Teenagers

Helping Your Child Discover a Passion

As children grow and mature, they slowly but surely discover those things that excite them and figure out the activities they do not enjoy. Little kids are generally up for anything, so they will participate in just about any activity their parents sign them up for. As they get older, however, children develop more specific tastes and interests, and learn more about who they are and what special skills or passions they might possess. With this in mind, it is important that students begin to explore a wide range of extracurricular activities at an early age, so they can discover the passions and interests that will enable them to thrive inside and outside of school.

There are many ways to encourage your child to get involved in extracurriculars; you might start by asking your student what he finds appealing or what she has always wanted to try. Because kids at this age don’t always know what appeals to them, you might ask a teacher or counselor if they have observed any special or specific aptitude your child might possess and then encourage him or her in that direction. The truth is, however, that at this age, your student might not yet show a passion or talent for any one activity as they simply have not yet been exposed to all the options. With that in mind, the more you can encourage them to try a wide spectrum of activities, the better. Below are many extracurricular options and the potential benefits they might provide your child:

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Arts: the arts are a great way for your child to develop and express those parts of themselves that they may not be able to find in an academic setting. These might include, visual arts (painting, drawing, photography), drama (acting, singing, set design), writing/reading (newspaper, yearbook, poetry, book club), music (chorus, band, voice), dance and design. Involvement in the arts, even if they do not end up loving the activity, instills the values of self-confidence, communication, intrinsic motivation, creative problem solving, self-expression and improved cognition. Even if your student ultimately decides that the arts is not where their passion lies, by exploring an artistic extracurricular early on, he/she will still develop a deeper self-understanding.

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Sports: taking part in a sports activity can provide a healthy outlet for young students who might feel constrained by academics. Most schools offer a wide variety of sports activities, whether intramural or clubs, competitive or not, and there is usually something for everyone. Encouraging your student to join a sports club can offer a nice counterbalance to the hours they spend sitting at a desk in school. Students at this age have a lot of physical energy, and there has been a great deal of research correlating participation in athletics with improved academic performance. Beyond the obvious physical benefits, taking part in a sports team teaches teamwork, perseverance, skill-building, commitment and time management and allows for important social bonding. 

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Volunteering: when young students take part in an organization or extracurricular that focuses on giving back, your developing child will gain insight into the lasting social and health benefits of volunteer work, both on their community and themselves. Many schools offer volunteer programs within the school, (National Honor Society, peer tutoring, community gardening, library work, etc.) and in the community at large, (tutoring at under-privileged schools, parks and museum work, Big Brother, Big Sister, YMCA, etc.). Volunteer programs for middle schoolers have been shown to have the greatest positive impact on the social and mental health of students; he/she will gain a sense of agency, learn about teamwork, develop a passion for community building and allow the child to feel that they are giving back and accomplishing something, which can often translate to accomplishment in academics. 

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Leadership: for those students who enjoy academic work but would like an outlet to display more agency and assertiveness, you might encourage them to join an academic extracurricular such as speech and debate or student council. Many schools have a Student Court, a Debate, Mock Trial/Mock Congress or Model United Nations club. This provides a great opportunity for kids to develop their public speaking, writing, and debate skills. Additionally, they will learn about diplomacy and problem solving, cooperation and leadership, while also developing self-confidence and grit. This provides long-lasting benefits to your child as they enter high school and transition into professional careers that will inevitably require strong writing and oratorical skills. 

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Science/Math: some students, even in middle school, find certain academic subjects so exciting that they would like to explore them outside of the rigid school requirements. If your child has an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, you might consider encouraging them to join an extracurricular program, such as STEM, that allows them to experiment, play and explore those elements they might not get to tackle in class. Taking part in an academic extracurricular allows students to get messy, explore real-world situations and take part in alternative learning methods. These clubs can also be beneficial for those students who might struggle with the structure and presentation of material in their math and science classes. Ideally, they can discover the potential love of learning through risk-taking, hands-on work and creative problem solving. This positive reinforcement and increased confidence can, in turn, improve academic work within the classroom. 

Extracurricular activity has long been linked to academic and mental health and there is no more important time for extracurricular exploration than in middle school. Students at this age are often vulnerable and unsure of themselves as they navigate a new social setting; joining a team, an organization or a club can give these young students the chance to be a part of something, and begin developing valuable life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, leadership, and problem-solving. If your middle schooler begins to explore options early on, and tries activities at which they are afraid they might fail, they will begin to conquer the fear of failure that plagues all students. Ultimately, the way middle school students spend their free time can have a huge impact on their academic work and hopefully plant the seed that will blossom into a full-blown passion as they focus their interests in high school!

Passion and the Well-Rounded High Schooler

With the increasing demands of high school academics, it can sometimes feel difficult to find time for extracurriculars — but the danger of feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork is all the more reason to carve out a balanced schedule that includes time for development outside of the academic sphere. Of course you have continued license as a high school student to explore new interests, but by now you have hopefully also found an area or two in which you know you can thrive, whether playing a sport, learning an instrument or art form, or advocating in support of a particular cause. Pursuing these extracurricular interests with sincerity is more than just a signal to colleges that you are a well-rounded, passionate individual; it is the time-tested formula for becoming one. 

The first step toward extracurricular development is setting ambitious but appropriate goals for yourself. In your first year at a new school, seek out older students whose example you can follow. Next cast your net more widely — look online for students who have excelled at something that interests you, and absorb what you find about the steps they took to get where you want to go. You will find students your age who are conducting independent research projects to compete in national contests, forming their own bands, making short films, volunteering with the elderly—almost anything you can imagine. You can even research the biographies of established professionals you admire to give yourself something to aim towards; let yourself be inspired!

Next, take the initiative to start down the path you find most compelling. Does your school already have a jazz band you can audition for, or a speech and debate team? If not, consider starting one yourself, gathering a group of like-minded peers to form a community that might well become an important part of your high school experience. You can also look outside of your high school for opportunities. If you’re living in New York City, the possibilities are endless — aspiring veterinarians can nurse wounded birds back to health at the Wild Bird Fund, and budding journalists can apply to the New York Times’ Summer Academy. Often the hardest part is getting started, so avoid procrastination by setting a clear timeline for applications and find a friend who can help you stay on track. 

Finally, remember that the more sincerely you can pursue the thing that interests you—rather than the one you believe will look best on a resume—the better you will do. It’s not a bad thing to consider how your skills and experiences will be perceived by colleges, and to work strategically to present yourself in the best light. However, it is also important to trust your instincts, and go after the goals that excite you. The authenticity that this kind of activity will show to colleges is not something that can be easily replicated, and so long as you chase your own particular passion with a dedicated effort, your work will pay off in one way or another. 

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.