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What We Heard From NPR's First Student Podcast Challenge

LA Johnson/NPR

This year, NPR's Education Team challenged teachers and students around the country to turn their classrooms into production studios, their assignments into scripts, and their ideas into sound.

The first-ever NPR Student Podcast Challenge exceeded all of our expectations: All told about 25,000 students around the country participated, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We received almost 6,000 entries from teachers.

We heard from students at a school for the blind in Minnesota; students at a juvenile detention center in Milwaukee; Native American students from Crow Agency, Montana; immigrant students in Bentonville, Arkansas; hearing-impaired students; students in Appalachia responding to the opioid crisis; and students who live on military bases.

They talked about global issues like climate change, immigration, guns and mass shootings, racism, inequality, and hunger. They also talked about issues uniquely important to kids and teens: social media, bullying, video game addiction, vaping, school lunches, and recess. They told us about sports and dating and their hopes and dreams for the future.

But two podcast submissions stood out to our panel of judges from NPR — including Planet Money's Sarah Gonzalez, Code Switch's Shereen Marisol Meraji and It's Been a Minutehost Sam Sanders — and member stations across the country.

Bronx Prep Middle School teacher Shehtaz Huq said Ssh! Periods "grew out of an incident in English class involving a pad, a bathroom pass, and a roomful of twenty-five students exhibiting various levels of discomfort at the prospect of periods."

A group of young women in the eighth grade turned this experience into a podcast that covered period poverty, the 'pink' tax, and the culture of shame around talking about menstruation. "This was the group's first foray into podcasting," said Huq. "They watched videos to learn sound editing."

"I love the way these students explored a 'taboo' subject and put it into a wider context," said Rebecca Martin of . The Bronx, New York eighth graders' winning podcast will be featured in a segment on Morning Edition in May.

Murderous Mary and the Rise of Erwin, from the 11th graders at Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, Tennessee, tells the story of a nearby town famous for hanging a "rogue" circus elephant using a crane. When they submitted their entry, teachers Tim Wasem and Alex Campbell wrote the students wanted to tell a good story, "but also highlight the ways Erwin is doing good work and making the most of this strange moment in their history."

Elizabethton High School students finding out they've won one of the prizes in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.
/ Bekah Price
Elizabethton High School students finding out they've won one of the prizes in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

"They'd never done anything like it, but it was extremely rewarding for for them," said Wasem.

And it paid off. "Amazing and hilarious — any professional journalist would be proud to tell this story," said Linda Lutton, one of the Podcast Challenge judges and a reporter for member station in Chicago. Murderous Mary and the Rise of Erwin will be featured on All Things Consideredin May.

We'll be featuring standout podcast submissions, both on and on the radio, in the weeks and months to come.

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