A podcast started by a local school board is giving a chance for non-Indigenous people to learn and space for Indigenous students to feel represented.
The Word Up podcast is hosted by Erin Buchmann, the Indigenous instructional coach at District School Board Ontario North East (DSB1). Every episode, she is joined by a co-host and a special guest to talk about their work as an Indigenous artist, athlete, musician, author or community leader.
The idea for the podcast came as the board was looking at ways to encourage professional learning during the pandemic, Buchmann said.
The podcast, originally focused on literature, is a way to align with the recently-introduced Grade 11 English course, Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices, and to allow teachers to learn more about Indigenous authors.
Since its launch in December, the podcast has evolved. The focus has shifted to allow students to lead the conversations and feel reflected.
The podcast also allowed schools across the board to collaborate amid the pandemic and enabled teachers to engage without having to leave their classrooms.
“That was the need that we had and that was the starting point,” Buchmann said. “I think it’s really important when every year, you’re looking to elevate voice in this way that you take time to listen, to take time to ask questions from the people around you so that you have their support.”
Buchmann said she wants to challenge the notion that stories can only be text-based. For her, a story comes in different formats whether it's music, art or land.
Timmins High and Vocational School Grade 11 student Abbygail Anderson was one of the first students who co-hosted a podcast. Together with her English teacher Brady Power and Buchmann, she interviewed Jesse Thistle, the author of From the Ashes.
When Power asked her to do the podcast, she was very excited.
“It shows that no matter what age group you’re in, you can still do stuff like this,” she said. “It’s OK to express yourself in different ways. A lot of kids are struggling with opening up to people but this gives kids the chance to express themselves in different ways.”
Anderson said it was interesting to read the book and talk to the author about it. Co-hosting the podcast with her teacher also brought them closer together, she said.
“My experience reading the book, you just feel very connected. You understand how he’s feeling. Even talking to him was amazing, he elaborated on so many things, which was really awesome,” she said.
Buchmann said the podcast is also a part of the reconciliation process.
“The podcast is an example of the commitment to relationships. It’s a commitment to allowing Indigenous voice to have space within education,” she said. “It’s a commitment to representation to our students, making sure students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, in leadership.”
The podcast currently has five episodes. Buchmann said four more interviews have been lined up in the next two weeks.
Ideally, the goal is to have an episode released every two weeks until the end of May, then reconsider how to do the podcast next year.
Each episode, from start to finish, takes about five to six hours. Sometimes, Buchmann sends an email to a principal asking if there’s anyone interested in co-hosting. In the last few weeks, teachers have started to contact her with pitches.
There is a wish list of some big celebrities that people want to see as guests, according to Buchmann.
“As much as kids want to dream, we can go for it,” she said. “I thought why not, we can try.”
The podcast started for high school students only, but elementary teachers have started reaching out, Buchmann said.
She connects with a teacher first and it’s up to a teacher to choose a student for co-hosting. They do individual research and come up with questions through a shared Google document before getting together and trying to pare down similar questions. That in itself becomes a whole exercise, teaching students how to ask open-ended questions to encourage people to talk, Buchmann said.
On the day of the interview, Buchmann meets with her team about 30 minutes beforehand. After the interview, they do a debrief to talk about how it went. It takes Buchmann from 30 minutes to up to two hours to edit the podcast.
Doing podcasts over Zoom allows participants not to worry about travel, Buchmann said, but there have been some limitations to it
Technology is one of the challenges. There were a few times when it can freeze in the middle of an interview. Before going with Zoom, the hosts also tested different apps but they didn’t allow participants to see each other.
“We felt that was really important, for students especially. You don’t want to just hear, you want to be able to see (the guests),” Buchmann said.
Anderson agreed, saying she likes seeing people’s expressions and prefers doing interviews over Zoom rather than over the phone.
Time can be another issue.
“Just making sure we all have the time. We know, especially right now, people are tired, so I don’t want to overwhelm anybody,” Buchmann said. “And because we have a shorter semester right now, it’s harder for some teachers to find the time and for students to be out of class for an hour.”
To date, the podcast has had 266 unique listeners and 384 episode downloads, according to Chad Mowbray, the board’s principal of curriculum, innovation and technology.
The top three episodes were A Reconcillition Journey featuring Indigenous Student Trustees and the Indigenous Student Lead, the You’re Going to Make Mistakes, and That’s OK podcast with Jesse Thistle, and From the Shores of James Bay with the award-winning musician Stan Louttit.
The top five countries listeners are from Canada, the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, with Brazil, Israel and Japan all tying for fifth place.
“The podcast is such an innovative way for our students and teachers to engage and contribute to reconciliation and decolonization,” Mowbray said in a statement. “It is empowering for them to see that their voice matters and that others around the world value what they have to share.”
December and February have seen the highest number of listeners, Mowbray said, but it looks like March might see more as it is already the third-highest month.
The podcast averages 24 downloads a week.
It is available on iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify and Google Podcasts. The majority of listeners listen via iTunes followed by Spotify.
Buchmann said it was “slow to start” but the feedback has been positive from the participants and their families and now people contact her to get involved.
She said she’s been surprised by how willing the guests have been to participate in the podcast.
Buchmann said that other school boards are probably hosting similar podcasts but The Word Up podcast is a “real conscious effort” to make sure all levels across the board are engaging.
In order to host an Indigenous-focused podcast, it’s important to consult with the communities, she said.
“You might have a community who really wants you to focus on traditional teachings and that becomes your podcast. You’re interviewing elders instead of authors,” she said.
From an educational point of view, Buchmann advised consulting with students and teachers as well as the school board to make sure the podcast aligns with the board’s vision and goals.
Buchmann’s hope is to encourage Indigenous students and educators to feel empowered by this podcast. It is also to encourage non-Indigenous teachers and students to learn.
As a non-Indigenous person herself who has worked in Indigenous education for 15 years, Buchmann said she takes away new lessons and insight every time she talks to guests and students.
“The more we listen to each other, the more we do learn,” she said. “We need to become more aware of stories that aren’t our own.”