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Episode 39: Teen Turns Life Lessons into Powerful Words Winning National Recognition

She is a talented writer and her powerful words are getting national recognition and will be on display in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. On this episode of the Supercast, we hear from Fort Herriman Middle School 8th grade student Sophia Parsons who is a national finalist in Utah’s 20th annual “Do the Write Thing Challenge,” which is part of the National Campaign to Stop Youth Violence. Find out how one teacher inspired this young teen to put her life lessons into words to inspire change.

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<h2>Audio Transcription</h2>

Superintendent:
Welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. Today, we talked to a very talented young writer whose powerful words are now getting national recognition and will be on display in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, Fort Herriman Middle School's Sophia Parsons won what is called the Do the Right Thing Challenge, which is part of a national campaign to stop youth violence. On this episode of the Supercast, we'll hear from the teacher who is inspiring young teens, like Sophia, to use their words and life lessons to advocate for change. But first, let's talk with Sophia Parsons.

We're very happy to be here with Sophia Parsons. Sophia is an eighth grade student at Fort Herriman Middle School, and she is receiving national recognition for her writing. And I wanted to find out more about what she wrote and what that recognition is that she's receiving. Sophia, thanks for joining me on the Supercast.

Sophia:
Thank you for having me. It's a very interesting experience.

Superintendent:
Well, it's exciting for me to be able to talk with you. I sure miss being in schools and having the chance to talk with students and teachers and this Zoom meeting is as close as I could possibly get. I'm really excited to talk with you. It was about in eighth grade that I started to get really excited about writing, mostly because of a particular teacher I had. Before we get into the specifics of the award, what is it that you like about writing and what drew you to this contest?

Sophia:
Well, I wouldn't have thought to enter this contest at all if it wasn't for school. My teacher, for our unit about The Outsiders, started having the conversation about youth violence and she suggested the contest to us and had us all write an essay. Whether or not we wanted to submit it was up to us. And so I just wrote it all down one night, because I wasn't that satisfied with what I was, where I was going with it. Got it down, submitted it the next week. And it kind of disappeared until now.

Superintendent:
That sounds very much like what accomplished writers do. They sit down. The idea is there, the fire is burning and at a fever pitch, they just write it and it just comes out. And there it is. That's kind of how it went for you.

Sophia:
Yeah. It's either a lot of hard work to try and formulate abstract thoughts or just one big fever, dream of inspiration.

Superintendent:
So what is the name of the contest and what recognition have you received for your work?

Sophia:
It's called the Do the Right Thing Contest where students send in their essays about youth violence, what they can do to prevent youth violence and how you feel it has affected them. As far as recognition, it's been insane. We've had a couple conference meetings over Zoom, and things like that where I know it's the finalists. And then they announced the national finalists and things like that. And I got a couple goody bags from the committee today. I got a food gift card and that was really, really nice.

Superintendent:
Now, your writing going to be including in a book, is that correct?

Sophia:
Yeah. I heard that it was going to be included in a book in Congress. So it's kind of mind blowing.

Superintendent:
Yeah, in the library of Congress, which is quite a nice honor. Tell us about what you wrote as your submission.

Sophia:
Oh boy. My teacher went over the criteria first and I was kind of confused as to what I would write because in my mind I'm not a target of youth violence. I feel like up to now, I'm not the right person to be talking about this. I don't feel very directly affected, but I figured, Hey, everyone has a story to share, so I might as well share mine. And so I started off with why youth violence happens and the feelings associated with that, because I feel like it tends to be boiled down to condition or circumstance. And I wanted to get into the emotions behind it. That's why I found the outsiders so compelling. It's the emotions of the characters from their situation. And so I tried relating that to myself and I found the biggest connection there with feeling undeserving of everything, not feeling like you belong or like you have a place in the world.

Sophia:
So that was the easiest part. By far the hardest part was the criteria of relating it back to myself because I'm just a privileged white girl from the middle of Utah. But in order to find that, I took  a look at my past. I've always related more with the idea that you can bully yourself and not really be aware of it. And I tried looking at my past and asked, where could I have gone down this dark path? And so I looked a lot at my younger life when I was just like a kid and my mom was an alcoholic and a smoker. I thought that was what was normal. And my dad never worked a nine to five job. And so he was only kinda around during the nighttime, since he left early in the morning. So it's not as big a thing, but it's still impacted me in ways that I didn't really understand at the time. But looking back, it's a lot easier.

Superintendent:
Is it fair to say that the writing made you reflect on who you are and what your experiences have been and how they've influenced you?

Sophia:
Oh, definitely. Like I always tend to play down my problems and like play down my issues like, Oh, well, I don't have it as bad as somebody else. But taking the time to look in at myself, even if it is for an essay purpose, it was very therapeutic. If nothing else, at the end of writing the essay, I felt a lot better about myself and like my problems matter.

Superintendent:
Well, that's a really good result from writing this. I was interested in what you said about bullying yourself. That when you started to reflect on this, you realize that's something that can happen. Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Sophia:
Well, when I was first introduced to the concept of killing yourself, I was in third, fourth grade around there. I was kind of known as the kid who was down about themselves. I didn't have a ton of friends and I didn't want a ton of friends in my head. I kept telling myself that I was a bad person or something like that. I wasn't deserving of all that I had. And then we had a guest speaker somewhere who introduced the concept to me. And that whole time, it was just staring at my hands, Oh God, that's me. I'm the one who says mean things to myself. And I've still struggled with it up to now, but I've gotten a lot better at stepping outside of myself and saying, Hey, that is not something you'd want to do to anybody else. So why would you do to it to you?

Superintendent:
Okay. You described that reading The Outsiders and relating to The Outsiders made you start to reflect on your own situation. And then you had to use some creativity and some imagination to turn that into a writing project. Can you tell us about the result of that process? What did your writing end up looking like? Was it an essay? Was it the poem? How did that end up?

Sophia:
Well at first I was going to write an essay. I had like a couple paragraphs outlined. And I just didn't like how they sounded. I felt like they were too stiff and really impersonal. And so I was going through it a couple days before the deadline and thought, I don't really like this. And so I worked until around one o'clock in the morning, somewhere around that. And I got inspiration and I ended up writing kind of a poem. I call it a PSA because it's like a couple poem-ish stanzas in an essay format.

Superintendent:
So you created your own genre. You really accomplished even more than I realized.

Sophia:
I don't know if I'd say a whole genre, but a weird amalgamation of Dr. Seuss language and person.

Superintendent:
Okay. After writing this, were you surprised to win this recognition?

Sophia:
Oh, definitely. When I sent it off, it still was just thinking, oh man, that was just a brain piece from when I was super tired at one o'clock in the morning. I sent it off to a couple of my friends to peer review via email. But they just said it was good. I said, Oh, thanks. I've known for awhile that I'm a pretty okay writer. It's how I cope. I'm not a very good communicator in real life. It's been an issue. So I kind of event that into writing. And so I thought, Oh yeah, I'd place around like maybe mid-level ones. I learned that I was a finalist, but I didn't think that I was gonna be a national finalist at all. It's still kind of surreal.

Superintendent:
So how does that feel to be a national finalist?

Sophia:
It is the greatest accomplishment I have ever made in my entire life up to this point. I feel very seen now. I don't know if you've heard of Dear Evan Hansen. I saw the play before it shut down due to coronavirus, but it kind of feels like that in both the good way and the bad way where it's amazing that I have this opportunity to share something so great with other people, but it also is a lot for little Sophia who doesn't talk very well.

Superintendent:
Well, we all have to find our path to connect to the world around us. And it sounds like you have found yours. I'm also impressed that I hear a lot of things you're doing that great writers do. They write when they feel like writing. If it's in the morning, if it's in the evening, they find that time when they can write. They use friends to bounce things off. They're inspired by literature that they read and they connect to real feelings and to who they are. And I think you're doing those things very well. And I'm very impressed at the way you're able to talk about yourself and your own writing.

Sophia:
Thank you very much. Writing is like an extension of the self, so I don't see any reason as to why I should hide anything when it comes to a topic like this.

Superintendent:
I think that's a great way to approach it. Tell me about your your teacher. What is your teacher's name and how did she get you involved in that?

Sophia:
My teacher's name is Megan. And she is the best. I love her so much. She has been a joy to have even for online school. She's been supportive throughout this entire thing. I couldn't have asked for a better English teacher. She isn't afraid to share how she feels and lifts up the people around her with what she does in the classroom. I think she's really cool.

Superintendent:
I was an eighth grade English teacher, so I'm a little bit envious that she gets to still do that. I taught The Outsiders and actually, my last year as an assistant principal at Jordan High School, they let me go up and give an impromptu speech because I was leaving. So I got to speak as well. And I yelled out a line from The Outsiders, "Stay gold pony boy". I've never forgotten that book. I've always loved it. Did you like The Outsiders? Is that partially what got you into writing the essay?

Sophia:
Yeah, I liked it a lot. There were a couple of people in my class who were said it's not as cool as other books they've read, but I don't read a ton outside of school. So it was a cool thing.

Superintendent:
We're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, a surprise visit from Sophia's teacher who is making a difference in so many young lives, Megan Dumber joins us.

Break:
I'm Stephen Hall, Director of Jordan Education Foundation. In today's challenging and uncertain times, it is more important than ever before to support one another. Here at the Jordan Education Foundation, we invite you, join us in making sure children are not going hungry. Your $10 donation to the Foundation will help us feed one student for a weekend. When food and meals may be very scarce for some, with food and hygiene supplies in the principal's pantries at Jordan School District being depleted and in higher demand than ever before. Every financial contribution made will help us to keep the pantries filled for students who would otherwise go without. The Jordan Education Foundation exists due to the generosity of people who care about kids. If you would like to donate to help children from going hungry, please visit jordaneducationfoundation.org, or contact the Foundation at (801) 567-8125. Thank you. Together, we can make a difference.

Superintendent:
Sophia was also recognized recently by the Utah State Board of Education for her writing. Her mom was by her side and became emotional as her daughter was recognized. Let's listen in.

"Can I, just as a parent, chime in on the last comment about the teacher. Her teacher has been, sorry, I get a little emotional. It's nice to see teachers who really take time to care about students and see them on a level that not everyone gets to. So it's been a really emotional trip for us to have that great teachers."

Superintendent:
Thank you Megan Dumber, for joining us on the Supercast. Now Megan is Sophia's teacher who helped to get her involved in the contest. Megan, thanks for joining us. Tell us you're an eighth grade English teacher at Fort Herriman Middle School. Is that correct?

Megan:
Yeah, I actually am teaching eighth and ninth grades this year. So I've spent half my day with the eighth graders and half my day with the ninth graders.

Superintendent:
And you don't have to tell us your favorites. I was also an eighth grade English teacher and eighth grade was my absolutely favorite class to teach back in the 1900s. I made friends with some of those eighth grade students and I'm still in contact with them. Even this week I had conversations with a couple of my students back from eighth grade in 1993. So it's quite a ways back and it brings back nice memories to be talking to the two of you, have my chance to in an eighth grade English classroom. And as a student in eighth grade, my eighth grade English teacher was my favorite teacher and remains my favorite teacher of all time.

Megan:
My eighth grade Language Arts teacher is the reason why I'm a teacher. And I'm still in contact with her regularly also.

Superintendent:
That's fantastic.

Megan:
It just makes me so happy.

Superintendent:
Where were you in eighth grade?

Megan:
Where was I? Oh, I was in a suburb of Chicago at Brown Point Middle School.

Superintendent:
Oh yeah. And what's the name of the teacher you stayed in contact with?

Megan:
Oh, that's Miss Jennifer Rossi, Jen Rossi, my Facebook friend. And I will always talk about her anytime I get the opportunity because some middle school teachers have this idea that we're the forgotten ones. Everybody remembers their high school teachers after they've graduated and you know, they feel like they can stay in contact with them, but I just, I refuse to believe that. So I will continue to hang out and talk to my eighth grade Language Arts teacher, even if she's 1300 miles away. And I hope that my students someday will feel the same way. But even if they don't, I'm going to still believe that I'm not forgotten.

Superintendent:
Well, I don't believe you're forgotten at all. And you've obviously had a big positive influence on Sophia and helped move her to enter this contest. Tell us a little bit about Sophia and her writing.

Megan:
Oh gosh. Well, she's amazing. I noticed it right at the beginning of the year and her ability to connect with her emotions and be vulnerable is always something that stands out to me, especially in eighth graders because so many eighth graders are so concerned about fitting in and just not being noticed, just going with the flow, that kind of thing. So any time a student is brave enough to be vulnerable and real and honest with their emotions and connect with themselves on that level and then should be able to go that next step and convey that to other people that takes extreme vulnerability and bravery. I noticed that Sophia was able to do that right off the bat. I have all my students write me a letter at the beginning of the year and they can write about whatever they want. It's just a letter for me to help get to know them. They can be as superficial with them as they want or as deep as they want. And she was just really honest and straightforward, right from the very beginning. I've taught all the way through high school seniors and she writes better than many high schoolers I've taught. So she's very gifted.

Superintendent:
That does not surprise me just talking with her. I can tell how articulate she is and how good she is expressing herself.

Megan:
Absolutely. I almost forgot about that.

Superintendent:
Sorry. It's unpleasant when people talk about you like this, isn't it?

Sophia:
No, no, it's that's right. It's just a little embarrassing, but mom's been doing it a lot this week.

Megan:
Just love to brag about you Sophia.

Superintendent:
Well, you obviously have a big fan in Ms. Dumber. Tell us about how you teach kids to connect to writing and to their emotions and to express themselves.

Megan:
Well, it's hard. It is definitely a challenge, but I think what helps with the Do the Right Thing competition is the way that we lay everything out for students from the beginning. It's a topic that in some communities is much easier to talk about because it's all around them in a very visual way. But in other communities it is more of a hidden issue or something that people don't bring to the forefront initially. And so what I like to start doing with my students every year when the competition rolls around is first, talk about what violence is and have people give examples. I like to do a little creative writing with them right off the bat where we talk about getting a little abstract with it? Like, what does violence taste like? What does it sound like? And having them connect to it on like that really visceral level, I feel like when they're able to do that, then we move into the next step where they start to begin sharing personal experiences, whether it's directly or indirectly or as a witness then they start to be able to put those pieces together and open up a lot more. Most kids, not all, but a lot more than you would expect.

Superintendent:
That makes a lot of sense in the way that you structure things. You can help students discover that they're able to do things that maybe they didn't think they were capable of.

Megan:
Yeah. I also like to just talk about it at the beginning of the year,  why we write, why writers do what they do and not just authors, but anybody who writes. And so one of the things I like to focus on is that it's one way of connecting with others. It's one way of developing empathy. It's one way of making sense of the world around us and processing what we're seeing and experiencing. So I feel that when they understand why we're doing it, they're not so stressed about it. I don't know what I'm going to write because they know the why. And when you know the why, the what becomes a lot easier.

Superintendent:
Sophia, tell us about that. Does that ring true for you?

Sophia:
So much? Sometimes when I'm just walking home from school, I'll go into weird narrator mode and I'll just be like, this guy was his cleaner in his blue his day. And then I think, man, I'm going to go home and write now, It's just everywhere, dude. It plagues my mind.

Superintendent:
Once your teacher gets in your mind with some great ideas, it's hard to get them out. Luckily well,  that's really exciting. And I love Ms. Dumber's description of your letter at the beginning of the year, Sophia, because she's right. I remember, as an eighth grade Language Arts teacher, that I had certain tricks. I used not tricks, but methods and activities to help connect people to their emotions and to help them realize that writing isn't about right or wrong or about grammar as much as it is about expression and connection. And it sounds like that just came naturally for you.

Sophia:
It's an acquired skill, like any other art, in my opinion. My mom has gone on record and we'll say for the end of time that she is a bad writer, and every time she says it, it bugs me to no end because that means that I'm automatically at a higher plane, but it just comes naturally to me. But it's just getting in touch with yourself and then just putting it out there. It doesn't matter if anybody actually reads it at the end of the day. It's you saying how you feel.

Superintendent:
Well said. Ms. Dumber, what do you like most about teaching?

Megan:
Oh my gosh. Well, you're going to make me cry. I love my students. I that's why I do it. I love everything that I miss right now about teaching is like why I love teaching. It's getting to see my students every day and have genuine interactions with them that are candid and unforced. I feel like I have to force so much of my personality when I'm filming to just a camera every day, instead of just being my awkward self in front of them. And I like helping them to know more about who they are.

Superintendent:
Well, it sounds like you're doing a fantastic job of that. And I think it's a very valuable tool, especially as an eighth or ninth grader, to be able to use writing, to be able to connect to your own emotions and to help you reflect on who you are and who you want to be. So Bravo, thank you. Sophia described really well. Even you have some natural talent, it takes work, and it's a skill that you cultivate when, when you want to write. So even if you have a head start and maybe have a natural ability or interest in writing, there are things to do to hone skills, but what can anyone do? Do you have suggestions for parents? If, if their child wants, wants to be a better writer, any ideas or thoughts about how they can do that?

Speaker 5:
One thing I would say is to write something every day. That's something that a lot of writers that I look up to, or that I've studied in my teaching of creative writing and things like that have recommended is just write, just put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or glass, whatever, and create something every day. It doesn't have to be a novel a day obviously, but you need to be able to build stamina. And that's one of the best ways to do it is to be consistent with your practice, just like, you know, shooting hoops and basketball. If you want to get a better free for, Oh, you have to put in some repetition. So writers need to do the same thing and exercise in that way. And the other thing I would say is to not write with the expectation of someone else, seeing it, you know, I love what Sophia shared about just like being, walking down the sidewalk and having an idea that pops into your head and then wanting to go home and write about it.

Speaker 5:
That's amazing. And if more people did that, then they would be able to have that. Like, you know, when you're just writing in your diary or in a note on your phone, like I do, you have so much freedom, you can write whatever you want and, and no one's going to judge you for it. And so much of what I see when it comes to students who perceive themselves as bad writers or people who just can't write it's, they're paralyzed by the fear of criticism and like the, the negative feedback that they're going to receive. And so they become paralyzed and unable to take that step of actually getting their thoughts out onto the paper or screen. But when you write just for yourself, you don't have to worry about any of that. So I would encourage that type of writing as much as possible.

Superintendent:
I love that. Great advice. Sophia, what advice do you have for aspiring writers or even people who are reluctant and just need to get started?

Sophia:
Well, I'd say try out different like avenues, cause like I don't enjoy informative writing as much, like doing research, like kills my brain cells. I can't do it for more than like an hour, but like writing poems or I wrote a lot of haiku's over seventh grade, summer break and just getting the feelings out there instead of like writing like super precise, analytical essays. So write about what you're passionate about, try out different ways of writing. That would be my advice.

Superintendent:
Great thoughts being through the times we're living through is writing a good source of stress relief and therapy. And do you think there are some people who didn't think they were writers might emerge as writers if they just give it a try in these unusual circumstances?

Speaker 5:
I definitely think it's possible and I've, I've seen it myself over the past few weeks with the assignments that my students have been doing virtually. With April being national poetry month, my students were writing some original poetry as well as analyzing poetry by other poets. And in the process of doing that, I've seen so many writers like pop out of the woodwork and I'm writing them back and comments like, where have you been all year? Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Like it just came it's it's, it's blowing me away. And I think that a lot of that has to do with, they had to sit and think, and they had the time to sit and think because it's hard in a classroom with, you're trying to keep to a schedule and you're trying to keep on pace with your PLC and you don't wanna, you know, lag too far behind in, in planning.

Speaker 5:
And so you feel like you have to put a time limit on how much brainstorming they can do and things like that, which is it pains me, but sometimes it needs to be done. And when they have all this time just to ruminate on their ideas and really think about it, I think you get some amazing, amazing stuff. And I'm trying to figure out now how to put together like an anonymous collection of poetry that my students have turned in about COVID and quarantine, because people write about, like Sophia said, what is happening, what, you know, what they're passionate about, what, what they're feeling. And for so many of our kids right now, it is frustration and disappointment with what's happening and they just want an outlet to be able to talk about that. So I feel really good about what we've been doing at Fort Herriman and in allowing them to express those feelings.

Superintendent:
Sounds fantastic. And I love the discovery of new literary voices. That's wonderful. Sophia, any thoughts on that?

Sophia:
Yeah, it's definitely going to help people. Like, at least that's what I believe is like, it provides that social aspect to like, it feels like you're adding to a pen pal, you know, like even if there isn't like a direct connection, it's still get your feelings out there and you can send it to somebody online. That's what I've been doing a lot with my friend Quinn and we just text each other back and forth and we have like these big, long essays about video games or whatever that we share with each other and been,

Speaker 1:
It's been really fun.

Superintendent:
That's wonderful. Sounds great. I it's interesting. I've I follow a number of authors on Twitter and they've been talking with their fans about which books of theirs they think relate or books that they want to ride or wish they'd written that, that relate to this circumstance. And it really is unique when you're living through it. So Sophia, I'm glad that you're writing. I'm glad you're keeping a journal because I think it will be difficult to recreate after the fact, but being right in it. I think you have a, a prime opportunity and I look forward to reading your future works because I have no doubt I'm going to have the opportunity to do that. So it's been a pleasure talking with both of you and Ms. Domer, keep up the great work with your students. I love your passion and I love your story, that it was an eighth grade teacher that got you to teaching eighth grade. That's my story too. And I always will think fondly of Mr. Evans and Sophia my congratulations on already being so articulate and so connected to yourself. And I wish you only the best for the future. And I look forward to meeting both of you in person

Speaker 1:
One day down the road. Thank you so much. Thank you for joining us on the super couch. Remember, education is the most important thing you'll do today.

 

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