Top 10 Podcasts to Use in the Classroom by Liza Lauter
After 11 years of teaching, here’s what I know about 8th graders:
- They like a good story.
- They think they hate non-fiction.
- They love any time they can sit and listen.
- They (I’m sure) get sick of hearing my voice, even when it means they get to sit and listen.
So whenever I can bring another voice into the room, I jump at the opportunity. And that’s what is so amazing about podcasts. There are so many to choose from, so much to learn, and therefore, so many ways to use them in the classroom. The best part is that these podcasts are all free, and the app is already on most phones. Once students are hooked, they end up downloading many more episodes on their own! Here are my top 10…
- Radiolab- (Favorite episodes include Limits, Oops, Stochasticity, Words)
I could go on and on about how much I LOVE this podcast. There are 2 types of episodes–a regular episode is about 1 hour, and usually consists of 3 segments surrounding a topic. Then there are “shorts,” which are usually about 15-20 minutes and focus on one specific story. I’ve used both in my classroom. One particular favorite is the episode called “Limits.” In this, they discuss limits of the body, limits of the mind, and limits of knowledge. Students love the limits of the body segment in particular, because the stories of people who have pushed themselves to their physical limit are both horrifying and fascinating. One way to use an episode like this is in teaching the Common Core Standard Literacy.RI.8.3, which states, “Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas or events.” All of the Radiolab episodes weave together anecdotes, scientific explanations, and further inquiry, making them excellent for this type of analysis of an Informational Text.
- Radiolab (shorts)- (Favorites include Argentine Invasion, The Bus Stop, Kill ‘Em All)
Yes, I know Radiolab was also number 1–but it’s that good. It gets 2 spots. Another way I love to use Radiolab is by showing it as a model of talking to the text. The hosts of the show use many of the skills we talk about when trying to tackle a difficult piece of non-fiction. They question, ask for clarification, try to explain the ideas in their own words, react, visualize, make connections–they are great models of (verbally) interacting with the information. Students can pick out the examples of these strategies, while still learning something about, oh let’s say 2 gangs of Argentine ants (yes, I said ants) that were literally battling to the death on a neighborhood street corner in California. Did I mention, the stories are very engaging? What’s not to love about an ant turf war?
If you haven’t listened to the first season of Serial, stop reading and go download this riveting story of high schooler Adnan Syed who was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend (wrongfully? justly? you decide) in 1999. A lot of curriculum has been written about this podcast, and most of the episodes are perhaps a bit too heavy for a middle schooler. However, I have started using a clip from Episode 2 in my classroom when teaching argument writing. In this clip, the host is explaining all of the evidence that existed in the case. Then she goes on to detail how the Prosecution and Defense spun the evidence to support their side. This makes for a GREAT lesson on warrants. Students can compare how the lawyers made the same exact evidence work for their argument. This can lead into a discussion about the fact that argument writing isn’t so much about who can find the quote that says exactly what you are hoping it would, but rather, who can truly ARGUE their case and spin whatever evidence they are given to back up their claim. It really drives home the importance of warrants in argument writing–the explanation of why this evidence supports the claim.
- This I Believe
Since This I Believe really started with Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, you have a lot of material to choose from. These podcasts range from world leaders to every day people who have a personal belief and a story to share. One example is from a writer named Andrew Sullivan, called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This episode is less of a narrative piece, and more of a strong belief statement on his interpretation of these famous words from the Declaration of Independence. History teachers could use this as well to talk about what the intention of these words were and how they have been interpreted over time. These podcasts are great to use in teaching personal narratives, narrative writing techniques, theme, and finding voice in your writing. This I Believe podcasts can also shape an entire personal narrative unit, where students write their own “This I Believe” essays…and then…well…record their own podcasts…
- Stuff You Missed in History Class
My history buffs are going to love this podcast, which tells the lesser-known stories from history. For you Hamilfans or Hamilnerds out there, check out the episode on Hercules Mulligan (“A tailor spyin’ on the British Government!/ I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it/ to my brother’s revolutionary covenant/ I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it”). It explains how Mulligan influenced Alexander Hamilton’s beliefs and politics, and more importantly how Mulligan become a key spy for George Washington, even preventing his assassination twice. These are generally about 45 minute episodes, but clips could easily be picked out to elaborate on specific stories that are glossed over (or missed entirely) in your history books.
One of NPR’s many podcasts, StoryCorps is mainly a weaving together of stories, often around a particular theme. A great episode is called “Wild at Heart.” It starts by talking about a shark biologist (and former Rock Band member) who found his love of sharks at a young age when his mother let him bring a dead one home (you want descriptive language? Listen to him describe how the smell of the dead shark overcame the car ride home). But it is really about people who have pursued their passions have trusted their instincts. They state at the end, “Pick something you’re good at and stick with it.” These are great for finding universal truths, strong narrative writing, and really just great examples that non-fiction does not equal boring. A good story is a good story is a good story.
- TED Talks
Again, with TED Talks, I’m not sure I’m really presenting anything you don’t already know is amazing. TED talks can help with our own personal growth, and there are many ways to use them in the classroom as well, to the point of even having students write and perform their own. They are great examples of writing, and could certainly be used to teach quality speaking techniques. Here’s one great episode you could use: It’s called “Go ahead, make up new words!” Erin McKean, the speaker and a lexicographer, encourages everyone to create new words. It’s a great example of using humor effectively, and it will make the 8th graders feel like rebels when they hear you telling them to just make up their own words. But us sneaky teachers…there’s always more than meets the eye, or ear… this episode is a great lesson on grammar too! She talks about compound words and parts of speech in ways that are relatable and entertaining. Even better, her message by the end is one that we hope to teach all writers; “Why should you make words? You should make words because every word is a chance to express your idea and get your meaning across.”
Freakonomics episodes are great examples of well-researched. interesting writing that moves between informational and argumentative. There’s a great episode called “Think Like a Child,” which talks about the fact that kids are more creative, open-minded thinkers, and therefore they are able to solve many problems that adults cannot. If you’re looking for a little inspiration for your students, it has a great message embedded in an episode you could use in a variety of ways. Another episode with a great message is “Failure is your Friend.” These have what we’re looking for when picking texts for our students–strong writing to use as a mentor, with character education in an authentic way!
- Stuff You Should Know
I find these episodes a bit long, but just because a podcast is an hour doesn’t mean you have to play the entire thing. Sometimes a clip is a great mini-lesson! There is an episode of “Stuff You Should Know” called “How Futurology Works.” Use a clip from this to introduce a unit on Science Fiction. Often kids think of Science Fiction as a world that is completely imagined. But using an episode like this might spark a discussion about the fact that most SF authors begin with the present, looking at trends and asking “What If?” What if we eliminated all pain (Lois Lowry’s The Giver)? What if we sorted people by their strongest character trait (Veronica Roth’s Divergent)? What if we could create copies of ourselves to complete obligations we wanted to get out of (Ray Bradbury was exploring these ideas in “Marionettes Inc.” in 1949!)? The episode touches on the idea of Science Fiction authors being the original futurologists and the way in which the field has expanded over time.
- Up next for me…Revisionist History
I have all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books sitting on a shelf in my classroom. And occasionally a student checks one out. Often, it comes back partially read. Even students who really enjoy his writing and ideas find it challenging to muddle through. And now he has a podcast, which I just discovered! According to the description on the website, Revisionist History goes back “to reinterpret something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood” (Revisionist History). I haven’t had a chance to use this in my classroom yet, but it’s on my list. I’m thinking his upcoming episode on “The Blame Game” might be something we could compare and contrast with a piece of one of his essays, or even with a Radiolab episode on “Blame.” Perhaps an episode might also be used in a History class to lead to a broader discussion about how history is told, changed, and hidden over time.
Others for your consideration: Vox’s “The Weeds,” “The Moth,” “Poem of the Day,” “This American Life.” Always be sure to listen first because many audiences are adults, so be careful of content level!
- (I’m cheating)… Use podcasts your students create!
Like blogs and Youtube, students should see Podcasts as another opportunity to have a voice with authentic audiences. So let them make their own. Happy listening!
Liza Lauter is an 8th grade Language Arts and Spanish teacher at Waldon Middle School in Lake Orion, Michigan. Liza firmly believes that Language Arts instruction should incorporate all of the arts in authentic and meaningful ways. When she isn’t teaching or listening to podcasts, she is busy being mother to Talia (5) and Henry (3), doing Zumba, cooking, or (of course!) reading.
NOTE FROM NERDY: If you love podcasts, check out the Nerdy Bookcasts!