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]

3 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Engaging Teens to Confront Social and Health Challenges

  • 2016-07-28 at 9:25 pm

    Thanks for your gracious and well-written comment. Perhaps other Loudoun parents would like to chime in?

  • 2016-07-28 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for your gracious and well-written comment. Perhaps other parents of Loudoun students would like to chime in as well.

  • 2016-07-23 at 3:47 pm

    Dr. Stern,

    Thank you for your Opinion piece on engaging teens. It was so refreshing to hear your message which gave voice to exactly what I’ve been observing for decades. As a stay-at-home Dad of four kids for 18 years, (two teenagers currently) I’ve come to the same conclusion and couldn’t agree with you more. My 18 year old son is a rising Senior and hates school so much (always has) he said he would drop out in a second if he could! Every one of his friends say the same thing. What you’re advocating is a proven educational and learning approach that not only leads to a thriving classroom but most importantly, life and growth! I experienced this style of real learning for the first time during my junior year of college! (Dr. Padilla’s Sociology class where I was totally “dialed in”!) I know exactly what you’re talking about. What a waste that I didn’t experience this all my life! Even periodically. It taps into the desperate needs of a young mind at the most crucial stages of their lifelong development. It helps them drive their learning, realize their potential, build confidence, and grow. Why are we on autopilot (politically correct people and school boards)? What are we afraid of? The proof is shown in your article and in my experience. Why do we continue to educate in a fashion that breeds academic laziness, and utter contempt for learning and growing? It seems to me that the public school teachers I’ve read about who are regularly selected for teacher-of-the-year awards, and the successful private schools, use the very methods you described in some form or fashion. What are we waiting for?

    Here is what resonated with me from your article: provide the students with a course that will help them acquire information to make better decisions… (work that prefrontal cortex); with your guidance, the students could choose the course content and negotiate how you would teach it and evaluate their work; your freedom to engage the students to commit and become better human beings; the depth of choices students had to pull from, like interviews, 15 min documentaries, etc; the collaboration with other groups, like community experts, theatre arts director, school librarian; the support from colleagues, the school administration, social and health service agencies, etc. A brilliant way of building relationships between old and young as well as engaging and enriching everyone! Win-win. Attendance during War Games was 100%! That’s how we get kids to stay in school as well as prepare them for life. It’s so obvious and reeks of common sense.

    Finally, and most important to highlight, is the part of your assignment where you were to be available to students who requested help to work through personal issues. This is the key and I cannot stress this point enough. We need to learn from Berkeley and realize that today, like those days, is a cauldron of contentious polarization and that students need to grow up in a hurry. The exposure of the internet, mobile devices, and social media has created a critical need to engage students immediately to counteract the tragic moral crash and decline of even basic civility, as well as the rise in broken homes, depression, anxiety, disillusionment, hopelessness, drug use, and suicide. The well-meaning, fancy multi-media presentations simply cannot lead the way. Schools by default are the arena where domestic and personal issues are naturally played out. What an opportunity to triage young people who are in excruciating pain and need our help.

    If the public schools adopted the approach you described, students would blossom and thrive, and statistics would show personal, social, emotional, and academic growth to be off the charts. The edifying domino effect on society would be immeasurable. It’s critical to acknowledge the capacity and longing of teens to creatively address and solve problems if given the chance. They are the future. They are floundering, exhausted, and begging us to help them maneuver through the teenage years. We are creating program after program (DARE, FLE, SOLs) rather than collaborating and succeeding. Does the United States win anymore?

    Thank you again, Dr. Stern. I can only pray that parents, Loudoun County high schools, and area youth agencies will come together and take a look at the approach you used to address such issues and not ignore how the adolescent brain works. Wait, there goes the autopilot alarm! Why don’t we include the teens and get to work strengthening their commitment to become better human beings?

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