In June, some local students were named finalists in the national NPR Student Podcast Challenge. The students at Pathways High, an independent charter school in Milwaukee, produced an audio series delving into the issue of Native American mascots.
The students interviewed activists, politicians and professors to tell the story, drawing a line from the colonization of America to the stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans in mascots and the media.
They talked to some key figures from Wisconsin’s most recent debate about mascots, including Tricia Zunker. Last year, the Wausau school board member pushed for the statewide school board association to denounce Indian mascots.
The renewed attention on Native American mascots in Wisconsin schools prompted some districts, like Menomonee Falls, to change theirs. But the statewide school board group didn’t take a stand on the issue.
So why did these Milwaukee high schoolers create a deep-dive podcast about Native American mascots? The answer speaks to Pathways’s unique, project-based learning approach. Instead of standard high school classes, students there take nine-week, interdisciplinary seminars.
Teachers Kyle Charters and Molly Spector built a seminar called “Stereotypical Representation of Native Americans in Imagery through Media and Mascots.” Again, not your typical high school history class.
“The essential question was around, what can we do with knowledge of racist and stereotypical imagery and things we learn from the media in order to become anti-racist in the world today?” said Charters.
Spector says teachers have a responsibility to not sugarcoat American history or downplay issues like racism to their students.
“Teaching requires you to not pull any punches,” Spector said. “Our youth deserve to explore real, tangible pieces of their true environment. These kids come ready and hungry for it. It’s our job to deliver that.”
Spector and Charters used the NPR student podcast contest as their students’ final project in the seminar.
Making the podcast was a lot of work – hours of interviewing, transcribing, and writing. Student Frannie Werner says her favorite part was listening to people's stories.
“It was a really interesting few weeks,” Werner said. “I really like that we got to talk to people in real life about their experiences. And as the class went on, I got more and more passionate about this. So the fact that I knew we would be making a podcast episode was something I was looking forward to.”
The class wasn’t able to finish the entire series because schools closed in March. But the five episodes produced still impressed NPR’s judges. The podcast was one of 25 finalists chosen from more than 2,000 entries.
This was the second year of NPR’s student podcast challenge, and also the second year that a Milwaukee-area podcast was chosen as a finalist. Last year, students incarcerated at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center were recognized for their podcast, in which they told their personal stories of how they ended up in juvenile detention.
The Pathways High students hope their podcast can teach others about the offensiveness of race-based mascots.
“For our episode, it was about Wisconsin schools, and I hope people realize that this isn’t just something that’s in the media. It’s all around us,” said Werner. “So I hope people get that message. It’s a local thing and there are changes we can do to make improvements and learn from our past mistakes.”
Student Fran Bresser added, “Using a whole race of people as a mascot is pretty messed up."
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