Coronavirus, Racism And Kindness: How NYC Middle-Schoolers Built A Winning Podcast

 (Courtesy of Karin Patterson)

First, the end:

"Please be kind to one another. That's all for today."

So closes the middle-school top-prize winner of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. World, meet The Dragon Kids.

That's the moniker of an afterschool podcast club at PS 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology, located in New York City's Chinatown neighborhood. They are sixth-graders Leo Yu, Angelo Chen, Becky Liu, Si Chen Xu, Zoe Jiang, Nicole Zheng and tenth-graders Joyce Jiang and Amanda Chen. Their winning podcast, "Masked Kids," is both a time capsule and a cautionary tale about life in the time of the coronavirus.

Now, the beginning:

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The pod starts gently, interweaving innocent, COVID-inspired vocabulary lessons in Mandarin — think "mask" and "sneeze" — with safety tips that needed repeating back in February and March, when the students were writing and recording: Wash your hands with soap and water "and remember to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze into your elbow. The Mandarin word for sneeze is ... " You get the idea.

One of our favorite moments comes when the student narrators (they all take turns) drop a bit of COVID-poetry — a famous saying in Mandarin that means, 'Sickness comes in like a landslide but goes out as slow as spinning silk.'"

Our judges found the format both innovative and informative. "I was impressed that these students took on the story of the century in such a thoughtful and creative way, putting it — literally — in their own words, both in English and Mandarin," said Chuck Holmes, one of our judges and the executive director of NPR member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala.

N'Jeri Eaton, director of programming and new audience at NPR and another of our judges, agreed. "I actually found myself sounding out the words as I went along," she said.

The entry was submitted by Karin Patterson, who teaches English as a new language at PS 126/MAT and runs the Dragon Kids Podcast Club after school. Patterson told NPR that, each year, she begins a new club. In past years, she's helped students design and sell sweatshirts with their school's logo — a dragon, of course — and create a newspaper. This year, Patterson says, she wanted to start a podcast club "because I heard about NPR's Student Podcast Challenge, and I was like, 'Hey, that would be cool!' "

Several minutes into the episode, it becomes clear the Dragon Kids have more on their minds than a few cool vocabulary lessons. Soon, they get down to the business of journalism, shining a light through the swirl of misinformation that followed COVID-19 into their community.

"There are a lot of rumors on the internet about the coronavirus," Leo Yu says. "You should only believe your doctor, or the CDC and WHO."

Before their New York City schools shut down, the Dragon Kids say those rumors led to hurtful, racist comments from classmates in the hallways and even in the classroom.

"They were basically saying how we have coronavirus because we are Chinese," Amanda Chen remembers in the podcast. "And they were saying how us Asians were joining together, trying to spread the virus."

Amanda's not alone.

"I was in my history class, and a female student asked me how to cook bat soup because it was a rumor that the coronavirus was caused through bat soup," Joyce Jiang says in the podcast, "and she was laughing through the whole thing and she was taking it as a joke."

But it wasn't a joke for Joyce, and she and her fellow Dragon Kids say it's important to call out discrimination when you hear it. As Leo says emphatically, "if [students are] experiencing harassment about the coronavirus because they are Chinese, kids should tell an adult at their school. And if that adult doesn't do anything, tell another adult!"

Which brings us full-circle to the closing words of "Masked Kids":

"Please be kind to one another."

At a time when many of us are feeling stretched and stressed by current events, the words aren't just a suggestion but a charge, to all of us, to do better.

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