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This Year's Favorites: Our 2021 SPC Finalists

LA Johnson

Sibling drama, identity crises — so much climate change — and of course: the challenges of school and life in the pandemic. This year NPR's Student Podcast Challenge has all those things, and more.

For the last few months, students all over the country have been doing what we do here at NPR — recording interviews, editing tape, creating home studios and reading their stories into a microphone. This year's contest brought us more than 2,600 podcasts from 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Today, we're announcing our finalists! We've listened to every single podcast entry and narrowed the list down to 12 middle school finalists and 15 high school finalists. You can read and listen to thefull list here (or just keep scrolling!)

From this list, our judges will select our two grand-prize winners, and then in about a week, we'll announce those winners. (We also identified about 200 honorable mentions and we'll be announcing those soon as well.)

Among the many outstanding entries who made our list of finalists are:

  • Three high school students from the Lower Kuskokwim School District  in southwest Alaska who interviewed their classmates about a family activity that really bonded them during the pandemic: subsistence hunting. Listen to the chase here.
  • More than 100 years ago, a politician shot and killed a newspaper editor in broad daylight in Columbia, S.C.. A historian, two local journalists, a famous South Carolina prosecutor, and the great nephew of the victim help students at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School tell the lost story.
  • In the wise words of 5th grader Lucille Bornand from Richland Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles: "Slugs are underrated!" Learn more about those lovable "garden blobs" here
  • Ever heard about the time, back in 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England visited the United States ... and had a hot dog party? Nope, we hadn't heard of it either. Students at the Young Writers Institute in Cary, N.C., fill us in.
  • If there's one thing we notice about this year's student podcasts, is that they're getting better. We heard a lot of students lean into video chat and phone-call interviews. We get it — NPR reporters are doing the same thing! Students did a great job of making those interviews feel natural and intentional.

    And, as always, we were surprised by the creative problem-solving. In one case, a group of seventh graders from Canton, Ga., surveyed students via text message to gather data about this question: What do you wish your parents knew?. And then, the students themselves read the answers out loud to create a dramatic reading for their podcast: "The Realistic Life of Future Adults."

    Another big trend — one we also saw in our college category — was a new focus on families. Students interviewed siblings, parents or grandparents about family histories or big issues.

    In this category, one podcast that stole our collective hearts came from sisters Astrid and Zouri Johnson in Baltimore. Astrid, 16, and Zouri, 9, are self-proclaimed best friends who shared their thoughts about all kinds of things. You can listen here.

    And, as in the previous two years, students were remarkably open and honest in talking about their identity. Seventh-grader Andrea Marsh told us what it's like to be Black in 2021, weaving history and present events together in "My Melanin." Kriti Sarav from Chicago, discussed her complex feelings behind her culture and identity in "My Very Own Bully."

    Our judges love when it's clear that students spent a long time on their entries. These types of podcasts are generally investigations with good sourcing and background research. This year more than ever we saw students investigating what they know best — their own backyard. Eight of our 27 finalists worked on local investigations.

    In West Windsor, N.J., Christian Gobo and Anna Rubenstein explored their community's response to a local controversy. On December 1st, 2020, a van full of angry protesters arrived at the Teng family's home. The protestors stayed for 37 days, accusing the father of being a spy working for the Communist party in China. Listen to how the neighborhood responded in "Shouts In The Quiet."

    Across the country in Ashland, Ore., high school students investigated what a year with no theater performances means for their town and its main revenue stream: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The pandemic was more than just an interruption to performances; it was an existential crisis. Twelve students from Ashland High School investigate in "Tea, Toast, and Truth: To Be Or Not To Be?"

    In Lexington, Ky., seventh-graders Braeden Collett, Brennan Williams, Bo Porter and Dominique Jann explored the various things that get done behind the scenes to make their school run smoothly. They asked their classmates: "How many maintenance people do you think are needed to take care of this entire campus?" The answers ranged from 25 to 50, but to find out how many actually take care of Sayre School you'll have to give the podcast a listen.

    Congratulations to all the finalists!

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.
    Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.