NPR Staff

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

We often hear about school districts that struggle with high poverty, low test scores and budget problems. But one district has faced all of these and achieved remarkable results.

In just over three years, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, who oversees the Jennings School District in Jennings, a small city just outside St. Louis, has led a dramatic turnaround in one of the worst-performing systems in Missouri.

Music lovers were shocked and saddened to hear of the death singer Natalie Cole on New Year's Eve. Cole was 65.

She was the daughter of jazz icon Nat King Cole but went on to create her own legacy, selling millions of albums across a wide range of genres and winning nine Grammy awards.

Two of Natalie Cole's younger sisters, twins Casey and Timolin Cole, run a nonprofit called The Nat King Cole Generation Hope, which is dedicated to supporting music education in public schools.

In the face of growing protests, police departments across the country are pledging to try to reduce the use of deadly force.

This week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said his police department will double its supply of Tasers and will train officers to use them.

The Fayetteville, N.C., police department will spend the next year and a half trying to implement 76 recommendations issued in December by the Department of Justice. Those recommendations range from better record keeping and better information-sharing to trying to reduce the racial disparity in traffic stops.

In 2014, Charlotte Wheelock and her husband, Nick Hodges, were hoping to find a new start. Struggling to raise their two young children, they left their home in Albuquerque, N.M., and struck out for Seattle to find better jobs.

But before they could get established there, Nick was hospitalized with spinal stenosis — a condition that left him temporarily paralyzed below the waist. Soon, they found themselves without a place to live.

At the outset, biographer Sonia Purnell didn't know much about Clementine Churchill. "I confess, like millions of others, I had absolutely no idea who Winston Churchill's wife was," Purnell tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

But then Purnell stumbled onto a letter from 1940, when Winston Churchill had just become prime minister. It was the middle of World War II, and England was in a very bad state.

As a young girl, Maya Shankar was well on her way to a promising career as a classical violinist. The famed Itzhak Perlman had taken her on as his private student at The Juilliard School at the age of 14, and she was accepted to his prestigious summer program on Shelter Island. But not long after, she injured her finger while playing a difficult section of Paganini's Caprice no. 13. She tore a tendon in her hand, putting her musical career to an untimely end.

Mona Haydar is a Muslim — and she wants to talk about it.

So much so, in fact, that she set up a stand outside a library in Cambridge, Mass., with a big sign reading "Ask a Muslim." Along with a free cup of coffee and a doughnut, Haydar offered passersby an opportunity for conversation.

She says the idea occurred to her husband, Sebastian, and her over dinner one evening. As they were eating, she says, Sebastian remarked: "What if we did something kind of crazy?"

The weekend after Christmas has typically been big business for retailers, as people return gifts — and buy new ones for themselves. But some brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling this holiday season, facing the dual problems of overexpansion and an increasingly demanding consumer base that likes the ability to shop online.

It's been a year since the U.S. and Cuba began normalizing relations. Tourism, business and cultural exchanges are booming. And there is another curious benefactor of those warmer ties — Ernest Hemingway, or at least, his legacy. The writer lived just outside of Havana for 20 years, and that house, called the Finca Vigia, has long been a national museum.

Christmas with children usually means lots of toys under the tree. And sometimes those toys aren't quite ready for the kids straight out of the packaging.

The dreaded words "assembly required" can make any post-Christmas day more stressed than relaxed. We asked some of our listeners and readers to share their most memorable — and panicked — experiences putting together toys, with any advice for minimizing frustration along the way.

Clay Crawford, Pensacola, Fla.

The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller, set in contemporary London, with a female protagonist and a female author — Paula Hawkins. It was published this year, and received wide acclaim.

Girl on a Train is a psychological thriller, set in contemporary London, with a female protagonist and a female author — Alison Waines. It was published in 2013, and received almost no attention.

You might be able to predict where this is going.

His resume is unimpeachable and he has great approval ratings. Santa Claus sounds like the perfect candidate — so what if he ran for president? That's the central question in this work of audio fiction by the podcast The Truth

The story begins at the North Pole, where two mysterious strangers have just arrived by sled to Santa's office.

For centuries, Chesapeake Bay oysters were harvested by skipjacks, those tall, sleek, singled-masted sailboats.

The skipjacks are mostly gone now, replaced by more efficient, less majestic ways of fishing. But one skipjack captain refuses to fade away.

Kermit Travers, 78, is one of the first and last African-American skipjack captains. He's been sailing the Chesapeake for most of his life.

Actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar last year for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Now he's been nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in another biopic, The Danish Girl. The film tells the story of transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first people known to have had gender reassignment surgery.

Cooking gadgets seem to be a solid go-to when you're not sure what to give someone. Who wouldn't be charmed with a laser-guided pizza cutter? A one-click butter dispenser? An electric bacon-bowl maker?

Actor Will Smith says at first he was conflicted about his latest movie, Concussion.

"I'm a football dad," he tells NPR's David Greene. "[I] grew up in Philly with my Eagles, and there was a part of me that did not want to be the guy who said playing football could cause brain damage."

A lone figure on stage, making people laugh: That solitude is what makes stand-up tougher and riskier than other kinds of comedy.

This holiday season, one popular Christmas carol has been raising some questions here at NPR headquarters. Namely:

"Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh, bring us some figgy pudding, oh — "

Wait. What is figgy pudding?

First of all, it's "absolutely delicious," says Debbie Waugh, who recently served the dish at a tea at the Historic Green Spring House in Alexandria, Va.

Figgy pudding — also known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding — is a staple of the British Christmas table, she says.

During a sensitive time of global scrutiny surrounding Islam and Muslims, one unexpected image relating to the religion drew a more positive light.

Ali Kadri, a Muslim man living in Brisbane, Australia, posted a picture to his Facebook page last weekend that got the attention of tens of thousands of people. The picture showed Kadri with an imam, taking part in evening prayers at a Mormon church after having been invited to the Christmas program by his Mormon friend Michael Bennallack.

When NBC announced The Wiz -- the African-American version of The Wizard of Oz, presented as a hit Broadway musical and a movie — would be produced as a live television production, some TV watchers may have groaned.

Previous live telecasts of other musicals have gotten attention mainly as a target for hate-watching. But The Wiz Live! seems to have broken that spell: When it aired earlier this month, it earned 11.5 million viewers — and more if you count DVR replays.

Interviewing a sitting president is no small deal. There are the physical logistics of it — getting together the interviewer, editors, producer, engineer, and a five-person video crew, plus all that audio and video equipment. And then, importantly, the preparation that goes into asking timely, tough and interesting questions.

In municipal council races in Saudi Arabia a week ago, 21 female candidates were elected to office. In the country's third-ever elections, the monarchy gave women the right to vote, as well as to seek election to office.

Nearly 1,000 women ran throughout the country, but while there were 1.36 million men registered to vote, according to the Wall Street Journal, only 130,000 women could vote.

Election campaigns are scripted. Every TV ad, every email, every stump speech, every meet-and-greet: It's all planned down to the most minute detail.

And then, there are the debates. The debate stage can create breakout moments that go down in political history — but even the most well-practiced one-liners can fall flat on delivery.

One of the hottest gifts of the season is a little too hot — hot enough to catch fire.

Hoverboards have been burning up because of problems with their lithium-ion batteries.

By the time standup comedian John Mulaney was 30, he'd had a successful comedy special called New In Town, an Emmy nominated turn writing for Saturday Night Live and was on his way to the comedy promised land — his own sitcom.

But in 2013 Mulaney hit a bit of a wall. His self-titled Fox sitcom -- a classic live studio audience show about a young comedy writer living in New York — was panned and canceled.

Pain, grief and emotional loss follow mass shootings in America, and there are also other costs that add up to violence's financial toll. It's Ted Miller's job to crunch numbers on social ills like mass shootings. He's a health economist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

In August 2014, ISIS released a video showing American journalist James Foley kneeling in a barren desert. Foley wears a bright orange jumpsuit. An ISIS fighter stands behind him, a black scarf masking his face. The fighter wields a long dagger. When Foley speaks, his voice is matter of fact, but resigned. He says he knows he will never see his family again.

The ISIS fighter speaks in a British accent. He addresses the American government. He tells them they are no longer fighting an insurgency. They are fighting an army. He then kills Foley.

Aja Raden's new book, Stoned, is about jewelry, but on the first page she lays out a bold statement: "The history of the world is the history of desire."

"There's no more powerful statement than 'I want,' " Raden tells NPR's Audie Cornish. " 'I want that. I want them.' ... Even if it's an issue of survival, you still are driven by what you want and what you are compelled to take or have or maintain."

Donald Trump has earned headlines — and, in some circles, ire — for incendiary comments throughout his presidential campaign. Recently, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and a database to keep track of them — comments that other candidates in the GOP have denounced as intolerant and wrongheaded.

But some media commentators and news organizations have taken it a step further, stating that the man himself is racist and that his policies are fueled by racism.

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