Students Receive Honors in NPR Podcast Challenge

Three UCLA Lab School students received an Honorable Mention for their entry in NPR’s second annual Student Podcast Challenge, a national competition that drew more than 2,200 submissions from around the country. Upper I students Finley B., Isolina C., and Sofia S. were recognized for their thoughtful podcast about the COVID-19 pandemic, “Covid Kids.” Announced in June, the awards are featured on the NPR website.

“Throughout this pandemic we have seen multiple changes in our lives,” Isolina says in the podcast’s intro. “Our daily routines, plans, and mindsets have changed alongside our health. I believe it is safe to say that coronavirus has taken a toll throughout our globe.”

Covering everything from the virus’ global impact to the ways quarantine has affected their daily lives, the students touch on the pandemic’s developments and share ways for listeners to stay safe, such as “wash your hands all the time,” and “try to avoid touching door handles and other objects,” as Finley reminds us in the podcast.

Working with Music Demonstration Teacher Alanah Ntzouras and Music Inquiry Support Facilitator Joseph Vaudreuil, the students had been learning about audio storytelling before they began the NPR challenge. In December, Ntzouras hosted a workshop for her students with a Netflix voice casting director, who gave students an introduction to how professionals use their voices and editing skills to tell stories through audio alone. Then, students learned how to use GarageBand, an audio production and editing program, and worked with Ntzouras and Vaudreuil to record and edit their own stories.

Sharing these projects in class gave students an opportunity to learn from each other’s efforts and think deeply about what interested them in their own work, said Ntzouras. “They gained the vocabulary of the medium in giving feedback while seeing how their work fit into the context of their classmates’ projects,” she said. “As the children were listening to each other’s podcasts, they were gaining ideas for their next projects.”

Ntzouras hadn’t originally planned on having her students participate in the NPR challenge. But when the COVID-19 pandemic came and the school shifted to a remote learning model, she was searching for projects that would build on the skills she had been developing with her students while accommodating the new learning circumstances.

That was when Vaudreuil heard that NPR had extended the deadline for their challenge. Both teachers felt right away it would be a good fit for their class. Ntzouras opened it up as an optional project for the students. “It was great because all of these projects were passion projects,” she said. “We made sure to be very clear that submitting to this contest was not mandatory, and so it was very much driven by what the students wanted to say.”

As for how the students chose COVID-19 as their topic, Sofia said it was simple: “At the time it was very new, so we felt like we had to speak about it.” Isolina added, “It’s one of the bigger things going on right now, so we felt like it was what we should do.”

While the decision to make their podcast about COVID-19 may have been simple, the process of making the podcast was not. One of the first challenges was technical. GarageBand, the software the teachers had used with students earlier, wasn’t as good for collaborating remotely as it was for working together in the classroom. As Vaudreuil pointed out, in GarageBand, “you can’t really edit anything collaboratively because a project lives on one laptop.”

Fortunately, Ntzouras had attended a conference where she learned about the cloud-based program Soundtrap, which lets students record and edit original audio, but runs on a web browser and can be used on any device. “It means Chromebooks, Windows, Mac, any type of tablet or cell phone, can run this platform, which opens up a level of accessibility,” Vaudreuil said. “It was a huge bonus when we moved to thinking about what equitable remote learning is.”

For the students, writing, recording, and editing their podcast required flexibility and resourcefulness. Isolina, Sofia, and Finley made sure to divide the work evenly, assigning each other tasks such as researching information, writing the script, and creating music and sound effects. The uncertainty the pandemic had injected into everyone’s schedules meant finding dedicated time to work together was sometimes difficult. As Isolina recalled, “We would call each other to collaborate. And if we couldn’t talk, we would work on our own parts.”

Research was a challenge too, given the evolving nature of even health experts’ understanding of COVID-19. At the same time, the students were working through their own understanding of the pandemic. “Everything was really new, so it was hard to process,” Sofia said. But the team worked together and used their critical thinking skills to overcome the hurdle. “We had each other,” Sofia continued, “so we put together all our research and we helped each other if it didn’t make sense.”

A focus of the podcast is the effect the pandemic has had on the students’ daily lives. In one segment, Isolina interviews her mother about how her daily habits have changed with three daughters in the house all day. Addressing questions about childcare, eating habits, and stress, the segment brings a parent perspective to the kids’ podcast. It also incorporates dual language skills in the project: Isolina interviews her mother in Spanish, with her own translation into English dubbed over the recording of her mother’s voice. Said Ntzouras, “That was a part of the podcast that was really impressive to me as a teacher. I thought, ‘Wow, those children must have experience listening to interviews in a bilingual setting.’”

Vaudreuil added, “I think it really adds a nice element when you can add those professional touches. We were able to help them learn this ducking technique that let them bring that to fruition.”

Of course, no podcast would be complete without great music. For the challenge, NPR required that all submissions use original music. While Soundtrap included royalty-free loops for its users, Ntzouras and Vaudreuil asked their students to contribute something original to their compositions. As Vaudreuil recalled, “A lot of kids decided to start with some loops and then add a melody on top of that to make that musical phrase uniquely their own.” This approach also let the students collaborate musically even while remote learning, recording and sharing their compositions with each other, he said.

Check out “Covid Kids” and all the Upper I submissions to the Podcast Challenge:

The Bright Side (Colette’s podcast)

Digging Into Covid (Emme, Lylah, Felicia, and Sheila’s podcast)

Covid Kids (Isolina, Sofia, and Finley’s podcast)

Anne Marie Frank (Lyla and Delina’s podcast)

Slice of Life (Ona, Lara-Munina, and Nina’s podcast)

Gender Roles (Olive’s podcast)

Amazing Activists (Samantha’s podcast)