How Making A Podcast Enriched Students' Lives

From left, the team of teacher Tim Wasem; students Caleb Miller, Jaxton Holly, John Gouge and Deanna Hull; and teacher Alex Campbell won the NPR Student Podcast Challenge.  (Mike Belleme for NPR)

English teacher Tim Wasem says he's still getting his head around it.

"I have students coming in this semester ... who are asking, like, 'When are we gonna do the podcast challenge? When's that gonna happen?' "

That's because a year ago, an unlikely team of 11th-graders at Elizabethton High School in east Tennessee won NPR's first-ever Student Podcast Challenge. Their 11-minute entry told the story of how the nearby town of Erwin is trying to rehabilitate its image a century after hanging an elephant. They called their podcast "Murderous Mary & The RISE Of Erwin."

As the Student Podcast Challenge opens this month for its second year and as our new podcast about the contest launches Monday, we've checked back in with last year's two grand-prize winners to see how the experience changed their learning, and their lives.

The Tennessee students, along with a team of eighth-grade girls from Bronx Prep Middle School in New York City, were the grand-prize winners. Along with 40 finalists and some 300 honorable mentions, their podcasts were chosen from nearly 6,000 entries, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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A shot of self-confidence

Deanna Hull was a driving force behind "Murderous Mary." She says the experience gave a big boost to her "internal confidence as a student and just as a person in general."

Now a senior, Hull is making college plans, and she says winning the contest helped her see what she's truly capable of. "I'm typically very self-critical of my work. I can't really see what everyone else sees. ... But then when we found out we'd won, I was like, 'Whoa, O.K.' "

Hull admits that she and her classmates took a few weeks to find their footing. Wasem and fellow teacher Alex Campbell assigned the teams themselves, often avoiding friend groups and forcing unlikely collaborations. And Hull says that while she was proud of the finished project, she never imagined it could win.

The podcast project didn't just help Hull and her team; it also changed the lives of some of their classmates who didn't win.

"The most amazing thing that came from the podcast experience of that class is how many of them found their passion through this project," Campbell says, "and how this project helped them connect to people and learn how to tell someone else's story."

He singles out another group of students, who devoted their podcast entry to telling the story of Helen Fetzer, a 101-year-old woman who served in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. Fetzer lives in a nearby assisted-living facility, and Campbell says the team was so moved by her story and the time they spent interviewing her that they've since begun a new community service project called Operation G.R.A.N.D. (Generations Reconnecting And New Discoveries).

English teacher Shehtaz Huq and the eighth-graders at Bronx Prep Middle School behind the winning podcast "Sssh! Periods." (Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

"These students realized they had a passion for working with the elderly," Campbell says. "This year, in an advanced projects class, they created a group that does programming at that assisted-living center at nights. They do music, painting, bingo, etc. They always have food and mixers to get young and old interacting. They even include students from other local high schools. You really just have to be there to see the impact this is having."

Victory in the Bronx

At Bronx Prep Middle School in New York City, victory in the Student Podcast Challenge led to an appearance on the NBC Today show, a national sponsorship to continue their podcast and, most importantly, direct changes in policy at their school.

Let's back up a second. For their podcast, the girls chose to talk about something they'd felt they couldn't talk about before: their periods. In it, they described their frustrations with the school policy that meant they had to use a code word for pads and tampons: "marshmallow."

After they won the contest, school officials announced they were phasing out "marshmallow" and adding free pads and tampons in all the girls bathrooms. When she heard that news, teacher Shehtaz Huq says, she choked up. "I actually started to cry because I'm like, 'This was all we wanted: to stop making these girls feel bad about their periods.' "

Both Huq in New York and Wasem in Tennessee say they plan to have students compete in the Student Podcast Challenge again this year.

This time around, we've got lots more support and advice for teachers and students, starting with this video gem about making good sound from Don Gonyea, a veteran NPR correspondent who has filed stories from all over the world.

The NPR Student Podcast Challenge is open to students in two categories: grades five through eight and grades nine through 12. The official rules, entry guidelines, training tips and resources for teachers and students can be found at the contest's homepage. And you can sign up for the contest's newsletter above.

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