The Best Student Podcasts: An 8th-Grade Homage To A School's Unsung Heroes
"How many people do you think take care of our campus?"
A chorus of young voices shout guesses from the Sayre School's playground in Lexington, Ky.
"15? 50? 20?"
The independent, pre-K-12 school has 10 buildings and about 500 students, so those guesses, albeit high, are understandable. The truth: The school has a maintenance staff of five. And now, the unsung heroes who make up that staff are the subject of a podcast that's won the middle school top prize in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.
BY: Braeden Collett, Bo Porter, Brennan Williams and Dominique Jannat, Middle School Winners
Sayre School, Lexington, Ky.
Many Sayre students don't know much about this small but mighty maintenance crew, but eighth-grade podcasters Brennan Williams and Braeden Collett see them all the time on their way to their school's audio-visual classroom studio.
"The basement is the only quiet place on campus where we can actually do recording and not hear doors slamming and everybody screaming," said their teacher, Brad Becker.
Around the corner from Becker's basement classroom — one floor below a grand entry room with not one but two pianos and portraits of old headmasters — sits the bright blue office of Steve Guynn and Robert Smith. From here they manage the buildings and grounds at Sayre School.
In the cramped, basement studio, Brennan and Braeden listen to podcasts with Becker, who is himself a podcaster, and dream up story ideas. Most recently they turned their microphones to their neighbors — Guynn, Smith and the buildings and grounds team.
Their decision paid off: The teens' podcast beat out over 2,000 entries to win the grand prize in the middle-school portion of NPR's third annual national podcasting competition.
(You can listen to the high school winner and college winners on the Student Podcast Challenge homepage. And check out this year's honorable mentions while you're at it!)
"I always hear my mom listening to NPR on the way to school," Braeden said. "It's really — it's just so crazy to me that we won."
This semester is their fourth or fifth in Becker's class — they honestly can't remember. At some point, the project-based elective became less a class than a safe haven to experiment with audio, to be creative and to study the work of other sound storytellers. Fueled by a steady supply of snacks from a basket on the bookcase (Ritz Bits, Rice Krispies Treats and ... salad dressing?), the boys spent hours searching for sound effects, editing interview tape and, for Braeden, getting used to the sound of his voice.
"I remember I listened to my voice for the first time, like putting it into [sound editing software]. And I was like, dang, I sound like I'm like 5," Braeden laughed. "It's not how I sounded to myself."
When NPR visited the boys in Kentucky to congratulate them on their Student Podcast Challenge win, we wanted to know why they'd chosen to focus on Sayre's buildings and grounds staff. The answer was just plain curiosity: Braeden and Brennan wanted to know more about their basement neighbors.
"We just don't even see them or know when they'll be there. They'll be extremely quiet so that they don't disrupt anything, but they're always there whenever you need them," Brennan said.
It was a surprise to Guynn and Smith when the boys asked to interview them.
"To us, the department is not exciting. This is just what we do," Smith said.
However, once Guynn and Smith started telling stories, it became clear how much they contribute to the school.
"We want all of the faculty and staff and mainly the kids — what I call the babies — we want everybody to feel a comfort here when they get on this campus," Guynn explained.
Guynn and Smith do everything they can to help the students focus on learning. That includes tracking down the source of a mysterious, building-fouling smell; fixing any leaks the 100-year-old buildings may spring; and even sleeping in the school to take care of the campus during an ice storm.
"We had an ice storm here in 2003 where we were out for literally eight days," Guynn said. "So I spent eight days with a chainsaw and cuttin' down trees for eight days. I lived here in the gymnasium on some tarps."
Brennan and Braeden, along with their collaborators Bo Porter and Dominique Jannat, want to turn their podcast into a series. Next up: the cafeteria staff.
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