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Last fall, when The New York Times Learning Network invited teenagers across the United States to tell us what living in a pandemic was like, we didn’t expect so many answers — nor did we expect those answers to take quite so many different forms.
Over 5,500 submissions flooded in: essays, photos, paintings, diary entries, poems, comics, rap lyrics, scrapbooks, letters, texts, podcasts, musical compositions, recipes and more.
It took months to choose from among them and create a collection that would tell a broad story, but still represent the key themes we kept seeing. That collection, Coming of Age, was published this week as a collaboration between The Learning Network and the Special Sections team at The Times.
I’m an editor with The Learning Network, a team that was formed in 1998 to help people teach and learn with Times journalism. We do that in many ways, but the most important thing we do is provide a place for teenagers to have their say. We moderate a lively comments section in which young people all over the world discuss current events, and we run nine contests a year that invite students to use The Times as a model to do things like write their own editorials and arts reviews, and create their own podcasts.
But last spring, as the coronavirus closed schools and canceled extracurricular events, we began hearing from teachers and students about the impact that upheaval and isolation was having on a generation of teenagers. We knew we needed to come up with something different.
At the time, historians and museums were encouraging us all to record our pandemic experiences and keep artifacts for posterity. Many teachers we work with were already asking students to write pandemic diaries. We wondered, what artifacts might teenagers be creating without realizing they were valuable? What if we could invite them to send us some of those items, and tell us why each was important to them? By the end of May, we had the basic idea for what we called our Coming of Age in 2020 Contest.
Then came last summer’s protests. In our comments section, student after student talked about “waking up” to injustice, taking to the streets and paying attention to politics for the first time. Soon, what we thought of as a pandemic project had expanded, and we decided on something more open-ended that allowed students to respond to any big event they wanted to. We also decided that, rather than limiting them to one mode of expression — only photos, say — we would let them send us anything they could upload digitally, as long as it was appropriate for a family newspaper. (One forgets to remind teenagers of that at one’s peril, we’ve discovered.)
We did add one crucial requirement: an artist’s statement in which students had to tell us when, how and why they created their piece, and specifically how it linked to our theme of coming of age during a tumultuous time.
The contest closed in mid-November, just after the election. First we invited adults, including journalists from the Times newsroom, to read through the entries. Next, we sent the work to teenage judges who had won previous Learning Network contests, who then surfaced pieces that we adults might have overlooked. By the end of the process, we had 245 finalists, any of which would have merited entry in the final collection. That was when we turned to our partners in Special Sections to make it all coherent.
Our Learning Network team usually works in a way that is fairly isolated from the rest of the newsroom, as we produce curriculum, not journalism. For this project, though, we had the privilege of watching professional news editors and designers turn our work into something Times readers of any age might enjoy.
Our goal together was to tell the richest, most representative story possible. We wanted to honor the emotions that came up over and over — the loneliness, boredom and depression; the changing relationships with parents, siblings and friends; the numbing days of Zoom-school; and the near-universal desire to find meaning in all of this. But we also wanted to feature kids from different regions of the country and diverse backgrounds. In the end, the Special Sections team chose 35 pieces to tell the story in a way that “found the right balance, and gave equal weight to all the voices,” said Corinne Myller, the art director for Special Sections.
The best part of all of this is seeing the finished project out in the world. Since the digital version was published Monday, we’ve received excited, all-caps messages from teenage artists. We can’t wait to see where teachers take it next.