When Girl Scouts USA first announced the development of Journeys, they made it sound like they would replace badges. By the time they released the first Journey for each age level last fall, they were saying these are just an *Exciting* *New* *Option* for Girl Scouts but we still can keep on doing badges as well. Now that my Junior troop has completed this first Journey, I’m extremely relieved that badges are still around, because we were very unimpressed with this Journey and the Journey model in general.
For my non-Girl Scout readers, and for leaders who haven’t tried a Journey yet, I’ll explain the general concept: A Journey is a set of activities related to a topic, like a badge, but a Journey is more structured and earns a set of 3 interlocking patches. For each Journey, there is a girl’s book, a leader’s book, the set of patches, and some jewelry (which is optional, for a commemoration of the achievement in addition to the patches, which strikes me as unnecessary at best, and I can’t see why a troop would choose to spend its money on junk jewelry). The girl’s book is designed for each girl to have her own and write in it, like a workbook; they cost $7 each, and the set of patches costs $5. By contrast, requirements for all the badges (dozens!) are in one book, there’s no separate leader’s book, and a badge costs only $1.50. A Journey is supposed to take 6 to 8 weeks to complete; a badge may take that long, but many of the badges can be earned in just 2 or 3 hours.
I was eager to give Journeys a chance. Last fall I bought one copy each of the girl’s book and leader’s book. Agent of Change is a Journey about taking action to make the world a better place, a fine topic.
But the book turned me off, beginning with the front cover. It’s got a visually jumbled style, like a scrapbook, that’s supposed to be trendy and exciting but succeeds mainly in being hard to read. As for trendiness, hasn’t GSUSA learned anything from its decades of choosing fashionable uniform designs only to find that they were already going out of style by the time they were ready for sale and five years later nobody wanted to wear them?! (I suspect this is one of the reasons they finally gave up on uniforms and have the girls wearing a white top and khakis with the badge sash/vest.) These books that look sort of hip and happenin’ now are going to look ancient in just a few years and have to be updated, at great expense; a more classic design (like the badgebook) would have more staying power. The leader’s book isn’t as cluttered as the girl’s, and I like the way it folds flat, but it’s got design flaws too. The worst is that it has many text boxes with extremely small type in colored ink that’s hard to read–yet right next to them is a lot of white space! Both books are poorly organized; it’s hard to find anything unless you remember what color the page is.
Even if the books were fabulous, I don’t care for the idea that every girl is supposed to buy a $7 book for an 8-week program! The cost is so high that most troops won’t be able to provide them, but making families pay for them isn’t feasible unless all the families have plenty of money. In my troop, we told the girls that the books are available if they want them, but we bought just two for the troop and did the exercises on separate paper or photocopies from the book. Of course, the very colorful page design makes the book difficult to black&white copy. I can’t help wondering if this was done on purpose to try to sell more books.
One more thing about the Agent of Change books: They are hosted by a “fashion-savvy spider” who reminds me of that annoying paperclip in Microsoft Windows that’s always popping into the way to make utterly obvious or unnecessary comments. The graphic novel in the girl’s book is wrecked, visually and narratively, by the spider’s constant interruptions–one of my girls said, “Do they think we’re too dumb to understand the story without her?” I don’t think fashion or changing your clothes every ten seconds are concepts Girl Scouts ought to be pushing, and I think a character with heavy eye makeup and ultra-thin legs is an inappropriate role model for 9-year-olds.
Anyway, the books bugged me, but when I read them, I found a program designed to get girls excited about leadership and their own abilities, help them build teamwork skills, and guide them into planning and doing a big service project. That’s all good stuff, and some of the activities sounded like fun. I decided to have one patrol look at the girl’s book during our first meeting and make a recommendation to the troop about whether or not we should do the Journey. They recommended that we do it.
It took us way more than 8 weeks! We started in late November and wrapped up in early May. Partly that’s because we were interrupted by winter holidays and special projects. Partly it’s because we chose a service project that required warm weather and therefore set aside the Journey for a while to work on the Creative Solutions badge…and then we found out our project idea violated Girl Scout rules and had to start over on choosing and planning a project! But also, simply filling the requirements of the first two patches (the service project is the third patch) took up 6 troop meetings of an hour and a half each, and it would have taken longer if the girls had been more interested in really getting into these activities. Overall, the Journey seemed to drag on forever, while teaching us relatively little compared to a badge.
The Power of One
The first patch is about each person’s unique abilities and how one person can make a difference. We went to the library to research famous women. Each girl made a collage about herself and her special powers. Each girl kept a “Power Log” in which she wrote down how her actions made the world a better place, for one week. The girls found this mostly boring and said it was similar to many projects they’ve done in school.
I wrote each part of the Girl Scout Promise and Law on a sheet of paper and hung them on the wall, and we wrote on each one the names of people (famous people or people we know) who exemplify that trait. This was more interesting. The book said to think of girls and women, but after a while my Girl Scouts objected to this: “Men can be good people too! Like when I think of respect myself and others, the first person I think of is Martin Luther King, Jr.” “Just because we’re girls doesn’t mean we have to have only girl role models!” “Yeah, what if the first woman astronaut had thought men couldn’t be her role models?” I agreed, and we added several men to our lists.
We played a game in which each girl wrote down one thing that is true about herself, one thing that is false, and one thing that she wishes was true. Then she read one aloud, and we all had to guess whether it was true, false, or a wish. This was fun, though not very educational–it would be more useful in a troop where the girls are just getting to know one another.
The Power of Team
The second patch is about working together as a team. We launched it by reading the graphic novel from the girl’s book, about a group of girls developing and implementing a plan to recruit volunteers for their local animal shelter. The basic outline of the story is good, but the girls’ plans come together unbelievably neatly, and the story suffers from heavy-handed attempts to showcase each girl’s personality traits that just make them come across as weird, and the girls are supposed to be Girl Scouts but seem to be doing so in some kind of post-modern newspeak format, and there’s the aforementioned incredibly irritating spider changing her high-heeled shoes all over the page.
Working in patrols, the girls listed characteristics of a good team and a good leader, blah blah blah. Then each patrol was supposed to write a superhero story, similar to the graphic novel except that it could be a play or some other form if they preferred. To my surprise, this activity never really got off the ground. My troop normally loves creative writing and acting, so I fully expected them to cook up some great stories that they’d want to perform in costume for other troops…but after working on this for parts of three meetings, none of the patrols had come up with anything halfway complete or interesting, and they were clearly itching to move on.
The one good part of this segment, the only part of this Journey that was really new to us, was the Fist to Five method of reaching consensus, which I wrote about before. We’ve used it several times since. It’s really great!
An optional activity suggested in the book is making an obstacle course and getting through it as a team. We were going to do this at a meeting that we had to cancel, and we never got around to it. I think the girls would have had a lot more fun with this than the superhero stories.
The Power of Community
The third patch is about working with and for the larger community by planning and doing a big service project. As I said, we planned two projects because we weren’t allowed to follow through on our first idea.
The session I described in the Fist to Five article resulted in this plan for a project we could complete in 3 meetings:
- Pick up cigarette butts on the sidewalks of Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where we meet and where about half the troop lives.
- Count the butts and put them in a big jar. Make posters about how we collected this many on a single day in a small area, and about the hazards of smoking and the grossness of littering.
- Stand at the major intersection of Squirrel Hill inviting people to pay 50c to guess how many butts in the jar. Give the winner 4 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies. Donate the money to an organization that helps people quit smoking.
What led me to ask our local council if this project was acceptable was that I noticed in Safety-Wise (the book of rules for Girl Scouts) that Girl Scouts are not allowed to raise funds for any other organization. I hoped the council could tell me some way to modify our project to work within this rule. Instead, the council informed me that the project also broke two other rules: It had the girls handling a toxic substance, and it was a “game of chance”! Of course we had thought about the fact that cigarette butts are dirty and germy and tobacco is in fact poison, but we were planning to wear plastic gloves and use hand sanitizer and scrub thoroughly afterward, so I’d thought that was okay–no. The “game of chance” aspect had not even occurred to me. Dang! Three strikes against our project!
We decided instead to expand on another suggested idea, to plant some perennial flowers outside the church where we meet, to express our thanks for the meeting space. Using Fist to Five again, we decided to plant a whole lot of flowers and invite some people to work with us: all the church members, our families and friends, and the third-grade Brownies who were preparing to bridge to Juniors and needed to do a project with Juniors to earn their bridge patch. To sweeten the deal and increase the feeling of meeting new friends, we’d all have dinner together afterward.
I priced bulbs and bare-root plants at Costco. Then I dug through my stash of plant catalogs and found one with pictures of all the varieties Costco was selling. At a meeting during spring break, when only 4 girls were present, they mulled over the photos and the prices and decided how much to spend ($100 of our cookie-sale profit) and which flowers to buy in what approximate proportion. I warned them that Costco might sell out of some varieties before the week of our project, and it did, so I bought what I could and spent the rest of the money on potted perennials from Lowe’s.
The girls listed the other supplies we’d need: shovels, work gloves, water, and trash bags for the weeds we’d pull out. I found a deal on work gloves at Big Lots and bought 4 pairs in Ladies’ Small size, as well as trash bags. The girls agreed to bring whatever shovels, gloves, and buckets they had at home and to tell everyone they invited to bring them. (We needed buckets for carrying water because the outdoor tap is on the far side of the church from the weedy flowerbeds we’d be improving.)
We thought about buying pizza for the dinner, but the expense was daunting. We couldn’t cook anything because we would be busy planting the flowers. Finally we decided to have a potluck. Each girl named a category of food she wanted to bring, so that we’d be sure of having some variety. I asked if they wanted to buy disposable tableware–“No!! Why should we spend our money on instant garbage?!” The church has a large supply of dishes and a dishwasher, and we’d have plenty of people to load the dishwasher and hand-wash dishes, so we would Use Resources Wisely in line with the Girl Scout Law.
We set the date on which we planned to plant the flowers and also a rain date a week later, just in case. We decided we’d need our full meeting time (an hour and a half) to plant flowers, so we’d stay later than usual for the dinner.
We decided what to say in the invitations. I printed invitations 6 to a sheet and gave each girl a sheet to cut up and distribute to her friends. I arranged for the invitation to be printed on the announcements page of the church’s service leaflets, and we also made a poster to hang on the church’s bulletin board. Because the church has a Tuesday night service (which starts just as our meeting ends) followed by potluck dinner, we told the parishioners they were welcome to join our potluck even if they couldn’t come early enough to help with the flowers.
Once the third-grade Brownies were invited, the younger Brownies and Daisies and the Cadettes (who meet at the same time, in other rooms of the same church) wanted to get in on the project. My Juniors resisted this, saying that the Cadettes would boss them around and the little girls would not be helpful enough. I wasn’t sure about that–on many previous occasions, the three troops have worked together harmoniously–but it was the Junior girls’ project to plan, so I accepted their decision. The Cadette and Brownie/Daisy leaders decided to have the Cadettes lead games for the little girls while the leaders prepared flowerbeds on the other side of the church from where the Juniors were planting, and then their girls planted flowers there.
The weather forecast said that Tuesday was the only day that week when it would rain! Although we felt very skeptical about this the day before, looking at the bright sunshine, my co-leader and I decided to postpone to the rain date. I continued to feel sheepish about this until one hour before our meeting time, when the sky suddenly clouded over and rain poured down until about 20 minutes into our meeting, by which point it had turned the ground to slimy mud. The following week, the forecast said Tuesday was the only day that week when it wouldn’t rain! This turned out not to be correct, but the rain held off until just as we were finishing the planting, which was perfect–we didn’t have to haul water after all!
We didn’t get as large a crowd of helpers as we’d hoped–Juniors, bridging Brownies, about 12 relatives and friends, and only 3 church members–but still, we had 30 people, ages 2 to 80, working together! One of the church people was an avid gardener who was extremely helpful in showing the girls what is a weed and what isn’t. (We were clearing out flowerbeds in which many plants had died and weeds had moved in, but surviving desirable plants needed to be left intact.) We planted over 100 bulbs and plants: gladiolas, irises, daylilies, columbines, and more. The girls did a great job of deciding, quickly and without arguing, which plants would go where; after I pointed out the label information about plant height and spacing, they caught right on and used it well.
As we wrapped up the planting, I began sending groups of girls into the church (through the back door far away from the sanctuary) to wash their hands. Then I went in with the next-to-last group and told the girls who were already washed that it was time to set up tables and chairs for the meal. I picked a girl at random and put her in charge of figuring out how many people were there (plus 10 as an estimate of the number of people attending the church service who would stay for dinner) and getting the right number of chairs. Then I went out to make sure all the tools were brought in from the rain.
I returned to find the parish hall filled with tables and chairs in orderly rows, Juniors setting up the food buffet, and Daisies, Brownies, and Cadettes begging their arriving parents to let them stay for dinner! (I heard, “But honey, potluck means you’re supposed to bring something,” several times and began to wonder if we had enough food.) The noise level was quite reasonable for the number of people present. Helpful parents were sweeping up the dirt we’d tracked in. It was one of those great moments for a Girl Scout leader, when I feel like the event is running itself and the girls hardly need a leader! I occupied myself arranging our last leftover Girl Scout Cookies on a platter.
Dinner was ready, the room was filled with hardworking hungry girls, but the church service wasn’t over yet. I thought about waiting, thought about how all the girls needed to get home to finish their homework, and decided to let them start serving in hopes that the church people would join us soon. I did the Quiet Sign and explained this decision to the crowd. I said, “It looks like we may not have enough food for everybody to eat a lot. Please take small amounts and eat everything you take.” Either they did very well at that or there was a loaves-and-fishes miracle, because food that looked like enough for 15 or 20 people fed more than 40, and several people took home leftovers! The folks from the church service came in so late that they wound up sitting in a clump at one end and talking mainly to one another, although I nudged a few of the girls to go over and introduce themselves. (Several of the church people told me later, though, how much they enjoyed just seeing all those Girl Scouts making good use of our building.)
After dinner, the Girl Scouts of all ages and their families went into high gear, washing dishes, wiping tables, folding and putting away tables and chairs, and sweeping the floor over and over again–it seemed that anytime someone moved, more clods of dirt appeared! It was a lot of work but went very fast with so many people helping.
The one thing that didn’t get done was planting all the bulbs. Because the rain was beginning to fall, we stopped right on time, even though we still had about 50 gladiola bulbs left. My 4-year-old son Nicholas and I planted them after church the following Sunday. It took us over two hours, we hadn’t had lunch, and it could’ve been a miserable experience…but Nicholas was so cheerful and cooperative and pleased to be helping the flowers grow (he’d also helped during the Girl Scout work session) that it was a lot of fun! I decided he deserved an Award for Extraordinary Merit in Flower Planting, and when I went to the Girl Scout Shop to get the badges for the year-end awards ceremony I found a $1 pin shaped like a flower. My son the Girl Scout mascot, who’s been wistfully sitting through awards ceremonies all his life, was thrilled to receive an award at last!
At our last meeting, I asked one patrol to develop a scheme by which all the girls will weed and water the flowers for a couple of months until they get established. They decided that since 8 girls participated in the final project, each of them should have one week to be responsible for the flowers. They told me to ask everyone for dates when they’ll be away during the summer (which I needed to do anyway, to schedule the riverboat cruise that will be our big cookie-sale-funded treat!) and draw up a schedule with each girl assigned to a week and her phone number on the schedule. Each girl will come to the church sometime during her week to weed and water; if she can’t do it that week, she’s responsible for arranging to switch with someone. I like this plan. We’ll see how it works!
Evaluation: the service project
What did we do right? Almost everything! The girls were very pleased with how our project turned out. They felt they’d accomplished something real while having fun.
What did we do wrong? We should have timed our dinner better, relative to the church service. The girls were eager to eat but felt that it was rude to have the church people come into a room full of mostly strangers who were already eating.
How did we make the world a better place? We brought some beauty to the neighborhood; everyone passing on the main street will enjoy the flowers. The beautiful garden may draw people’s attention to the church (which is set far back from the street and tends to be overlooked) and that may bring new members to the small, financially struggling parish. Our plants will remove some carbon dioxide from our neighborhood, which is densely populated with people and vehicles, and make oxygen for people to breathe.
What did we learn? Gardening is fun! We now recognize more types of weeds. Thistles are much sharper than some girls had realized. Fingernails can get really dirty really quickly, but they’re washable.
If we were continuing this project, what would we change? Recruit more workers. Require annoying little kids to be better supervised. (This was not a complaint about Nicholas but about another little boy who had quite the know-it-all attitude and was not careful of his trowel around other people’s fingers!) Maybe use a tiller or some other type of machine to make the work easier. Have the dinner just for gardeners, to reduce complications.
Evaluation: the Journey overall
Well…the word the girls used most was LAME. They were disappointed that so many of the Journey activities were things they’d done before, and they felt it was a lot of time to spend on a few fairly obvious points: “Okay, I am special! You’re special! We can be leaders! We can be a team! Okay, now can we please do something?” They felt the book tried too hard to be cool and fell flat because it really didn’t have much to say. Why write a new, lame graphic novel when there are plenty of good stories, in fiction and from real life, of girls working together to do something great?
Of all the activities we did prior to the final project, Fist to Five was the one thing the girls agreed was really new and interesting and worthwhile.
The girls were indignant upon learning that the set of Journey patches cost more than 3 badges. They’d had the fun and learning of 1 badge, in the time it would take to earn 2 badges, for the cost of 3 badges!–not counting the cost of the books. Not a good value! In retrospect, they wish they’d chosen to do more badges this year and just done the service project on its own. So do I.
So…this was our experience. Here are two important things to consider:
This is a troop of mostly middle-class girls with supportive families. Long before the age of nine, they learned that they are valued individuals with unique skills who can grow up to achieve great things. They are surrounded by mothers and other women who accomplish things in a wide variety of fields. They are familiar with the achievements of female historical figures. None of this self-empowerment stuff was new to them. A troop of girls whose young lives have been filled with discrimination and neglect might have a very different experience with this Journey.
I am an experienced leader. This was my sixth year as a troop leader, and I also have a lot of practice making things happen from my Girl Scout experiences as a girl, church committee work, my big recycling project, and so on. I already know how to guide girls through planning, doing, and evaluating a service project. I did appreciate that the activities for the first two segments of the Journey were so thoroughly explained in the leader’s book that I could prepare for them quickly and lead them easily. It was very convenient, especially in a year when I had to serve as troop cookie chairperson and increase my working hours at my job, to be running this canned program…but it kind of felt like it wasn’t me leading the troop! This highly structured program would be much more useful to novice leaders. By going through it, following the instructions in the book, they’d do many of the things Girl Scout leaders need to do, and then they could modify the same basic procedures for leading the girls through other activities.
I’m so glad badges are still around!