ArtsEd: Age of anxiety

Create More, Fear Less provides imaginative art projects that empower middle-schoolers to take on anxiety during school and in our new era of distance learning

By ALEX BEHR

Create More, Fear Less is an arts-based program that helps schools respond to their students’ anxiety levels, which had reached alarming levels in this country, even before the Covid-19 pandemic closed kids in. 

None of us is immune from either the anxiety or the coronavirus: Peel back the neutral façade of a reporter and who’s there? An anxious single mother trying to regulate herself and her high school son, home 24/7, while social distancing. A few years ago, I performed in Mortified comedy shows reading diary entries from my middle school years, the prime time for Create More, Fear Less art projects. To huge crowds, I said, “What’s wrong with me? Will I live my life in the shadows covered by doubt? … Why do people worry about who their gym partner is? Is that the purpose of school? Join the pep club? When children are starving in India?” I read these entries for laughs, though when I wrote them back in middle school, I was completely earnest. 

Since 2014 I have taught creative writing residencies through Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program, where I incorporate space on the packets I distribute for students to sketch before writing. Part of the reason for my months’-long reporting into Create More, Fear Less was to subtly incorporate de-stressing techniques into my teaching process, especially since my current residency is moving online. 

“capture the feeling” a drawing by Abby, age 10,
a student at Grout Elementary School/Image courtesy of Kathleen Lane

Now that Covid-19 has affected the world, students are at home. Their friendships have shrunk to screens, familiar interactions, yet lacking the touch they crave. This article is my hope to you that creative expression, inherent in all of us, can help us be calmer—and help others. Animal Crossing can get us only so far. 

*****

On a chilly late-winter morning—back when coronavirus was a background rumble to most Oregonians—six young students each carry a small decorated worry stone bag outside. These fifth graders are graduating from Create More, Fear Less, a 10-week workshop series at Portland’s Grout Elementary that inspires kids to use their creativity to manage their fears and worries. Inside the bag are small stones with words or drawings expressing students’ concerns over recent weeks: Messing up! Communication. Math. 

In the first workshop meeting, 10 weeks earlier, facilitator and cartoonist Jonathan Hill introduced the painted stones project: Give Worry a Time Out. It’s always the first Create More, Fear Less project and carries through as a warmup through the remaining sessions. 

Hill explains to me that through this project, kids learn that “we can take our worries or thoughts and physically manifest them in the rock. Now that it’s a physical thing, we can decide what to do with it. Do we want to hold on to it to remember it, or do we want to toss it away?” The structure gives students practice in communicating their worries. 

Hill participates by writing on worry stones, too. “It’s valuable for us to look at the worries we’ve collected over the 10 sessions and realize that things that were really weighing on us might not be something we are even thinking about any more,” he tells me. “There is something so important at the final session when we hold our worry stone bags. They feel so heavy and all the rocks clink together, and then we empty them out.”

Worry stones/Image courtesy of Kathleen Lane

Most kids in the final session throw the rocks into an empty field, though a few bury them or balance them on a tree stump. 

Returning to the counselor’s office that winter day, the students iron transfers of colorful, personal messages from the Capture the Feeling project onto t-shirts. One message I like: “Clouds Aren’t Always Bad.” The room is full of calming objects, including a bird’s nest and a Yoda doll strung with a pom-pom garland. Hand drums lie in the corners by bean bag chairs. Posters line the walls with ways to check if one’s feelings are in a range of zones, from blue (peaceful) to green, yellow, or red (angry). It’s a chill space to hang out. 

The structure of the sessions can vary. Hill chose from among about two dozen art and writing projects on the Create More, Fear Less website—Meet Your Worry Beast, Take Your Brain on Vacation, Perfectionists Unite!, Create a New Worry, and Be Your Own Best Friend, among them. The projects are broken into steps with minimal supplies required.

*****

I ask a boy named Danny why he took the workshop. He tells me he is scared a lot. 

“What is scary?” I ask. 

“Field trips, because I’m not sure when something is going to happen.” 

While ironing, Danny tells me that the workshops were “helpful for me to remember how to manage my anxiety.” His personally designed t-shirt reads “Burn Your Fears”—with bright red, yellow, and orange flames. 

T-shirt by Danny/Image courtesy of Kathleen Lane

*****

I ask Hill whether students seemed to make a connection between writing worries on stones and lessening stress, or if it was more of a subconscious evolution.

“I think it’s more of a subconscious evolution,” he says. “I don’t know that there was a direct connection, but during the final session and the act of reviewing our worry stones and getting rid of them it was very, very noticeable. You could see some students responding and opening up to certain projects, too.” The group setting benefits students. “They would often get excited about what each other were making,” Hill says. “It was fun to see.”

When the final workshop at Grout ends, Hill leaves the students with a personal gift of lucky red envelopes to honor the lunar new year, a tradition from his Vietnamese roots. School counselor Dave Frankunas—who initially asked these students to join—hosts a brief closing ceremony. Everyone shuts their eyes to reflect on and be thankful for what they did today. Then Frankunas rings a Tibetan bowl. Students are invited to be mentors for the next workshop group. Most are eager to try. 

*****

The same winter day, I visit Beverly Cleary, a K-8 school in Portland, where three eighth-grade student facilitators meet with school counselor Liz Kobs to recap the Create More, Fear Less workshops they’re leading. During a pizza lunch, the young workshop leaders—Francesca, Hazel, and Bella—talk about their goals and strategies, such as how to modify projects if there’s a time crunch. They joined as participants when they entered middle school and now they work with younger students. 

“I was feeling kind of anxious and bad, and Ms. Kobs offered a group that originally was called Fearless Writers,” one student workshop leader says. “I came here and realized a ton of my friends were here. And now I have tools to use later on in life.” 

Another student workshop leader tells me her favorite tool to combat anxiety: “In one activity,” she says, “we imagined an invisible tattoo on our bodies—one word that describes how we feel. Everyone has something that others don’t know, and you have to dig deep to see it.”

These young people’s struggles and fears mirror many of our memories from middle school or high school: the increased number of classes and the changes in friendships transitioning from elementary or middle school. Many students also feel anxiety from online interactions and awareness of news events such as school shootings and global warming—and now, the coronavirus. 

*****

Author Kathleen Lane launched Create More, Fear Less, then called Fearless Writers, in 2016. With help from a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant, she designed hands-on projects to help young people at three schools use their anxiety “as a source of imagination, empathy, wisdom, and healing,” she says. 

Through the program’s direct facilitation and its free online DIY workshop curriculum, Create More, Fear Less has found its way into schools throughout Portland and well beyond. In Dublin, Ohio, for instance, school counselor Jennifer Gilbert ran two workshops for fourth and fifth graders. She writes in an email: “I love that my kids now refer to their anxiety as something within them that can be powerful and help them become fearless! Kathleen is such an advocate for kids, their ownership of their creativity, and how they can use art and writing as a way to express themselves in a safe way.” 

Lane’s desire to start the program stemmed from various parts of her life coalescing. About 20 years ago, she and Marlene Paul founded ART 180 in Richmond, Va. The arts-based program, still going strong under Paul’s leadership (Lane left for Portland in 2001), works to bring about personal and community change by inviting youth living in challenging circumstances to share their stories through art, poetry, music, murals, publications, and performances. 

After she arrived in Portland, Lane taught creative writing residencies through the Writers in the Schools program. And she has personal experience with anxiety (some of which is reflected in the main character of her endearing debut middle-grade book, The Best Worst Thing).

Jonathan Hill leads an anxiety workshop at Grout Elementary/Image courtesy of Kathleen Lane

To support Create More, Fear Less and future offerings, Lane, development director Sara Guest, and a team of advisors created the nonprofit OK You. Its motto, Lane states, is to “change the language” around anxiety from “what’s wrong with me” to “what’s right with me.” Studies have shown that anxious people or those suffering from depression tend to be highly creative people, “which makes sense,” Lane says, “because at its core, anxiety is really storytelling.” The goal is to encourage workshop participants to use the creative powers of their minds to change the story and to gain agency over their fears and worry. 

Before and after the 10-week workshops, participants self-evaluate their levels of worrying. Most students report that their worrying is less intense and frequent after completing the workshop, but what’s most promising, Lane tells me, is that all have said they feel more confident about handling their worries when they do occur.

I ask Lane why she offers the lesson plans on the website at no cost. “There’s a huge need,” she explains. “If our mission is to serve kids, then everything should be in service to that goal. We want to make it as simple as possible for counselors and students to benefit from the resource.” The basic program is self-sustaining because it’s free, replicable, and because students can lead their own workshops. If the counselor has no time to shop, supply kits are available for purchase. 

In the 2019-20 school year, before the pandemic, facilitators—including Hill and dancer and educator Mia O’Connor-Smith—were leading workshops at Portland’s Woodlawn, Grout, and Sabin schools. For those wanting more support, OK You offers the Partner School Program, a fee-based option that pairs a Create More, Fear Less facilitator with the school counselor in providing small-group workshops. And soon the organization will offer a quarterly League of Fear Less Counselors training series for counselors interested in learning and sharing best practices. 

“We see this program as support to the work that counselors are already doing with students around social-emotional learning,” Lane says. “The heart of our program is small-group workshops, but we’re also working to reach into homes so that more kids can get grounding language and tools to use, and benefit from the message that their feelings are normal, that they’re okay.”

In an email to me, development director Guest states: “People in Oregon and beyond are genuinely worried—not just about the increases in the rates of anxiety among young people, but in the lack of available resources to provide support to educators, counselors, parents, and the community at large. OK You answers these worries and fears with ideas, collaborative programming, and free, community-oriented tools to bring fresh ideas into the mix. It reminds us that being anxious is a normal part of the human experience. … And by working together in this way, we turn everyone’s ‘weakness’ into strength.” 

*****

Even before the school closings, the Washington Post reported that “anxiety, not depression, is the leading mental health issue among American youths. … Based on data collected from the National Survey of Children’s Health for ages six to 17, researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012. (The rate of depression over that same time period ticked up 0.2 percent.)” 

A 2019 Pew Research Center report notes that 70 percent of teens surveyed see anxiety and depression as “major problems among their peers,” and mental health worries are prevalent across many gender, racial, and socioeconomic groups. 

Danny is a student at Grout Elementary/Image courtesy Kathleen Lane

The Create More, Fear Less activities tie into our hard-wired ability to create metaphors of our experiences. According to mental health researchers, art projects and journal writing give kids safe openings to explore and express difficult emotions, work through their feelings and challenges, practice relaxation techniques, gain new perspectives, and feel normal by connecting with others going through the same things. 

For empirical insights, we can turn to Lynda Barry, a graphic novelist and MacArthur “genius award” recipient. She drew to help her cope with stress as a child, and much of her practice as a teacher and author now is to encourage people to draw and keep illustrated journals. She states, “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality—we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.” 

*****

The week before spring break, Governor Kate Brown closed all of Oregon’s schools for health safety reasons; now they won’t open until the fall (if then). CDC’s website acknowledges the pressures parents and guardians nationwide feel now that many schools have moved to distance learning—with teachers, administrators, and counselors scrambling to catch up. Much of the economy is collapsing, and COVID-19’s effects are staggering. 

Create More, Fear Less has responded to the closing of schools by posting activities that can empower stressed-out kids at home. I ask Kathleen Lane via email about the response to the pandemic: “What was the process of brainstorming once you knew PPS [Portland Public Schools] was closing, at first temporarily and now permanently for the school year?”

“It felt like a natural extension of our mission, from anxiety as fuel for creativity, to anxiety-provoking moments as fuel for creative ways to support kids in times of crisis,” Lane says. “And, of course, we’re seeing this play out all over the world right now, as we all find new ways of sharing inspiration and wellness practices with each other. It also felt like an opportunity to think more deeply about how to reach kids who don’t have the resources to run to the store for art supplies. We’ve always offered alternate materials in our project instructions, but our new projects involve very basic supplies that can be found around the house—and for kids who don’t have the basics, we have included Make Your Own Art Supplies! instructions for making glue, paints, and clay. Having fewer supplies, of course, only increases the creative possibilities. If you think about the world’s greatest art and inventions, they are often born in the context of constraint, whether economic, physical, or emotional.” 

The organization has reached out to partner counselors and the PPS Student Success & Health Department staff, who have all been very supportive. Lane states, “We’ve also been collaborating on curriculum with Carolyn Drake and Kristen Brayson from the PPS Visual & Performing Arts Department and Hana Layson, who runs the Youth & Educator Programs for the Portland Art Museum.”

*****

I was curious about how counselors are trying to help students who are now at home. “I think we’re all working to answer the same question: How can we support kids who are feeling extra anxious right now, and who are without the daily support of their friends, teachers, and counselors—and without the emotional grounding of a predictable routine?” Lane says. “I know that counselors, teachers, and administrators are working tirelessly on ways to reach kids and families during this time.” 

Lane has been in touch with some students who’ve been in the program, and they have anxiety not only about the virus but also about new aspects of online schooling—such as video calls. She adds, “And then there’s the stress they’re picking up from the adults around them, which can feel like another crack in their foundation. As psychologist/educator Vanessa Lapointe said, ‘Kids speak energy long before they speak words, which means that they are picking up on the adults’ energy around all of this. It is upon us, as adults, to clean up our energy, our thoughts, and our actions in order to communicate the belief that we have got this.’”

Lane has heard from some counselors who plan on doing the projects in Google Hangouts with students, and one group of student leaders who formed a Fear Less Hangout. 

Bella is a student at Beverly Cleary School
/Image courtesy of Kathleen Hill

I ask Lane to talk about worries a person can control compared to worries about an “unseen enemy,” since so much news can be confusing and alarmist—and sometimes the alarming information is accurate.

“The advice I’ve read from many mental health experts is to focus on those things we can control right now, even if they’re small,” she replies. “What we do instead, of course, is put ourselves in a constant state of stress by overconsuming news and then inviting coronavirus into the center of every conversation—and into our homes and our children’s ears and sense of security.”

The efforts of Create More, Fear Less are, in Lane’s words, “about finding new possibilities in the things we might have overlooked before. Seeing the recycling bin as a treasure trove of art materials, paying a little closer attention to the details and the small miracles around us. Making more of less, which was the inspiration for our #CreateMoreToday campaign—asking our creative community, including students, to create short videos sharing one simple idea or inspiration for finding the creative possibility in each day—with the goal of providing kids, and parents who suddenly find themselves homeschooling, with a steady supply of creative projects.” 

For example, Jennifer Stady, owner of Laundry Design and a graphic design professor at Portland State University, offers ways to make sketch books from materials at home in her Instagram video.

*****

In April, I reached out to a seventh grader, currently sequestered in her home, about doing one of the new projects Create More, Fear Less has devised to respond to the pandemic. Hadley, who goes to the Cottonwood School of Civics and Sciences, chose the poetry activity. She cut out words from her mother’s magazines, put the words in a jar, and made word collages from the ones she picked. The mother-daughter activity helped to bond them—a low-key way to share creative expression. “I highly recommend the activity. It’s relaxing and meditative and helps get the stress off your back,” Hadley confirms.

Her mother, publisher Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press, made poems, too. “It’s freeing to use our hands and brains to create art,” she says, “when there’s not a lot we can do these days.”  

With the organization’s planned Anxiety Variety Show fundraiser on hold until late fall at earliest, OK You and its sponsors, Wieden+Kennedy, Dr. Bronner’s, and Fully, have turned their focus toward the program’s new COVID-19 responsive offerings and #CreateMoreToday campaign. Beginning in May, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month, the organization will launch its Anxiety Society monthly membership campaign. Every participant will receive a membership pin, designed by Portland artist Gigi Little.

Alex Behr is an editor and creative writing instructor. She is the author of Planet Grim: Stories.

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