What Does It Mean to Come of Age? | Introductory Lesson | Facing History & Ourselves
Group of students writing on large piece of chart paper.

What Does It Mean to Come of Age? | Introductory Lesson

Students build a schema for the resources they’ll encounter in the Coming of Age collection by exploring what it means to “come of age” in the world today.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts




One 50-min class period
  • Culture & Identity


About This Lesson

Adolescence is a dynamic time of growth, change, and possibility, a time when young people explore their identities, seek new experiences and relationships, and form values that will shape their futures. Before teaching a text set from the Coming of Age in a Complex World collection, it can be beneficial to give students an opportunity to explore the concept of “coming of age” with their peers. This exploration, which includes guided personal reflection and a collaborative activity to define coming of age, can lead to rich discussions about what it means to experience adolescence, what expectations adults hold for young people on the cusp of adulthood, and what unique challenges and opportunities the current generations of students face now and will face in the future.

What does it mean to “come of age” in the world today?

  • What experiences mark the transition from childhood to adulthood?
  • What are some of the positive aspects of coming of age during this moment in history? What are some of the challenges?

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Before embarking on a coming-of-age unit, we recommend that you watch the webinar Coming of Age: Student Perspectives on Reading, Writing, and Finding Their Voice, featuring New York Times Learning Network’s Katherine Schulten. Over the course of the hour, you will learn practical and engaging strategies that you can apply to your own classroom. You will also hear from two student winners of an annual multimedia contest run by the New York Times Learning Network, who share what it is like to grow up in the world today. They may inspire you to enter your students in the contest in the future! Check out the Learning Network’s contests page to learn more.

We have designed this lesson to prepare students to engage with the resources and activities in Facing History’s Coming of Age in a Complex World collection. The purpose of this lesson is to develop students’ conceptual understanding of the transition from childhood to adulthood. We encourage you to teach this lesson before students engage with the text sets and unit guides in the collection.

In the second activity, Define Coming of Age in a Group Activity, students collaborate to create concept maps and working definitions of “coming of age.” If you have space in your classroom, consider keeping students’ posters up on display and referring to them over the course of the unit by asking: “What new, different, or deeper understanding do you have about coming of age after reading/watching/discussing/learning about ___? What makes you say that?” This routine will allow students to add new ideas to their maps and reflect over time in their journals on their deepening thinking about coming of age.

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Activity 1

Let students know that in this lesson, they will be thinking about what it means to come of age in the world today. Briefly explain that the phrase “coming of age” is used to describe the transition from childhood to adulthood. To get them started and build a schema for the next activity, have students reflect on the following questions in their journals:

  • What are some examples of experiences that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood? 
  • What is your favorite story about a young person coming of age? (It could be a film, TV show, book, song, fairytale, play, etc.) Why does it resonate with you?

Divide the class into small groups and explain that you will be guiding them through the steps of the Make Meaning thinking routine to help them develop a working definition of “coming of age.” Each group needs a piece of chart paper. 

  • Round 1: Instruct group members to share one word that they associate with “coming of age” 1 and write it on their group’s paper. Within each group, students should go one at a time. Each student needs to contribute a unique word so as to add to their group’s collective meaning of the term. 
  • Round 2: Instruct each student to add to someone else’s word with a new word or phrase. They should write the new word or phrase on the paper, connect the ideas with a line, and verbally explain their connection. 
  • Round 3: Prompt groups to discuss and annotate any connections they notice between the ideas. They can use lines, arrows, words, phrases, and color to indicate the connections on their chart paper. 
  • Round 4: Have each student pose a question about “coming of age” and add it to their paper. If possible, have them use a different-color pen or large sticky notes for the questions to help separate them from the web of ideas.
  • Round 5: Ask the small groups to develop a working definition of “coming of age.” Let them know that they should collaborate on this task and should not consult a dictionary. They can write their definition on their chart paper or use a new color or large sticky note to distinguish the definitions from the web of ideas and questions.

Facilitate a class gallery walk so students can examine each other’s posters. Debrief by asking students to name the similarities and unique ideas that they notice.

  • 1Adapted from Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church, The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners (Jossey-Bass, 2020), 76–85.

Discuss the following questions as a class. Encourage students to support their ideas with examples from the activities in this lesson or their own lived experiences. 

  • In what ways is coming of age a common experience across generations, and in what ways is the experience specific to one’s particular generation?
  • What are some of the positive aspects of coming of age during this moment in history? What are some of the challenges? 
  • What is something that you would like the adults in your life—caregivers, teachers, coaches, mentors, employers, community members—to know about what it’s like to come of age during this time?

To synthesize their learning and convey new understanding, have students choose one of the following prompts, which they can submit as a formative assessment. 

  1. Visual Representation of Coming of Age: In their journals or on a piece of paper, have students create a visual representation of the concept of “coming of age.” Is it a circle? A spiral? A straight line? A square? Something else? Then, in a short piece of writing, have them provide a rationale for their visual representation. Students should include relevant evidence to support their thinking, which they might draw from their journals, their group’s “Make Meaning” poster, and their own lived experiences.
  2. A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Instruct students to choose one personal photograph from the past year that helps convey what it’s like for them to come of age right now. They can either describe the photograph or upload it to a Google Doc and then, in writing, describe how it helps to show what it is like to be them, coming of age at this moment in history. In Facing History’s on-demand webinar Coming of Age: Student Perspectives on Reading, Writing, and Finding Their Voice, New York Times Learning Network’s Katherine Schulten leads viewers through a similar photo exercise. Start at 26:10 to review the activity.

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