This year, NPR held its first Student Podcast Challenge — a podcast contest for students in grades 5 through 12. As we listened to the almost 6,000 entries, we smiled, laughed, and even cried. Students opened their lives to us with stories about their families, their schools and communities and their hopes for the future.
But lots of other students blew us away. Here, for your listening pleasure, are just some of the many podcast entries that made us smile — and reminded us what it's like to be in middle and high school.
A divisive subject: Tater tots
The title of this finalist was enough to get our judges' attention. In "Tater Tots and their Lasting Impact on Society," fifth-graders Jack Lazzarone and Kalvin Martinez interviewed their classmates in teacher Ryan Brock's class at Jessie Beck Elementary School in Reno, N.V., about their thoughts about tots. (Not everyone loves the texture, apparently.) They even talked to a spokesperson from Ore-Ida, who told them all about the history of the deep-fried dish.
Another great debate: Which exotic house pet is for you?
The sixth graders in Zehra Lakhani's class at Clearwater Fundamental Middle School, in Clearwater, Fla., took on yet another hard-hitting assignment: "Which is a better exotic house pet: skunks or hedgehogs?" Audrey Morgan, Sophia Reese and Isabella Baltazar asked. They first gathered the data by interviewing 11 of their classmates about their thoughts on the subject. Then they dove into the facts. A pet skunk might be useful, they say, if a thief tries to rob your house. But hedgehogs are known to be great companions.
Growing up in Crow Agency, Montana
We heard from student podcasters from all 50 states, and one of our judges' favorites came from Connie Michael's students at Crow Agency Public School in Montana. "We're here to debunk myths about Native Americans," they told us. "People think we still live in tepees and still hunt for food."
In reality, the fifth-graders report, they love video games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, like other kids their age. But they also honor their heritage: They can speak Crow, and proudly celebrate their rich culture and history.
A podcast about friendship and being a teenager
We got a window into growing up in Morehead, Ky. from a group of 11th-graders at Rowan County Senior High School. In their podcast, we learn of the brotherhood that has formed among a group of young men as they spend hours and hours every week hanging out — with their friends, and their trucks — in the parking lot of the town's Walmart.
In "Tales From The Walmart Parking Lot," the students said they'll always remember this time of their lives: "We might not be blood, but we'll treat each other like family until the end."
Listen to the "Walmart crew" below. Their submission came to us from teacher Lindsay Johnson.
Complaints from fifth grade: bathroom passes
You've been there, right? Raising your hand in front of the whole class, and asking for a pass to go to the bathroom? Teacher Kathleen Isberg's fifth-graders at Park Hill Elementary School in Denver confronted this issue head-on.
"At our school, every teacher comes up with an object that you have to carry to and from class," Caitlyn Whitehead, Nico Sexton and Ramona Young told us in their podcast. "I wonder if the bathroom passes ever get cleaned?"
The students conclude that hall passes are gross and demeaning for students — but they understand that teachers have good reasons for using them.
"Do you ever get home, tired and hungry, and just want a pickle? That's literally me every day."
That's how sixth-grader Amy Walsh began her podcast. Amy loves pickles, and created her podcast to share the history of the food — and the practice of pickling — with the world.
She made the project in Nathan Garvin's class at Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Va.
Grab a pickle, take a seat, and listen below.
Taking fifth grade "One Word At a Time"
Many student podcasters taught us about the subjects they were learning in class. The fifth-graders at Cambridge Elementary School in Cambridge, Wis., broke into groups and made their podcasts about one word each.
"Were you in the cafeteria today? There was a huge kerfuffle!" Hannah Johnson, Makenna Angerhofer, Casey Granger, and Jacob Olson said to teach us about the word kerfuffle.
Teacher Mary Beth Steven's students created podcasts about a list of words including eureka, hippopotamus and lexical. Listen to all the entries from Steven's students here.
A father and daughter talk Pokemon Go
We heard interviews with siblings, parents and grandparents in the many podcasts that students created for the contest.
Skyler Perry made it to our list of finalists by interviewing her father about an activity he spends a lot of time on: playing Pokemon Go. Skyler, a senior at The Wellington School in Columbus, Ohio, told us how she introduced her dad, Jim, to the game. By the time they recorded the podcast, Jim had caught 23,053 Pokemon.
For her entry, submitted by her teacher Keith Leonard, Skyler talked with other Pokemon Go fans — and she even interviewed an expert who studies how the game affects its players. Knowing her dad will have Pokemon Go to keep him busy, Skyler said in the podcast, makes her feel just a little bit better about heading off to college in the fall.