Student Pieces from “Coming of Age in 2020”: How Teenagers Experienced the Pandemic

Dear Reader,

The start of this school year has brought with it a mix of feelings for educators and students alike. Perhaps the strongest has been relief—even joy—at returning to physical classrooms and the company of peers, resuming sports practices and other much-missed afterschool activities, and leaving behind the experience of learning or teaching in front of a computer screen with only virtual interactions to sustain engagement. But it has also been accompanied by record rates of depression and anxiety, as everyone carries with them to school the pandemic legacy of stress and isolation, grief, and fear.

I’m proud to say that Norton Books in Education has just this week published Coming of Age in 2020: Teenagers on the Year that Changed Everything in which teenagers from across the country show what it was like to be trapped inside and missing—or reinventing—milestones like graduations and championship games while the coronavirus pandemic raged, an economic collapse threatened, the 2020 election loomed and the Black Lives Matter movement galvanized millions. The 161 pieces chosen for the book—diary entries, comics, photos, poems, paintings, texts, lists, charts, songs, Lego sculptures, recipes and rants—come from over 5500 entries to a contest that The New York Times Learning Network ran in the fall of 2020, inviting students to share their experiences during a time that will define their generation. We think it’s an extraordinary collection from ordinary teenagers that is, as Jim Burke says, “a testimony to the strength and resilience of young people.” For despite the stressful events these students were experiencing, their creative pieces often sound a note of hope, growth, and inner resolve. This seems like an opportune time to look back at where we all were two years ago and think with students about the changes that have occurred.

Today on K-12Talk we’re sharing a small selection of these student pieces, with their accompanying artist’s statements, and we encourage you to visit The Learning Network site for exciting ideas about how to teach with these materials: How to Teach With the Art and Artifacts in Our New Book,‘Coming of Age in 2020’

Carol Collins, Education Editor

“Algebra Class” by Camila Salinas, 15, Frisco, Texas

I wake up, go to school, and sit at my desk. I do some work, the bells ring, go to the next class. I do some work, the bells ring, go to the next class. I get home, sit down, do my homework and catch up on a show. I go to sleep and I repeat. The pandemic has affected our lives in many significant ways, but for me it has just been isolating.

Although my algebra classroom can range from five to 30 students, it feels as though there is only you. And for students learning from home, the situation is worse. They are literally by themselves.

“Now Showing: 2020” by Maddox Chen, 15, Manhattan Beach, California

Using my preferred medium of LEGO bricks, I created a physical mock up of my typical spot of being for the past eight months: glued to a screen, whether that is my phone, laptop or the TV.

Politics, and more recently, the presidential race, have dominated the airwaves since the onset of the pandemic, and has covered everything, from racial injustice, social inequities, economic disparities to the simple act of wearing a mask.

One cannot refer to the year of 2020 without mentioning the diametric struggle between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“Covid Garage Classroom Tour” by Christine Chang, 13, San Carlos, California

Michael, our mailman, and my stuffed lion made up my entire social circle.
The spring of 2020, I woke up each morning with a pit in my stomach. Same eggs and toast every day, three hours of schoolwork, and the rest of the day wasted, staring at the ceiling and eating a questionable amount of Doritos. I think my fingers are still stained orange. As May came and went, I wondered when I would ever return to school.

When my middle school announced we would be virtual again this school year, I looked my stuffed lion in the eye and told him we were having none of it. I ran downstairs to assess our garage. It wasn’t much, but I had a grand plan. I spent dinner convincing my parents to move their cars out. I gave it a fresh coat of paint, added free furniture from Craigslist, and dollar-store decorations.
With the California wildfires, the first days of school were smoky, and my plan couldn’t come to fruition. However, the smoke cleared, and four of my friends biked up the hill to my house, grinning awkwardly.

Instead of staring at little faces on Zoom alone all day, we now laugh during lunch, choreograph and perform dances during breaks, and spend school days working on homework together. We’ve all pitched in to furnish our space with tables, couches, and even a bean bag. We’ve drawn posters to hang on the walls to make the space our own. We pull the strings of our friendship close together. We fondly call what is essentially our clubhouse the Garage Classroom. With masks, social distancing, and both doors open for fresh air, I feel safe.

More than that, I feel connected. I belong.

“Restless” by Ronan Cunicelli, 16, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania

I took this picture in the living room of my house, somewhere I spent a lot of time during the four months of a stay- at- home order in my state. I was constantly pacing around, looking out the window, and trying to find anything to do with my time.

I never knew how frustrating being forced to stay inside my own house was until now.

“Just Breathe” by Sunnina Chen, 16, Whippany Park, New Jersey

If you’re reading this, take five deep breaths.

Wasn’t that nice?

“Just breathe” became a mantra I told myself to get through the simple things. Taking the time to reflect, I realized why the Saran Wrap was suffocating me—I was the one who pulled it tight. Yes, it was placed there by my responsibilities and the uncertainty of our world, but I had the ability to let go. I let go of every­thing that wasn’t serving me, and took a deep breath.

“Running Toward the Season” by Kenneth DeCrosta, 18, Fairfax, Virginia

The Virginia High School League delayed all sports until December when, if it is safe, the basketball season will begin. In preparation for the start of a potential season, basketball players have been permitted to engage in physical training sessions since the beginning of October.

Players are barred from using indoor facilities; all workouts must take place outside. There are a strict set of guidelines that must be followed including online sign-ins, mandatory temperature checks, being masked at all times, sanitizing each player’s personal ball, and maintaining at least six feet between each other.

Despite the restrictions, the majority of athletes from the Robinson basketball team have participated in these sessions. They have shown up faithfully, often on days when the weather has been hot and muggy, to prepare for a season that may still be canceled.
Katherine Schulten
Katherine Schulten

Katherine Schulten was editor-in-chief of The New York Times Learning Network from 2006 to 2019 and is still a contributing editor there. She grew up in Texas and began her career in education right after college, with students in Brooklyn, New York. From there, she briefly taught in Japan, then spent 10 years as an English teacher at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, where she was also advisor to the school newspaper.

After winning a Prudential Fellowship to the Columbia School of Jour­nalism, Katherine worked for nine years in schools all over the city as a literacy consultant for the New York City Writing Project. In that role she focused on Career and Technical Education, helping teachers infuse writ­ing into subjects across the curriculum, from science and math to plumb­ing and cosmetology.

Katherine lives in Brooklyn with her husband and is the mother of twins now in their twenties.

Top image: “A Wave of Change” by Janie Lee, 15, Marlboro, New Jersey

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