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!