Teenagers

Smarter Summers: High School

As students embark on the latter half of their high school careers, the prospect of what comes after looms large on the horizon. The college search involves a daunting combination of introspection, research, testing, and logistics that can feel overwhelming even for the most organized student—and it arrives at a time in their academic career when most students are also facing more pressure at school than ever before. That’s why it’s increasingly important to make the best use of summer breaks to get ahead in the college application process. For older students this means focused review for standardized tests, brainstorming for the personal essay, and college visits. Importantly, though, it also means that even students early in their high school years need to take advantage of the summer break to find a passion project, learning experience, service opportunity, or summer job that will spur meaningful growth, offer exposure to a potential area of study or interest, and, as a result, provide them with compelling material to relate during the admissions process. 

These days, more and more students forestall the age-old question: what do you want to be when you grow up? And that’s okay! In a rapidly-changing world where young adults are expected to hold more distinct jobs than any generation before them, flexibility and openness are prerequisites. However, rather than an excuse to avoid reflecting on their future goals, this open-ended world creates an invitation (even an obligation) to explore the possibilities that await. Students will be increasingly responsible for navigating their own way through the thicket of opportunities, rather than stepping onto a career path that is clearly marked out for them from the start. The open days of summer are a first taste of this freedom, which can be equal parts exciting and overwhelming. What students do with the summer months is up to them, but it’s our job to guide them into experiences that will help them to better define their future goals, and to take real steps toward meeting them.

These summer experiences often serve as the source material for a student’s personal essay, which conveys to admissions officers the particular qualities that a student can bring to their school. It also makes sense to use the summer to begin the development of this essay as well, during a relatively slow moment in the year when students have the time to reflect and experiment. That’s why Smarten Up will offer a week-long intensive in the personal essay this summer, developing original and effective essay drafts in a small group setting. Together we will break down successful examples of this type of essay, learning a set of best practices to employ as we also experiment to find the right story for each individual student. The personal essay is a student’s chance to share their unique voice with admissions officers—but ‘be unique’ is, of course, uselessly vague advice. The workshop will focus on the actionable steps in the writing and revision process that will allow this unique voice to emerge. 

Will you join us? Email mara@smarten-up.com for more information. 

Creative Writing for the Teenage Soul

A central part of the human experience is finding effective ways to express ourselves and be understood by others. As children we can work through complex feelings, emotions, and ideas, with our parents, teachers, or a trusted caregiver. As adults we have partners, siblings, and life long friends to hash out our thoughts with. Unfortunately, though, it’s during the tumultuous teenage years when it is often feels most difficult to find a good listener. For many students, creative writing can be a great outlet that leads not only to emotional catharsis, but also to improved writing skills!

Whether writing poems, stories, plays or lyrics, the process of putting thoughts down on paper is a great way to reflect and process without fear of judgement. Troubling thoughts that might otherwise fester and breed negativity, anger, and self-consciousness can be exorcised from the brain as teens acknowledge them and attempt to move on. There is no fear of confrontation and no need to be on the defensive or offensive; instead, creative writing offers students the opportunity to reflect and hopefully learn from experience.

Apart from being a therapeutic form of self-expression, creative writing is also good for communication and problem-solving. A writer must describe an experience or scenario in a way that will make the reader fully believe and even feel the things the writer is feeling. This requires an amazing vocabulary, heightened awareness, and empathy. When students translate abstract observations and feelings into well-formed sentences and paragraphs, they are engaging in the human experience: learning, listening, and decoding. After all, storytelling is the oldest form of human communication and exists in every culture and society; when a student is able to engage another person in their story, not only does it feel good, that child is also learning how to create a meaningful social bond.

Creative writing is beneficial to students on so many levels. It encourages emotional development and self-confidence, and improves teenagers’ ability to empathize and connect with others. At the same time, creative writing also leads to academic gains as students learn how to analyze the world around them and communicate their ideas about it with more clarity and sensitivity. We are all driven to reflect on and understand our environment, and to try and make things better both for ourselves and those around us. By encouraging independence, empathy, catharsis and expression, creative writing is one of the best ways to ensure a child becomes a conscientious and well-rounded adult!

The Play’s the Thing

Even before they begin school, kids rehearse behavior and learn about their place in the world by playing pretend. Later in their development, there is much that kids can continue to learn from a more institutionalized form of pretend: the theater. 

Whether in school or out, the particular embodied storytelling of drama is a ready-made training ground for empathy and imagination. Learning to identify with characters who are different from themselves can help students practice empathy for others, and make them more capable readers and writers as a result. A student’s ability to draw connections between their own experience and the experience of a character in a play, a figure in history, or even an animal on the food chain is strengthened by the creative empathy practice of the theater — and these connections make learning far more effective. Studies have shown that the more students can activate their imagination to identify with the narrative nature of what they’re learning in school, the better they’ll retain knowledge and reach a real understanding of the material. The brain likes to think in terms of stories — and a little imagination can help transform almost any kind of content into a story with its own, memorable characters. 

Many students have trouble adapting to the discussion format of a busy classroom, adjusting to the school social environment, or dealing with the nerves of public speaking. Drama games can help build confidence that students will flex in their presentations and everyday conversations. Although they can feel silly, these games push students out of their comfort zone in a safe environment. Watching their peers take risks in getting up onstage encourages students to express themselves confidently and creatively. And when the school play rolls around, students have the chance to take some share of ownership in a deeply collaborative project, developing a sense of community that becomes a home for many. 

There’s an educational case to be made for going out to the theater as well! In a world saturated with film and television, attending a live performance requires a different, more active kind of listening. This engagement trains a careful attention that is increasingly rare in the age of screens. If your student is struggling to digest a classic Shakespeare play in school, taking in a live version can be a game changer, bringing the playwright’s words from page to stage in a way that unlocks the story. 

More than anything, theater is a fun, liberating opportunity for students to tell stories and develop their confidence and emotional intelligence. It’s an ancient tradition whose importance for expressing the spirit of the times and exploring human connection isn’t going away, even in the age of technology, and it deserves a place in our education system.