Creating community one conversation at a time

Bible teacher Bryant Russ was walking by his HCHS colleague Kevin Timmerman-Sánchez at the tech help desk one day a couple of years ago and had the same conversation that they always had:

“How’s it going, Kevin?”

“Good—how about you?”

“Good thanks…” when Russ suddenly realized “Hey— if we work here for 40 years, and have this same conversation for all those years, how sad would that be?!”

So Russ changed it up—“Hey, can I have lunch with you?” and then over that lunch learned enough about Kevin’s incredible life story to wish he had recorded the conversation. And then realized “Wait—we can! We can record those kinds of conversations! We have that kind of technology!”

It was the quiet genesis of HC Medium Talk Podcast.

Soon after that pivotal lunch, Russ was dropping off his eldest daughter at preschool for the first time, pondering “Who were these people I was just entrusting my kids with—the most valuable things in my life—and I don’t even know who they are?!”

And he wondered if other parents maybe felt the same way, and might be interested in knowing more about their kids’ HC teachers. He knew from his experience with his own HC colleagues what amazing and God-focused people they were, so really he wanted to “share their hearts, and put them on display—share those cool stories of how they ended up here in this school.”

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Who were these people I was just entrusting my kids with—the most valuable things in my life—and I don’t even know who they are?!

So Russ started August of 2019 with an obvious person—his relatively new-to-HC principal, Deb Feenstra, who shared her story of working in the public school system for so many years, moving to do missionary work in Mexico, of her daughter with special needs who drew her into the HC community. And then just started asking people organically as he ran into them, or as they came to mind, if they would let him interview them for a podcast: Since Elle Nieuwsma ’12 was running the play, he thought of her. Or when he ran into Kevin Koeman ’98, or Dr. Bultman, or Julie O’Brien in the hallways, he would set up another interview to share their stories of how they were led to HC. And found them fascinating and inspiring conversations with first-rate committed Christian educators.

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We have an authentic audience—over 20K—which is such an important thing. Students know there are real people who listen, so this has to be good.

 

The technical aspects of running a podcast were a bit more difficult to master. With the help of his colleague, Justin Dreyer ’10, HCS digital media designer/technical theatre director, Russ and his high school sidekick Cam Houck ’20 learned how to set up podcast accounts, work a soundboard borrowed from chapel, edit and publish the recordings. When things got trickier during Covid quarantine last spring, quitting wasn’t an option, since continuing anything community-oriented in the midst of a quarantine seemed even more important. So Russ downloaded and learned zencastr, a free podcast program that allowed them to continue conversations remotely.

Three semesters and almost 40 podcasts later, Russ was chatting with Courtney Lampen ’94, HC’s former Director of Marketing & Admissions, about how it’s always better to show the value of something, and not just tell about it. So the two hatched the idea to have an HCHS class of students to run the podcast, do the interviews, and put their voices on air. Along with a sponsor, Schippers Construction, to help make it financially feasible in Russ’ schedule. So that’s how the current seven students got involved, who are now literally running the show—with a little editing oversight from Russ.

“It got me so excited—there are so many skills involved beyond basic storytelling!” Russ said, describing the three phases of the podcast: the “before” skills, which include the preparation and communication, developing an outline, reaching out to the interviewees. The “during,” including interpersonal skills, learning to make eye contact, being hospitable and making guests feel comfortable, learning how to get the story out of them, how to ask questions naturally. And then the “after” skills, the digital editing and idea organizing, choosing the intro and highlights, what and how to cut, and then how to actually put it on air. “I’ve been a teacher for ten years, and this is one of the most meaningful classes to be a part of,” Russ said. “This is why I wanted to be a teacher in my idealized college vision!”

He’s been rejoicing that he doesn’t need to motivate the class with “points,” or grade repercussions, but instead is pleasantly stunned at how students are taking their ideas and running with them, emailing him at all hours of the day and night for his opinions, even on projects not due for several weeks. Showing up early before school to ask editing questions, and doing a lot of hard work behind the scenes, which Russ admits, surprised him.

“I’ve never sent so many emails saying that ’I’m so proud of you!’” Russ said, chuckling how he told a group of three boys to start with something easy and manageable to practice with podcasting, but “They did the exact opposite and created this elaborate game show!” he said of the March 17 podcast that contested Noah Kanis ’22 versus Principal Feenstra to see who knew more crazy facts about HCHS teachers.

He describes his job as “the guy on the side, rather than a sage on the stage,” a place he’s happy to be. “We have an authentic audience—over 20,000—which is such an important thing. Students know there are real people who listen, so this has to be good. And we have a real sponsor, Schippers Construction, for whom we have an obligation to fulfill.”

Students are enjoying it as well—though are often surprised by how much they’re learning, and what’s more difficult than expected.

“We are learning a ton of skills [in this class] that we wouldn’t in others!” Noah Kanis ’22 commented. “We are getting a better understanding of how to use technology, having practice talking to people professionally, and also becoming more comfortable with putting our voices out there! Every student should be able to have the opportunity to make something themselves and see a project from start to finish, and this class is a perfect example of that. It really is an amazing experience.

Students have appreciated the all encompassing nature of the learning experience: “I’m learning to work with others and to let them speak and how to brainstorm and collaborate, all the while having fun— our assignments don’t feel like projects or chores,” explained Adrian Cooney ’22. Plus the class “teaches people skills and gives a more realistic version of how deadlines might look in the workplace; it’s also a great way to hear interesting stories and feel like you’re in charge of something.”

Emma Kern ’22 agreed, “When you’re interviewing a person, you hear their story, and I think we can learn a lot about people and our world by listening to stories. We see that there is so much underneath the person you see at school.”

Bryant Russ will not be teaching Bible next year, since he will be filling the Director of Faith Formation position—but we’re all relieved to hear he will be continuing the HC Medium Talk podcast. Because the rest of us are enriched, drawn further into God-honoring community, with more to chat about than the weather, and a deeper genuine place to start our conversations.

When you’re interviewing a person, you hear their story, and I think we can learn a lot about people and our world by listening to stories. We see that there is so much underneath the person you see at school.

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