What do kids want to talk about when it's just them and their thoughts? That's the question NPR's education team has set out to answer with the Student Podcast Challenge since it launched last year. Back then, we aired some of the best podcasts on a Code Switch episode called "Dispatches From The School Yard."
This year's contest was — like everything in 2020 — a little different. Even though some students had to record and edit while distance learning, the competition got over 2,000 entries from middle-schoolers and high-schoolers in 46 states and Washington, D.C. Both grand-prize winners and a large chunk of the finalists are students of color, and race and identity were at the forefront of hundreds of entries. Here are some of our favorites.
A group of students in Brooklyn at the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media decided to record the "The Flossy Podcast" about climate change and environmental racism. For these students, the topic is personal. Environmental racism, Jaheim Birch-Gentles explains in an interview, is "something that we can actually see and taste." And he isn't kidding: Students kept feeling bad after they drank from the school's water fountains. It turned out that there was lead in the pipes. The podcast discusses how their situation isn't unique: "People of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air."
Across the East River, at P.S. 126 in Chinatown, sixth-graders who called themselves "The Dragon Kids" interviewed friends and family about the early effects of the coronavirus. Their research turned into "Masked Kids," the winning entry for the middle school category. The students talk about the influx of racist comments and actions that hit Chinatown once news of the coronavirus broke. Along the way, they teach the listener Mandarin words like "mask" and "sneeze."
And 800 miles away in Cicero, Ill., two Latinx students talk about growing up with heavy accents and — again — the racist comments that come with it. They recall when they were playing a soccer game against a majority white team, and the visiting parents started shouting racial slurs at them.
In Stillwell, Okla., Native American students grappled with the outside perception of their town as "the early death capital of the United States." Their investigation took a whole semester, and the entire senior class contributed. The students reported on issues like lead in the water and interviewed residents who disagreed with the perception. They hope their investigation will "ignite a spark in Stilwell" to work together to heal.
The investigative reporting didn't stop there. A student in Queens, N.Y., interviewed teachers, students and nonprofit leaders to report out his piece, "Changing the White Curriculum One Book at a Time." He found out that even though he — and most NYC public school students — go to schools where POC students are the majority, their curricula still house predominantly white authors.
You can listen to all the NPR Student Podcast Challenge finalists here. And college students, make sure to look out for next year's competition—we'll be expanding the contest and asking for your stories!