NPR Podcast Challenge Winners Tackle Local Stories with Worldwide Impact
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Six-thousand entries later, a podcast about a "murderous elephant" that doomed the reputation of a small town and the "taboo topic" of periods took first place in NPR's podcast challenge. This first-ever event was intended to help students learn how to tell stories — whether about their schools or communities, moments in history they considered important, sides of a debate that might not otherwise represent student viewpoints or something else that "kids understand but grown-ups don't."
Four juniors at Elizabethton High School earned the top nod in the high school category for its story about Erwin, a nearby town in Tennessee that would forever be known for hanging an elephant to death in 1916. According to the interviews shared in "Murderous Mary & The RISE of Erwin," the circus had come to town, and Mary, an elephant renowned for its size, was being guided down the main street of Kingsport toward a pond where she could play for a while by a new trainer who sat on her back. When a pile of watermelon rinds distracted her, the trainer struck her with a stick, so she wrapped her trunk around him, threw him to the ground and stepped on him.
Horrified, civic leaders insisted that the animal be put to death. Erwin happened to have the largest railroad center in the region, so those in charge suggested hanging the elephant from a crane. The first time the chain broke; the second time, the hanging worked. And forevermore Erwin became known as "the town that hung the elephant," as one interviewee put it.
But that wasn't the end of the story. A group of people decided to turn around Erwin's reputation for animal cruelty by starting an "Erwin Elephant Revival," committed to animal rights. Now, each summer, the town hosts a fundraiser where regional artists paint fiberglass elephant statues that are auctioned off and hold other events to raise funds to support a Tennessee elephant sanctuary.
None of the students had ever produced a podcast before. "We all thought it was interesting, so we stuck with it," said student Deanne Hull, in a statement. "We learned how to work cohesively, that talking to adults isn't as intimidating as it seems, and to never give up no matter how bad things appear. We were pretty far behind, but we kept trying and finally got it together in the last three days."
The work educated the students about the history of the hanging, they said, and it also gave them a new perspective on the town.
"It leaves an impact on your life and changes the way you think," said student Caleb Miller. "I thought Erwin was just a place that hung an elephant, but I realized it's a community of people that care and are trying to make things right and turn it into a positive note, which they're doing every day."
Recently, the high schoolers met online with instructional designers from MIT, who sought advice on how they could integrate podcasting into their studies.
Middle school winner Bronx Prep Middle School in New York took on a topic that few kids at that age would be willing to talk about, let alone broadcast on: periods. As part of the project the seven female eighth-graders even ran a poll and found that 67 percent of female students at the middle school felt "uncomfortable discussing their periods, because it's nobody's business," while 33 percent said that periods were a "dirty topic," and a stigma that "young girls carry...into adulthood." That segued into a brief discussion about "period poverty," the worldwide reality that "1.2 billion women...can't afford basic necessities"
As they were developing their work on campus after school, they found plenty of adults who also didn't want to hear about the topic, making faces or getting "squirmy," and so they'd have to move from classroom to classroom to continue their discussions, according to NPR coverage of the project.
The judges for the competition found the podcast "lively, brave and honest."
According to English teacher Shehtax Huq, this was the first time the students had made a podcast, learning how to script, record and edit the audio to pull it together into an audio story for sharing.
The winners received visits from the media organization's journalists, and their winning podcasts were included in segments of NPR's shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
While this year's podcast competition has ended, NPR still maintains the website where it has posted instructions for teachers and students on how to create podcasts.
And all 11 of Elizabethton's podcast submissions are available on the high school's website.
The winning podcast from Bronx Prep is available on Soundcloud.