Stilwell seniors reach finals in national podcast challenge
Stilwell High School seniors (not in order) Josh Sam, Stephen Maher, Titus Duncan, Chris Fields, Wesley Garrett, Joshua Noisewater, Samuel Baird, Katie Holmes, Oscar Solis, Loreyna Velazquez, Abi Duran, Becca Cofer, Alexis Sanders, Autumn Keener and Sunny Duncan, Jaron Kout, Jerri Daugherty and Bailey Vaught produced a 12-minute audio presentation for the National Public Radio Student Podcast Challenge. The seniors were among 25 finalists out of more than 2,000 entries from throughout the country. COURTESY
Stilwell English teacher Faith Phillips interacts with her students. Phillips encouraged senior SHS students to enter the National Public Radio Podcast Challenge with a podcast addressing the town’s designation as “the early death capital of the U.S.” LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
STILWELL – Stilwell High School’s 2020 seniors were among the 25 finalists in the National Public Radio Student Podcast Challenge.
The winner was named June 3 and though they did not win, being a finalist was no small feat because NPR received more than 2,000 podcasts from 46 states and the District of Columbia.
“SHS didn’t take the grand prize, but we still won big,” SHS English teacher and Cherokee Nation citizen Faith Phillips, said. “The school is receiving a set of recording equipment so they can continue to tell their stories. The students are being offered internship opportunities at NPR. This is why we have to make sure our students have the same tools as other Oklahoma schools.”
Phillips said the students did not enter the challenge to win. They did it for their community. “They were motivated by a genuine desire to unify their community and bring positive change. I think it is clear that they accomplished what they set out to do.”
Phillips, who also teaches creative writing and world literature, guided her students as they worked to refute a recent Washington Post article that described Stilwell as “the early death capital of the U.S.”
Senior English IV students worked on a months-long investigation that included interviews with elected officials, lifelong residents and researchers in Washington, D.C., to help them understand the data. The podcast offers a window into a town dealing with poverty, generational trauma and addiction, Phillips said, but one that also has pride and hope.
The Washington Post article was “a burr under the saddle” of Stilwell citizens, Phillips said.
“The seniors, likewise, were highly irritated by it,” she said. “They love their home, flawed though it may be. So I decided to take that article, identify the five or six problematic issues raised by the author, and let the students choose which issue they wanted to research.”
The students examined nutrition, air, water, health care access and poverty, Phillips said. “So they started emailing their elected officials as well as experts in the various fields. They also started interviewing a lot of people. They used my cell phone to record the interviews because we didn’t have any recording equipment. I have over 12 hours of interviews they conducted. The students started realizing that when they engage in a civil and informed manner, and especially as a coalition, they are very powerful.”
Seniors Jaron Kout, Jerri Daugherty and Bailey Vaught narrate the 12-minute story. Daugherty and Vaught are CN citizens. Twelve hours of audio was edited down to 12 minutes to submit to NPR. Rules also required Phillips to let the students direct the work. She said she did have one rule: every single detail they reported in the podcast had to be “100% verifiable hard fact.”
“I wanted it to be more of a journalistic endeavor, leaving out all the emotion,” she said. “But the students had other plans, and I let them roll with it. Now that they’re winning and receiving all this national recognition I understand that they were right.”
Kout said the seniors helped prove the point that Stilwell is not in fact the “Death Capital.”
“Along the way we discovered the solutions for the issues in our community,” said Kout. “One thing we heard over and over again in our research is that in order to change we have to want to change. The Stilwell High School seniors of 2020 want our research work to ignite a spark in Stilwell to come together not just as a community but as a family.”
To continue the momentum, Phillips’ students began journaling about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, and from those journals they are publishing a book in July called “2020 Visions.” The book’s proceeds will be used to place Chromebooks (laptops) in Stilwell’s English classes.
“It’s the legacy these students want to leave for the Stilwell students coming up after them,” Phillips said. “If there is a single message I want to come out of this story it is this: look what our young people can do when they have the same tools as students in larger, wealthier districts. Our people should not be expected to walk out into the world and compete for jobs without the same proficiency as others.”
Other students involved in creating the podcast were Josh Sam, Stephen Maher, Titus Duncan, Chris Fields, Wesley Garrett, Joshua Noisewater, Samuel Baird, Katie Holmes, Oscar Solis, Loreyna Velazquez, Abi Duran, Becca Cofer, Alexis Sanders, Autumn Keener and Sunny Duncan.
To listen to the podcast, visit npr-student-podcast-challenge on the internet.