A Slice of (This Teenage) Life

Too. Many. Choices. I knew that would be our dilemma, but I didn’t know the frustration that would arise. When Dana, my friend and colleague, and I were scheduling our day, the problem of earmarked pages in similar time slots, told the tale of our NCTE Convention 2022 experience. As usual, we had some serendipitous moments, when the choice was made for us by simply being in the right place at the right time.

But overall, the final selections were brutal: FOMO exemplified.

That wasn’t the case on Saturday afternoon though. We weren’t vacillating on that one! N.02 “Amplifying Voice and Agency: Storytelling with Facing History and Ourselves and This Teenage Life Podcast,” Room 205-A ,called us both, less Scylla and Charybdis, more North-Pole magnetism. Dana had been intent on gathering resources about mental health and podcasting from the outset. I knew both of these resources because they had been invaluable to me when I spent 2020-21 teaching online…especially This Teenage Life.

I had found out about it when desperately searching for ways to build community among these students as well as some connection to me, an outsider from Oregon who was teaching in their close-knit New Jersey town. (That I had taught there for 26 years in situ and retired only three years before meant nothing to them; they didn’t know me.)

We had begun listening to the podcast featuring teens in casual conversations about topics that mattered to them in our Friday morning meetings. And listening to other teens talking to each other spurred my students into doing the same. Friday mornings were dedicated to this—talking to each other. It was awesome!

The episodes run the gamut. We began with a low stakes topic, a discussion about favorite snacks and then moved on as the teens on the podcast became familiar: “Pets,” “Comfort,” Lies Our Parents Told Us.” The options offered are vast and varied. What they share is honest connection—and teen voices, real voices.

I had to thank Molly Josephs, the founder of the podcast, for that. And there she was, sitting up front, her warm smile spreading sunshine as she looked at the gathering crowd then leaned in, placing her arm across the shoulder of the stunning teenager seated beside her.

Up I went to the front, laser-focused, wanting to say something before the session started. “Hi Molly. I’m Trish Emerson, and I just wanted to thank you for changing my teaching life when I was online with students.” She looked stunned, then rose and said, “Can I give you a hug? I hear from students all the time, but you’re the first teacher who’s reached out to tell me how the podcast worked for them.”

Hugs followed, then the presentations from both awesome presenters. It was beyond my expectations. I wanted to say goodbye, but as I expected, there was now a line…new fans. Dana urged me to wait them out. “Molly would want you to.” So I did.

We exchanged information, another hug, and a text. “I want you to come on the podcast, Trish…and consider becoming a discussion group leader, will you?”

This spring, though I haven’t asked Molly yet, I am inviting her and, fingers crossed, one of her teens, to join us for the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) Spring Conference online. I know how magical their work is, and I want them to share their magic.

The next time Molly and This Teenage Life take the stage, I know I won’t be the only fangirl in the crowd!


In her invitation to the bloggers today, Lainie quotes Kwame Alexander:

Words have the power to really help us take in the world around us, understand it, see it then be able to react to it, make it better, imagine it in a different way.-Kwame Alexander

qtd. in Two Writing Teachers blog

In my quest for what to write after a BIG weekend, I take Lainie’s cue. I relied on Kwame’s wisdom last Saturday when I presented at the Fall Conference I had been planning for the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE).

“Transformation: The Power of Poetry” opened with this:”If you want a student to be moved by poetry, then you must share poetry with which you (and they) connect on an emotional level.” (The Write Thing by Kwame Alexander)

The last concurrent session was my slot and at the end of the conference day. Board members were given those spots because we were committed to stay throughout. During lunch, a fellow end-of-day presenter said, “Well, each session has its challenges.” Ours would be having a crowd, as it was clear that many had already left by 1:50.

Here’s the thing: I have lots to say about almost anything teaching, BUT I am not a strong, relaxed presenter. I am working on it since I want to improve, and improvement begins with self-awareness. I struggle with parameters—what to leave in, what to take out? I want to do it all!

The end of the day though was a sweet spot for me. This conference I had agonized over for more than a year was successful. No, it wasn’t a huge crowd—people still hesitate to gather, online habits endure, and are still requiring a full weekend to recharge—but those who attended were enthusiastic and engaged, many of them training to become ELA teachers. The energy was palpable—and I was pumped.

I could, finally, relax. Presentation? Yup, I can. For the first time, I had real FUN with my group. Kwame had set up the discussion about reading and playing with poetry as consumers, then writing it as creators. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” let us share: reading our favorite lines aloud; reading together aloud in a chorus; acting out lines—which line am I?

We brainstormed abstract nouns and action verbs; we paired them to create personification. Confidence swaggered into the room/strutted up to the front/turned to face the crowd/scanned the faces /and smiled without breaking/a sweat.

Funny we chose confidence. It was the first time as a presenter I had actually felt it!

(Thanks to those wonderful committee members and attendees who made that day a success!)

Working Girl

Do you remember the scene from the 1988 movie, Working Girl? Melanie Griffith is trapped in an elevator with some corporate execs and questioned about how she came up with an ingenious idea that the evil Sigourney Weaver is claiming for her own.

“‘I thought—Trask…media…Trask…media.” She explains its origins. And the alchemy happens: two disparate ideas meet and gold is the result. My husband uses that phrase whenever lightning strikes, or anything that seems like lightning, in our daily lives.

I had a “Trask/media” moment yesterday as I, their substitute science teacher for the day, stood in front of a disengaged, dare I say resistant, class of sixth graders. I have been in this class before, know the teacher and respect his teaching.

But the slide show they are to complete, a review of reading they’ve been doing about cells, despite my best efforts to assist them reference their notes, the information they have at their fingertips, as I’ve been asked to do, is a non-starter for too many of them.

During third period, after first period disinterest, second period P.E. (don’t ask), I had a breather, a “prep”—time to closely read the texts they have annotated, and affixed to their interactive science notebooks.

I realize that this would be a perfect time for the poetry-writing strategies that I will be presenting at a workshop for the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) later this month.

Personification, anyone? “I am a cell./How can you tell?/ My DNA gives my identity away…”

…or maybe an epistle form? “Dear Prokaryote,/Just saying your name makes my heart beat fast./You with that cytoplasm floating free/ missing your mitochondria/ How jealous are you of Eukaryote?/ That sibling with the smart organelle.”

Even a found poem or blackout poetry would turn the students back to the text to look at it with new eyes. Poetry has such daily potential in every classroom.

Don’t get me started about the terrific examples of nature/science poetry available for those naysayers out there. Linda Rief’s new book, Whispering with Words, provides an extensive list to introduce and explore. Yes, it’s science, but it’s literacy, and too many kids don’t explore the connections. (I discovered this last weekend in Sapiens, an anthropology magazine, science—and mind-altering.)

There I am, knowing what I could be doing but turning away from that alchemy. This golden moment will pass me by because, as a substitute, I lack the power.

Just Wondering

Top View Of Group Of Children Sitting On The Grass In Circle by Scopio from NounProject.com

“Whoever becomes Oregon’s governor this November, the cleaning of the Augean stables of our education department should be very high, if not first, on her list of action items.” (from The Oregonian, opinion, 8/30/22)

Oregon ranks 37th in the list of Pre-K-12th Grade ranking recently released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The writer of this opinion piece begins by disputing the claims of an earlier “our top educational challenges” editorial by Oregon’s DOE Colt Gill.

Not why I’m writing this—great word choice in the closing paragraph, right? I am always on the lookout for that, for words I don’t know, for references that another writer has used that are unfamiliar to me.

I confess that mythology never grabbed my enduring interest. So “Augean stables” triggers my search for context. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says:

“History and Etymology for Augean

Latin Augeas, king of Elis, from Greek Augeias; from the legend that his stable, left neglected for 30 years, was finally cleaned by Hercules.”

The story hinges on the the Labors of Hercules, this being his fifth and intended to humiliate rather than elevate. Those stables were full of dung, the product of healthy cows. Hercules reroutes rivers to sweep through and eliminate the filth. Augeus is irate and reneges on the promise he made to Hercules, an agreement to give him half the cattle if the task could be completed in one day. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Don’t mess with the gods, Augeus—even I know that.

And curiosity has led me here, to Augeus’ demise and an understanding of an allusion, an exploration engendered by a single phrase.

To cultivate curiosity in our students, to titillate imaginations? That is truly the Herculean task.