Think While You Listen: News Podcasts in the Classroom

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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.

 

Writing A Great Teacher Recommendation Letter

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Fall is the season for college applications and teacher recommendations. While students are snowed under the back-to-school courseload, extracurriculars, and senior activities, teachers are slammed with parent communications, lunch-hall-carline-whatever duties, lesson plans, in-class engagement, and grading.

Adding a stack of college recommendations to a teacher’s otherwise overstuffed life is a necessary burden. Most teachers who have been around the block a time or two have a go-to formula to help save time and still write insightful information that is helpful to the admissions offices.

For those teachers who are new to the teacher rec-writing game, here are a few suggestions to help develop guidelines for writing college recommendations that give admissions readers crucial information in their decision-making process and also save the teacher a little time in completing this added blessing on the fall to-do list.

1. Be sincere. Your personal integrity with colleges and universities is riding on your honesty and authenticity. Not every student you teach is in the top one-to-two percent of your career or the top ten percent either. Overestimating a student’s ability or character could get that student into a college that is not a good fit. Moderate your language and try not to write everything as a superlative. On the other hand, if a student is at the top of all the students you have taught through the years, break out your strongest endorsements and superlative statements for them.

2. Be up-front. In everyone’s best interest, if you feel like what you can sincerely say about a student will not help their chances of getting into a college or university, let them know so they can ask a different teacher to write the recommendation. One year, I agreed to write recommendation letters for two editors on our student magazine staff. Shortly after, these two students started showing up for class a few minutes after the tardy bell a couple of times a week. Each time, they would apologize profusely and say it was because they were coming from an AP lab course and their lab ran long. When I began to doubt that their AP science class would be doing labs that often, I pulled them aside and told them I could no longer excuse their tardies. They apologized, as usual, and started getting to class on time for about a week. The next time the students were tardy, they came wandering into class halfway through the period, without excuse notes. I asked them where they had been and one student said, “Well, you know, boy problems. We had to have a little girl talk.” I looked at the other student and she said, “Well, I couldn’t tell her no.” Nope. That moment was not one of my better teaching moments, but ultimately, I let both students know that, in their own interest, they should probably find a different teacher to write their recommendations. Nothing I could say about their character would be helpful in their college admissions process.

3. Be concrete. Open the letter with a significant narrative. Explaining the situation that first made the student stand out to you is a good way to start. Maybe it was a class discussion. Or maybe that student stepped in to defend another student who was being bullied. Or maybe the student routinely spends all of lunch hour tutoring a friend who is struggling to understand a complex concept. Maybe the student’s research project was so well-researched and written that it had an impact on your personal beliefs about the topic. Whatever the story is, tell it. Let your opening paragraph be a verbal “video” of what you remember as most remarkable about this student.

4. Be thorough. Follow your opening narrative with a discussion of one or two character traits that best describe the student. Again, the strength of your own writing will come in your ability to help the reader “see” the student’s character by sharing narrative examples. Tell the story. Tell the story. Tell the story. Don’t shy away from sharing examples of growth… situations in which you’ve seen a student become more confident, kind, or hard-working. While it is easy in the body of the letter to recite the student’s resume, that information is already on the application. What is most helpful for admissions is knowing the person behind the accomplishment. Therefore, if an honor or award has a story behind it that shows student character, then tell the backstory. The journey to success is always more interesting than simply knowing there was a success. While most teachers want to paint a picture of perfection, the authenticity of a struggle that leads to growth is often more valuable in identifying whether a prospective student is a good fit with the prospective campus’ culture.

5. Be clear about what you see for the student’s future. Try not to end the recommendation letter with something like this: “Therefore, I highly recommend this student for admission to this university.” If you can see that student spending summers as an undergrad volunteering as an office assistant for a pro bono legal services agency near campus in preparation for law school where you are confident they will become a civil rights attorney, then say that. If you believe that the student will be more successful in college than high school because your school has few technology course options, and the student spends every free moment reading coding books and just needs an environment rich in technology to thrive, say that. Get into the specifics of why this student is a good fit for this college and this college is a perfect environment for this student.

Once you get a few teacher recommendation letters written, you will develop your own style and rhythm. Be careful not to slip into autopilot, though. Make sure your recommendations are genuine and thorough.

Do you have a particular way you prefer to write college recommendations? Please share in the comments below. The more people who jump into the conversation, the better we all become.

Choosing a Common App Essay Prompt

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Photo Credit: Pixabay via Pexels

A quick visit to the Common Application website reveals that over 800 colleges and universities now accept the Common App. From years in the teacher-trenches during college application season, I can attest that the Common App is one of the biggest timesavers to come along in… well, ever.

Along with the one-shot input of name, address, and other vital information comes the opportunity for students to put all their energy into writing one spectacular college essay. While many colleges and universities have additional essays to complete, the supplemental essays are focused on specifics the university wants to know. Quite often supplemental essays also help filter students for honors programs, scholarship consideration, or specific learning communities. As far as essays go, however, the Common App essay factors heaviest in helping admissions readers see the human being behind the stats and scores on the rest of the application.

By nature, the Common App essay is a personal narrative. On the bottom of the 2018-2019 essay prompts announcement page, the organization included the following paragraph:

“Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants – regardless of background or access to counseling – the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life,” said Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.

Your voice. Your story. Personal Narrative.

Seven essay prompts appear on the Common App website again this year. Breaking it into broad categories, three lead students to reveal an area of passion, and three ask for examples of personal growth. The final prompt knocks the essay topic wide open and tells students to write absolutely anything. Below is a list of the prompts, broken down into their broad categories:

[Passion] 1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

[Growth] 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

[Growth] 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

[Passion] 4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

[Growth] 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

[Passion] 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

[Open] 7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common App essay prompts for 2018-2019 remain the same as in 2017-2018, largely because they are well-written prompts that give excellent direction while preserving the student’s ability to share a unique story told in an authentic voice.

How does a student choose which prompt to write? Ideally, students select the prompt that “connects” with them the most. The prompt response should include a narrative element (a story, as in a chronological sequence of events). It should also have an analytical component that reveals self-awareness of the role of that particular area of passion or personal growth in the student’s life or development. The analytical component is where the readers hear the writer’s voice loudest. The prompt in which story and analysis come together strongest is the prompt a student should choose.

Before locking down the final Common App prompt selection, students should take a quick peek at the supplemental essays for the specific colleges on their list. If a supplemental essay for a top-choice school requires a student to write an essay that is the same or eerily similar to the Common App essay response, choose a different Common App essay prompt. Writing the same basic content for multiple essays going to one college or university is a surefire way to prove a lack of creativity, depth, and work ethic.

As college application season kicks into high gear, here are some action tips for students, educators, and parents to help everyone thrive:

Students – Choose wisely, and keep the big picture in mind. Use narrative and analysis. Tell your story; use your voice. A planner, personal journal, or Bullet Journal could come in handy when it’s time to brainstorm stories. This should go without saying, but students should not wait until the last minute to draft their Common App essay. Leave enough time to try and fail and adjust and try again. Try two or three different prompts to see where they lead you before deciding on “the one.” Time and reflection will be your best friends in finding your voice.

Educators – Give students plenty of practice writing personal narratives. High school English classes run deep in the ruts of literary analysis, research-based writing, and argumentative essays. But students struggle to write their own stories. Do not neglect narrative writing, especially personal narratives. To junior English teachers specifically: at the end of the year, consider a brief personal narrative unit. Keep the word count similar to the Common App (maximum of 650 words). Let your juniors leave school prepared for the college application season ahead.

Parents – Help your students carve out time to choose their Common App prompts wisely. The ideal time to begin drafting college essays is in July between junior and senior years. Most supplemental essay prompts are out by then. The Common App recently has announced prompts in the winter or spring before the next application season. They announced on January 12, 2018, the return of the prompts from 2017-2018 for the 2018-2019 college application season, so it would stand to reason that the Common App prompts will be readily available in July too. Encourage your students to start early. Once students return to school in August or September for the heavy academic and extracurricular load most college-bound seniors carry, they will be writing whatever comes to mind from a sleep-deprived state and settling for just getting something written instead of writing their unique story in their authentic voice.

Questions? Write them in the comments below.

Suggestions? Write those in the comments below too.