Personal best: It’s a phrase we often hear athletes talk about, but a lot of people set goals outside of the world of sports. New Year’s resolutions, climbing Mt. Baldy or giving something up for Lent are examples of the challenges that many people undertake to adopt healthier habits, prove a point or deepen their faith. In the January issue of L.A. Youth, Selina MacLaren described how she gave up candy for a year, and many teens wrote in response that they were amazed that she had the will power to do that for a whole year. But in her article, Selina wrote that trying to better yourself is the most natural thing in the world, like babies trying to walk or toddlers struggling to speak their first words.

Warm-up: Talk to your students about personal challenges they have undertaken—or wanted to. What are some of the challenges that they find appealing? Here at L.A. Youth, we have seen students run the Los Angeles Marathon, give up swearing or gossiping, fast for Ramadan and attempt to smile and say hi to everyone they meet. Diet and exercise challenges are common. Many students have set the goal of reading at least one book per semester that is not assigned in school. Others tried to give up their computers for a month or their TVs for a week. What about your students—What have they tried to do? Why did they choose that challenge? Did they succeed or fail?

Read Sue Li’s article “Speechless” in the March-April issue of L.A. Youth. She decided to try to avoid speaking for five days at school, unless it was to participate in class or tutor other students.

Discussion questions:
These questions could be assigned as a reading comprehension exercise. Tell the students they have to give at least two concrete examples to answer each question.

Why did Sue decide to give up talking?
–Her teacher told her she was loud.
–Her mom told her to watch the volume of her voice.
–Her friend told her not to act so “loud and crazy.”
–She figured it would be easy to give up conversations filled with empty words like “you know” and “omigod.”

How did she prepare for the big week?
–She told people about it.
–She typed a note to give her teachers
–She put some Post-Its and a pen in her pocket.

How did people react?
–Her mother was surprised that she was following through.
–Her friends teased her and made fun of her and tried to get her to talk.
–When she did say something in a class, another student called her a cheater.
–Friends helped explain her silences to teachers and other adults.

How did Sue deal with the silence?
–She missed casual conversations with friends.
–She carried a notebook to jot down thoughts
–After school she typed some of her thoughts as a release.

What happened afterwards?
–Friends were excited she could talk again.
–She’s not as quick to speak. While looking for a pair of scissors, she waited a bit before asking her mom. Then she found the scissors.
–She’s no longer embarrased about being talkative—she accepts that she likes to talk.
–She’s glad her friends notice when she doesn’t say anything.
–She learned to appreciate herself for good and bad traits.

After reading this article, write an essay on what role talking has in teens’ lives. Writers should mention specific insights that Sue had about talking and what it shows about the ways teens communicate. Here are some examples:

–communicating facts (like telling her mom when to pick her up after school or getting a price check at Target)
–feeling friendship (she missed the interactions with friends)
–personal release (she felt so bottled up, she jotted notes in a notebook and wrote after school to regain her sanity)
–learning (she needed to talk in class and to talk to the students she was tutoring)
–non-verbal communication (gestures and body language could be just as good as talking at times)

Extension activity: Ask your students to design a one-day challenge, try to do it, and then write about it. It could be giving up sweets, going for a three-mile run or being nicer to a sibling. When they write about it, they should explain why they chose that challenge, what happened when they tried to do it and what they learned from the experience. Do they feel they are better people as a result?