Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?

The disintegration of Jake’s life took him by surprise. It happened early in his junior year of high school, while he was taking three Advanced Placement classes, running on his school’s cross-country team and traveling to Model United Nations conferences. It was a lot to handle, but Jake — the likable, hard-working oldest sibling in a suburban North Carolina family — was the kind of teenager who handled things. Though he was not prone to boastfulness, the fact was he had never really failed at anything.

Not coincidentally, failure was one of Jake’s biggest fears. He worried about it privately; maybe he couldn’t keep up with his peers, maybe he wouldn’t succeed in life. The relentless drive to avoid such a fate seemed to come from deep inside him. He considered it a strength.

Jake’s parents knew he could be high-strung; in middle school, they sent him to a therapist when he was too scared to sleep in his own room. But nothing prepared them for the day two years ago when Jake, then 17, seemingly “ran 150 miles per hour into a brick wall,” his mother said. He refused to go to school and curled up in the fetal position on the floor. “I just can’t take it!” he screamed. “You just don’t understand!”

Jake was right — his parents didn’t understand. Jake didn’t really understand, either. But he also wasn’t good at verbalizing what he thought he knew: that going to school suddenly felt impossible, that people were undoubtedly judging him, that nothing he did felt good enough. “All of a sudden I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I was so afraid.” His tall, lanky frame succumbed, too. His stomach hurt. He had migraines. “You know how a normal person might have their stomach lurch if they walk into a classroom and there’s a pop quiz?” he told me. “Well, I basically started having that feeling all the time.”

Alarmed, Jake’s parents sent him to his primary-care physician, who prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant often given to anxious teenagers. It was the first of many medications that Jake, who asked that his last name not be used, would try over the next year. But none seemed to work — and some made a bad situation worse. An increase in dosage made Jake “much more excited, acting strangely and almost manic,” his father wrote in a journal in the fall of 2015. A few weeks later, Jake locked himself in a bathroom at home and tried to drown himself in the bathtub.

He was hospitalized for four days, but soon after he returned home, he started hiding out in his room again. He cried, slept, argued with his parents about going to school and mindlessly surfed the internet on his phone. The more school he missed, the more anxious he felt about missing school. And the more anxious he felt, the more hopeless and depressed he became. He had long wanted to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but now that felt like wishful thinking.

Not every day was bad. During spring break in 2016, Jake’s father wrote: “Jake was relaxed and his old sarcastic, personable, witty self.” A week later, though, Jake couldn’t get through a school day without texting his mother to pick him up or hiding out in the nurse’s office. At home, Jake threatened suicide again. His younger siblings were terrified. “It was the depth of hell,” his mother told me.

That summer, after two more hospitalizations, Jake’s desperate parents sent him to Mountain Valley in New Hampshire, a residential treatment facility and one of a growing number of programs for acutely anxious teenagers. Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services. In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.

Those numbers — combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall — come as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. While it’s difficult to tease apart how much of the apparent spike in anxiety is related to an increase in awareness and diagnosis of the disorder, many of those who work with young people suspect that what they’re seeing can’t easily be explained away. “We’ve always had kids who didn’t want to come in the door or who were worried about things,” says Laurie Farkas, who was until recently director of student services for the Northampton public schools in Massachusetts. “But there’s just been a steady increase of severely anxious students.”

For the teenagers who arrive at Mountain Valley, a nonprofit program that costs $910 a day and offers some need-based assistance, the center is usually a last resort after conventional therapy and medications fail. The young people I met there suffered from a range of anxiety disorders, including social anxiety, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Though OCD and PTSD are considered anxiety disorders at Mountain Valley and other treatment centers, they were moved into separate categories in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

Photo

Sharon McCallie-Steller, a therapist, during a counseling session at the Mountain Valley residential program in New Hampshire.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

Mountain Valley teenagers spend a lot of time analyzing — and learning to talk back to — their anxious thoughts. During one group session in the summer of 2016 in a sunlit renovated barn with couches, a therapist named Sharon McCallie-Steller instructed everyone to write down three negative beliefs about themselves. That’s an easy exercise for anxious young people (“Only three?” one girl quipped), but McCallie-Steller complicated the assignment by requiring the teenagers to come up with a “strong and powerful response” to each negative thought.

She asked for volunteers. First, residents would share their negative beliefs and rebuttals with the group. Then others would act those out, culminating in a kind of public performance of private teenage insecurity.

Jake raised his hand. By then, he was in his third month at Mountain Valley, and he looked considerably less anxious than several of the newcomers, including one who sat slumped on a couch with his head in his hands. “I’m free to play the part of terrible, evil thoughts for anyone who needs them,” Jake said with a smile. He had already spent weeks challenging his own thinking, which often persuaded him that if he failed a single quiz at school, “then I’ll get a bad grade in the class, I won’t get into the college I want, I won’t get a good job and I’ll be a total failure.”

At Mountain Valley, Jake learned mindfulness techniques, took part in art therapy and equine therapy and, most important, engaged in exposure therapy, a treatment that incrementally exposes people to what they fear. The therapists had quickly figured out that Jake was afraid of failure above all else, so they devised a number of exercises to help him learn to tolerate distress and imperfection. On a group outing to nearby Dartmouth College, for example, Jake’s therapist suggested he strike up conversations with strangers and tell them he didn’t have the grades to get into the school. The college application process was a source of particular anxiety for Jake, and the hope was that he would learn that he could talk about college without shutting down — and that his value as a person didn’t depend on where he went to school.

Though two months in rural New Hampshire hadn’t cured Jake of anxiety, he had made significant progress, and the therapy team was optimistic about his return home for his senior year. Until then, Jake wanted to help other Mountain Valley teenagers face their fears.

Among them was Jillian, a 16-year-old who, when she wasn’t overwhelmed with anxiety, came across as remarkably poised and adultlike, the kind of teenager you find yourself talking to as if she were a graduate student in psychology. Jillian, who also asked that her last name not be used, came to Mountain Valley after two years of only intermittently going to school. She suffered from social anxiety (made worse by cyberbullying from classmates) and emetophobia, a fear of vomit that can be so debilitating that people will sometimes restrict what they eat and refuse to leave the house, lest they encounter someone with a stomach flu.

Jillian listened as Jake and other peers — who, in reality, liked her very much — voiced her insecurities: “I can’t believe how insignificant Jillian is.” “I mean, for the first three weeks, I thought her name was Susan.” “If she left tomorrow, maybe we wouldn’t even miss her.”

At the last one, Jillian’s shoulders caved, and her eyes watered. “I don’t want to do this,” she said, looking meekly at McCallie-Steller.

“If it’s too much, you can stop,” the therapist said, but Jillian considered the offer only long enough to reject it. She straightened her back. “No, I feel like I need to do this,” she announced. “I have a week and a half left. If I can’t get through something like this here …”

Her voice trailed off, but the implication was clear: The real world would be much more anxiety producing — and much less forgiving.

Photo

Jillian in her room in Florida.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

Anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But unlike depression, with which it routinely occurs, anxiety is often seen as a less serious problem.

“Anxiety is easy to dismiss or overlook, partially because everyone has it to some degree,” explained Philip Kendall, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University in Philadelphia. It has an evolutionary purpose, after all; it helps us detect and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Highly anxious people, though, have an overactive fight-or-flight response that perceives threats where there often are none.

SHARE YOUR STORY ABOUT ADOLESCENT ANXIETY

Has teenage anxiety affected you or a family member or friend? What was the path to recovery like, if there was one? What challenges do today’s students with anxiety face? Please share your experiences. A selection of reader responses will be published in the coming days.

Required fields are marked with an asterisk.

Continue

But sometimes there are good reasons to feel anxious. For many young people, particularly those raised in abusive families or who live in neighborhoods besieged by poverty or violence, anxiety is a rational reaction to unstable, dangerous circumstances. At the Youth Anxiety Center’s clinic in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, which serves mostly poor and working-class Hispanic youth, teenagers would object to the definition of anxiety I heard often at Mountain Valley: “The overestimation of danger and the underestimation of our ability to cope.”

“The fears can be very real for our kids,” explained Carolina Zerrate, the clinic’s medical director. “Oftentimes their neighborhoods are not safe, their streets are not safe and their families can feel unsafe if there’s a history of trauma and abuse.” The contemporary political climate can also feel “incredibly unsafe for the community of kids we serve,” Zerrate adds, explaining that many have undocumented family members.

And yet addressing anxiety is low on the priority list in many economically disadvantaged communities. Kids who “act out” are often labeled defiant or aggressive, while those who keep to themselves — anxiety specialists call them “silent sufferers” — are overlooked or mistaken for being shy. “If you go to a public school in a struggling urban area, teachers will talk about drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, violence,” Kendall says. “When you start to talk about anxiety, they’re like, ‘Oh, those are the kids we like!’ ”

Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. “These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,” she says, but there’s “contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.”

Photo

A resident taking part in equine therapy at Mountain Valley.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,’ ” Luthar says. “There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.”

It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”

Though there are cultural differences in how this kind of anguish manifests, there’s considerable overlap among teenagers from different backgrounds. Many are anxious about school and how friends or teachers perceive them. Some obsess about family conflicts. Teenagers with OCD tend to worry excessively about what foods they should eat, diseases they might contract or whatever happens to be in the news that week. Stephanie Eken, a psychiatrist and the regional medical director for Rogers Behavioral Health, which runs several teenage-anxiety outpatient programs across the country and an inpatient program in Wisconsin, told me that in the last few years she has heard more kids than ever worry about terrorism. “They wonder about whether it’s safe to go to a movie theater,” she said.

When I asked Eken about other common sources of worry among highly anxious kids, she didn’t hesitate: social media. Anxious teenagers from all backgrounds are relentlessly comparing themselves with their peers, she said, and the results are almost uniformly distressing.

Anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their kids’ digital habits — round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers — were partly to blame for their children’s struggles. To my surprise, anxious teenagers tended to agree. At Mountain Valley, I listened as a college student went on a philosophical rant about his generation’s relationship to social media. “I don’t think we realize how much it’s affecting our moods and personalities,” he said. “Social media is a tool, but it’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”

Photo

A resident meditating during a yoga session at Mountain Valley.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

In his case, he had little doubt that social media made him more self-conscious. “In high school, I’d constantly be judging my self-worth online,” he told me, recalling his tortured relationship with Facebook. “I would think, Oh, people don’t want to see me on their timeline.”

While smartphones can provoke anxiety, they can also serve as a handy avoidance strategy. At the height of his struggles, Jake spent hours at a time on his phone at home or at school. “It was a way for me not to think about classes and college, not to have to talk to people,” he said. Jake’s parents became so alarmed that they spoke to his psychiatrist about it and took his phone away a few hours each night.

At a workshop for parents last fall at the NW Anxiety Institute in Portland, Ore., Kevin Ashworth, the clinical director, warned them of the “illusion of control and certainty” that smartphones offer anxious young people desperate to manage their environments. “Teens will go places if they feel like they know everything that will happen, if they know everyone who will be there, if they can see who’s checked in online,” Ashworth told the parents. “But life doesn’t always come with that kind of certainty, and they’re never practicing the skill of rolling with the punches, of walking into an unknown or awkward social situation and learning that they can survive it.”

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health and psychological differences among generations, used to be skeptical of those who sounded an alarm about teenage internet use. “It seemed like too easy an explanation for negative mental-health outcomes in teens, and there wasn’t much evidence for it,” she told me. She searched for other possible explanations, including economic ones. But the timing of the spike in anxious and depressed teenagers since 2011, which she called one of the sharpest and most significant she has seen, is “all wrong,” she said. “The economy was improving by the time the increase started.”

The more she looked for explanations, the more she kept returning to two seemingly unrelated trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption. (There is significantly more data about depression than anxiety.) Since 2011, the trend lines increased at essentially the same rate. In her recent book “iGen,” and in an article in The Atlantic, Twenge highlights a number of studies exploring the connection between social media and unhappiness. “The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues,” she told me. “It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.”

Last fall, at a high school near the New Hampshire-Vermont border, I watched Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist and author, deliver bad news to a packed auditorium of teachers and counselors. “We’re not getting the job done,” she said, pacing the stage at Fall Mountain Regional High School, where she had been asked to lead a professional-development training session about anxiety.

More than a decade ago, the school would have been unlikely to invite her to speak. Anxiety was barely on the radar of most educators back then, according to Denise Pope, another founder of Challenge Success, the Stanford-affiliated nonprofit. Pope remembers facing skepticism when she sounded the alarm about growing anxiety among teenagers. “We don’t have to convince them anymore,” she told me. “Schools are coming to us, eager for help.”

A gregarious speaker, Lyons kept her audience entertained by calling anxiety “the cult leader” — for its ability to convince people of falsehoods about themselves — and telling funny stories about overinvolved parents. But her main point was clear: In a seemingly well-meaning effort to help kids avoid what makes them anxious, administrators actually make anxiety worse. “Anxiety is all about the avoidance of uncertainty and discomfort,” Lyons explained. “When we play along, we don’t help kids learn to cope or problem-solve in the face of unexpected events.”

Photo

Kids hanging out in the lounge after lunch at Mountain Valley.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

She pointed to the increasing use of “504 plans,” a popular educational tool that allows for academic accommodations for students with physical or mental disabilities. Though 504 plans for anxiety vary by student, a typical one might allow a teenager to take more time on homework and tests, enter the school through a back door — to avoid the chaos of the main entrance — and leave a classroom when feeling anxious.

Lyons believes in the necessity of 504 plans, and she is in agreement with many of the recommendations of Challenge Success, including later school start times, less homework and more project-based learning. But Lyons worries that too many 504 plans are “avoidance-based and teach zero skills.” She gave the example of a plan that allows a student to leave a classroom anytime he feels overwhelmed. Often, a teenager “can go wherever he wants and stay there for as long as he thinks he needs,” she said. Instead, she argued, a school should have a policy in place for the student to seek out a guidance counselor or nurse and do some role-playing that helps the student “externalize his worry,” similar to how Mountain Valley teenagers are taught to observe their thinking and talk back to it. Then the student should return to his regular classroom as soon as possible, Lyons said.

“If anxiety could talk, it would say, ‘You know, let’s just get out of here. We don’t have to do this!’ ” Lyons said from the stage. “But in order to retrain the brain, in order to create that message that says that even though I’m uncomfortable I can do this, we need to stop treating these anxious kids like they’re so frail, like they can’t handle things.”

Lyons sees a connection between how some schools deal with anxious students and what she worries is a generation of young people increasingly insistent on safe spaces — and who believe their feelings should be protected at all costs. “Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs,” she told me.

Among many teachers and administrators I spoke to, one word — “resiliency” — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren’t “equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively,” a school counselor in suburban Oregon told me. In the last few years, the counselor said, she has watched in astonishment as more students struggle with anxiety — and as more of those “stop coming to school, because they just can’t.”

Photo

A Mountain Valley resident doing art therapy.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

Some schools have taken drastic measures to accommodate what one administrator called “our more fragile students.” At Roxbury High School in Roxbury Township, N.J., there are two dedicated classrooms for anxious teenagers, including one next to a mural of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” These students typically avoid the mammoth school cafeteria in favor of eating lunch in one of the classrooms, as they did on the day of my visit last May. They had just finished gym class, an anxiety-producing event for some even as the school did all it could to reimagine the concept. Music blasted throughout the gym as the teenagers halfheartedly played something vaguely approximating a game of volleyball. The ball was allowed to bounce once before being struck — not that anyone was keeping score.

I couldn’t help wondering what Lyons, and other therapists I spoke to who worry that schools inadvertently worsen anxiety, would think of this approach. Some of the programs’ teenagers hoped to go to college, where no special classrooms would await them. How was this preparing them for that?

“Some will say that this feeds the monster,” concedes Patricia Hovey, director of special services at Roxbury High. “But you’ve got to start where the kids are, not where you are or where you want them to be. We’ve got to get them in the building. Many of our students simply don’t come to school if they have to spend all day in” general-education classes. Once the students are in school, Hovey explained, staff members can help them build the confidence and skills to eventually transition to Roxbury’s regular classes — and stand a chance at navigating college or a job once they graduate.

Even with the promise of a special classroom, getting anxious kids to Roxbury High each morning demands a herculean effort from the program’s teachers and therapists. During my visit, I watched them text and call several no-show students in an effort to coax them out of bed. They also regularly communicate with parents, talking them through what to say to a teenager who refuses to leave his room. Paul Critelli, one of the program’s teachers, told me that many parents feel overwhelmed trying to get two or three kids ready for school each morning, and that their instinct is often to “sacrifice the anxious kid” in order to avoid morning hysterics and keep the family train running on time.

Mostly, though, Critelli wants to talk to the anxious students. “What’s the issue today?” I heard him ask during a phone call with a sophomore boy, who had missed his scheduled bus and was presumably speaking to Critelli from underneath his sheets. The call was a “Hail Mary,” as Critelli put it, because while he suspects that the boy sleeps with the phone “right next to his face,” he rarely responds when he’s feeling anxious. “I appreciate you picking up — you don’t normally do that,” Critelli told him, mixing in positive affirmation with a call to action. The school would be sending another bus, and Critelli expected him to be on it.

Critelli looked for any opportunity to push students out of their comfort zones. During an informal study period after lunch, I watched him confiscate cellphones he said the teenagers were using to “hide from, control and avoid” their feelings; scoff at a student who claimed to be too anxious to return a book to the school library; and challenge a particularly reserved boy who said he had nothing to work on.

Critelli looked at him incredulously. “Dude, you’re failing physics,” Critelli said. “What do you mean you don’t have anything to do?”

“There’s nothing I can do — I’m going to fail,” the student mumbled.

“So you’re just accepting that you’re going to fail?” The boy looked at his hands. “Here’s an idea,” Critelli continued. “You can email your teacher and say, ‘What can I do to improve my grade? What extra work can I do?’ ”

Critelli surveyed his classroom of anxious teenagers. “I’d love to see you advocate for yourselves!”

Photo

A Mountain Valley teenager during equine therapy.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

Jake is a remarkably minimalist emailer and texter, eschewing exclamation points and emojis in favor of an almost old-fashioned formality. It can be challenging to gauge his moods that way, so I checked in with him regularly by phone in the months after he left Mountain Valley. He usually sounded content when we spoke, an impression confirmed by his parents, who were relieved by the changes they saw in him. In the fall of his senior year, Jake was regularly attending school — on some days he “even enjoyed it,” he told me with a laugh.

While he was careful not to overschedule himself, anxiety still sometimes overtook him. One weekend, he had to leave a Model United Nations conference after he became anxious and his stomach started cramping. “That was really disheartening, but when I struggle now it doesn’t last long, and I can usually get myself out of it pretty quickly,” he said, by talking back to his negative thoughts.

Jake also confessed to some worry about his application to attend U.N.C. He had decided to be transparent with the school about his anxiety disorder, partly because it helped explain his junior-year absences and grades and partly because the months he had spent challenging his beliefs and ideas at Mountain Valley perfectly fit the application essay prompt: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.

In 650 thoughtful and sometimes uncharacteristically dramatic words, Jake explained that in middle school he had “aced the tests and seemed to many as the bright future of the American ideal.” But then came high school and fear of failure, the debilitating worry that he might not be good enough. He explained that going to treatment helped him change his perspective on learning and life. “Just being able to type this very essay would have been impossible months ago due to my fear of judgment,” he wrote. “College is the next step in my journey to find a true sense of self, both academically and personally. The future has reopened its doors.”

The doors had not reopened quite as wide for Jillian, whom I visited on an oppressively humid spring afternoon in Florida. It was a school day, but Jillian wasn’t at school. Instead, she was on the screened-in back patio of the townhouse where she lives with her mother, Allison. A talented artist, Jillian loves theater and special-effects makeup design, and she was hard at work on an outfit for a “Walking Dead” costume contest at a local car dealership.

While she painted her costume to make it appear blood-soaked, we half-watched an episode of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” on her laptop. Jillian told me she could relate to many of the series’s themes, including cyberbullying. In middle school, she made a profile page on ASKfm, a social-networking site favored at the time by mean girls and their unsuspecting prey. Jillian was quickly targeted. “I’d get 30 mean questions or messages a day,” she said. “Most of them were like, ‘Just kill yourself.’ ”

Nothing like that happened at the small private high school Jillian attended after leaving Mountain Valley. Though the school is known for its flexibility and willingness to work with nontraditional students, Jillian still struggled to feel comfortable there. She didn’t want to open up and be known as “the anxious girl.” There were other students at school who had severe anxiety and depression — “It’s like the flu broke out here with anxious kids this year,” the headmaster told me — but Jillian didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with them, either. Several had yet to go to treatment, and “I don’t want to go backward,” she told me. But the end result, unsurprisingly, was that most students never got to know Jillian.

Her longtime pattern of missing school began again. She had the tools to challenge her anxious thoughts, but using them every day proved exhausting. “There’s feeling a weight on your chest, and there’s the feeling of 16 people sitting on top of each other on your chest,” she said. “As soon as I’d wake up, it was absolute dread.”

Needing to get to her job 40 minutes away each morning, Allison, who had sold her previous house in order to afford Mountain Valley, had little time to coax Jillian out of bed. They argued constantly. Jillian thought her mother — who was severely depressed during a year when Jillian was younger and especially needed support — could be insensitive. Allison struggled with when (and how hard) to push her daughter. She knew Jillian had a serious disorder, but she also knew it wouldn’t get better by letting her hide out in her room. Allison also couldn’t be sure when Jillian was genuinely paralyzed by anxiety and when she was “manipulating me to get out of doing whatever she didn’t feel like doing,” she said.

“The million-dollar question of raising an anxious child is: When is pushing her going to help because she has to face her fears, and when is it going to make the situation worse and she’s going to have a panic attack?” Allison told me. “I feel like I made the wrong decision many times, and it destroyed my confidence as a mother.”

Allison sometimes wondered how her own anxiety issues might have genetically predisposed her daughter to anxiety. Allison had done enough Google searches to know that anxious teenagers tend to come from anxious parents. Research points to hereditary genes that predispose children to an anxiety disorder, and studies have found that an overbearing or anxious parenting style can induce anxiety and risk-aversion in kids. In the parents’ workshop I attended in Oregon, Ashworth, the therapist, spent a lot of time urging family members to work on their own anxiety issues.

He also cautioned parents not to accommodate their children’s avoidance strategies. Families of children with OCD will routinely open doors for them, cook only the two or three specific foods they’ve agreed to eat and avoid saying certain words or sounds. Families of socially anxious kids will let them stay in the car while they go shopping, order for them at restaurants and communicate with a teacher because they’re afraid to. “So many teens have lost the ability to tolerate distress and uncertainty, and a big reason for that is the way we parent them,” Ashworth said.

While Ashworth can be blunt, he is also disarming and funny, with a self-deprecating sense of humor that appeals to both parents and their cynical children. Like many therapists who work with anxious teenagers, he tries to model a “let’s not take life — and ourselves — too seriously” approach. He also has an almost endless empathy for the challenges that these teenagers and their families face. He knows, for example, that raising a severely anxious child can feel counterintuitive. How, for example, do you set and enforce limits with an anxious teenager? If you send him to his room, “you’ve just made his day,” Ashworth told the parents in his workshop, who nodded knowingly.

Though Jillian had returned from Mountain Valley a more confident person with a nuanced understanding of her issues (and with her emetophobia largely under control), treatment didn’t solve her school struggles. As she fell further behind, her morning battles with her mother became increasingly untenable. In consultation with the school, Allison agreed to let Jillian drop out and study for the G.E.D. But Allison wasn’t happy about it; she considered it a momentary concession. “We basically said, ‘O.K., anxiety, you win.’ ”

Jillian was relieved never to have to set foot in another high school. “I’m just a lot more relaxed now,” she told me in her messy bedroom, where the walls were adorned with “Star Wars” posters and the bookshelf overflowed with young-adult fiction and sci-fi, as well as a worn copy of “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.” Near her bed were two prescription bottles — one for Prozac and another for Klonopin, a benzodiazepine tranquilizer. Jillian had been prescribed a number of drug combinations over the years, and while none were panaceas, she believed she would be “a lot worse if I wasn’t taking them.”

Though she spoke to a therapist once or twice a week online, Jillian otherwise ignored the structured daily schedule — including yoga, studying and cleaning her room — that she had agreed to with her mother. Jillian told me she often felt lonely at home, and she spent much of her days texting friends from around the country, some of whom she met at “Star Wars” conventions or on social media.

At the same time, Jillian was trying to make new friends. I watched her joke with fellow contestants at the costume contest (where she walked away with a $250 prize), and she was practically a social butterfly at a film event she attended with her mother. Bored with our company after the screening, Jillian spotted two teenagers talking to each other in a corner.

“O.K., I’m going to go mingle,” she announced.

Photo

A Mountain Valley teenager talking to a passer-by during exposure therapy.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

On a busy weekday morning last May, a new crop of Mountain Valley residents were discovering that a key component of their treatment would involve repeatedly making fools of themselves. On the Dartmouth College campus, eight teenagers wore hand-painted white T-shirts that read “Ask Me About My Anxiety” and “I Have OCD.” They were encouraged by the therapy team to come up with scenarios that would make them uncomfortable. One teenager considered approaching random guys on campus and saying, “You must be a Dartmouth football player.” Later that afternoon, a second group of teenagers arrived. One feigned a panic attack at Starbucks. Another ordered nonsensically at a restaurant.

“What do we need to do to make your anxiety higher?” McCallie-Steller, the therapist, asked several teenagers as they prepared for their morning of exposure therapy. First developed in the 1950s, the technique is an essential component of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, which a vast majority of researchers and clinicians believe is the most effective treatment for a range of anxiety disorders. In a large 2008 study of anxious youth published in The New England Journal of Medicine, more improved using CBT (60 percent) than the antidepressant Zoloft (55 percent), though the most effective therapy (81 percent) was a combination of the two.

But while exposure therapy has been proved highly effective, few teenagers receive it. “We’re much more likely to medicate kids than to give them therapy,” says Stephen Whiteside, director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Program at the Mayo Clinic. “And when we do give them therapy, it’s unlikely to be exposure. With a few exceptions, we’re not treating people with what actually works best.”

Part of the reason is that exposure work is hard. Anxious people aren’t typically eager to feel more anxious. “It’s also uncomfortable for many therapists,” Whiteside told me. “Most people go into therapy or psychology to help people, but with exposure therapy you’re actually helping them feel uncomfortable. It’s not much fun for anybody. It’s much easier to sit in a therapist’s office and talk about feelings.”

Researchers are trying to better understand how exposure works in the brain and to fine-tune its application for anxiety treatment. At U.C.L.A., scientists at the school’s Anxiety and Depression Research Center discovered that the more anxious a person feels going into an exposure exercise, and the more surprised he or she is by the result, the more effective it is at competing with an original negative association or traumatic memory. (That’s why McCallie-Steller did her best to ramp up the teenagers’ anxiety before they began their exposure work.) Other researchers are focused on virtual-reality-aided exposure therapy, which allows people to encounter the sources of their anxiety in a therapist’s office.

For two Mountain Valley 14-year-olds on the main quad at Dartmouth, the sources of their distress were numerous. One, a brown-haired boy who embarrassed easily, suffered from a dispiriting combination of social anxiety, OCD, binge-eating and depression. It was a lot to work on in three months, and he was often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project. On this day, he had agreed to tackle his social anxiety by sitting next to a stranger on a park bench and striking up a conversation.

Earlier, another Mountain Valley teenager took part in a similar exercise, during which the stranger opened up about his own struggles with anxiety. The teenagers were sometimes surprised that others could relate to their issues. As one girl handed out fliers about anxiety on campus, she sometimes asked people, “Can I tell you about anxiety?” More than a few students — including one who looked as if he might actually be a Dartmouth football player — responded with some version of “Trust me, I know all about it.”

The brown-haired boy was highly anxious about his exposure. He bombarded the therapist, Bryan Randolph, with questions in a seeming attempt to run out the clock until they had to return to Mountain Valley. “Can I just sit on the bench for a minute?” he asked Randolph. “And can I sit down and then start talking? I mean, do I need to ask, ‘Do you mind if I sit there?’ It’s weird to just sit there, have a conversation, then get up and come running back to a group of people.”

“Even better — let’s make it weird,” Randolph told him.

The boy shook his head. “Maybe the guy’s on break and doesn’t want to be bothered.”

“Maybe,” Randolph said. “He might hate you. He might get real mad at you.”

“That’s terrifying,” the teenager confessed. “And what if we’re so close on the bench that we’re touching?”

“That would be awkward,” Randolph said with a half-smile.

The boy craned his neck to get a better look at the man. “Is he sitting in the middle of the bench?”

“I don’t know — he might be,” Randolph told him. “But are you going to ‘what if’ this to death, or are you going to do it?”

He eventually shuffled off toward the stranger, allowing Randolph to turn his attention to the other 14-year-old, Thomas, who stood sheepishly on a nearby corner holding his sign: “I’ve Been Bullied. Ask Me.” The “Ask Me” was hard to make out, because Thomas had also included many of the insults peers have hurled at him over the years, including “B*tch,” “F*ggot,” “Ur Fat” and “Kill Yourself.” Holding the sign on a busy corner had been Thomas’s idea; he thought it might ratchet up his anxiety and force him to interact with strangers, while having the potential added benefit of educating people about bullying.

Randolph and I watched dozens of students walk by, some giving Thomas’s sign a glance but most never slowing their stride. He had been bullied for years, and now he was being ignored. I felt anxious just looking at him.

Eventually, an attractive couple in their mid-20s stopped to read the sign. They smiled, Thomas beamed and after a minute or two of conversation they all hugged. “Oh, my God, that was the greatest,” Thomas announced upon his return.

I asked him what they’d talked about. “The muscular dude said he’s been bullied, too, in middle school, and that bullies get nowhere in life,” Thomas told us. “Then the girl said, ‘You’re really brave. Can I give you a hug?’ ”

“That’s not what you were expecting, huh?” Randolph said. “Instead of being mean to you, people actually treated you with compassion.”

“Yeah, it was awesome,” he said. “I feel so good!”

The brown-haired boy, meanwhile, returned from his brief visit to the bench: “It was sooooo awkward,” he reported. “The guy just kept texting. He was probably like, Why is this kid asking me questions?”

“And what if he was?” Randolph asked him. “You’re not responsible for what he’s thinking.”

The boy appeared to consider Randolph’s point as they made their way back to the van that would return them to Mountain Valley. Sometimes, Randolph told the boys, “exactly what you think will happen happens. Other times, the exact opposite of what you think will happen happens. Either way, it’s all manageable.”

The subject line of Jake’s email to me last winter read simply, “College Results.” I opened it: “Hey Benoit, I just wanted to tell you that I was accepted to U.N.C. Chapel Hill. Jake.” I emailed back to say that he could stand to sound a little bit more excited, to which he replied, “Trust me, I’m pretty excited!”

Last month, I visited him during his fourth week of college classes. It was a Sunday, and Jake met me outside his dorm wearing khaki shorts and a Carolina Panthers jersey. He looked happier than I’d ever seen him. “Let’s walk,” he said, leading me on a tour of campus and nearby Chapel Hill, where he went record shopping (he left with a Parquet Courts album) and played touch football with a few of his friends.

Photo

Teenagers at the chicken coop at Mountain Valley.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

Since leaving Mountain Valley, Jake had prioritized his social life. “The health of my relationships with people is just as important as academics,” he told me on a bench overlooking the main quad. He had said something similar at Mountain Valley, but back then it sounded theoretical, aspirational. It felt true now. He had made new friends on campus and was keeping up with old ones from home — and some of his peers from Mountain Valley — via text and Snapchat, the only social-media platform he regularly uses these days. “My junior year, when things got really bad, I told myself that I didn’t need to hang out with my friends a lot, that all that really mattered was how well I did at school,” he said. “I don’t think like that anymore.”

That’s not to say that Jake doesn’t study. He does — usually days before he needs to. “Procrastination isn’t a good idea for me,” he said. But he was actually enjoying several of his college classes, especially Intro to Ethics, for which he was reading Plato’s “Republic.”

Jake had experienced only one intense bout of anxiety at U.N.C. For his info sciences course, he turned in an assignment online but realized days later that there had been a technical glitch and it hadn’t gone through. He said he felt “a sudden burst of anxiety” — his chest tightened, and adrenaline coursed through his body. What had he done? He sent a panicked email to his professor and told a friend who also has anxiety issues that he was “freaking out.” Then he took a nap, which had long been one of his coping strategies. When he awoke, the professor had emailed saying it wasn’t a big deal. “That ended that crisis,” Jake told me.

For the most part, Jake felt he was managing his anxiety. Over the summer, he met twice with Jonathan Abramowitz, a psychology professor who leads the university’s anxiety and stress lab, but Jake had put off finding a regular therapist for the school year. His parents kept bugging him about it. “I just haven’t felt like I need it here,” Jake told me. But then, a few beats later, he added: “I know I need to stop making excuses and just do it.”

Photo

Carrying apples to the pasture to feed the cows on Mountain Valley’s campus.CreditSasha Rudensky for The New York Times

I was curious how much of Jake’s newfound contentment had to do with being at U.N.C., with getting into his dream school. After all, a major component of his treatment at Mountain Valley was learning to accept that his value didn’t depend solely on academic achievement. How would he have reacted if his application was one of the 74 percent that U.N.C. rejected last year?

It was clear that Jake had thought about the question. “I would have been disappointed, but I really think I would have been O.K.,” he told me. “There are other schools in the world where I would have been happy. I definitely wouldn’t have believed that a couple years ago, but a lot’s changed.”

Before walking back to his dorm, where Jake’s friends were waiting for him, we stopped at the Old Well, a campus landmark where legend has it that students who drink from it on the first day of classes will get straight A’s that semester. The old Jake might have been first in line. But the new Jake? He hadn’t bothered to show up.

Advertisements

Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It

Edutopia

Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.

“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.

Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 10.09.58 PM

So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.

The Persistence of Memory

The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.

MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.

Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:

  1. NPFXOSK
  2. ORANGES

For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.

5 Teacher Strategies

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
  2. The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
  3. Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
  4. Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
  5. Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).

So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.

Do Conversations About Race Belong in the Classroom?

The Atlantic

Two decades ago, Beverly Daniel Tatum published a bestselling book on the psychology of racism. Now, with the release of the book’s second edition, she reflects on its relevance to schools today.

A blurry photo of students in a school cafeteria
Eric Gay / AP
In 1997, Beverly Daniel Tatum, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the psychology of racism, answered a recurring question that surfaced in her work with teachers, administrators, and parent groups: Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? The result was a critically acclaimed book of the same name that gave readers—numbering in the hundreds of thousands—a starting point to demystify conversations about race, better understand the concept of racial identity, and communicate across racial and ethnic divides.

Basic Books

Now two decades later, the black kids are still sitting together. And Tatum has returned with a revised and updated 20th-anniversary edition of her national bestseller that publishes today. One aspect that has changed dramatically since the original release of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race are America’s demographics. Latinos and Asian Americans are the largest and fastest-growingpopulations of color, respectively, with children of color for the first time outnumbering white children in public schools. Additionally, the backlash against the election of the first black president, the continuing segregation of schools, and highly visible incidents of police violence seem to belie the claim of a “post-racial society”—making Tatum’s perspectives on effective dialogue about race and racism especially relevant.

Tatum recently shared some thoughts with The Atlantic on why conversations about race remain vexing and what can happen when educators and parents avoid those conversations. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.


Melinda D. Anderson: Has your perspective changed on anything you wrote in the original edition of your book?

Beverly Daniel Tatum:  In 1997 my goal in writing my book was to help others move beyond fear, anger, and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us, and ultimately what we can do about it. … I still have that goal, but in 1997 we were a nation at peace and the economy was expanding. Today we are a nation at war, suffering from economic anxiety and the combination of “post-racial” rhetoric, simmering racial resentments, and an increasing 140-character culture of communication that has made productive conversation more difficult to have.

That said, it is still the case that in a race-conscious society, we all have a racial identity that develops in predictable ways, shaped largely by the interactions we have with others. I still believe that an understanding of that identity-development process can help all of us begin to build bridges across lines of difference.

Anderson: In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia—where members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marched through the city last month—many educators are grappling with how to help students understand and contextualize America’s history of racism and current racial divides. What would you say to teachers and administrators struggling in this area?

Tatum: I like to begin my conversations with educators by talking about why it’s so hard for people to talk about race. I often ask them to think about their own earliest race-related memories, and without exception what I find is that many people have [these] memories—and if you ask how old they were, they’ll often tell you 5, 6, 7 years old. Then I usually ask what emotion is associated with that memory. And they’ll mention things like embarrassment, fear, anger, sadness, shame, [and] sometimes confusion. Most often it’s some uncomfortable feeling.

[Finally] I ask: When that experience happened, did you speak about it to anyone? Did you talk to a parent, or a teacher, a caring adult about this experience? And almost always, the majority of the people in the audience will say they did not. There’s often just this understanding that you’re not supposed to talk about it. And I start there simply to say …  now you’re 35 or whatever age, and you’ve had a lot of lifetime experiences that have told you, don’t talk about this.

You can’t solve a problem without talking about it. And certainly if we think about educational environments and experiences, it is in the classroom where you can create the space for a conversation about the meaning of the Confederate flag and [discuss] those statues [and] when they were put up. There are resources that teachers can use—provided by organizations like Facing History and Ourselves—to inform themselves, and then bring that information into classrooms in an age-appropriate way. [Also,] if I were in a classroom talking about what happened [in Charlottesville] I’d want to lift up not only the horrific things that we all know about, but also the solidarity of the people who came out the next day to remember the memory of Heather Heyer [a 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting the white-supremacist rally]. I think that it’s important … in these conversations, to always leave space for hope.

Anderson: You delve deeply into the racial-identity development process for black youth—from their early years through adulthood. One anecdote brings the specific role of black teachers to the forefront. Can you tell me about the role black educators—who make up just 7 percent of the public-school teaching force—play in black children’s lives?

Tatum: I often use this analogy: If you and I were in a room together with lots of other people and somebody took a photograph of us, and I handed you that photograph at the end of our time together, and you took a look at it, what would be the first thing you would do? You’re going to look for yourself in the picture.

If you think about classrooms or workspaces or conferences, wherever we are, we go into these spaces and we look for ourselves. You want to see yourself represented. In that sense, when young people walk into a classroom, they want to see someone who they identify with, maybe because they’re the same race. It doesn’t always have to be racial identification. [A student] can identify with a teacher because she likes music [or] identify with [educators] because they are into sports. But to the extent that kids of color walk into classrooms and rarely see someone who looks like themselves in that environment, that’s a missing link.

Anderson: Your writing on the development of white identity was a revelatory look into the current cultural and social dynamics in the United States. Please talk about the process of redefining whiteness from “just normal” to a more nuanced conception of what it means to be white.

Tatum: If … you live in a neighborhood where everybody or most people are white, you grew up in a family where all the members are white, and you go to a school and most people are white, [chances are] you [see your white identity as] the norm. And you probably don’t think much about it—that’s not the part of your identity that you’re focused on. But when you enter into a space, a classroom or a workplace, where you are now in a racially mixed environment, and there’s conversation about issues of race in particular, you may start to have a greater awareness. You start to learn what whiteness means, in some ways, because you start to see what racial-group membership means for other people. Or maybe [that awareness comes through] … reading a book, or taking a class.

However that awareness starts to happen, what I’ve found is that [white] people start to realize that they’ve had some advantages. … They’ve had some benefits as a result of being white that they’d never really paid attention to, but have taken for granted, or not even noticed. And when they start to notice or when they learn the history, it’s upsetting … There are often feelings of guilt. It’s usually at that point where it can be really helpful [to join] an organization like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which helps white people support each other in their growth and learning around how to become anti-racist.

[Figuring out how to turn that guilt into action] is a learning process, and it’s not as linear as I’m describing. It often requires re-educating oneself or learning things that you never learned in school, simply because it wasn’t [taught]. Talking to people you don’t usually talk to. It’s not like it happens instantly.

Anderson: Interestingly, you expand on the conversation—shifting beyond black and white—to interrupt the frequent resistance to talking about racism in non-black communities of color. What are some of the complexities surrounding identity development for students who belong to those communities?

Tatum: Well, I think the basic principle goes back to that picture analogy. If we want to affirm the identities of our students, the first thing we have to think about is: Do they see themselves represented? One of the points I talk about is that the representation of Native Americans is always in the past. There’s a Native educator I quote who says Native youth, who have a very high suicide rate, need to see themselves as having a future, not just a past. It’s thinking about how students will find themselves in the curriculum, not just who’s teaching, but [also] how are they being talked about? If you’re Native American, do you see yourself represented at all except perhaps as the mascot of the football team?
The common stereotype for Asians is that they’re academically successful, particularly in science and math. But what if you are a young Asian person who is interested in journalism? Are you able to express yourself fully or are you being categorized so narrowly that your options are being foreclosed? In the case of Latinos, language is important to identity. Familism [prioritizing family relationships] is an important cultural value; you want to preserve your language so you can speak to [your] grandmother. But if you’re in a school where you feel your language is perceived as a liability—not an asset—that has a direct impact on how you feel about being in school.

Regardless of your group membership, the questions of identity are at the heart of the adolescent experience. … Each group has its own particular social context … but at the fundamental core of each young person’s [identity development] is a desire for affirmation.

Anderson: You admit that you’re an optimist at heart, but for some the prevalence of racism in American society can seem all-consuming. What fuels your sense of confidence?

Tatum: Sometimes you have to work at feeling hopeful. Social progress tends to be two steps forward, one step back. I’m old enough to know that change is possible. I was born in September of 1954, several months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. … If you think about the sense of urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, those young people who are out in the streets are asking: Why are we still having this conversation? Why are these things still happening? It’s a difficult moment, there’s no question. Charlottesville and the President’s response have reminded us how difficult it is. But that said, there are a lot of people who want change.

And it’s only because I have seen that change is possible that I believe it is again possible. The dialogue is critical. That’s why I always put the word “conversations” in my book titles, because you can’t move forward without talking to people. Talk isn’t something that comes easily [and] talk by itself isn’t sufficient; you want to have those conversations because you want to inspire action.

James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil

The New Yorker

Baldwin insisted that a more honest reckoning with history was necessary.

Photograph by Ted Streshinsky / Corbis via Getty

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.” So opens “A Talk to Teachers,” which James Baldwin delivered to a group of educators in October, 1963. (He published it in the Saturday Review the following December.) That year, Medgar Evers, a leading civil-rights figure and N.A.A.C.P. state field director, was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. That year, four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. That year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through downtown Dallas.

I make a point of revisiting this essay at the beginning of each school year, and while Baldwin’s words have always felt relevant, this year they feel particularly so. Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who teaches at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where I live, and he shared with me how confused and disillusioned his students were by what they had seen on television. He sat them in a circle and gave them space to ask questions. “Why was somebody so angry that they wanted to drive a car through people who were asking for their rights?” one student wondered. My friend shared with me another story from a community meeting that he had just attended. A mother stood up and said, “I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old how to duck; I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old that certain nights when we get home from school we have to sit on the floor.”

“Yet we send them to school and we’re not allowing them to be a part of an opportunity to address that,” my friend said, hurt and perplexed. The next evening, he brought his students to a local candlelight vigil, where hundreds of people showed up to honor Heather Heyer—the demonstrator who had been killed in Charlottesville—and to protest the hateful actions that led to her death. Throughout the evening, people talked about what had transpired. Some of the students chimed in, too. Later, my friend recalled, the kids told him that doing so made them feel important. “People wanted to listen to me,” one student said.

Baldwin’s talk offers a way to think about this. I first read it when I was a high-school English teacher, in the winter of 2012. I was sitting at my desk one day, after the bell had rung, staring at a clouded chalkboard, leaning back in my chair, its beige foam crawling out from beneath red cloth. I had just struggled through a lesson on the different types of sentence structure—not the most riveting topic for most fifteen-year-olds, I realize—and I had seen my students stare blankly past me, disengaged. I wondered how preoccupied they might be by what was happening outside school walls. A string of senseless murders had taken the lives of some of their friends. In Florida, a boy named Trayvon Martin had just been killed, too, and his killer had yet to face charges. But that day, like most days, I stuck to the book, keeping politics on the periphery.

My decision was based, in part, on Maryland’s educational standards. The state had recently adopted Common Core and parcc (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments; there was little incentive to teach beyond the bounds of the new curriculum. This wasn’t why I had signed up to be a teacher, but job security and paychecks were directly linked to student test scores. I found myself becoming a part of a system of incentive-based learning that I opposed. That day, a friend, who had been a teacher for many years, gave me a copy of “A Talk to Teachers.” The essay might quell some of my frustration, she said.

Baldwin delivered the talk on the heels of the March on Washington, where he was famously pulled from the list of speakers because organizers—who knew the writer’s habit for speaking extemporaneously—were unsure if he would stay on message. “A Talk to Teachers” is emblematic of Baldwin’s proclivity for candor over political appeasement, and, like much of his work, focusses on history and the American consciousness. “It is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history,” he writes. Young people are constantly absorbing—through media, textbooks, and policy—the myths of American exceptionalism; for black children, this means that what they are taught in class does not match the world that they navigate daily. “On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the Stars and Stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war,” Baldwin continues. “But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization—that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”

A more honest reckoning with history is necessary, Baldwin insists. Of slavery, he says, “it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”

It’s this focus on history that rearranged my thinking. In Baldwin’s view, it is the only thing that can help disabuse black children of the stereotypes that have been projected onto their community—and it is necessary for white children, too, who oftentimes serve as the purveyors of these myths, and who do not know the truth about their history, either.

Baldwin understands that learning this history can leave students in a state of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Imagining his own hypothetical students, he writes, “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know, that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.” Here, Baldwin, with literary sleight of hand, adopts the terminology used to pathologize black people and applies it to the system in which they operate. What follows is a medley of lessons that is disquieting in its contemporary applicability. “I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”

After reading “A Talk to Teachers,” I altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world. I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.

  • Clint Smith is a writer, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, and the author of “Counting Descent.”

Can Prep Schools Fight the Class War?

Photo

John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege. CreditBebeto Matthews/Associated Press

Earlier this month Princeton University Press published a book called “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” by a sociologist, Rachel Sherman, who researched the spending habits of 50 well-to-do parents in New York City, and diagnosed a pervasive problem of reticence around wealth. Ms. Sherman uses her encounters with people who agreed to speak with her, in many cases about their fears of seeming showy, to conclude that there is too much silence around money and that all of this alleged hush and professed shame ultimately slow our efforts to mitigate inequality.

Given that we have segued from the era of the Rich Kids of Instagram to a moment in which the rich wives of cabinet secretaries use social media to tell us that they are wearing Hermès and that they are better, it is a difficult time to argue that modesty is really what is complicating things, or that a greater degree of honesty about renovation costs on Central Park West will lead us to a more just tax code. And yet Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary — “Manhattan poor’’ as others have put it — given that everywhere they chose to look they find someone who has a lot more money. Private schools emerge as dangerous incubators of this dynamic because they are the places in which the affluent receive the most intimate exposure to the obscenely rich — where your week in a rented condo in Sun Valley is a deprivation compared with the schoolmates flying from Teterboro to third houses in Vail.

In recent years, and most obviously since the rise of Black Lives Matter, private schools around the city have taken concerted care to recruit minority students, to introduce curriculums and conversation about racial understanding in lower grades, to seek diversity consultants and to promote inclusion around gender. At the same time, ostentatious displays of wealth and entitlement that can dominate a school’s ecosystem have gone too often unchallenged. At the end of last month, however, John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote a letter to the parent body meant to shake up the existing order.

Invoking the country’s current state of chaos, he wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege — that stood apart from the larger political and social crises besieging us. He blamed, in large part, “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.” He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.”

Even outside the bubble of Manhattan private schools, it’s a fairly blunt critique of privilege. That the statement came from Trinity, founded in 1709 and one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the country, made it all the more powerful. Board members at other Manhattan schools noted how astonishing the document was, given its potential to turn off donors who might have been completely at peace with the way the school had been doing business.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose,’’ Mr. Allman told me, “and approaching it from a perspective of student well-being with a better sense of why students are going about this work.’’ Mr. Allman came to Trinity several years ago from prep schools in Texas and Georgia — he ran St. John’s in Houston when Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley billionaire was a student — environments in which the parent bodies were no less intensely focused on ambition and achievement. Mr. Allman’s letter also explained the way that Trinity would go about transforming its approach to community service, integrating what students would do outside the classroom with what they were learning inside. Trinity is on the Upper West Side near several social service agencies and adjacent to a public housing complex, whose playground the school’s children have used over the years.

Radically rethinking a school’s culture involves not only getting parents and children to alter a deeply ingrained mind-set and executing pedagogical changes, huge projects in themselves, but also ensuring that the families admitted are in tune with these values. This requires an ability to determine what sort of parents seek admission to your school solely so that their children can sit atop a cognitive elite and suggest to them that they might be happier elsewhere. This is not easy, but it is important work for institutions that continue to groom the people who seem to keep running the world.

I asked Mr. Allman how he thought his letter had been received by parents in the school, some of whom I had spoken with who said they found it inspiring and soulful. “Parents get to see people up close who use us for purely instrumentalist purposes, and they are happy to see the school push back,’’ he said, “and give it to them.’’

9 Great Movies for the Middle School Classroom

Try one of these thought-provoking documentaries to get kids thinking (and learning).

September 01, 2017

If you want to get kids’ attention, show them how an issue affects real people. From bullying to STEM to autism, the topics tackled in documentary movies can open kids’ eyes and encourage discussion. And when they’re shown as part of a lesson, teachers can help students understand and analyze what they’ve seen.

As the definition of literacy continues to broaden — encompassing skills for analyzing not only text-based media, but also visual media, audio, and more — it’s important to include documentary films as part of the classroom content selection. Happily, lots of documentaries either about or targeted at middle school-age kids come with educator resources, so they’re easy to integrate into an existing unit or use in after-school programs.

These are nine of our favorite documentary picks for middle school classrooms. They’re not always easy to watch, but all will strike a chord with middle schoolers and are guaranteed to spark a great conversation.

Bully

It’s heartbreaking and difficult to watch, but this frank documentary is essential viewing for middle schoolers. Ultimately it encourages kids to stand up to bullies rather than stand by, and it reinforces the fact that everyone can make a difference.

Teacher tips: Because the movie addresses suicide and self-harm, it’s important to front-load and frame these intense topics carefully. Make sure you know which students could feel especially triggered by the movie and create a safe space for students to share their own experiences. Emphasize how kids can be empowered to help each other and what resources are available. Classes could even come up with action plans to address whatever bullying might exist in their school.

Available resources: Tools for Educators

Girl Rising 

The stories shared in this informative, intense film aren’t always easy to hear — it touches on topics ranging from inequality to human trafficking, child marriage, and more — but nothing graphic is shown, and kids who watch are guaranteed to want to talk about it.

Teacher tips: Before watching the movie, kids can create a timeline of their own childhood up to this point, highlighting the most important events. And what do they plan for the future? Since some kids will be shocked by what girls face in various places, make sure to prepare them for some of the more intense issues, like rape and trafficking. Then explore what their timelines might look like and how past events might affect the futures of the girls in the film. Focus on the resilience of the featured girls and how they see education as a path to a better future.

Available resources: Regional Ambassador Program

He Named Me Malala

Moving, intense, and also delightful, this film about Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai introduces viewers to the inspiring role model while simultaneously making her a relatable teen. Meet your students’ new BFF.

Teacher tips: One way to frame this one is through the idea of superheroes: Usually, something extraordinary happens to an ordinary person, and their lives change. How is this also true for real-life heroes? Some kids in your class have probably heard her name, so tap into their prior knowledge before watching the movie, then talk about how her path follows one similar to a superhero’s. What does it take to be a real-life hero? Have kids explore topics that are important to them, and document their steps to make a difference in that area.

Available resources: Students Stand with Malala

I Am Eleven

Powerful and poignant, this film follows 11-year-olds from around the world (Australia, Bulgaria, China, France, Germany, India, Morocco, Japan, Sweden, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as they share their thoughts, triumphs, and challenges.

Teacher tips: Encourage kids to find connections between their own experiences and the ones in the movie, then explore the differences. What do they have in common with one or more of the kids in the film? What’s different from their own experiences? Consider having students become virtual ambassadors to a featured country and do research around school, family, and culture.

Available resources: Educational Screenings Kit

If You Build It

Want to show teens that they have the ability and the talent to make a difference? Then check out this empowering story of young people who learn the skills to create something (a new farmers’ market for their rural community) and actually get to do it.

Teacher tips: Seeing these teens and adults work together to solve a problem/provide a service in their community can be a jumping-off point for a similar project in your own community. Ideally, and depending on your resources, kids can identify a problem to solve or a service to provide. Then they can figure out the best ways to implement the plan (and hopefully do it!), which can be a great cross-curricular opportunity.

Available resources: Educational DVD Copies

Life, Animated 

This incredibly moving documentary beautifully captures the emotional story of a young man with autism and his lifelong love of Disney movies, which allow him to process the world and communicate with the people he loves. It’s sweet, funny, and relatable.

Teacher tips: Teachers can take this in a number of directions: You could talk about ASD and other learning differences that can affect how people interact with the world. Kids can then connect that to their own learning process and identify something — like the Disney movies in the film — that helps them in their process. Or you can focus on communication and the power of storytelling. Which stories serve as a window into your students’ world? They can create personal stories that might also help others.

Available resources: Curriculum for Educators

Right Footed

Kids are sure to be inspired by the story of Jessica Cox, a young woman born without arms who’s had a significant impact as a role model, motivational speaker, and activist for people with disabilities.

Teacher tips: Jessica’s story is a great example of overcoming what seems like a limitation and working with it in order to excel and thrive. Kids can identify their own strengths and challenges and create a visual representation of how they can overcome those struggles. In a museum-style exhibition, kids could display their artifacts with an artist’s explanation.

Available resources: Educational and Private Screenings

Underwater Dreams

Looking for a story to drive home the importance of STEM in schools? Try this feel-good true story about a group of low-income teens who beat groups from renowned universities (including MIT!) in a robotics competition.

Teacher tips: Talk about the students’ journey to success. What roadblocks did they encounter? How did they overcome them, what character strengths helped them, and how did others support them? With awareness around your classroom climate, you can also discuss the issue of documentation and what it means. If someone is undocumented, what are some of the potential challenges? Finally, talk about STEM and its importance. How do the students in the film show that STEM can go far beyond the classroom? Kids are bound to want to create something after watching, so capitalize on that inspiration and let them innovate!

Available resources: Including working with Title I Students, STEM, and the DREAM Act

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines 

Holy girl power, Batman! This knockout film looks at the historical context of Wonder Woman origins and explains how she’s changed over the decades — yet how the need for girls and women to see powerful images of themselves really hasn’t.

Teacher tips: Kids can explore gender representations from different decades and determine what the messages are — and have been in the past — for girls and boys. How have things changed, if at all? Why does it matter? For a broader conversation, kids can talk about why representation matters in general and create their own superheroes to show which qualities and characteristics they’d include.

Available resources: Guides

When History’s Losers Write the Story

Photo

A statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I visited a summer camp in western Russia in July 2015. Its theme was “military patriotism,” and it involved dozens of teenagers lounging around in tents, wrestling, carving wood and making garlands. They were also taking history classes. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who killed millions of Soviet citizens, was remembered fondly.

“Whatever your view of Stalin, you can’t deny that he was a strong leader,” a counselor told me later over steaming bowls of cabbage soup. “Stalin won the war. He made it possible for us to go to space. You can’t just throw out a person like that from history.”

Russia has not faced the darker parts of its past, something I spent a lot of time thinking about as a correspondent there. But my own country has memory problems, too. Take the Civil War. Historians tell us it was fought over slavery. But an entirely different version unspooled last month at an Applebee’s in Delaware.

“It’s too simplified to say the war was over slavery,” said Jeffrey Plummer, head of a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “That’s what’s been taught in the schools, but there’s more to it.”

Selective memory, it seems, is a global phenomenon. Think of Turkey and its blank spot where the Armenian genocide should be. Or Japan with its squeamishness about its aggression and mass murder in China. It starts as a basic human impulse to take the sting out of defeat or to avoid admitting some atrocity. But it’s also a way to help cope with a difficult present. And like a growth on a tree ring, it can keep the past off-kilter until some future generation is brave enough to right it.

“In most countries you are more likely to get evasion and nationalistic versions of history than tough grappling with the darker parts of your past, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

In the United States, the Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale. “The Civil War is like a sleeping dragon. If you poke it hard enough, it will raise its head and breathe fire.”

That is, in part, because the loser was allowed its own interpretation. The South, facing catastrophic loss of life and mass destruction on a European scale, wrote its own history of the war. It cast itself as an underdog overwhelmed by the North’s superior numbers, but whose cause — a noble fight for states’ rights — was just. The North looked the other way. Northern elites were more interested in re-establishing economic ties than in keeping their commitments to blacks’ constitutional rights. The political will to complete Reconstruction died.

“The whole notion of honoring the Confederacy and the sacrifice that your family made became part of what we taught in the schools,” said Charles Dew, a Williams College historian whose book “Apostles of Disunion” describes the white supremacist arguments that underpinned the South’s case for leaving the Union.

To correct the record, Mr. Dew gave talks about his book in the early 2000s, as part of the National Park Service’s efforts to clarify the causes of the war. Some audiences pushed back, saying, “My family did not own slaves, so how could they have been fighting for slavery?”

“I’m not trying to denigrate your ancestors,” Mr. Dew said he told those people. “I’m trying to explain why the war came and ask everyone to consider the issue with an open mind.”

In Russia, people choked on memory. As the Soviet Union was falling, the sins of the past flooded the present. Newspapers wrote about Soviet repressions. Researchers began documenting political killings. All this, as Russians were losing their jobs, their savings, their respect in the world and their dignity. They could not afford to lose their past. So Stalin became the man who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II and industrialized a peasant nation.

Germany is the exception. It took a generation, but German society faced its Nazi past and has emerged as an exemplary democratic culture. That is partly because of the extreme nature of the Nationalist Socialist regime and the devastation of the war it brought. Germans had to come to terms with the Holocaust. The Nazi regime had perhaps overcome the depression, but its increasing brutality left no redeeming qualities.

“In the United States, slavery was embedded in a constitutional regime that at least verbally offered universalizing rights,” said Charles Maier, a professor of 20th-century history at Harvard. “The German cause had no equivalent.”

But while top Nazis were put on trial right after the war, with the world watching, mainstream German society did not fully grapple with the crimes until the 1960s. There was a political shift to the left that encouraged young Germans who posed hard questions about their parents’ past. Even today, there are no major memorials to the perhaps half a million Germans who died in Allied bombing campaigns in Hamburg, Dresden and other cities, as that would be seen an assertion of equivalence.

In the years immediately after the war, Japanese society was actually ahead of German society in terms of facing its past, said Ian Buruma, author of “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan.” Leftists then had a strong voice in the media and universities, encouraged by liberals in the American occupation, and the history being taught was starting to grapple with Japan’s wartime atrocities against other Asian peoples. But that early reckoning got bogged down in politics: The United States, together with Japanese liberals, decided the problem was Japanese militarism and gave the country a pacifist Constitution. That alienated the right, causing a rift that persists to this day.

“In Japan, history became politicized,” Mr. Buruma said. “Whenever you hear a right-winger say, ‘It’s all a left-wing myth, we’re not as guilty as people are saying,’ what he’s really saying is, ‘We want to revise the Constitution and postwar order imposed by the United States.’ ”

The argument over Confederate monuments has surprised historians like Dr. Blight, who has studied the war for decades. It is a moment for public education like no other, but with risks. When history’s losers get to define the story, it can create rifts — with allies, with adversaries or even with our fellow citizens. But so can a sudden, emotional rush to rectify it. Historians say the Confederate statues should be removed slowly, with deliberation, not destroyed in the middle of the night.

“This sudden, almost rage to get rid of monuments kind of violates our instincts as historians,” he said. “Be careful, slow down. If they are taken down, let’s preserve and curate them. These are part of our historical landscape. To just destroy them is not educational.”