Story Through Podcast: An Audible Art
By Chelsea Prehn, Middle and High School English Acquisition Teacher
A cacophony of clinking spoons, rustling plastic and slurping mouths filled the room, as an air of slight confusion settled over each student's face. Why had each of them just been given a new binder with the word "Detective" preceding their name? Where were the standard reading materials for this new, mysterious unit? And why oh why was the entire group eating cereal in English class?
I'd first listened to the Serial podcast the year before, and after the first episode, I was hooked. Though podcasts had been around for nearly a decade, they didn’t gain considerable popularity in the US until the debut of Serial. It has come to be recognized as the new and improved form of storytelling in the 21st century.
Though traditional stories are often fictional, podcasts stories tend to be told by real people about real events. In the case of Serial, a narrator, Sarah Koenig, attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer of a high school student through engaging interviews, perceptive commentary and memorable music. The mystery spans twelve 45 minute-long episodes, and grabs the listener’s attention in such a unique way. To me, each episode was like a little piece of audible art for my ears, and I couldn't get enough. And that’s when I began to wonder…would my students be engrossed by it, as well?
I was also inspired by the experience of an English teacher, Michael Godsey, in California who used the podcast in his grade 11 class of native speakers. In an article Godsey explained how the podcast not only captivated his students, but also enabled the students to utilize their critical thinking skills in new ways, as the mystery required them to truly listen closely to the story and put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves.
It was a bit of a risk trying to replicate his results with my grade 8 English acquisition class, but this particular group of students I had in mind had proven themselves to be an incredibly dedicated and tenacious bunch. I was excited at the prospect of giving them unique material that they'd truly enjoy, as well as providing them with ample opportunities to develop their advanced listening skills. We would listen to most of the episodes in class, so that we could stop and discuss them, and clear up comprehension issues as we went. There would be challenges, I realized, but they would be joyfully overcome.
After a brief introduction to the unit (in which, yes, students feasted on cereal so that the distinction between “cereal” and “serial” was immediately understood!), students embarked on their auditory journey. The month of March in English class was spent listening to the entirety of Serial. As expected, the first few episodes were a significant challenge to the students; each episode contained dozens of new vocabulary words, and listening to a story without any visuals was even trickier than they’d thought it’d be. Through class discussions and activities, though, students' close listening skills burgeoned.
Between each episode, the class voted on the guilt or innocence of the suspect in Serial. This led to the students writing their first summative assessment of the unit that included a closing argument that utilized the evidence collated in their binders they’d found to be most pertinent. Each student’s theory showcased the growth in their critical thinking skills, and students were pleasantly surprised by their results.
Their second summative assessment was a bit more involved. Now that the students had spent a month becoming intimately acquainted with the art of podcasting, it was their turn. Drawing on all of the techniques of oral storytelling that they'd learned from Koenig, students were asked to produce their very own podcasts about a real-life mystery on the Keystone Campus. The initial goal of this project was merely to engage the students in a real-world manifestation of creativity, thereby aiding them in developing a deepened appreciation for the art of storytelling through podcast. Students received no instruction in the technological aspects of podcasting, and thus my expectations for the final product were realistic. I’d designed the project to be engaging and showcase their knowledge in a unique way; I had not designed the project to create a class full of 13-year-old professional podcasters.
And so you can imagine my surprise when the project took on a life of its own. My over-enthusiastic students were staying after school to record interviews, reserving the piano to record music for the interludes, toting microphones to quiet corners of the building to improve sound quality, branding their podcasts by giving their group a name, logo and slogan, and even designing websites to promote their brands. In other words, the students began to fall in love with their work.
I was floored that students were taking independent ownership of their learning. This was a teacher’s dream! On D-day, a cacophony once again filled the classroom, just as it had two months previous, but this time it was not the noise of cereal bowls, but the sound of students listening one last time to their podcasts before submitting them as their final summative assessment. The initial learning objectives for the unit had been enhanced critical thinking and listening comprehension skills, but this unit had become so much more. In choosing the material and projects for this unit, I’d decided to try something innovative, and take a risk. In trusting in the process and investing their energy, students had decided to try something innovative and take a risk, as well. And the result? Incredible, praise-worthy, little pieces of audible art.
Crafting a unit such as this requires a touch of madness, but I believe it is that very madness that inspires students to discover facets of both their intellect and imagination that they’d never previously explored. As a teacher, I am expected to instruct students in skills and knowledge. And yet, in my view, true learning has taken place when I learn equally as much from my students. Over the past two months, through discussions, steadfast dedication and polished finished products, these 15 brilliant 8th graders have taught me not to ever be afraid to try new things – you never know just how much beauty can bloom from risk.
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