Talia Herman for NPR
School shootings, social media, beauty standards and rapidly changing fashion trends – let’s face it five times faster.
Teenage years have always been tough, but the acceleration of modern forces makes it more stressful than ever. In the words of two best friends from San Francisco, this year’s middle school winners NPR Student Podcast Challenge – welcome to Middle school now.
In a classroom at Presidio Middle School, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, 13-year-olds Erika Young and Norah Weiner sat down to tell us about their podcast. He is one of two Grand Prize winners chosen by our judges from more than 3,300 nominations from 48 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The two friends have just finished seventh grade, but they haven’t separated yet: they’ve seen each other every day since school ended. Norah shows up to our interview wearing the boots she borrowed from Erika for the special occasion. Their giddy laughter fills the empty school, their energy fueled by the knowledge that, in a few days, they’ll be going to summer camp together.
While our high school winner this year faced a great local newswith accounts from students and educators, Erika and Norah embarked on a more universal experience: the ups and downs of being a middle school student today.
“Gun violence, social media, and mental health are literally shaping middle school,” Erika says on their podcast.
They take listeners through their daily lives — everything from school blocks to TikTok dances in the bathroom — and how life in middle school today is different than when their English teacher, Jenny Chio, was a student.
« I’ve been there, and you guys are going through it, » says Chio (pronounced CHEW), comparing her youth to the experience of today’s students. « I think it’s the same amount of pressure, but just amplified. »
One thing our judges loved about this podcast is how students intertwined national trends with what’s happening in their school and community. They interviewed their classmates and teachers about weighty topics which, sadly, are also a part of their daily lives.
Like the block drills.
A sad reality for middle school students and teachers
Erika and Norah say they’ve been doing lockdown drills since first grade, but their middle school recently held one that wasn’t just a drill, sparked by an unknown event nearby. While everyone was fine, the experience still made the girls think differently about their relationship to the school shootings.
“I can promise you that every kid in our school from sixth through eighth grade imagined who would be in a shooting,” Norah says on the podcast. « Would they run? Would they hide? »
In interviews, their classmates share what they think they would do in a school shooting: « I’d run home and call the police »; « Find a place to hide and then stay there »; « I would try to text my parents and tell them, if something bad happens, I love them. »
Talia Herman for NPR
Chio, on the other hand, does not recall ever having an active marksmanship when he was in middle or high school. The only emergency exercises then involved natural disasters: earthquakes or hurricanes. But he’s all too familiar with lockdowns these days.
The student reporters asked her to show them the emergency kit in her class, which by the way has a surprising ingredient: cat litter. Chio says that if a blockage lasted several hours, she could use it, along with other toiletries, to create a DIY bathroom.
TikTok as a middle school trendsetter
Fortunately, there AND more in middle school than lockdowns. A force that dominates both their virtual and in-person worlds? Tick tock.
« Nowadays, when you go to school, you’ll see girls literally dancing around the building, » Norah says on the podcast. « The dances look a little weird because they’re probably from TikTok. »
Erika adds, « You can’t hear the music. And so you just see kids, like, waving their arms over their heads and just dancing. They look like jellyfish, and it’s really funny. »
Talia Herman for NPR
But TikTok’s influence goes beyond their viral dances. “Trends like baggy pants, cropped corsets, curtain bangs, ripped jeans are all instigated by this app,” Erika says on their podcast.
These fast-changing and far-reaching trends are an inevitable part of the middle school experience, especially after returning to the classroom after the pandemic.
“I’ve been to different states, and people dress exactly the way they do here, kids my age and it’s really weird,” Erika says. « Because I thought different places had different things that were popular. »
Chio well remembers that feeling of trying to keep up with the latest trends, and failing. She and her students bonded over that losing battle to be « cool » in middle school.
« It’s like I’m not cool no matter what, » laughs Norah, « so maybe I should just stick to what I’m doing right now. »
But luckily, the friends have each other to make it through. And what they’re doing right now, creating a podcast and amplifying their classmates’ voices, is still pretty cool.
To listen to Erika and Norah’s podcast, click Here.
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Audio story produced by: Janet Woojeong Lee and Lauren Migaki
Audio and Digital History by: Steve Drummond