“I sometimes still ask myself, why do I still do this?” The hesitant 12 year old boy clears his throat to deliver his next line. “This is WAY too dangerous. I am doing a job five times more dangerous than an average job, and I am only getting a fifth of what a usual person would get in the West.” Nathan, the animated FPR student, continues his persona of the old sherpa. “I hope I can afford a private school this year, otherwise this whole trip would be useless… I have one of the biggest jobs in the country, yet I’m still struggling to put food on the table.”
Welcome to Futures Public Radio, a homegrown organization at The International School of Beijing that lives by the motto, “for the students, by the students.” Their mission: “Provide an authentic community voice for middle and high school students, empowering them through investigative journalism to serve [the] community, and be a civic force.”
That’s exactly what Nathan is doing.
One of the organization’s youngest members, he is carefully narrating a first-hand account of a Nepalese sherpa to shed light on the difficulties of earning a wage in a developing nation. He’s compiled his story from careful research, including first-hand accounts and interviews of those he intends to portray.
His story will be one of several featured on the ‘Global Voices’ section of the Future Public Radio website, managed and run by, you guessed it, the students themselves.
What was the Inspiration Behind FPR?
Futures Public Radio was originally intended to be a student-produced version of National Public Radio, the giant radio syndicate in the States. But then, as its visionary founders Steve Sostak and Aaron Moniz so aptly put, the students took it in a “different direction.” Students were far more interested in using video production, documentary creation, and cinematographic techniques to capture unique experiences and community stories. See the students describe FPR in their own words here: FPR in their own words.
Futures Public Radio emerged out of a desire to provide students with a voice and access point to their communities. Giving students a platform to share the stories they uncovered, or the passions they all shared helped increase the rigor and integrity with which they approached their work. This level of ownership and craftsmanship has taken the station to places even their teacher leaders could have never envisioned in its initial inception. The older students mentor the younger ones; run skills workshops for one another; and now interview highly acclaimed authors, poets, musicians and community change makers.
What’s even more impressive is the 2-day student journalism conference they have organized entirely on their own. They have booked flights, processed visa requests, organized their itineraries, planned workshops, made conference shirts, and coordinated logistics with other international schools. All that was needed for students to build this level of leadership was two adult mentors, 2-3 hour meetings after school per week, and the opportunity to take charge. Within school hours, they honed their newly emerging skills by collaborating on similar projects, including Koen Timmers’ Innovation Project around sustainable development goals, and a local Capstone Project they all complete during their time in Middle School.
Benefits to Student Learning
Yet beyond the obvious 21st century skills students develop in taking ownership of their own radio broadcast, they also forge connections to curriculum and content. Below are the five greatest benefits FPR has on student learning.
1. Supporting EL Students
Supporting our EL learners is always a challenge. And although there are many scaffolded strategies to help second language learners grasp the content in our curriculum, nothing is more powerful than motivation. By creating a space for student voice, EL students are motivated to more quickly grasp the language so they too can be part of the storytelling process. Watch here, as second language learner Alicia in FPR performs her narrative poem, “Heaven,” to bring awareness around refugees from Chad. In sharing the poem, she was motivated to grasp the nuances of language, including inflection, tenor, and intonation; in writing the poem, she was required to understand techniques like meter, stanza, and sensory detail. Finally, by engaging in authentic conversations with refugees of Chad, she had to pose and respond to questions with elaboration and detail.
2. Develops Mentorship and Leadership Skills
FPR is more than merely a space for sharing stories from the community, it’s also a place to build community from within. Each FPR student, as a rite of passage, is expected to mentor younger students in the program by holding workshops, skills sessions and immersive experiences to help younger peers gain in ability and confidence with investigative journalism. By creating a program that is entirely student run, students also develop an organic organization that requires multi-layered roles and responsibilities–from president to secretary, graphic designer to editor.
3. Develops Trans/InterDisciplinary Thinking
As educators, we are always looking for ways to connect our content to another subject. If students are required to collect data for an experiment in science, we might have them learn about statistical analysis in math. Unfortunately, these kind of connections are often surface level, failing to offer students the deep and meaningful links when approaching an authentic challenge or task. With a program like FPR, students make authentic connections between subjects, as knowledge of each is crucial to their success in the station. In technology, they learn about digital media and film production; in ELA, they learn how to shape a story using narrative techniques; and in Humanities, they learn about the economic, social and political factors that shape people’s lives. All of this knowledge is essential in weaving together stories of real people in the community.
4. Increases Global Awareness
When asking Steve Sostak and Aaron Moniz, FPR’s founders, about how they connect students to a global audience, they answered in one simple, yet profound word: Relationships. Kids get outside of their bubbles to find the most inspiring stories and role models. They build relationships with members of the community in order to uncover these stories and learn more about global issues. As several schools look to the UN’s sustainable development goals as a guiding principle for community involvement, FPR provides an accessible platform for students to start making progress. It has connected students to refugees in Chad; student leaders in Seoul; and boots on the ground in Kesovo. As Aaron Moniz honestly relates, “It’s hard to say no to kids.”
5. Builds Entrepreneurial Skills for the Future Economy
According to the World Economic Forum, over 50% of the workforce will be freelancing by the time these students graduate high school. That means 1 out of every 2 workers will have to deal with uncertainty, find clients, work in different locations, market their skill/ value, and work on projects that span the globe. There is no better way to prepare them for this future than to have them start freelancing now. FPR is a true freelance project in the way it allows students to work anytime, anywhere, and with anyone. Each mini-project demands a different understanding of the techniques, people and methods to carefully craft the best story. That uncertainty helps provide students with the skills to navigate a future for which we are equally uncertain.
How to Get Started
Like you, I am equally overwhelmed with the prospect of starting a radio station at my school. I am starting a new adolescent program in Hong Kong, and it terrifies the **** out of me. But at the same time, I am reminded that FPR also started with baby steps. The founders mention that they started with nothing more than “a few smartphones and a publishing platform.” Equip your students with a few smartphones, or have them use their own (you may be surprised by the sound quality you can get even from mid-tier headphone microphones), and connect them with someone in the community that you personally find inspiring. If you are more adventurous, have them interview someone they admire. Bring the interviews back, partner them up and have them craft a story. Finally, have students share with the class and dissect the qualities that make a great story.
Don’t get caught up with equipment. What makes FPR most intriguing is the stories it delivers. As your station progresses, secure a grant or host fundraising events to purchase the audio interfaces, studio microphones and video recorders that will make the station more professional.
Where to Learn More
Steve Sostak and Aaron Moniz, the program’s founders, are now busy disseminating this practice worldwide. They speak at conferences and consult with schools through workshops and coaching on the development of their own radio programs. You can learn more at inspirecitizens.org, through their Twitter handle @inspiredcitizen1 or by emailing them at email@example.com.
For a look at more interesting, big projects from Kyle Wagner, see:
- Building Student Ownership Through Community Mapping
- How to Give Students Future-Ready Skills Through Community Service
- Want Authentic PBL? Take Students to the Farm
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