Lessons in Adolescence Podcast

Join us in exploring the many facets of adolescence from the adverse, to the awkward, to the awesome! Host Jason Cascarino and his guests, including educators, researchers, developmental scientists, thought leaders, and other caring adults, tell us why middle school can and should be awesome.

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Early adolescence is an extraordinary opportunity for long-lasting, positive learning and development, if approached at the right time and in the right way. The great challenge is making sure the middle school experience is in sync with the needs and interests of the middle schoolers who attend them. Lessons in Adolescence offers actionable insights about young adolescent learning and development from in-school and out-of-school educators, researchers and developmental scientists, thought leaders, and other caring adults. Each episode focuses on a specific, timely and relevant topic, encouraging listeners to better understand the developmental needs of young adolescents and unleash the full potential of the middle school years.

The Lesson in Adolescence podcast is a production of Remaking Middle School, an initiative that seeks to transform the learning and development experience for young adolescents in the middle school years. Remaking Middle School brings together good educational practice (in-school and out of school) with the latest developmental science. You can learn about Remaking Middle School at www.remakingmiddleschool.org or through the founding partner organizations, the University of Virginia’s Youth-Nex Center website or on Twitter @Youth_Nex, and the Association for Middle Level Education website or on Twitter @AMLE.

Lessons in Adolescence is hosted by Jason Cascarino, strategic advisor and consultant to the Remaking Middle School founding partners. The podcast is produced by Abby Gillespie and Jason Cascarino.

Season 2

  • Episode 18: Lessons with Nadia K. Selby and Dr. Elizabeth Micci

    This episode features a conversation with Nadia Selby and Elizabeth Micci from Citizen Schools, a 25-year-old Boston-based nonprofit that offers middle-school aged youth experiential learning opportunities through a blend of out-of-school time programming, in-school professional development, and community partnership. Nadia is a veteran of the organization, having worked there for some 14 years, and is currently Vice President of Programs. Elizabeth is Managing Director of Catalyst, Citizen Schools’ teacher development model. The driving force behind all of Citizen Schools’ work is embedding experiential learning opportunities into the educational experience, both in school and out of school, which is a powerful way to keep youth in the middle grades engaged and on-track.

    Nadia, Elizabeth and Jason talk about the history of Citizen Schools and how it has evolved over time - including spanning both the out-of-school and in-school domains - the ways in which the organization establishes partnerships with educators, mentors, schools and companies to deliver real world experiential learning, how they develop high quality talent and mentors to serve as a “second shift” of educators, and how out-of-school time programming, people and resources can be leveraged to expand the capacity of schools.

    Additional Readings and Resources

    Remaking Middle School is launching a Middle School Listening Tour! If you are a parent, teacher, administrator, youth development professional, policy maker, or youth advocate of middle grade students, we would love to hear from you. Please visit http://RemakingMiddleSchool.org and click “Sign Up” for the Listening Tour.

  • Episode 17: Lessons with Dr. Christine Bae, Tracyee Hogans Foster and Michael Stange

    This episode features a conversation with Dr. Christine Bae of Virginia Commonwealth University, Tracyee Hogans Foster of Richmond Public Schools, and Michael Stange of Chesterfield County Public Schools. The three are engaged in a 5-year-long initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to examine student engagement in science instruction in the middle grades through a method called "authentic science discourse."

    Christine, Tracyee, Mike and Jason talk about the research base around student motivation in learning, why science is a particularly good subject in which to study student motivation, what educators are experiencing this year in terms of student motivation in general after a year of long-term remote learning, and the practice of science discourse as a way to inspire and compel students to engage more with the content. They also talk about what science discourse looks like in virtual and in-person learning settings, how the practice can be sustained over time, and the value of research-practice partnerships - like the one they are participating in - to educators and to the field as a whole.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 16: Lessons with Lynsey Wood Jeffries and Nyasha Rusununguko

    This episode features a conversation with Lynsey Wood Jeffries and Nyasha Rusununguko from Higher Achievement. Lynsey is CEO and Nyasha Director of Program Operations for the 45-year-old, Washington DC-based nonprofit serving middle-school age youth in the out-of-school-time space with a blend of academic enrichment, mentoring, and community-building, culminating in high school and ultimately college preparation. Higher Achievement serves students in communities in and around Washington, DC, Baltimore and Richmond.

    Lynsey, Nyasha and Jason talk about the history and program model of Higher Achievement, emphasizing literacy, social and emotional learning, and high school readiness. They look at the results the organization is seeing in terms of student academic and other outcomes. They delve into the ways Higher Achievement staff and mentors deliver a meaningful student experience, the changes they had to make during virtual programming amid the pandemic, and which of those they will keep. And they discuss what the pandemic showed about the essential role out-of-school-time programs have in education going forward.

    Additional Readings and Resources

Season 1

  • Season One Recap

    We're excited to announce that production on the second season of the "Lessons in Adolescence" podcast is officially underway! Our first episode will be available for listening on your preferred podcast platform Wednesday October 20th. Season two will be packed with new guests, more lessons, and fresh showcases of research, practice and advocacy all focused on young adolescent learning and development. 

    Before we dive into season two, host Jason Cascarino shares some highlights from season one, including episodes that deal with issues of developing positive relationships, delivering effective youth programming during the pandemic, and helping young people navigate systemic racism and engage in racial justice. Highlighted conversations feature:

    • Dr. Lisa Harrison, Associate Professor of teacher education at Ohio University
    • Dr. Kent Pekel, former CEO of Search Institute
    • Dr. Elizabeth Santiago, former Chief Program Officer of MENTOR
    • Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, Associate Professor of school psychology, Rutgers University
    • Breakthrough Collaborative CEO, Elissa Vanaver, Birmingham Executive Director, Mariohn Michele, and San Juan Capistrano Executive Director, Alex Serna
    • Aim High CEO, Alec Lee and Vice President of Programs, Terrence Riley
  • Episode 15: Lessons with Kiana Dixon and Janikaa Jackson

    This episode features a conversation with Kiana Dixon and Janikaa Jackson. Kiana and Janikaa are students at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, New York and are alumni of the Peer Group Connection (PGC) program offered by the Center for Supportive Schools (CSS). PGC positions upper classmen and women in high school to mentor incoming 9th graders transitioning into high school from middle school. They are both now consultants with CSS, helping develop new programming and curriculum, and providing professional learning for educators on practices that incorporate authentic student voice.

    Kiana, Janikaa and Jason talk about their own middle school years and their experience being bullied, their transition into high school and finding their own path, and details of their work as upper class women mentoring incoming freshmen and women and the impact having a mentor has on young adolescents transitioning from middle school. They also touch upon their experience as consultants with CSS, developing a youth advisory board to amplify youth voice, developing accessible programming during the pandemic, providing professional development to teachers and helping them make adjustments to their curriculum to align with student needs, and what they think works best to keep students engaged; plus, Kiana and Janikaa reveal what they see for their own futures.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 14: Lessons with Elissa Vanaver, Mariohn Michel and Alex Serna

    This episode features a conversation with three leaders of one of the largest and longest standing summer learning programs geared toward middle-school aged youth: Breakthrough Collaborative. Elissa Vanaver is Breakthrough’s CEO, who has led the organization through a new strategy that looks to codify its programming and solidify its large network of local affiliates across the country serving more than 10,000 students annually. Mariohn Michel and Alex Serna are two of Breakthrough’s local executive directors. Mariohn heads Breakthrough Birmingham in Birmingham, Alabama and Alex heads Breakthrough San Juan Capistrano in Southern California.

    Elissa, Mariohn, Alex and Jason talk about Breakthrough’s programming for middle schoolers and how that national model takes shape in various local contexts with individual needs, Breakthrough’s human capital strategy to bring talented college students in various fields into education and what effect they have on young adolescents, and vice versa, and Breakthrough’s approach to remote programming, including which elements might stick post-pandemic.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 13: Lessons with Dr. Jennifer Sloan McCombs and Dr. Nancy L. Deutsch

    This episode features a conversation with Jennifer McCombs and Nancy Deutsch. Jennifer is a Senior Policy Researcher and Director of the Behavioral and Policy Sciences Department for the RAND Corporation, one of the world’s leading research institutes. She has been one of the main authors of several works building the knowledge base on summer learning, including a series funded by the Wallace Foundation. Nancy is a professor of education at the University of Virginia and Director of UVA’s Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, a founding partner in the Remaking Middle School Initiative. Nancy’s research expertise is around adolescent development, particularly in out-of-school-time spaces.

    Jennifer, Nancy and Jason talk about the reasons to study summer learning and what we want to learn from the research, specifically for young adolescents and their identity development; understanding the elements of structural inequities in summer learning and how that effects young adolescents; the best practices from research around the practical issues of implementing summer programs effectively; the reframing of summer learning from a time to make up gaps in learning to instead best capture the combination of academics and enrichment in a way that motivates and engages young adolescents, and the research interests for this upcoming summer and the next few summers to understand the potential of summertime to support the whole child, academically, socially and emotionally, psychologically, and otherwise.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 12: Lessons with Alec Lee and Terrence Riley

    This episode features a conversation with Alec Lee and Terrence Riley. Alec is co-founder and CEO of the 35-year-old Aim High summer learning program for middle school youth. Terrence is an alumnus of the program, and now Vice President of Programs for the organization. Aim High offers a mix of academic classes and interest-driven enrichment activities for middle school students during the summers leading into, during and transitioning out of the middle grades. Like other summer learning programs in the summer of 2020, Aim High needed to pivot from its traditional in-person model to a virtual one, called Aim High at Home, which had some advantages that the program intends to keep going forward even as they steadily transition back to in-person programming.

    Alec, Terrence and Jason talk about the genesis of the Aim High program, the specific components of the experience, the types of students who participate, how the organization recruits and trains its staff, which includes local teachers-in-training and also alumni of the program, and the outcomes they are seeing across academic, social and emotional domains as well as the students’ transition into high school and even longer term. They then go into the pivot that Aim High had to make to deliver programming during the pandemic, creating Aim High at Home, how they shifted the levels of emphasis on different aspects of the programming to build belonging and community, and how they ramped up training for summer educators. They also address what they anticipate this upcoming summer will look like and its outsized importance given Covid recovery efforts, and what the future of summer learning looks like longer term.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 11: Lessons with Aaron Dworkin

    This episode features a conversation with Aaron Dworkin, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, the nation’s leading champion, connector and supporter of summer learning programming. Aaron has a long history in youth service and has brought a new energy and ambition to the work of NSLA. This comes at a unique moment for the field of summer learning, as the global pandemic and worries about learning loss and mental health give heightened purpose to learning opportunities this particular summer. While that is true, it is also the case that summer learning plays a big role in the learning and development for youth in any circumstance, including creating valuable spaces and relationships specific to young adolescents in middle school.

    Aaron and Jason talk about the genesis and work of NSLA, where summer learning fits within the broader ecosystem of education and youth, and more about the unique features of summer learning for young adolescents in middle school. They also address the future of summer learning - in the near-term, what summer learning is shaping up to be this year as our country looks to rebuild from the pandemic and address concerns of learning loss and mental health; in the long term, how summer learning can be better leveraged as a full partner in learning and what educators at the school and districts levels can do to forge those partnerships.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 10: Lessons with Rachel Graham

    This episode features a conversation with Rachel Graham, Director of Programs at the Lefkofsky Family Foundation in Chicago, founded by Liz and Eric Lefkofsky. The Foundation has made middle grades a singular focus for its education funding, important in a city where young adolescents have the opportunity to apply to enroll in one of many selective and specialty high schools outside their neighborhood. The Foundation’s Success Bound program helps Chicago K-8 elementary schools use developmental science to better prepare their middle grades students to be thoughtful and planful of their futures as they make consequential decisions in their choice of high school.

    Jason and Rachel talk about why the Foundation chose to focus on middle grades, how the Success Bound program came to be, how the Foundation works with educators in communities of practice to integrate the programming schoolwide, what the Foundation is learning about changes in practices, behaviors and student outcomes tied to young adolescent development and the transition into high school, and how middle school can become more central to the national education agenda, and why philanthropy should see young adolescents in middle schools as an opportunity for investment.

    Note for transparency, the Lefkofksy Family Foundation is a funder of Remaking Middle School.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 9: Lessons with Dr. Lisa Harrison

    This episode features a conversation with Lisa Harrison, associate professor of middle childhood education at the Patton School of Education at Ohio University. Lisa is a teacher of teachers, preparing professionals for middle school classrooms. She is also a researcher, with a core area of focus on young adolescent black girls, a somewhat under-addressed topic in the research literature. She has examined the influences of social context on their identity development, including common negative images of black girls compared to their white young adolescent girl peers, as well as the experiences they have in school, often affected by adult perceptions of them that are embedded in some fundamental inequities.

    Lisa and Jason talk about her research that extends into the inequitable experiences young adolescent black girls have with school discipline policies; how the national dialog around race over the past several months has impacted the way she thinks about preparing her teachers-in-training, including the importance for them to engage young adolescents in racial dialog more routinely, rather than just around big moments; the latest update of the position paper from the Association for Middle Level Education, or AMLE, called the Successful Middle School, which Lisa co-authored, that outlines core attributes and characteristics for middle schools; and how educators, as well as parents and families and other caring adults in the community can use the book to improve the learning and development experience for young adolescents.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 8: Lessons with Jodi Grant

    This episode features a conversation with Jodi Grant, Executive Director of the Afterschool Alliance, the nation’s preeminent advocacy organization for afterschool programming. A veteran of public policy, Jodi has led the group for the last 15 years. In that time, the Afterschool Alliance has produced multiple updates of its “America After 3 PM” Report, the most comprehensive examination of the afterschool field, including a recent look at some of the specific challenges and opportunities of afterschool programs for middle school aged youth.

    Jodi and Jason talk about how the demand for afterschool programming, which has never been higher, is not being met with adequate funding - especially for middle and high school aged youth - the inequities in afterschool that have been perpetuated by the COVID pandemic, how afterschool plays an essential supportive role as young adolescents explore opportunities for their futures as well as navigate the complexities of the current world, and an exciting new funding opportunity specifically for middle school afterschool programs being awarded in partnership between the Afterschool Alliance and the New York Life Foundation.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 7: Lessons with Dr. Elizabeth Santiago

    This episode features a conversation with Elizabeth Santiago, Chief Program Officer of MENTOR National, the Boston-based nonprofit that champions and advances the field of mentoring for youth. Liz’s personal experience as a young adolescent in middle school, and as a child of an under-resourced family who migrated from Puerto Rico to Boston, is a key driver in her professional work and showcases the potential that mentoring relationships can have in supporting young people who, like she once did, feel disconnected and disengaged and stop showing up.

    Liz and Jason talk about the need young people have for representation of voices like their own, the gaps in mentoring opportunities for youth and ways MENTOR is addressing them, how the organization works with school systems and companies to set up and expand mentoring programs, and how to support mentors and mentees who hail from different backgrounds and communities from each other to engage in challenging conversations about our world, like racial inequity and political strife.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 6: Lessons with Dr. Kent Pekel

    This episode features a conversation with Kent Pekel, CEO of Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit research organization focused on studying the factors that drive youth success. Under Kent’s leadership, Search Institute has engaged in a singular focus on relationships, which he and the organization see as the foundational ingredient in the learning and development of young people.

    Kent and Jason talk about how Search Institute conducts its research, working in partnership with youth organizations in schools and communities to learn while also making an impact, the five core elements of relationship-building derived from this research that structures Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships framework, and the types of approaches and practical activities that educators, youth workers and parents and families can use to intentionally develop and foster positive relationships.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 5: Lessons with Ashley Leonard and Jen Ciok

    This episode features a conversation with Ashley Leonard and Jen Ciok from the University of Chicago. Ashley is the associate director of the To&Through Project Middle Grades Network, an initiative within the University’s Urban Education Institute. Jen is a school coach, working with Ashley to offer middle grades educators in a cohort of Chicago public schools support in solving problems of practice specific to the middle grades, using the University’s extensive data and research resources.

    Ashley, Jen and Jason talk about some of the specific research and tools the University of Chicago has produced around young adolescent learning and development that they are able to offer their partner schools, how they selected schools to participate in the project and what they are doing to set up educators to work within and across schools on problems of practice specific to middle grades, the challenges and opportunities their school partners are wrestling with, and what they are learning that could be helpful to the broader field.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 4: Lessons with Chris Balme

    This episode features a conversation with Chris Balme, Founder of Argonaut, a new live online community that offers young adolescents opportunities for hands-on experiences to develop wisdom, kindness and real-world skill. Chris has founded a handful of successful organizations, all centered on the learning and development of young adolescents, including the Spark Program and Millennium School. His drive to build new and different opportunities for middle schoolers comes in part from his own unhappy experience in those years, and a frustration he has with the low expectations commonly ascribed to middle school.

    Chris and Jason talk about Chris's strong feeling that the middle school experience needs to be more relevant for young adolescents and cater to what young adolescents are “here to do,” the advantages of creating a laboratory school in the middle grades with freedom to experiment and then share things of use to the field, his approach to translating the science of learning and development into specific educational practices, and what fuels his unsatiated entrepreneurial proclivities.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 3: Lessons with Dr. Robert J. Jagers

    This episode features a conversation with Rob Jagers, Vice President for Research at CASEL: The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, the leading resource for the knowledge, practice and policy around SEL. From the start of his career to his current position, Rob has had a particular interest in the role SEL plays in the learning and development of young people of color, and how it can best be seen as used as a resource to promote racial equity.

    Rob and Jason talk about how young people receive SEL in different ways, and which ways are more constructive and effective than others, how focusing on SEL for adults is just as important as for youth, why the field of education as a whole needs a new paradigm for research, and why CASEL formulated guidance for schools reopening in fall 2020 - after being shut down or remote since the spring - on the foundation of relationships.

    Note that Rob and Jason talked just before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, but the guidance on meaningfully using SEL is salient now and for the foreseeable future.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 2: Lessons with Laura Ross

    This episode features a conversation with Laura Ross, a school counselor for Five Forks Middle School in the Gwinnett County Public School District in Georgia and the 2020 School Counselor of the Year. Laura has been touted for her work at Five Forks, particularly in the areas of discipline and restorative justice, and for creating what she calls a “connectedness culture.”

    Laura and Jason talk about how her early experiences working with incarcerated adults motivated her to work with young people, how she and her colleagues have managed to engage their middle school students in a time of pandemic, remote learning and racial dialog, and how people’s unclear perceptions of the role of school counselors may be driving the current lack of investment in counseling as a whole, despite it being an essential support for youth in the early adolescent years.

    Additional Readings and Resources

  • Episode 1: Lessons with Dr. Joanna Lee Williams

    This episode features a conversation with Joanna Lee Williams, associate professor at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. 

    Joanna and Jason cover how young adolescents are impacted by bias-motivated violence, why media surrounding events like Charlottesville amplify this type of violence, and how these events have a cumulative effect on young people, especially young people of color, in their formative years. 

    Professor Williams recently served on the academic committee to develop the Promise of Adolescence, a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Math. She also recently released some of her own research on the reaction of young adolescents to the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and what it may tell us about engaging middle schoolers in conversations about race. 

    Additional Readings and Resources

    From Apathy To Vigilance: Middle School Students' Reactions To The 2017 Unite The Right Rally,” a presentation by Joanna Lee Williams, Ph.D., with co-authors Haley Johnson, Lauren Mims, Kimalee Dickerson, Andrea Negrete, & Miray Seward for the Center for Race and Public Education in the South, March 5, 2019.

    The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Students, National Academies of Science, Engineering and Math, 2019.


The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.