The Smoke Signal, MSJ's Official Newspaper


Letter to the Editor: Response to March 31 Editorial “Mental Health: Caroline Tang’s Urgent Reminder”

Dear MSJHS Community,

I just read the March 31 online editorial in The Smoke Signal about the community’s recent loss of Caroline Tang, and want to respond with a few thoughts I hope will be helpful to MSJHS teachers, parents and students.

I graduated from Gunn High School in Palo Alto two generations ago. As the editorial mentions, Palo Alto has lost ten young people to suicide since 2009. For reasons very different from those now claiming lives in Fremont and Palo Alto, my Gunn graduating class lost at least six members to tragic early deaths. These earlier tragedies arose like today’s, from youthful choices, then mostly involving the misuse of substances. Some of these deaths were actual suicides. Others came later in life, natural consequences of risky lifestyles. The circumstances behind the choices my high school classmates made were in many ways a far cry from those behind recent choices made by young people on both sides of the bay.

But the two waves of fatal choices decades apart do have one thing in common. The communities, schools, friends and families of these two series of young people who ended their lives suddenly or slowly, then or now, did not prepare them to overcome the despair that drove these decisions. Try as we may have, we did not manage to help them develop identities, purposes, or passions for living that were strong enough to inspire other choices than the ones they made.

The Smoke Signal editorial pointed to efforts underway at MSJHS–community events, schedule changes, increased resources on campus–to address students’ mental health needs. It also looked to recent developments in Palo Alto: wellness centers, freshman transition and counseling programs, and family therapy seminars. I’m pleased to learn these measures are being taken.

And yet just as they did 40 years ago, our schools and communities on both sides of the bay continue to graduate what is probably a majority of young people who have too little idea who they are and for what reasons they wish to live. In an academic environment that pits students against one another for spots in real or imagined rankings, the problem is exacerbated. Increased mental health resources for those in evident trouble is an important development. It is not enough.

I came to teach English at American High School almost 20 years after graduating from Gunn High School. Over three decades, I have tried to make my English classes into places where my students learn about themselves and how they fit in the world in ways I wish my lost classmates and I had learned when we were in high school–while they gain the academic skills they need. My approach has been to invent ways to weave self-discovery into our curriculum for all my students.

I’d like to share two of the practices I’ve developed with the MSJHS community.                           

1) The Personal Creed Project is the single most popular practice I have created, judging from continuing feedback from former students for 25 years. The Creed Project today consists of a sequence of 17 weekly written reflections culminating in classroom presentations. In these presentations, each student stands before their classmates and shares the results of four months of Creed reflections:

  • these are the three to five most significant influences, the main forces or people that have shaped my life;
  • these are the values my reflections on these influences have led me to embrace;
  • these are the qualities I need to develop in myself to live loyally to my Creed values in the next 5-10 years;
  • this is the difference I’d like to make in others’ lives or the world.

The Creed reflections, the most extensive writing assignment of many students’ high school careers, appear to help students understand themselves more deeply than they have before, while addressing six of ten Common Core anchor standards in writing.

In the Creed presentations, classmates support one another through a classroom community rite of passage, each sharing with the class what they choose to reveal from their reflections. Increasingly today, students are comfortable sharing mental health issues in their presentations. Given a trusting classroom environment, these presentations, which address all six anchor standards in speaking and listening, can be a helpful component in healing and recovering from mental health challenges.

I have received notes from parents who say that the Creed experience played a role in helping their troubled children make choices to continue living. One student found the project helpful in guiding a friend with a plan to end his life to get the help he needed. Two years later, the student who helped save his friend has taken it upon himself to put up a suicide prevention page on the Personal Creed site we are building. Former students from as long as two decades ago regularly contact me to say they still benefit from the Personal Creed Project, and sometimes ask my help in updating their reflections in their 20s.

For more: Personal Creed Facebook Group

2) The second most popular activity among both current and former students over the past two decades is classroom meditation. One of my current sophomores, a member of the district Student Stress Committee, invited me to share the meditation practices I have developed with my students as part of our weekly routine. At a district meeting in January 2017, I demonstrated for the committee one of the meditations we have developed. So far, we have created classroom meditations for calming the mind, detaching the mind, purifying the mind, visiting the heart, seeing our lives more fully, and dealing with fear. We devote approximately ten minutes a week (@ 5% of classtime) to meditation. Each session includes a few minutes of breathing exercises. My classes refuse to allow me to skip or forget our weekly meditation time.

These two practices differ from other measures to support students with their mental health in that they are embedded in my course curriculum and classroom routines and therefore benefit all students, not only those dealing with specific challenges. When my students graduate, most have far more idea who they are, what they value, how they want to develop themselves, and how they want to contribute to others’ lives than I did when I graduated. I teach both practices at professional conferences and in my seminar series for educators.

I would be delighted to share either or both of these practices with MSJHS staff, students, and/or parent groups.

John Creger
American High School English Teacher

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