Laughter and conversation filled the room around lunchtime at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science as university composition students made their way into “Dr. E’s” classroom.
Thomas Easterling’s students are tasked with a unique approach to the advanced English course. Like a typical composition class, the students perform research, interviews and write a paper. Unlike a regular, run-of-the-mill composition class, students also write a script and produce a podcast, called “Real Mississippi,” telling stories from their hometowns.
“It started off as us picking heroes and villains of our hometowns, but it turned into so many things other than that,” Everett Mason from Lorman said. “Some people’s turned into telling legacies that weren’t told before, and some people’s turned into justice and injustice in Mississippi. Some people’s turned into more concepts related to people. … There’s such a wide range of stories being told.”
MSMS is composed of students from all over the state, and each of their podcasts reflect this. One student, Raegan Calvert from Wiggins, said the prompt of finding a hero or villain helped her hone in on something specific in her hometown that roughly 4,500 people call home.
Calvert focused on the once-bustling town center, which only has two businesses left. The town is looking to grow, but it seems at a standstill even as citizens speak with local government officials about what can be done to promote growth specifically on Pine Hill Avenue.
“Being that some of us come from such small towns, I think that Dr. E giving us the heroes and villains prompt really helped give direction to the projects,” Calvert said. “When you just say, ‘Do a project on your hometown,’ when your hometown is not that large, it’s hard to find something that will keep your interest. When you find a subject that can be a hero or villain, as you research you might find another story underneath that’s much more interesting, even if it doesn’t end up being a hero or villain in the end.”
The most popular podcast episodes center around people such as Sarah Thomas, the first female referee in the National Football League who is from Pascagoula, and Tupelo native Elvis Presley. Other people highlighted include the Blue Light Rapist of Meridian; Charles Evers, of Decatur, the first Black mayor in Mississippi after Reconstruction; and famous musicians like B.B. King and Bo Diddley.
For some students, hosting a podcast can be an uncomfortable experience the same way public speaking is, and they would rather work behind the scenes to get the podcast up and sounding good. Those students, such as Andrew Liu from Madison, prefer to stay back and produce the episodes rather than screenwrite one.
“We use a program called Audacity that’s like a sound mixing program, and we pull ambient noises to match the story,” Liu said. “We put everything in order and make sure it sounds good. So our (producers) research didn’t turn into podcasts, and instead we helped those who wanted to be scriptwriters.”
A growing audience
Easterling’s classes were not always centered around a podcast project, and students followed the familiar model of analyzing assigned literature. However, when COVID-19 first began, the teacher searched for another way to reach his students. The podcast was the perfect way for his students to experience something relevant to the current world but also to let their voices be heard.
“Students have loved (doing the podcasts),” Easterling said. “I think having a platform like this to do research and to have your voice heard appeals to young people.”
Easterling plans on using the podcast format for class for the foreseeable future, and since the first class added their podcasts online last year, listenership has doubled from about 600 to 1,200 worldwide.
One episode of “Real Mississippi” ranges in length from six to eight minutes. All episodes can be found on Spotify, Google Podcasts and Anchor.
Students record their podcasts in creative ways. Often, they make homemade podcast studios to block out external sounds and maximize their voice into the microphone while recording for the podcast. Richard Zheng from Clinton has a setup that works for him.
“My personal studio is two of my pillows with a jacket draped over my laptop, and I borrowed my friend’s (microphone) which he uses to game,” Zheng said.
“That’s what my setup looks like. At the very beginning Dr. Easterling had us write on paper the heroes and villains from our hometowns. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t paying attention, but I didn’t realize it would turn into this long of a project for the podcast. We did research, an annotated bibliography, then we wrote a paper and had that graded. Then the scriptwriters had to write a script based on their project.”
Though each story is vastly different from the next, Madison Echols from Hattiesburg said the podcasts are meant to be listened to as a series, so there isn’t one that stands out best to them.
“The whole point of the ‘Real Mississippi’ podcast is to show all these different perspectives and all of the stories that make Mississippi what it is,” Echols said. “Choosing a favorite episode defeats the purpose because it’s all of these stories combined that tell the true story of Mississippi.”