How to Teach With the Art and Artifacts in Our New Book,‘Coming of Age in 2020’

A Brooklyn girl writes a poem about her terror as she and her family contract Covid.

Each of the sentences above describes a bit from the book — and each tells an important part of the larger story in a way only a teenager could.

This book, the contest that accompanies it, and the entire lesson we’ve built around it all have the same overarching goal: to show young people that their experiences and opinions matter. This fall, The Learning Network is running the related competition for the third consecutive year. Even if your students aren’t participating, there are many reasons to encourage them to engage in similar types of documentation and reflection. To give just one practical example, all high school graduates completing their college applications need these skills when figuring out what to present about themselves and how.

Here are some ways this collection could inspire other projects, whether it be a community-wide piece or an individual work.

We weren’t the only ones encouraging students to keep pandemic diaries in 2020; Teachers gave similar assignments everywhere. But after our contest ran and the appropriate Times sections were published, many told us they would adapt the steps of our project for their own communities.

In the fall of 2021, for example, two high schools used it to welcome students to a new school year. In The Found Project: How We Built Community With the Coming of Age Unit, Jeff Sudmyer, director of leadership and school design at Springpoint, an organization that works with schools, describes why:

The Found Project is what we call “TLE” or “Transformative Learning Experience”. We often describe these as the kinds of experiences that keep school interesting, build community, strengthen culture, inspire a sense of accomplishment, and reignite curiosity and passion. This challenged students to reflect on what they lost and what they found during the pandemic, and how those discoveries shaped the person they are now. Students shared their responses in the form of a creative or visual piece, each accompanied by an explanation from the artist detailing how, when, where and why the piece was made and what it means to the person who made it .

Take a look at some of the beautiful student work that resulted. Then, if you want to do something similar, our unit on Documenting and Reflecting on Teenage Life in Extraordinary Times has many more resources, including step-by-step instructions, a list of additional writing suggestions, and more.

But an open project like this doesn’t have to focus solely on the pandemic. Inviting students to document and reflect on a shared experience—using any medium they choose, and writing accompanying artist statements as a backdrop—could work in many contexts.

For example:

  • A project on identity could focus on students submitting artifacts and original creations that explore the identities most important to them.

  • An end-of-the-year project could inspire reflection on memorable moments inside and outside of the classroom.

  • An academic unit could stimulate a multimedia project around a concept or topic and its relation to students’ lives.

  • And much like this project invites teens to respond to the big news events of 2020 — the pandemic, the fight for racial justice, the election, and more — your project might invite them to document and reflect on the experience of a significant local news event, whether something traumatic like a Hurricane or tornado or something happy like a community milestone.

Most of the work selected for this book was visual art or artifacts coupled with written artist statements. But the lessons they teach can transcend the medium.

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