Teaching the Art of Listening: How to Use Podcasts in the Classroom

By Alix Mammina — September 14, 2017 5 min read
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Podcasts are far from a new classroom tool—teachers have been podcasting for more than a decade—but as their popularity continues to rise, teachers are finding new and innovative ways to bring them into the classroom.

In light of the Common Core State Standards’ shift toward the use of nonfiction, podcasts provide a unique way to build critical thinking skills while adhering to state standards. The hit “Serial,” which in its first season tried to solve a 1999 high school murder case, inspired educators across the country to create comprehensive lesson plans and final exams based on the investigative mystery. Some teachers use podcasts to strengthen language literacy for their English-as-a-second-language students, while others assign their students audio narratives to analyze for storytelling and writing techniques.

When Washington Post reporter Lillian Cunningham took on the job of creating and hosting one of the Post’s newest podcasts, she never expected to find her work in the classroom. But after the release of “Presidential” last fall, Cunningham started receiving email after email from teachers who were using it in class discussions, extra-credit assignments, and research projects. The 44-episode podcast explores the life and impact of each U.S. president, culminating with a reflection on the 2016 election of Donald Trump, while its 2017 follow-up “Constitutional” introduces listeners to different aspects of the Constitution and the people who framed it.

“Podcasting is a great intimate medium for bringing stories to life, and I think a lot of teachers have found that aspect of it useful,” Cunningham said in an interview with Education Week Teacher. “In addition to having students read about American history in textbooks, being able to supplement that with storytelling about these figures has been a great way to help students transport themselves to those time periods.”

Michael Martirone, a high school social studies teacher in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., is one of the many educators who reached out to Cunningham after the release of “Presidential.” Martirone assigned each of his AP Government students a different U.S. president to research, and had them listen to corresponding “Presidential” episodes to gain a deeper understanding of the historical figures they were writing about.

"[Podcasts] are useful and they’re effective because they allow students to slow down,” Martirone said. “Rather than have kids go watch the news—where there’s so many talking heads and so much conjecture and sensationalism—podcasts are a little bit more down to earth and centered, and that allows kids to listen and reflect and digest what’s being said.”

High school English teacher Laura Winnick turned to podcasts after struggling to boost her second-semester seniors’ enthusiasm for research projects. She tasked her students with researching, producing, and editing an audio narrative about a deadly warehouse fire that took place near Winnick’s Oakland, Calif., school district in 2016. Over the course of the unit, her students examined articles and videos, interviewed community members, and crafted a 60-minute podcast, which they presented at a community-wide listening reception.

“Podcasts became the project to lead students through a process of student-driven inquiry of research,” Winnick said. “Students were able to go out and do research that was human-based. They did interviews that didn’t ask them to put their nose in a book and read reference materials—it asked them to engage and empathize with their community.”

Creating podcasts with your students might seem like an intimidating exercise—but with Winnick’s five keys for successful podcasting, your classroom could take project-based learning to the next level:

  • Make sure the topic you picked works for audio and lends itself to the work of researching and interviewing. “Because the [warehouse] disaster was so recent and happened locally, we were able to truly talk to experts in the field,” Winnick wrote.
  • Take advantage of online resources like KQED Teach’s Podcasting with Youth Radio tools for interviewing, recording, editing, and finding your radio voice.
  • Anticipate technological glitches and flow with them. “Teachers are so scared when they haven’t used a platform themselves,” Winnick said. “You have to trust that young people will be able to navigate the platform, or accept that you won’t know all of the answers when it comes to digital audio production.”
  • Use free audio recording and editing software. Winnick and her students produced their podcast with Garageband, and posted the final product on SoundCloud. For transferring files to iTunes, you can use Podbean or audioBoom for free, or pay a small fee to use Libsyn or Blubrry.
  • Avoid copyrighted materials. Instead, use royalty-free music and sound effects from sites like pond5 and freesound—or have students create beats themselves.

And if you’re looking for the best podcasts to bring to the classroom, here are four you can’t miss:

  1. On air since 1995 and available as a free podcast since 2006, This American Life” offers over 600 narrative-driven episodes covering everything from the basics of campaign finance to prison productions of Shakespeare. Make sure to check out the website’s Educator Resources page, which lists episodes that teachers have incorporated in lessons on history, English, psychology, and more. Search by subject or grade-level, and read educators’ comments on how they’ve used the podcast in class—some even include lesson plans, study guides, and reading schedules.
  2. Since 2003, “StoryCorps” has invited ordinary people from across the country to interview their friends and family members. The podcast now boasts a collection of over 70,000 conversations with participants from all 50 states. You can download common core-based lesson plans and resources from StoryCorps Education, or have students use the list of great questions and StoryCorps App to conduct interviews of their own.
  3. Kid-specific podcasts “Wow in the World” and “Brains On!” tackle tricky science questions each week. “Wow in the World” brings the latest—and wackiest—scientific studies to life, while “Brains On!” has kids and reporters working together to figure out how airplanes fly and why cats purr. Take a look at the “Wow in the World” conversation starters to find ideas for discussion questions, mini experiments, and class projects.

Image via Pixabay, licensed under Creative Commons

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.