Listen Up: The Power of Podcasts

by Jessica Salfia

I have been using podcasts in my high school ELA classroom for several years now.  As a resource, there are limitless possibilities for incorporating this medium into your own classrooms.  Podcasts are incredibly easy to access and cover thousands of topics and genres.  With the tap of a finger, you have access to fiction, non-fiction, literary and film analysis, history… the list goes on and on. And every person with a smartphone or computer has hundreds of stories just waiting to be channeled into their ear buds for free.

I began using podcasts when Serial became a pop culture phenomenon in 2014.  I remember listening, captivated by Adnan’s story and the fascinating revelations that each episode presented.  I was a few episodes in when I knew that this was an assignment waiting to happen.  I assigned the podcasts to my Advanced Placement Language and Composition students. I told them their goal was to determine if they thought Adnan was guilty or innocent based on the evidence presented, and they would have to support their claims with direct evidence from the podcasts.

I also asked the students to keep “detective journals” taking notes about the case, the evidence, and questions that they were left with at the end of each episode.  I encouraged them to draw, speculate, and draft potential claims while they took notes.  The students treated these notebooks like research journals–growing, changing, organic documents–and without planning it, this became one of the coolest parts of the assignment. These notebooks became my and their favorite products of the unit.

You can see the task sheet for this assignment here: SERIAL Podcast Assignment

And check out a few truly wonderful detective journal samples:

We listened to the first episode together, and I modeled what types of noticing and notes I would take as I listened.  Then, I asked the students to listen to two episodes each week on their own. I treated these assignments like I would if they had been assigned chapters of reading in a novel.  Each week there were Socratic discussions and short “listening check” quizzes, and of course spot checks of these beautiful journals.

The final products were 3-5 page typed essays in which the students had to make a claim regarding whether Adnan Syed is guilty or innocent, and support this claim with at least 3 direct references to the podcasts and 2 additional sources.

It was and still is one of my students’ favorite assignments.  Also, there is a great satire lesson in this SNL spoof of the podcast.

If you’re interested in using podcasts in your own classroom, here are 4 more I have used successfully in my AP Language and Composition, English 11, Mythology, and Creative Writing classes.


The Moth

Need an introduction to creative non-fiction? Check out The Moth podcast.  Moth storytelling events ask people to tell true stories as remembered by the story teller. Each week The Moth Podcast re-airs all new episodes of The Moth Radio Hour, plus additional stories from the Moth archive recorded over the past two decades. Episodes are released every Tuesday.

The Moth podcasts contains stories that range from hilarious to heart-breakingly beautiful.  Some stories do contain profanity and adult situations so you may want to preview them in advance.  I have used The Moth to teach theme, as an introduction to writing creative non-fiction, and in creative writing story-telling units.


Inside Appalachia

Inside Appalachia is a podcast produced by West Virginia public broadcasting.  This podcast has become an essential part of my AP and Honors summer assignments, curriculum, and an essential part of my introductory unit in AP Lang.  I teach an intro to rhetoric through the lens of Appalachian Studies, and one of the first things we do in my class is look at the stereotypes and rhetoric associated with the region.  Students must listen to at least 5 episodes of Inside Appalachia over the summer and reflect on how the stories presented in these podcasts help shape or change their perceptions of Appalachia.

This assignment has been wildly successful and has led to great opportunities for my students.  Last year, we presented at the National Appalachia Studies Conference, the assignment was featured in a blog for West Virginia Living Magazine, and this spring my students are returning to the National Appalachian Studies Conference as featured presenters.


Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men

If you are a comic book fan or a fan of literary analysis, then this a podcast for you.  Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men is a brilliant breakdown of the over 40 year story line presented in the X-Men comic books from the first issue to the present day.  This podcast presents some truly genius and well researched literary analysis.  I have used excerpts in my English classes to demonstrate what really good literary analysis should sound like, and I have used episodes in Mythology class to demonstrate how mythologies have influenced our pop culture and stories of today.  Jay and Miles are hilarious and brilliant.  The podcast contains episodes that discuss social issues, race, gender, sexuality, mythology, and pop culture all through analysis of the X-Men comic book universe.  If you want to use this podcast in class, be sure to preview the episodes in advance; there is adult language and discussion of the adult situations that occur  in the series.


Missing Richard Simmons

Missing Richard Simmons is a six episode podcast in which Dan Taberski explores the sudden disappearance of Richard Simmons from public life and possible reasons for why he has removed himself from the public eye.  I used this podcast just recently in Creative Writing to talk about how writers use punctuation and syntax to craft voice.  In episode 3 of the podcast Taberski analyzes Simmons’ Twitter feed, and based on the punctuation and structure of the tweet, speculates which tweets are Simmons’ and which are not.  My students and I discussed how this example illustrates what types of “noticings” we need to make when we read like writers.  However, this podcast would lend itself nicely to an assignment like the one I give to accompany Serial.

WVCTE is wondering…

Do you already use podcasts in your own classroom?  Which ones? Are you planning to use podcasts in an upcoming unit or lesson? Let us know how it goes!  Leave us a message, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us and tell us how podcasts worked in your classroom!

Happy listening!