Early on a bright Wednesday morning, Georgianna McKenny dressed for the long drive from their Crystal Springs home to Columbus, Miss. The rising senior was nervously excited about the day. The closer she got to the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, the more anxious McKenny became.
McKenny exited the car onto the campus of the Mississippi University for Women where MSMS is housed. She climbed the stairs of the Hooper building and her teacher, Dr. Thomas Easterling, guided her into his classroom where an array of interviewers waited. McKenny took her usual seat in the back corner of the room. It was familiar and comfortable. The interviewers noticed her nervousness and made small talk asking about her hobbies and favorites.
Before long, McKenny was comfortably answering questions from the National Public Radio team.
McKenny’s NPR interview was the first part of her prize as the winner of the 2023 NPR Student Podcast Challenge. The competition invites students in grades 5 to 12 around the country to create and submit an original podcast. Her winning podcast “How the Jackson Water Crisis Affects Education” was announced Wednesday on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
“I didn’t expect much of (the podcast),” said McKenny. “I wanted to be heard, but I didn’t expect it to get this far. I am really happy and so shocked that they chose mine over everyone’s that they listened to. I did not expect to win at all.”
McKenny created her podcast as part of Easterling’s University Composition course. The students write an essay about their home to begin the year. They then expand their research to something of interest in their community and students choose to either become a scriptwriter or producer of a podcast on the subject.
“A huge part of what MSMS does is to bring wonderful kids together from all corners of the state, from every background conceivable, and we put them in the same buildings, and the work they do together is just wonderful,” said Easterling.
COVID-19 challenged that success, though. “We lost so much of that when they had to go home because of the pandemic. When I started putting together the fall of 2020 syllabus, I wanted to find a way that would help students connect to each other with some project-based learning and also help explain where they’re from and what their lives are like in their hometowns so that when they did get in the same room together, they wouldn’t be there as strangers. It’s been a perfect marriage of the research paper and moving forward into 21st-century media.”
Inspired by a love of author Angie Thomas of Jackson, McKenny decided to delve deeper into the issues plaguing the capital city. She noticed that much of the media coverage of the Jackson water crisis often did not relate the plight of the people affected. She said that the podcast was personal to her; she is proud not because it won an honor but because it brought attention to the issues of students like her.
“I focused on the disabled, the elderly and children (but) that was around six or seven pages of a research paper, which was too long to fit into my podcast,” McKenny said. “But through that I chose exactly what I want to focus on, and I chose children in Jackson. Being in school myself, I feel right to (explore) at least a school aspect of it and to see how they are affected.”
Easterling works with students each year to produce their podcasts. McKenny used Audacity to splice together conversations from interviews with a Jackson Public Schools administrator and her cousin who is a high school student in the district.
“I think when she looked at her research paper (she) saw that she had a story that not very many people were telling about the Jackson water crisis,” Easterling said. “She realized that she had the potential to teach people a lot about seeing the world from a student’s perspective. Her ability to scale things back to the absolute and fundamental was exactly what I needed to know.”
McKenny submitted her podcast to the NPR competition in April and learned in June that she was a finalist.
“The people from NPR said that if she had wanted to run it as an NPR piece, they would have made two edits,” Easterling said. “Aside from having a couple of things they would have wanted changed, they said she floored them. She floored me, too.”
McKenny’s podcast is part of a series called Real Mississippi which features podcasts from students in MSMS’s University Composition course. It can be found on Spotify and Apple Music.
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