Students and teachers find human truths in podcasts

·5 min read

Jul. 25—When Andrea Marsh began podcasting, she felt a long-missing "spark that was true magic," she said. "It was the feeling of truth that kept bringing me back."

The first time she listened to her initial podcast, "My Melatonin" — which finished in national media organization NPR's top 12 for middle school podcasts last year — with her mother, they cried together, said Marsh, a rising ninth-grader at Dalton Junior High School. "I didn't lie in the podcast — I was honest, raw, and me — (and the medium) empowered me" to be truthful.

"I found my voice, a voice I hadn't been able to share in so long," said Marsh, who received multiple commendations for her follow-up podcast "What Now?" that examines the true meaning of success during this year's county-wide Speak Up Whitfield awards ceremony at the Wink Theatre. At the time she started podcasting, she said, she was battling various mental health struggles — exacerbated by the death of her grandfather, with whom she was "very close" — so she hoped a podcast would be a way to take her "mind off the negative," but it became so much more.

Podcasting became an "outlet" that boosted her self-esteem, and there's "true tranquility" in listening to a podcast, said Marsh. Podcasting helps students across Whitfield County "find their voices like (I did)," and she's "really excited about (podcasts) bringing our community together."

There is "no greater experience for me as a teacher than when students leave my class knowing their story has to be heard by others," said Amanda Triplett, the audio, visual, technology and film instructor, school publicist and webmaster at Dalton Junior High School who coordinates Speak Up Whitfield. "Finding that voice is so difficult at a middle or high school level, but it is powerful."

This year, 10 schools participated in Speak Up Whitfield, with 82 podcasts part of the competition, said Triplett, who launched the network of student podcasts in Dalton and Whitfield County. Podcasting, with its "depth of thought and limitless topics, can speak to all ages."

Remy Miranda, a local filmmaker, made a documentary film about Speak Up Whitfield, which was screened during the awards ceremony. In addition, Ellis Stephens, a rising sophomore at Dalton High School who made the 2020 NPR Top 10 in the Student Podcasting Challenge, then made the top 12 in that competition last year, shared a portion of his latest podcast, "Necessary Step," about his "greatest enemy, writer's block."

Reach of podcasts expands

Triplett, who started incorporating podcasting into her journalism class curriculum after she attended a podcasting workshop at Syracuse University, is gratified to see student podcasting spread into Whitfield County Schools, so those "students can tell their stories, too."

That's happened through teachers in Whitfield County Schools, who have learned from their Dalton Public Schools counterparts, as "we all live in the same place, Whitfield County," Triplett said. "We need to bring podcasting into every classroom," and two dozen teachers at Dalton Junior High and The Dalton Academy have already told Triplett they want to podcast with their students.

Podcasting is "equitable, because you can do a good one cheaply, so kids who haven't had a voice can have one," she said. "I've never seen anything in education as powerful as this."

While on the stage at Speak Up Whitfield, Marsh was "about to cry, but not because of my award," she said. "It was because we've made it so far, and so many kids are being influenced by podcasting."

Podcasting involves a variety of skills, from technological proficiency to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) abilities, Triplett said. Students also develop crucial workforce "soft skills," like having mature, respectful conversations with those with whom they might disagree.

Having a voice

"(I'm) a walking billboard for podcasting," Marsh said with a laugh. In fact, after speaking to students in Molly Chitwood's first-grade class at Westwood School — Marsh's alma mater — Chitwood told Triplett she wants to bring podcasts to her first-graders next year.

There's still work to be done, including incorporating more male students into podcasting, Marsh said.

"It's hard to get guys (involved, perhaps) because there's still a stigma — especially in the South — about men sharing their feelings and emotions."

Youth often feel they have no voice, but they do possess "interesting perspectives and have important things to say," said Laura Lagania, whose seventh-graders at Eastbrook Middle School provided 22 of the 82 podcasts. "My purpose as a teacher is to make students feel valued, understood and seen, and I can't think of a better way to do that than podcasting."

Students "can research and explore what speaks to their interests, passions and hearts," said Lagania, who received the Educator of Excellence award — as did North Whitfield Middle School drama teacher Ashlyn Barnett — at the Speak Up Whitfield awards ceremony. "They feel valued, and they are doing work of value."

An education tool

Teachers in both school systems have not only helped their students with podcasts, but they've made their own podcasts and incorporated podcasts more into classroom instruction, said Julia Cagle, Dalton Junior High's media specialist. Podcasts "increase engagement in students."

Podcasts "have unleashed an incredible energy in students and teachers," said The Dalton Academy teacher Jeffrey Hutchinson. "We all want to be heard — it is exhilarating, affirming and satisfying to know you're heard — and we all want to be connected."

Words "strum the emotional strings of the heart, (and podcasts) are a communion of hearts among users," Hutchinson added. They are "an amazing tool to take listeners into the hearts" of podcasters.

Watching the podcasting program "take root and grow has been incredible," as is seeing the "unprecedented collaboration" between Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools to support it, said Missie McKinney, Dalton Junior High's principal. "There are so many vibrant stories and talented storytellers in" both school systems, and "our stories matter."

Speak Up Whitfield "brings people together, (and) what a model for others," McKinney said. "We are our stories."

Marsh has learned through podcasting "having a voice is a right, not a talent or a privilege," she said. "Your voice inspires, influences, and (can) effect change."

"I was given the chance of a lifetime, and I took it. Now, it's your turn," Marsh told the audience members at the awards ceremony. "What you have to say today has a chance to change tomorrow."