Elevating Student Voice Through Podcasting and Storytelling | Facing History & Ourselves
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Elevating Student Voice Through Podcasting and Storytelling

In this interview with educator Molly Josephs, we explore how storytelling helps students find their unique voices & create connections across differences.

Adolescence is a pivotal moment in the process of becoming, and Facing History’s approach is based on an understanding of the ways in which students are deeply invested in exploring their identities. Resources in our Coming of Age in a Complex World ELA Collection, specifically the Identity and Storytelling text set, support students to consider the role storytelling plays in their identity development and how they make sense of the world. 

The stories we tell ourselves about what we see, hear, and experience help us to construct our own unique identities. They can also help us feel less alone in the world. To learn more about the impact of storytelling on teens, Facing History staff sat down with Molly Josephs, a high school teacher and founder of This Teenage Life podcast (Spotify, Apple). Molly shares the story of how an afterschool program became a global podcast and dialogue group project, as well as the impact it's had on her students, young listeners, and on her approach to teaching. 

Facing History will be co-presenting on a panel on November 19 with Molly and one of her teen podcasters, Jayden Dial, at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual  Convention

Jenny Nauss: What inspired you to co-create the This Teenage Life podcast with your students? 

Molly Josephs: Adolescence can be a particularly formative time for young people to engage in creative and intellectual work that fosters authentic connections with themselves, each other, and the big ideas that define the human condition. In middle and high school, young people begin to unfold into the adults they want to become by making meaning of their experiences and constructing their identities around that meaning.

If meaning-making is an internal process, storytelling is its external counterpart. The stories we tell about ourselves reveal how we integrate our experiences into our self-perceptions. The re-authoring of our own stories can help shape our relationships to our experiences. Sharing stories that feel unique to us—and giving others the opportunity to hear them—can reveal the commonness of the human experience and help us feel a little less alone in the world. 

This is why, over four years ago while teaching at High Tech High in San Diego, I worked with students to start This Teenage Life, a youth dialogue and podcasting program. It began as an afterschool program, with several teens sitting around a microphone discussing topics like self doubt and the moment when we realized our parents were people too. We recorded these conversations on cell phones and on a $25 microphone and edited the audio on a laptop. One student would make music, another would make web-art, and ultimately we released a podcast that is now heard by hundreds of thousands of young people across the globe. During the pandemic, we met on Zoom, and our listeners began emailing us with requests to join. Now we have multiple dialogue groups with young people from around the country and the world.

Sharing stories that feel unique to us—and giving others the opportunity to hear them—can reveal the commonness of the human experience and help us feel a little less alone in the world.
— Molly Josephs — Educator & Founder of the This Teenage Life podcast

JN: What lessons has This Teenage Life taught you that you’ve applied to your own classroom practice? 

MJ: When I first started teaching, I focused disproportionately on content coverage. However, over time, I’ve learned that what young people really remember are moments when they see themselves and the world around them in new ways. These “aha moments” often occur when they’re doing authentic intellectual and creative work that aligns with who they want to be. They remember how these experiences made them feel about themselves and use them as launching pads to keep growing. This is why, after over a decade of teaching, I’ve switched to thinking of young people as producers of knowledge rather than consumers of information. Every classroom learning experience I design helps them make creations that authentically reflect their tastes, interests, and identities, and support them to do real work that helps them become the people they want to be. This is also what we do with This Teenage Life

JN: How have the teens you work with been impacted by the experience of producing a podcast? 

MJ: The power of this kind of work is profound and is best understood when described by the teens themselves. For instance, take Lydia, a thirteen-year-old NYC resident who joined This Teenage Life two years ago. Lydia co-produced and hosted an episode about processing parental divorce. She interviewed other teens and created a narration about her journey through her own parent’s divorce. Lydia shared how this process helped to clarify and bring some of her feelings into perspective: “I really loved being able to make an episode about divorce.... I got to talk to many different kids who were going through the same thing as me, and get stories and share advice. It made me feel like I had people watching out for me... It was an incredible experience. It made me feel loved.”

Cami, a teen based in San Diego, made an episode featuring an interview with her mom, a cancer survivor, about the relationship between hair and identity. In reflecting on the process of making this episode, she recalls: “Being Black women, hair is more than just the hair on the top of your head. It’s your culture, your history, part of your identity, how you present yourself to other people. . . .We were able to talk to each other about things we hadn’t talked about before.” 

Stella, a sixteen-year-old resident of Chicago, created an episode about grappling with the grief associated with her father’s mental decline before, ultimately, his death. Creating an episode about this heavy topic helped her reflect on the loss. She wrote: “[the experience] provided me an opportunity to make meaning out of loss and helped me deconstruct how I experience grief...I felt like I was able to connect with people who are experiencing loss of some kind and present a lens to see grief through. I didn’t have access to that when I lost my dad.”

JN: How about your listeners? What have you heard from them? 

MJ: Sharing stories rooted in experience isn’t just useful for the tellers; it’s also useful for the listeners. When I’ve supported young people to create work for real audiences rather than for me, their teacher, they become more motivated by the impact of their work. With This Teenage Life, we see this impact each week in the emails we receive from youth across the globe. For example, last summer we received this note from a young woman based in England: 

Hi I’m Gamu, I’m fifteen and recently started binging your podcast and the first episode I chose on loneliness really connected with me, especially in the context of this pandemic. My dad recently passed away from Covid and I’ve been struggling with feeling isolated and sad but hearing other people and their experiences really helped me feel seen and (for want of better vocab) not alone. Just wanted to say thanks and it’s an entertaining podcast, Gamu.

Now, six months later, Gamu is a primary contributor to our show and a central member to one of our newer dialogue groups. Reflecting on her experience telling stories about topics she cares about, she wrote: 

Taking the time to communicate thoughts and feelings helped me to cope with intense pain like grief and trauma. By sharing and listening to people on random topics I could take a break from the repetitive thought stream of my own life and escape into a wider realm of ideas from different teenagers with vastly differing lives. I think this escape has been key in helping me see beyond my own struggles and recognise how life is so much bigger than them, empowering me to not only grow intellectually but also draw emotional strength and comfort from the fact that I was and am, not alone.

JN: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave readers with today?

MJ: As many educators are well aware, teaching is so much more than information transmission and content delivery. It is about genuinely seeing young people and helping them develop their capacities to empathize, listen and communicate, and do creative and intellectual work that aligns with the change they want to see in the world. Youth-driven dialogue and storytelling for a real audience, is a vehicle I’ve found to help teens connect with themselves, each other, and the world. At a time of great division, uncertainty, loneliness, and mental health struggles, it has been a healing outlet for the teens and for me, to realize we’re all in this together.

If you are interested in starting a This Teenage Life club with your students or using resources created for educators, please feel free to reach out to Molly Josephs and the teens at team [at] thisteenagelife.org!

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