What happened to a circus elephant in the small East Tennessee town of Erwin a century ago, and what are the people there today doing about it?

And what do a group of middle school girls from the Bronx have to say about the stigma that surrounds talking about periods?

Those are the questions that propelled students from Elizabethton High School and Bronx Prep Middle School to the top of the nearly 6,000 podcast entries we received in the first-ever NPR Student Podcast Challenge. Congratulations to our grand-prize winners.

Picking our champions wasn't easy. We heard from schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia — more than 25,000 students participated — on some of the biggest topics in the world today. They reported on climate change, immigration and gun control. They let us into their worlds with podcasts about mental health, social media, drugs and bullying. We heard student journalists interviewing their friends, siblings, parents and teachers.

And we heard a lot of great radio. Meet our winners and listen to their work.

High school winner: " Murderous Mary and the Rise of Erwin"
By 11th-graders John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull and Caleb Miller. Submitted by teachers Tim Wasem and Alex Campbell.
Elizabethton High School, Elizabethton, Tenn.

In 1916, people hanged a circus elephant from a crane in Erwin. The students of nearby Elizabethton High School, in their winning podcast, told the bizarre story — and how people there today want to make things right.

"Through researching and talking to some of Erwin's people, we have learned how they are determined to change how people think about Erwin and its tragic history," the podcast concludes.

"This podcast took me on a journey," says Lee Hale, one of our judges and a reporter at member station KUER in Utah. "Halfway in, I forgot I was judging a student competition because I go so wrapped up in the story. The voices, the pacing, the arc — everything worked."

The work was submitted by English teacher Tim Wasem and social studies teacher Alex Campbell. When we broke the good news to Wasem, he said, "They really had a story they wanted to tell, and they wanted to tell it right."

Middle school winner: " Sssh! Periods"
By eighth-graders Kassy Abad, Caroline Abreu, Jasmin Acosta, Ashley Amankwah, Litzy Encarnacion, Raizel Febles and Kathaleen Restitullo. Submitted by teacher Shehtaz Huq.
Bronx Prep Middle School, New York, N.Y.

It's a topic that lots of middle schoolers rarely talk about openly: periods. The podcasters at Bronx Prep Middle School decided to take on the subject.

They noticed that many students and teachers at their school didn't feel comfortable talking about menstruation — and that many women can't afford menstrual products.

"This is a subject that affects everybody in the school because we want to have a comfortable environment for all of us girls," they said in the podcast.

Our judges found their project lively, brave and honest. "I love the way these students explored a 'taboo' subject and put it into a wider context," says Rebecca Martin of YR Media.

"It all came from what they've already seen living in the Bronx," their teacher, Shehtaz Huq, says. It was the first time the students had made a podcast, and they learned how to script, record and edit audio to put it all together.

We'll be airing stories from these winning schools later this month on NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition.

There were lots of great entries, and the judges noted that picking a single winner from each age group was a challenge. We'll be sharing other standout entries on the radio and online over the coming weeks.

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