I thought serving warm chocolate chip cookies to a group of teenagers would be a welcome offering for a first class on a Saturday afternoon. Especially in winter.
“Cookies? Help yourselves,” I said. Silence. No movement toward the center of the round table where I nestled them in a double layer of foil.
“Really! Take one! I made them in case you are here against your will,” I joked.
Still, no movement.
I was teaching the first session of “College Discovery and Essay Workshop” at Breakaway Prep in Mendham. I consider the class a holistic counterpart to the test prep process and an additional way for teens to collect information about themselves.
They are at an age when they are craving this information. Science has shown that their brains are wired to collect feedback about their behavior. It is why teens are self-conscious.
Maybe this is why they didn’t eat the cookies. My twenty-something kid thought so when I called him after class and mentioned the cookie fail.
“Teenagers don’t want to eat in front of other teenagers. It’s a Darwinian thing. People need to feel safe before they can eat.”
My interest in teaching a class like this first percolated when I filled out the “Brag Sheet” that the guidance counselors give parents of high school seniors. We are instructed to write down five adjectives to describe our child and then turn it back in. I have completed it three times now and each time I wish I had done it sooner. Just the exercise of mindfully writing something down about someone else is clarifying – for us and them.
This is not something I remember learning about in my Psychology or Education classes. And, as a parent, sometimes my feedback resorts to sentences like these:
“Your room is a mess! Put away your laundry!”
Senior year is too late for the “Brag Sheet.” Taking the time to identify qualities sooner has an impact on self-perception.
Something similar helped me, even as an adult, over a decade ago on a knitting weekend with several close friends. One evening, someone suggested we write what we appreciated about each other on small slips of paper. After dinner we dispersed them. We retreated to our respective corners of the “L” shaped couch to find out what people thought. “Single minded when you have a goal,” I read on one. It was dead on. And also something I hadn’t recognized. It inspired me to sign up for my first half-marathon a few weeks later. Specific goals were what motivated me. I became mindful not to shut everything else down in the process. Another fact about the night – we all kept the scraps of paper and still have them, tucked away, fifteen years later. There is no age limit in craving honest feedback. We especially need it in times of transition.
The other reason I wanted to do the workshop was because of my experiences working with students on their college essays. I love helping kids see connections between their activities, interests and specific perspectives; how all of it sheds light. It is a big puzzle of clues. For most people, it is easy to get used to the clues, so used to ourselves, that we don’t see ourselves clearly. We lose objectivity and doubt our intuition. We barely feel unique. The essay work transcends the 650 word limit; the process becomes a moment of self-discovery for life.
The great writer John McPhee wrote “I once made a list of all the pieces that I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90 percent.”
This astounded me. Had I known I was not going to morph into an entirely different person once I entered the magical phase of college and adulthood, I might have approached things differently.
I want my students to examine the truth of who they are – right now. To do this, they need information; I give them a version of the brag sheet to give to family and friends. We experiment with writing prompts to take notice of what we notice. The wonderful poet Ellen Dore’ Watson, says, “Prompts are the backdoor in.”
I also want them to accept who they are. I was in a yoga class one day, lying on my back, when the teacher announced – You are already whole. I thought it was profound. What might we do if we knew we were already complete? If we weren’t always trying to be better, or like someone else?
Finally, I hope students will use this information to act on who they are – find the clubs, part-time jobs and internships that will grow their natural leanings.
Of course, I also want them to eat the cookies.