Studying the Teen Experience With Texts That Are ‘Windows and Mirrors’

Studying the Teen Experience With Texts That Are ‘Windows and Mirrors’

Our Second Annual ‘Show Us Your Generation’ photo contest for teenagers, which runs until Oct. 15, invites young people to take photographs that depict some aspect of teenage life that they think may be misunderstood, ignored or largely unknown, and, in a short artist’s statement, tell us why.

Amy Miller, the English department leader at Farmington High School in Farmington, Conn., and Meghan Jones, a literacy specialist and instructional coach with whom she team-teaches, write about how winning images from last year’s contest became part of an inquiry unit that begins with a study of “Romeo and Juliet” and culminates in student-created documentaries.

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“What does Shakespeare have to do with me?”

“Why are we reading this?”

“Do we HAVE to read this?”

“Why should I care?”

In response to these questions, we, members of a team of teachers responsible for the freshman class of our heterogeneously grouped English course, annually reimagine a unit in which students read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Over the past few years, our team has implemented Project Based Learning approaches and attempted various culminating projects, from original works of art inspired by the play to public service announcements addressing contemporary issues.

But no matter what we did, our efforts did not quite land as we intended. Our students still seemed to trudge through the play without forming their own answers to the questions above.

Yet whenever we teach it, we also continue to hear that students see aspects of themselves in the text.

They relate to the dynamics among the parents and the teenage protagonists, and among the teen protagonists and their friends. They know what it feels like to hover between adulthood and childhood. They, too, face peer pressure and deal with loss. Many have made impulsive decisions and suffered the consequences. Like the characters, they struggle with the tension between what they want for themselves and what their parents want for them. And they know too well how it feels to have too much to deal with and want to escape it all and just be happy.

As teachers, we wanted to capitalize on these connections. More than anything, we wanted our students to link the themes they encountered in the play with their own lives, with other readings and with the world around them.

So we launched a revised unit, centered this time on the concept of the teenage experience, with the goal of developing students’ inquiry, research and analytical skills.

To kick off the unit, and in an effort to model vulnerability and honesty about the angst and awkwardness that comes with being a teenager, we projected images of ourselves, circa the late 1990s, in all our cringe-worthy teen glory — which were greeted by our students with raised eyebrows, giggles and even a few “awwwww”s.

Then, we read the majority of “Romeo and Juliet” together in class and analyzed different film adaptations, including Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 versions.

Meanwhile, students selected independent reading that featured teenage protagonists. As they dived into those works on their own, we explored the ways in which texts can serve as what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop famously described as both “mirrors and windows.” After defining the concepts as a class, each student selected a passage from his or her book that functioned as either a mirror or a window for them.

From there, we used a collaborative inquiry method, which we call the dimension protocol, to have students discuss their passages. As each presented, the group noted big ideas that the passage raised and began to pose questions inspired by it about the teenage experience. These questions — like, Why do teenagers need attention so badly? — planted seeds for the inquiry work to come.

Their responses to this activity confirmed for us the power of explicitly asking students to frame their reading experiences around their own lives. One student, Austin, commented, “Once we shared our windows and mirrors I noticed how a lot of [my classmate’s] windows were windows for me as well, and their mirrors were mirrors for me too. This helped me understand that I’m not alone and that there are other people with the same experiences as me.”

Once our students considered and questioned aspects of the teenage experience, the winning images from the “Show Us Your Generation” photo contest provided us with exactly what we needed in order to have students take the visual literacy skills they had honed during analysis of film versions of the play and dive more deeply into their topics of interest.

We modeled a visual literacy protocol (What do you see? What do you feel? What do you think or wonder? What more can you find?) with Catherine McCarthy’s image from the contest. Then we asked students to select any image from the published contest winners and do the same. As they perused, they added new ideas to our growing list of potential inquiry questions about the teenage experience — for example, Why are teens so often stereotyped as lazy and entitled?

When commenting on the photographer’s intentions, our students spoke with specificity and used discipline-specific vocabulary transferred from the language of film (“ high-focus,” “low-focus,” “long shot,” “extreme close-up,” “high key lighting,” “soft focus,” “rack focus,” etc.). We loved hearing our students take risks with their ideas and use accurate words to communicate those thoughts.

Working with images in a challenging unit like this one is not only an effective way to build background knowledge, it also reduces some of the pressure of reading an otherwise daunting text, and builds confidence in our students to engage in rigorous skill work. After all, whether they were analyzing Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” or Luhrmann’s or Zeffirelli’s, mining their chosen independent-reading texts for “windows and mirrors” or examining these student photos, they were practicing close reading throughout.

Next, students brought in artifacts that are representative, for them, of their generation. My co-teacher and I modeled this process with our own artifacts, and our students laughed as I shared angsty feelings of self-loathing when I danced to Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” alone in my bedroom, and at my co-teacher as she described the ordeal of trying to run with a Discman without having her CD skip.

Our students brought in earbuds, keychains, sneakers and video games, as well as printouts of Instagram posts and screenshots of social-media influencers. These items evoked feelings both similar to and different from what we teachers had faced 20 years ago as teens ourselves.

As they gallery-walked each other’s artifacts, we heard shouts of shared interest, giggles of middle school nostalgia and the quiet of newly discovered empathy.

CreditAmy Miller

As we progressed through the unit, students committed to a topic of interest on the teenage experience, and then formed an inquiry question to pursue in a brief research process.

The final product was the creation of a short documentary about that issue to share during a film festival we hosted in our classrooms — with popcorn and a red (paper) carpet included, of course. By the end of the festival, the students better understood what their generation stands for and is shaped by, and we were left with a stronger sense of class community.

Our students’ documentaries confirmed for us truths we have long known:

  • Teenagers face challenges today both like and unlike what we ourselves have known.

  • Teenagers have a voice in shaping the world around them, but they do not always recognize the power of their voices.

  • Teenagers are capable of profound empathy in sometimes surprising ways.

One important part of our job as teachers is to help our students examine and substantiate their views on the world around them. If we can help them broadcast their voices, they validate that the teenage experience is a complicated and crucial one — and that every member of this generation has something to teach us all about the world and our places in it.