Author Interview with Katherine Schulten
“Coming of age” is a phrase that represents a young person becoming an adult. It can be marked with milestones like personal, academic and professional achievements. Along the way there are events like theater and music presentations, sports, art and film exhibitions, newspaper and yearbook work, volunteer opportunities, academic honors and community service. Author Interview with Katherine Schulten
We know what coming of age in America looks like. Then came 2020. School and social interactions moved from classrooms, auditoriums, labs and gyms to screens and Zoom.
The New York Times Learning Network, led by editor Katherine Schulten, asked students to share their experiences during this time and the response was overwhelming.
The result is a collection of student work about a world turned upside down, a pandemic, political discourse and personal struggles. Students share diary entries, comics, photographs, poetry, artwork, songs, Lego sculptures, recipes and general rants.
These are the stories of a year that defines their generation. They speak about frustration and fear but also joy and hope.
What was the idea/goal behind the essay contest for readers and their experiences in 2020?
The Learning Network has run contests for over a decade, and every fall we announce a new slate of them – sometimes as many as 10. In 2020, however, we knew we had to come up with something special to meet the moment.
Inspired by the many Times articles in which historians and museums suggested we all keep diaries documenting what it was like to live through Covid, we decided to do a version of the project for teenagers. But we also decided to make it as open-ended as we possibly could since we knew most schools were still remote or hybrid, and that teachers just didn’t’ have the wherewithal to guide formal projects. Instead, we decided they could tell us anything they wanted about what life was like as a teen that year, in any format that felt fun or natural or easy for them. Here is how our contest announcement began:
What has 2020 been like for you?
This tumultuous year has changed us all, but perhaps no generation has been more affected than yours. Teenagers are experiencing their formative years trapped inside and missing — or reinventing — milestones while a pandemic rages, an economic collapse threatens, the 2020 election looms, school as you once knew it has ceased to exist, and civics lessons in books have shifted to “civics lessons in the streets” as young people participate in what may be the largest protest movement in U.S. history.
We want to hear about your experiences, in whatever way you want to tell us about them — whether in words or images, audio or video. This, our first-ever multimedia contest, is essentially a challenge to document what you’re living through, and express yourself creatively on any aspect, large or small, that you think is important or interesting.
What guidance or writing prompts were given to the students for their submissions?
Whenever we run a new contest, we come up with an extensive related curriculum to guide them through it. Here is a list of what we did for this one (from the contest announcement if you scroll down):
- Our Unit Plan that lays out all the resources you’ll need, in order.
- Our accompanying step-by-step guide that can work as a lesson plan for teachers to use, or for students to follow on their own. It helps students come up with ideas and choose the best medium to express them.
- A list of related writing prompts.
- A guided lesson using mentor texts published in The Times by both teenagers and adults that shows work across genres on this theme that might inspire students’ own. (Coming soon!)
- A free, on-demand webinar, in which we suggested even more ideas, talked to teachers who are embedding the project in their curriculums this fall, and leave plenty of time for questions and ideas from participants.
- A contest rubric that applies across mediums and genres.
Who read through the entries and what were they looking for in student responses?
As with every contest we run, we invited journalists from the NYT newsroom to judge, and we also invited a group of former teachers who have long helped us out with contests. Both groups were invaluable for this challenge.
But for the first time, we also added another category of judges: members of Gen Z. We wanted to make sure we understood the significance of all the entries since we assumed some would reference memes and pop culture and trends that we adults wouldn’t necessarily understand. To do that, we asked a team of young people who had won our previous contests but were now in college, and thus ineligible for this one. (And, of course, we always judge blind, and all judges recuse themselves if there is even a chance that a school they come from or someone they know has entered.)
What was a common thread in the submissions from students as far as topics and thoughts?
The chapter headings in the book really tell that story well. When I was planning the book I grouped every entry by theme, then arranged them more or less chronologically to tell the story:
Adjusting to the New Normal: the utter weirdness of March 2020, via comics, essays, screenshots, and even an original musical score.
Distancing: A lonely chapter as kids express what it was like to be cut off from routines, friends, the world.
Missing What Might Have Been: photos, diary entries, poems, and rants about everything they were missing, from big sports tournaments to sweet 16s
Feeling Overwhelmed: A lot of the mental health issues we’ve read so much about are expressed here – the news cycle, social media, the ever-changing restrictions and warnings, the need to keep up with school while it’s on Zoom and you’re isolated from everyone but your family, etc.
Approaching a Breaking Point: This is related to the previous section, but takes it a bit further. In some of the pieces, kids show how they figured out how to live with the anxiety and uncertainty.
Confronting Anti-Asian Xenophobia: Many submissions focused on this, and they were among the most powerful we received. We heard from exchange students from Asia who were suddenly looked upon with suspicion at their schools; about racist slurs yelled at them or their relatives in grocery stores; etc.
Enduring Covid-19: Kids and their families got sick, and loved ones died. Several kids had a front-line medical worker in their family. Though the teenagers often reached for hope even in these bleak entries, this is a hard chapter to read.
Coping and Reinventing: We got so, so many of these, and they’re wonderful. These teenagers figured out how to participate in the sports they loved, how to recast rituals like prom and graduation and religious confirmations, and how to simply stay sane during lockdown.
Connecting With Friends: Another joyful chapter. Kids making TikToks and playing video games together from their separate homes, meeting up outside and staying 6 feet apart, doing kind things for each other, etc.
Quarantining with Family: A poignant chapter. Funny ones, sad ones, going-out-of-my-mind ones, but so many of these kids seem ultimately grateful to have gotten to know their family members in a deeper way.
Navigating Romantic Relationships: I was delighted to have enough kids willing to let us use their work for this chapter, and I love the results. Follow the YouTube link to listen to “Pandemic Boyfriend” and I promise you will not stop singing it for days.
Surviving School: Kids on missing something they always took for granted; on reinventing “school” to work for them; on the “black squares” of Zooms where no one turns their camera on. We got many, many, many submissions on this topic, for obvious reasons.
Working: So many teenagers were front-line workers, or, like the kid who lives on a farm, had no choice about working. I wish we’d gotten more, in retrospect.
Supporting the BLM Movement: There was an absolute outpouring of material on this theme because so many kids were at the protests – and those who couldn’t be found other ways to support the movement. A beautiful chapter that ends with a beautiful reflective essay and photo by a boy from Minneapolis.
Witnessing Election 2020: Few of the kids in the book were old enough to vote, but they wanted their voices heard, and wanted us to understand that they understood the stakes of this election.
Confronting Climate Change: The wildfires in CA that summer prompted a great deal of work from kids who were affected, but, of course, climate change in general is always on the minds of Gen Z. Poems, drawings, photos, political cartoons
Discovering: I wanted to end the book on a positive note, but that’s also because the vast majority of students ended their submissions with hope. This chapter is about the kids who found out things about themselves they otherwise may never have known.
Reflecting: “Please never forget how it felt,” writes Ayla Schultz in the first essay in this chapter, and that’s kind of what these last few pieces are – a big picture look at the year. Author Interview with Katherine Schulten
What was the turning point for realizing the responses could be a book?
We knew almost from the beginning. After we saw the outpouring in response to our contest (5,500-plus submissions), we turned to Special Sections – the team at the Times who produce print sections for things like Pride Month, or on themes like Museums – to see if they might be interested, and they were. So after we judged the contest, we sent the Special Sections team some 200 finalists, and they chose from among those to create a stand-alone feature online and in print.
The print special section – which I believe is the first all-teen-created print section in NYT history – came out on March 11, 2021, exactly a year to the day that the World Health Organization declared Covid a global pandemic. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life to see the work of these kids at the top of the Times homepage, to get supportive comments from readers around the world, and to hold the section in print in my hands. (My son framed the cover of the section for me as a surprise, and I’ll never take it off my wall.)
But the Times could only feature 35 or so, and there were so many more wonderful pieces. Because I had already done a book for Norton, my editor had been interested from the beginning. The team there and I then worked to hone the 200+ pieces by finalists into the hopefully coherent book you hold in your hands. They also applied their genius to making sure every visual work looks great, no matter how low the resolution on the initial submission. I am thrilled with the look and feel of the book, and I couldn’t love the cover more.
What was the reaction of the students to making their contributions a book?
For some, disbelieving at first. I had one student ask if he could call me on the phone because he was afraid the email I sent him was a scam. It took awhile to convince him I was who I said I was, and that I really wanted his work in a book.
After that, thrilled. I heard from the students themselves but also their parents and teachers about how meaningful it was to think that what they had to say had been “important” enough to be featured in a book. The response I got that means the most to me, however, came via an interview with KQED’s Mindshift via a girl who made a photo collage: “Now a freshman at University of Texas, Dallas, Chakravarthi hasn’t yet settled on a major. She liked the way the student contest engaged her interests and creativity, so she is considering getting a teaching certification so she can create similarly generative assignments for her students.” As someone who was a teacher for 10 years and a literacy coach in NYC public schools for another 9, this means the world to me. Author Interview with Katherine Schulten
But creating the book was a long process. Since most of the kids were under 18, we needed their parents or guardians to sign off, and, since I edited every Artist’s Statement in the book, I also needed to make sure they were cool with my changes. It took a long, long time and a lot of emails, texts and phone calls to get permissions from the 164 kids represented.
How have the students responded to the book now that it has been released?
Honestly, I wish I’d heard from more of them. The ones who did write to me were delighted, and thought their pieces looked excellent. But Gen Z is NOT an emailing generation, and that’s mostly how I contacted them.
Can you give a general update on what the students are doing now and schools they are attending?
The vast majority are now in college, which is part of why it’s been hard to get hold of them this fall. They’re off to new things, with new email addresses, and though many, many of them wrote me as they got into the schools of their dreams last spring, I now can’t recall who is where anymore.
But the one girl who has TWO pieces in the book (we just couldn’t choose) wrote an essay before she left for college about what participating in our contests in general has meant to her. Author Interview with Katherine Schulten
What are the hopes for “Coming of Age in 2020” now that the book is “out in the world?”
In my dreams, schools buy it and use it to do their own versions of a project where kids document and reflect their lives and their reactions to what’s happening in the world around them. This generation is extraordinary – the most diverse the U.S. has ever seen, and so involved already in social and political causes to help make the world a better place. We’ve just run the related “coming of age” contest for a third year on our site, because we love hearing from kids about their lives, and how they are experiencing history.
To help schools use it – for related projects, as part of “coming of age” inquiries in general, or in all kinds of other ways, I wrote this guide.
About the Author Author Interview with Katherine Schulten
Katherine Schulten, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Learning Network for more than a decade, is the editor of Student Voice and the author of Raising Student Voice. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.