Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Literature to Help Teens Develop Healthy Relationships

Teachers have long used literature to help students examine their own lives, and that may be more valuable than ever right now.

April 26, 2021
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In the early months of the pandemic, I was privileged to only lose my students, pickup basketball, and my peace of mind, though that was always tenuous. On that personal level, I mostly mourned my daughter’s suddenly cauterized preschool friendships.

Given the far greater hardships facing others, I desensitized myself to the fact I also lost my book. It was published right when school buildings closed and everyone was told to mask up and stay home.

That book, Love Hurts, Lit Helps, was—is—about how a high school English class can improve the way teenagers treat one another. Literature offers models and cautionary tales alike. Through writing, listening, and speaking activities, teachers can help teens become savvy about consent as well as rhetoric, thoughtful about both love and metaphors—empathetic, authentic, and willingly vulnerable in exploring courtship, romance, and friendship.

How Literature Can Counter Social Media’s Distortions

For the book, I interviewed dozens of graduates, confirming what I’d long surmised from observation: Boys often suppress emotions, seek dominance, and valorize sexual conquest; girls often wrestle with subjective beauty standards and desire respectability while questioning its importance. Elements of pop culture have always demeaned women and reduced men to shameless pursuers. Teenagers’ social media worlds promise connection yet frequently inspire anxiety and isolation. I follow several local student-run Instagram accounts dedicated to sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault, and the experiences they recount are harrowing.

All this hangs over class, wherever a class is held, so it can be part of class.

Of course, I didn’t envision my book stumbling into the market during a global pandemic, when students were learning from bedrooms and teachers needed remote instruction strategies. Much of the book addresses what happens at school. Inescapable before, Instagram and TikTok have swallowed up teen life during the pandemic. The cruelty, harassment, confusion, isolation, and insecurity that teens experience has been even less visible this year to anyone trying to help them.

A year after the book’s publication, I’m committed to its value. Returning to my classroom, some students have forgotten how to carry on a face-to-face conversation. They’re rusty. And now they’re relearning how to treat friends, belong to a community that’s been ephemeral, and, yes, court each other. They are probably more aware of their bodies now, and more insecure, having spent a year considering what their cameras capture in daily Zooms.

Helping Teens Anticipate and Cope With Change

With this challenge in mind, I teach seniors two stories from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad that I discuss in my book: “Ask Me if I Care” and “You (Plural).” Every time I teach them, several kids ask to borrow the book so they can finish it.

In the first story, set in 1979 San Francisco, Jocelyn, Rhea, and their high school clique make dangerous choices about sex and love. Punk music and disaffection bring the friends together, but Rhea’s narration in “Ask Me if I Care” mulls how they’re excluded—even from the scene to which they’d like to belong. They have unrequited crushes, worry about their looks, and carry traumas. Yet they don’t talk to one another about why they’re hurting; they just smother symptoms. The title is both request and rebuff: The characters seek care and comfort even as they announce an impervious stance.

“Don’t ever change,” says scumbag music producer Lou to Rhea when she’s still in high school.

When middle-aged ex-besties Jocelyn and Rhea reconvene for Lou’s impending death two decades later in “You (Plural),” everyone knows change is inevitable, for better and worse.

Reading and Writing for Self-Care, Empathy, and Advocacy

My favorite assignment for “Ask Me if I Care” asks students to enter the text and communicate with a clarity and force that eludes the characters—a skill both academically and personally valuable. From the perspective of a concerned friend, they write a letter offering advice to a teenage character. This is an argument clothed as fiction, sometimes bolstered with anecdotes from students’ lives. Protected by that veneer of fiction, they write what they’d tell a real-life friend—or should tell themselves. They help Rhea love her freckles. They tell Jocelyn about the danger she’s in with predatory Lou. They practice empathy and advocacy, preparing for challenges they may not yet know.

After “You (Plural),” students write a “time capsule.” They consider their values and the moment they’re in: on the precipice of adulthood during a global catastrophe. They write 150 words about what they want to never lose about themselves. Lou doesn’t understand that change can be authentic; he just wants to stop time. From one story to the other, Rhea never loses her compassion and protective impulse. She changes authentically when she doesn't follow Jocelyn’s lead, and later accepts her age. Self-documentation allows students to think about how their own choices—often in love and friendship—either reflect or contradict their values. They submit their writing anonymously to be published in a digital magazine they can continue to access. Though I call it a time capsule, students don’t dig it up in 10 years; they can check in with their old selves any time.

The world is filled with people who may snatch our time, and Covid-19 has stolen time from everyone. Bad relationships and friendships are often culprits too, and teens can read these stories and consider how to dodge them. But time is a savior as well as the “goon” of Egan’s title. Students may have felt hopeless and lonely during quarantine, but life may soon feel normal again, even if students have changed, in part because of the experience.

Helping students emerge as better social citizens should feel as pressing as any academic standard, for the benefit of students, their loved ones, their communities, and the troubled world they’ll inherit. The almost-adults who act bravely, kindly, and with self-awareness in love and friendship more likely do so elsewhere. It’s hardly referenced in school mission statements, but American institutions need them badly.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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