Coronavirus, Racism And Kindness: How NYC Middle-Schoolers Built A Winning Podcast

Jun 17, 2020
Originally published on June 19, 2020 4:43 pm

First, the end:

"Please be kind to one another. That's all for today."

So closes the middle-school top-prize winner of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. World, meet The Dragon Kids.

That's the moniker of an afterschool podcast club at PS 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology, located in New York City's Chinatown neighborhood. They are sixth-graders Leo Yu, Angelo Chen, Becky Liu, Si Chen Xu, Zoe Jiang, Nicole Zheng and tenth-graders Joyce Jiang and Amanda Chen. Their winning podcast, "Masked Kids," is both a time capsule and a cautionary tale about life in the time of the coronavirus.

Now, the beginning:

The pod starts gently, interweaving innocent, COVID-inspired vocabulary lessons in Mandarin — think "mask" and "sneeze" — with safety tips that needed repeating back in February and March, when the students were writing and recording: Wash your hands with soap and water "and remember to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze into your elbow. The Mandarin word for sneeze is ... " You get the idea.

One of our favorite moments comes when the student narrators (they all take turns) drop a bit of COVID-poetry — a famous saying in Mandarin that means, 'Sickness comes in like a landslide but goes out as slow as spinning silk.'"

Our judges found the format both innovative and informative. "I was impressed that these students took on the story of the century in such a thoughtful and creative way, putting it — literally — in their own words, both in English and Mandarin," said Chuck Holmes, one of our judges and the executive director of NPR member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala.

N'Jeri Eaton, director of programming and new audience at NPR and another of our judges, agreed. "I actually found myself sounding out the words as I went along," she said.

The entry was submitted by Karin Patterson, who teaches English as a new language at PS 126/MAT and runs the Dragon Kids Podcast Club after school. Patterson told NPR that, each year, she begins a new club. In past years, she's helped students design and sell sweatshirts with their school's logo — a dragon, of course — and create a newspaper. This year, Patterson says, she wanted to start a podcast club "because I heard about NPR's Student Podcast Challenge, and I was like, 'Hey, that would be cool!' "

Several minutes into the episode, it becomes clear the Dragon Kids have more on their minds than a few cool vocabulary lessons. Soon, they get down to the business of journalism, shining a light through the swirl of misinformation that followed COVID-19 into their community.

"There are a lot of rumors on the internet about the coronavirus," Leo Yu says. "You should only believe your doctor, or the CDC and WHO."

Before their New York City schools shut down, the Dragon Kids say those rumors led to hurtful, racist comments from classmates in the hallways and even in the classroom.

"They were basically saying how we have coronavirus because we are Chinese," Amanda Chen remembers in the podcast. "And they were saying how us Asians were joining together, trying to spread the virus."

Amanda's not alone.

"I was in my history class, and a female student asked me how to cook bat soup because it was a rumor that the coronavirus was caused through bat soup," Joyce Jiang says in the podcast, "and she was laughing through the whole thing and she was taking it as a joke."

But it wasn't a joke for Joyce, and she and her fellow Dragon Kids say it's important to call out discrimination when you hear it. As Leo says emphatically, "if [students are] experiencing harassment about the coronavirus because they are Chinese, kids should tell an adult at their school. And if that adult doesn't do anything, tell another adult!"

Which brings us full-circle to the closing words of "Masked Kids":

"Please be kind to one another."

At a time when many of us are feeling stretched and stressed by current events, the words aren't just a suggestion but a charge, to all of us, to do better.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Our next story comes to us from the classroom, specifically Mrs. Karin Patterson's room at PS 126. That's the Manhattan Academy of Technology in New York City. Her podcast club won the middle school top prize in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. The students in the club, most of them sixth-graders, call themselves The Dragon Kids. Here's NPR's Cory Turner with the rest of their story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Let's start with some introductions. World, meet The Dragon Kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEO: I'm Leo.

BECKY: I'm Becky.

ZOE: I'm Zoe.

NICOLE: I'm Nicole.

SI CHEN: I'm Si Chen.

ANGELO: And I'm Angelo.

TURNER: They were all sixth-graders this spring when they made their winning podcast called "Masked Kids."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE: As in surgical masks that doctors wear during surgeries.

TURNER: They chose to devote a whole podcast to, well, the reality we've all been living in these past several months - life in the time of the coronavirus. And they did a few things that really set their story apart. First, the students are all Chinese American, and they wove in a few quick vocabulary lessons in Mandarin. So the word mask is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELO: (Speaking Mandarin).

BECKY: Now you try it.

ANGELO: (Speaking Mandarin).

TURNER: Since their podcast was made back at the beginning of the outbreak, The Dragon Kids also included a few useful tips, like, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELO: And remember to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze into your elbow. The Mandarin word for sneeze is...

LEO: (Speaking Mandarin).

NICOLE: Like other viruses, the coronavirus is spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing like the flu is spread.

BECKY: A famous saying in Mandarin is...

SI CHEN: (Speaking Mandarin).

LEO: Which means, sickness comes in like a landslide but goes out as slow as spinning silk.

TURNER: But this lovely bit of COVID poetry is just a warm-up for The Dragon Kids. A few minutes in, they get down to the business of journalism, cutting through the swirl of misinformation that followed COVID-19 into their community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEO: There are a lot of rumors on the Internet about the coronavirus. You should only believe your doctor or the CDC and WHO.

TURNER: Before their New York City schools shut down, The Dragon Kids say those rumors also led to hurtful, racist comments in the hallways and even in the classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEO: We have some high school students who have experienced harassment about the coronavirus because they are Chinese.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEO: Amanda used to go to our elementary and middle school. Now she goes to a different New York City high school.

AMANDA: So they're basically saying how we have coronavirus because we are Chinese. And then later after that, my other group of friends came back from their lunch. But we had to walk past by that upper grade, and then they were saying how us Asians are joining together trying to spread the virus.

TURNER: The Dragon Kids then shared the story of another high schooler, Joyce.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOYCE: Also, I was in my history class, and a female student asked me how to cook bat soup because it was a rumor that the coronavirus was caused through bat soup. And she was laughing through the whole thing, and she was taking it as a joke.

TURNER: But Joyce and Amanda both told The Dragon Kids that these jokes really hurt and that it was hard speaking up for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BECKY: So what do you guys think kids should do if they are experiencing harassment about the coronavirus because they are Chinese?

LEO: Kids should tell an adult at their school. And if that adult doesn't do anything, tell another adult.

TURNER: And The Dragon Kids close their podcast with one last vocabulary lesson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BECKY: The most important word in Mandarin that we want to teach all of you is...

ZOE: (Speaking Mandarin).

NICOLE: Which means kindness.

LEO: Please be kind to one another.

NICOLE: That's all for today. Thanks for listening to our podcast.

TURNER: Again, that was The Dragon Kids out of PS 126 in New York City, reminding all of us to please be kind.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.