus on or topics for our group to discuss, which have ranged from the signs of an unhealthy versus healthy relationship, how to speak up for yourself, how to deal with abuse, and college admissions. For particular topics, some Girl Talk members have launched their own outreach and advocacy at our school.
Build community connections: I’ve made it a point to connect the girls to the community as much as possible. We have great local leaders doing amazing work, and the more role models we can provide students with, the more likely that students are able to see themselves in leadership roles in the future.
We have community leaders—many of whom are women of color—come in and speak with our students, or we go to their sites to learn about the services they offer. Every year, someone from the Women’s Center, a local organization that provides safety, shelter, and support to empower all impacted by abuse and violence, comes and speaks with our group, and we visit the center and take a tour, for example.
Get outside of school: I have students volunteer so that they can see themselves as leaders in the community. Whenever local elementary schools need volunteers for events, Girl Talk is one of the first groups they contact. We have done face painting, served food, and run games at various events. We have also done some outreach serving homeless people and even started our own scholarship fund.
Often, students don’t realize the many skills they have to offer to help others and their community, but through these volunteer experiences they are able to develop valuable skills such as empathy and responsibility, as well as learn to appreciate all that they have.
Through Girl Talk, I have learned that all students are dealing with something. Most teenagers want to talk about the issues and struggles they are facing, but many don’t have a safe space in which to do so. For me, Girl Talk has reaffirmed the importance of relationship building and having classrooms where students feel safe in order to maximize their learning. Our alumni regularly contact me to let me know how much they miss Girl Talk and the significant impact it had in their lives after they’ve left high school. Providing a sisterhood for girls, especially those who are marginalized, can be life changing.