Audio Adventures in the Classroom: 5 Engaging Podcasts

By Pam Goble, Ed.D., and Ryan R. Goble, M.A., authors of Making Curriculum Pop

Audio Adventures in the Classroom: 5 Engaging PodcastsWhen people talk about literacy, they usually are thinking about “the two Rs,” reading and writing. That leaves the other essential talents of speaking, listening, viewing, and representing (what we like to call #BIGLIT) underutilized and underrepresented in many classrooms across the country. However, recent studies by Edison Research suggest an increase in younger podcast listeners—a trend teachers can use to motivate student listeners.

So far, research on podcasts in the classroom is anecdotal, but great teachers know engaging the ears can be a powerful way to get kids involved in the world of words. Jim Trelease, in his book The Read-Aloud Handbook, has encouraged reading aloud for years. Podcasts offer the same opportunity for students to hear a good story. Another study by Whittingham et al. saw a significant change in reading skills and attitudes toward reading when students used audiobooks. Podcasts, like audiobooks and reading aloud, offer students different opportunities to read the world while developing their literacy skills.

We use podcasts with students of all ages. Here are a few podcasts that helped us create #BIGLIT classrooms.

Old Time Radio (OTR)
Our present podcast renaissance has its roots in the Golden Age of Radio from the 1920s through the early 1950s. The brilliant use of sound effects and the theatrical dispositions of these audio pioneers continue to draw people into these timeless tales. You can stream a variety of OTR shows at or purchase episodes on CD or for streaming through the Radio Spirits website. We’ve found that students love classic audio, such as Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” and adaptations of Ray Bradbury short stories like “Zero Hour.” Since the 1970s, Garrison Keillor has kept the spirit of old time radio alive with the Prairie Home Companion variety show. (Starting in the fall of 2016, Chris Thile will take over.)

To give students a sense of how these shows were created, we recommend showing clips of radio artists at work in films like Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Robert Altman’s film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion. Documentaries like PBS’s American Experience episode on The War of the Worlds (2013) or the Ken Burns documentary Empire of the Air (1992) also give students background knowledge on the precursor to podcasts (the radio).

This American Life
Ira Glass launched This American Life (often referred to as TAL) in Chicago in 1995. This show defined the broad genre of narrative journalism that was explored at length in Jessica Abel’s excellent graphic novel Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio. Other narrative shows like Snap Judgment, The Moth, Vocalo, and the breakout podcast sensation Serial feature former TAL producers. Some important TAL episodes directly relate to education, like the hilarious episode “Middle School,” a two-part show on the violence surrounding Harper High School in Chicago’s south side, and another two-part episode on school segregation titled “The Problem We All Live With.”

While it is easy to search TAL’s episodes on their website, Ryan wrote a two-part blog on teaching This American Life in every discipline for School Library Journal (part one and part two) that will get you started.

There are many podcasts for folks interested in the sciences, including excellent shows like Invisibilia, “a show about all of the invisible things that shape human behavior”; Hidden Brain, “a conversation about life’s unseen patterns”; and Science Vs, “the show that pits facts against everything else.” But Radiolab stands a notch above the pack. Their brilliant use of sound effects brings ideas to life for students. Favorite episodes of ours include “A Very Lucky Wind,” which is about the mathematics of randomness; “Patient Zero,” which is about the science (and math) of outbreaks, featuring the tale of “Typhoid Mary”; and “Even the Worst Laid Plans?” which is about the perils and bizarre possibilities discovered in a toxic lake in Montana.

BackStory with the American History Guys
If you’re looking for fun explorations of big themes with quirky narratives related to American history, BackStory with the American History Guys can’t be beat. Each host is a professor at the University of Virginia specializing in a century—18th, 19th, and 20th Century Guys, respectively. The episode “On the Clock: A (Brief) History of Time” is exemplary an episode, as is “Another Man’s Treasure: A History of Trash.”

Hardcore History
For those interested in world history, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is epic in scope but definitely worth a listen. Additionally, the famous nonfiction author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers) is launching the Revisionist History podcast in which he goes back and reinterprets an event, person, or idea from the past.

On the Media and Planet Money
Both of these current events shows take a deeply interdisciplinary approach to the world around us. On the Media shines a critical eye on the biggest news events. Their series of Breaking News Consumers Handbooks on topics like elections, migration, terrorism, and diets are always enlightening and include little printable guides for each topic.

Planet Money tries to make “the dismal science” of economics accessible to everyone. A stunning multimedia production like their “T-Shirt Project,” where they followed the production of a cotton T-shirt through the global economy, is an excellent example of what the show is about.

While podcasts can be used in any discipline, they tend to be most useful in the secondary and post-secondary classrooms. The Atlantic recently published the article “Where are all the Kidcasts?” lamenting the lack of podcasts for three- to ten-year-olds and their parents. It is true that this is an underdeveloped area, but we would like to highlight the Stories podcast. They are not yet using the full range of sound possibilities available to them, unlike many of the shows above—or the new WHYY kidcast The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, “a radio adventure series for the whole family”—but the show has great interpretations of classic nursery rhymes and some original stories that younger listeners seem to enjoy. Old Time Radio remains your best bet for younger students.

We hope that exploring these auditory adventures expands your students’ literacies in a #BIGLIT world!

Author Pam GoblePam Goble, Ed.D., has been a middle school teacher for over thirty years and has taught education and literature courses as an adjunct professor for the past fifteen years. She has presented at numerous conferences, such as NCTE and AMLE, and has been published in Journal of Staff Development. Pam specializes in interdisciplinary learning, gifted education, curriculum and instruction, leadership, literacy, the humanities, and adult education. She lives in Chicago.

Author Ryan GobleRyan R. Goble, M.A., is an adjunct professor in the education departments of Aurora and Roosevelt Universities. Formerly a classroom teacher, he trains educators in active learning and new media in classes and workshops around the country. His work has been featured in Teacher Magazine, The Boston Globe, The New York Times Learning Network, and elsewhere. Ryan also shares many exciting resources with teachers through his online social network Making Curriculum Pop. He lives in Chicago.

Making Curriculum PopPam and Ryan are the authors of Making Curriculum Pop: Developing Literacies in All Content Areas.

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