English/ELA, Teacher Resources, Teachers

Think While You Listen: News Podcasts in the Classroom


Sarah Koenig changed everything with Season One of the “Serial” podcast.

Before “Serial,” most of us were content to listen to “This American Life” on NPR. Occasionally, we might visit the website. But when Sarah Koenig began to unwrap the saga of Adnan Syed, we consumed journalistic storytelling with abandon. We learned where podcasts lived, and then we subscribed, listened, binged, occasionally rated, and subscribed some more.

Podcasts worked their way front-and-center onto our media consumption menu. Podcasts didn’t require listeners to WATCH and listen, so people could drive, walk, or jog and still experience investigative reporting or creative cultural analysis or sassy social commentary or just about anything else.

Podcasts gave great storytellers a platform and an audience. Podcasts also gave some not-so-great storytellers a platform and an audience too.

Listening is one of the four core language arts. Along with reading, writing, and speaking, listening gives us a tool for educating ourselves to engage in public dialogue.

In the high school English classroom, listening skills have traditionally shown up in the form of audiobooks and classroom speeches. However, the proliferation of podcasts gives high school teachers a new realm of opportunities to teach their students critical listening skills.

Episodic investigative journalism podcasts that focus on one story told in many parts are largely enthralling and binge-worthy. Season One of “Serial” was like watching a novelist, week-by-week, figure out what story she was telling. We got to see characters develop and the plot unfold. Except “Serial” was real-life and the characters were real people and the plot didn’t resolve in a neat and tidy manner or in a timely fashion. The story of the first season of “Serial” is still working itself out.

In contrast to investigative storytelling, largely for entertainment purposes, is the science of daily newscasting in podcast format. At the pinnacle of daily news podcasting is “The Daily,” produced by The New York Times. Hosted by Michael Barbaro, “The Daily” tackles one long news story each episode. Using sound bites and sound effects, along with music that keeps listeners slightly off-balance with the way it lightens the mood of even the darkest stories, “The Daily” takes a deep dive into the complexities of current events and cultural phenomena.

Barbaro typically interviews a New York Times reporter, who shares background and analysis of the topic of the day. Each episode is rich with information, and at a point in our national history when everything in media seems designed to spin towards an extreme of the political spectrum, “The Daily” always manages to acknowledge what is at stake on all sides of the event or phenomenon.

The reporters are tenacious, intelligent, and eloquent. Barbaro serves as an engaged Everyman, asking “So what does this mean?” and restating the information while adding analysis—“So let me get this right… If… then… And that’s the chief concern.”

While the trend toward using podcasts as curriculum content in the classroom has been around for a few years, thanks to Koenig, the potential use of podcast analysis as curriculum enrichment has risen as another pillar of listening instruction. Episodes of “The Daily” pair nicely with the high school English class curriculum. The theme of the corrupting influence of power runs broad in current events and culture. Elections, social media giants, international business practices, crises of conscience… they all play into the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Literature is effective in pointing out to students the great ideas that shape our world and our character. Daily new podcasts give students specific examples where truths revealed in literature are truths that run through the real world.

To help students analyze “The Daily” podcast content, I made a worksheet. Teachers can use the worksheet to help students analyze a current event or cultural phenomenon presented on “The Daily” as an end to itself. For this purpose, teachers can focus on hows and whys of the episode topic, giving students room to express their own opinions on the subject and evaluate the effectiveness of the podcast.

Or the analytical worksheet could be the springboard for understanding the event or phenomenon in order to draw parallels between real life and literature.

A free copy of the worksheet is available in the Always Learning HQ store on Teachers Pay Teachers.

The worksheet allows for teachers to choose whatever episode of “The Daily” works best with where they are in the curriculum. However, a couple of great suggestions from fairly recent episodes and how you could use them in the classroom are as follows:

White, Evangelical and Worried About Trump (Nov. 5, 2018) – Relate to Antigone and the cost of following personal convictions

What a Border Sheriff Thinks About the Wall (Jan. 11, 2019) – Great for discovering what the differing opinions are, what is ultimately at stake, and how views on the issue can change

What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide (Nov. 16, 2018) – Tracing tangled threads to uncover the truth

The Human Toll of Instant Delivery (Nov. 26, 2018) – The unintended consequences of excellent customer service.

I would love to hear how you use this resource in your classroom. Please leave a comment below.


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