When Kimberly Calhoun read through Baltimore City schools’ new curriculum, she found an assignment that surprised her: Her kindergartners were expected to podcast.
“The kids are [still] peeing their pants, and they’re supposed to be doing this crazy thing,” Calhoun said, echoing a response that teachers across the county were sharing on social media.
She had listened to podcasts before, but had never produced one herself, let alone had her students do so. But, after a colleague across the hall had her students try podcasting, and advised Calhoun on tools that make the process easier, Calhoun was inspired to do the same.
Although it is unknown how many teachers use podcasting in the classroom, the medium has seen a general increase in engagement in the past few years. According to Nielsen’s Fanlinks survey data, in the fall of 2016, 13 million homes identified as “avid fans” of podcasts. This number increased to 16 million by the fall of 2017.
In part, the rising popularity of podcasts may be due to new software and streaming services that make it easier to both create and listen to podcasts.
LISTEN: Kindergarteners wrote and read sentences on what they liked best about themselves for “The Best Part of Me” podcast in Kimberly Calhoun’s kindergarten class in Baltimore.
Some websites, such as Anchor and Audacity, are free to use. Anchor allows users to record and edit podcast episodes, all through an app on their cellphones. The service distributes and uploads episodes to streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and provides analytics following publication.
Other tools, such as GarageBand and Adobe Audition, can provide a more hands-on approach for creators, with each program ranging in cost and difficulty of use.
Ryan O’Donnell, a high school social studies and technology teacher, and Brian Briggs, a district-level director of innovation and instructional technology, host “Check This Out,” a podcast on education technology. They say they have seen more teachers interested in podcasting, both on their own and in the classroom. But they advise educators to get comfortable with the technology themselves before introducing it to their students.
“What got me started when I was exploring more, [was] the land of Twitter,” Briggs said. “A lot of podcasts have a Twitter presence, and [I was] reaching out to them and asking for their advice.”
Once teachers have mastered the basics, O’Donnell recommends orienting students through a “podcast walkabout,” where students are each assigned a podcast, go for a walk as a class while listening to it on either a phone or a speaker, and then return to the classroom for a conversation about what they may have liked or disliked about the podcast.
For Calhoun, podcasting served as a way for kindergartners to practice writing, reading, and using their “strong voice” for presenting. Throughout the project, each student wrote a sentence about a farm animal, practiced reading the sentence, and then recorded themselves reading the sentence. In future podcasts, she hopes to have students write and read up to three sentences.
And she’s changed her mind about her students’ ability to use podcast technology.
“The kids are better at the tablets than some of the adults that come in [the classroom], so if you can’t beat them join them,” Calhoun said.
In higher grade levels, podcasting may be used as a tool to reinforce readings and lessons covered in class, in addition to developing writing and speaking skills.
A Tool for Writing
At University Liggett, an independent pre-K-12 school in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., 6th and 7th grade English teacher Stevie Stevens and Nicholas Provenzano, the maker space director and technology coordinator at the school, have teamed up to launch a podcast where their 6th graders interview each other on the books that they read for class.
“It’s a great way to allow some of those kids that may struggle with their writing to feel successful in discussing a book,” Provenzano said. “Traditionally, it’s write, write, write, write, write, and if you’re not a strong writer, you may start to think you’re not good at an English class in general.”
Podcasts that require scripts similarly encourage students to explore writing formats that stray from the traditional essay.
"[Students] think ‘Oh great, I can talk, but you really can’t just talk,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a wonderful way to trick them into writing.”
By posting their podcasts online, Stevens and Provenzano have also seen students develop a better understanding of what writing for an audience is and overall feel more motivated to produce better work.
“When it’s just my eyes seeing it, it’s one-on-one and I’m the safety net,” Stevens said. “Even when you open it up to their classmates, they realize ‘OK, I’m going to be judged by them,’ and then you open it up to the internet. It’s a big deal.”
Last spring, cinematic arts and broadcast journalism teacher Michael Hernandez introduced his 11th and 12th graders to podcasting to teach them speaking skills that could be necessary for upcoming college or job interview.
“They could really hone in and focus on interview skills … rather than focusing on video and lighting” said Hernandez, who teaches at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “It’s going to somebody you may or may not know and asking them questions that potentially could be scary or embarrassing or challenging to ask.”
In one assignment, students created a series on love. One group asked elementary schoolers what love is, while another questioned high schoolers about their experiences.
LISTEN: A high school student explores the meaning of love through interviews with young children in a podcast created for a class taught by cinematic arts and broadcast journalism teacher Michael Hernandez.
In addition to producing the podcast, students design art work and consider marketing surrounding the project.
But for Hernandez, such assignments are not just about sharpening interviewing skills, they are also about providing students with a voice while teaching them to listen and consider the perspectives of others.
In another assignment, students were asked to seek out and interview “unknown voices"—individuals who students do not often encounter. Hernandez’s students returned to the classroom with stories on immigrants, LGBTQ students, and students who choose to take unconventional paths following high school graduation.
“We just don’t understand each other or other people in the world,” Hernandez said. “If we haven’t talked to people, and we haven’t listened to their stories, then we won’t understand.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers Are Turning to Podcasts as an Instructional Tool