Op-Ed: Engaging Teens to Confront Social and Health Challenges

By Barry Stern

Several Loudoun Now articles have focused on the county’s actions to reduce suicides among teens and their use of opiates and other addictive drugs. I’m reminded of a similar challenge faced by Berkeley High School (California) in the late “tune in-turn on-drop out” 1960s. Loudoun County high schools and area youth agencies might wish to take a look at the approach Berkeley used to address such issues.

Rather than lecture youth and provide fancy multi-media presentations about the consequences of engaging in delinquent or dangerous behavior, the Berkeley Board of Education accepted the “demand” of Berkeley High’s Student Council to provide the school’s 3000 students with a course that would help them acquire information to make better decisions about the many social and health challenges they were facing.

This “Social Living” course was required for 10th graders and remained in the curriculum for over 25 years. Its framework was developed by a team of teachers, students and subject matter experts from various health and social service agencies in the SF Bay area. Having just completed my Ph.D. qualifying exams and coursework at Stanford University, Berkeley High hired me to teach the course. My background also included health education and directing the Venezuela Youth Leadership Training Institute as a Peace Corps volunteer working with the Caracas YMCA.

The course design required me to develop a learning contract with each class. Within broad guidelines students could choose the course content and negotiate about how I would teach it and evaluate their work. The content areas chosen most were drug abuse prevention, police-youth relations, relations with parents and peers, human sexuality and race relations. I was totally free to invite guest speakers, organize field trips, show films and play recordings—almost anything that would engage students and strengthen their commitment to become better human beings.

Each class was different. Some wanted panel discussions and debates; others wanted a mix of research papers, self-concept papers, written tests and small group oral exams on material covered. Another class wrote up findings of their interviews with community experts on various social health issues; students learned how to fact-check the speaker’s assertions.

One class developed a script for a 15-minute film documentary on “Should California legalize marijuana?” (folks, this was almost 50 years ago). They conducted research on the medical facts, laid out different points of view, organized and filmed a debate and taped interviews with peers and community leaders. The school’s outstanding theater arts director visited the class to provide feedback on their drafts. The students were totally “dialed in” and produced an excellent product.

Perhaps the most fun was adapting the Pentagon’s “war games” strategy to teach a week-long unit on race relations. I divided the class into teams—white liberals, white conservatives, black moderates, black militants (several members of the newly formed Black Panther Party were in my classes), and state government officials. The school librarian assembled materials to help the teams conduct research on organizations that were representative of each group. Students got into their role identities by developing scripts on how their group would likely respond to issues of the day—crime, drugs, police-youth relations, youth employment, education, health and welfare; national defense; etc. After practicing their role identities, they played a “war game” that required each team to respond to contrived situations, assert their views and contest those of the other teams. Attendance that week was 100 percent with students eager to continue playing the game.

Part of my assignment was to be available to students who requested help to work through personal issues. The tragic experiences they were willing to share humbled me—family abuse; fear of gangs, school bullies and extortion; severe depression or anxiety; bad drug trips or addiction; difficult break-ups with boyfriends or girlfriends; unplanned pregnancies or abortions. Fortunately, there were several organizations in the area to refer the most troubled youth. But the volume of student concerns was surprising, even in a community like Berkeley, the epicenter of political, racial and police-youth polarization, anti-war demonstrations and the famous People’s Park riot that evoked a week long occupation of the city by the California National Guard.

Today’s teachers would envy the freedom I had to teach what and how I wanted, so long as the students and their parents bought in. They would also envy how much support I had from colleagues, the school administration, social and health service agencies. I suspect some topics and instructional methods I introduced would not make it through today’s school boards. But Berkeley in those days was a cauldron of contentious polarization. Students had to grow up in a hurry in order to survive with the battle-scarred University of California next door and groups challenging authority at every turn.

Perhaps the greatest lesson from this course is to not underestimate the capacity of teens to creatively address and solve problems if given the chance. My classes were mostly noisy. It was a continual challenge to generate light as well as heat when discussing contentious issues. I purposely withheld my opinions until the last week of class when students shared their thoughts on the course and what we could have done better. When asked where I stood, I would answer, but with the qualification that more important were their conclusions, how they arrived at them and how these would govern their behavior. I cautioned them to not believe everything they read, heard or viewed on TV, and to allow their views to change as they became better informed.

Another takeaway is to build opportunities for social and emotional growth as high schools challenge students academically. For example, they could develop courses, modules within courses or student-teacher retreats that explore controversial social health issues while teaching students how to constructively challenge one another, authority figures, conventional wisdom and political correctness.

The internet, social media, the global economy, terrorism and a host of other challenges provide a very different world than what the nation and certainly Berkeley experienced a half century ago. Today’s schools have many more tools and curricular innovations to equip students for their futures. But schools ignore at their peril how the adolescent brain works. Educators must respect adolescents’ desire for independence, friends and meaning in their lives. They are more responsive when we talk with, not at them, and provide opportunities to help formulate what they will study and how. Surely we can find room in the curriculum for a course they can call theirs.


[Barry Stern is an education and career development consultant. Contact him at Bsels@aol.com]