I thought serving warm chocolate chip cookies to teenagers would be a welcome offering for a Saturday afternoon class. Especially in winter.
“Cookies? Help yourselves,” I said. Silence. There was no movement toward the cookies.
“Really! Take one! I made them in case you are here against your will,” I joked.
Still, no movement.
I was teaching the first session of “College Discovery and Essay Workshop,” a class I consider a holistic counterpart to the test prep process and a way for teens to collect information about themselves.
They are at an age when they are craving this information.
Science has shown that their brains are wired to collect feedback about their behavior. It is why teens are self-conscious. Maybe this is why they didn’t eat the cookies.
My idea for teaching the class originated when I filled out a “brag sheet” that the guidance counselors give parents of high school seniors.
We’re instructed to write down five adjectives to describe our child and then turn it back in. I’ve completed three brag sheets now and the exercise of mindfully writing something down is clarifying—for me and for my kids.
As an adult, a similar exercise helped me years ago. One evening while on a knitting weekend with several friends, someone suggested we write down on slips of paper what we appreciated about each other. After dinner we shared them, each of us retreating to our respective corners to find out what our friends thought of us.
“Single minded when you have a goal,” one of mine read. It was dead on, but also something I hadn’t recognized about myself. It inspired me to sign up for my first half-marathon a few weeks later.
We all still have those scraps of paper tucked away, fifteen years later.
There is no age limit on craving honest feedback. We especially need it in times of transition.
I love helping students work on their college essays and find the connections between their activities, interests and specific perspectives. Most of us don’t see ourselves clearly. We lose objectivity, doubt our intuition, and don’t feel unique. The work my students do on their essays becomes a time of self-discovery that hopefully stays with them for life.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee wrote, “I once made a list of all the pieces that I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90 percent.”
This astounded me. Had I known I was not going to morph into an entirely different person once I entered the magical phase of college and adulthood, I might have approached things differently.
I want my students to examine the truth of who they are right now.
To do this, they need information about themselves. I give them a version of the brag sheet to give to family and friends and we experiment with writing prompts. I once took a class led by the poet Ellen Doré Watson and her words stayed with me: “Prompts are the backdoor in.”
I also want my students to accept who they are. A yoga teacher once announced in class, “You are already whole.” What a profound idea, I thought. What might we do if we believed we were already complete? If we weren’t always trying to be better, or like someone else?
Finally, I want my students to use all of this information to act on who they are—to find the clubs, part-time jobs, internships, and other pursuits that will expand on their natural abilities and interests.
Of course, I also want them to eat the cookies.