Using Podcasts to Spur-on Argumentative Writing

I have a podcast addiction. I’ve spoken before about my love for narrative non-fiction, and when my husband introduced me to Radiolab on our first 18 hour drive to Colorado, then Freakonomics, I discovered a whole new world of interesting stories. Radiolab in particular crafts its episodes to be suspenseful and intriguing in a way anyone can get into—even high school students. Often, the topics are complex and prompt the audience to question all aspects of the question/issue/topic. Isn’t that what critical thinking is?

The same-old persuasive essay topics are killing my engagement lately. If you’re wondering how to use podcasts in the classroom, wonder no more! I’ve done the work for you.

Here are some specific podcasts that could work in the classroom and intrigue students: 

-My first use of a podcast was Radiolab’s “Yellow Rain.” It is probably one of the most controversial of the episodes considering Robert K. takes the “devil’s advocate” role a little too far into insensitivity to the traumatic experience of the Hmong people he is interviewing. This is a great one for cultural studies or science of chemical warfare. I used it when teaching about Haitian zombies because it is a good example of zooming in on how people can easily discount cultural perspective and belief.

Serial Season 1 came along, which prompted me to try out teaching it with Mike Godsey’s package of lesson plans. I am planning on writing about this at some point since I spent a whole 6 weeks with my kids on it.

-Radiolab’s The Rhino Hunter (NOTE: This one can be very difficult for people as it discusses hunting large game exotic animals in light of Cecil the lion. Send permission slips home. I really enjoyed it as it was enlightening and made me think.)

-Radiolab’s Eye in the Sky. I’ve had my class listen to this one and it’s great because it’s directly applicable to any city. I had my class research city council members in Denver and then write a letter to them urging them to vote for whichever side the student believes is right if the council were to vote on such technology.

-Undisclosed’s Episode 12: Prisoner’s Dilemma. This should be listened to in conjunction with some of Serial as it gives us a front seat into what goes on in a prison and how prisoners responded to Serial. It is best to be used to discuss prison reform; so, I think it would be a great segue from Serial into an argumentative essay about prison reform.

-Recently I used Freakonomic’s “Should Kids Pay Their Parents Back For Raising Them?” Wonderful historical look into how parent/child relationships work. Kids have a lot of opinions about this one!

-Other podcasts to check out are Invisibilia, Death, Sex, and Money, This American Life

-Here is The Atlantic’s “Podcasts so good you want to binge-listen”

How I start:

Let’s say that my goal is to build students’ skills in listening to extract claims, evidence, and source. They will accomplish this by writing an argumentative essay in which they take a side, offer a counter claim, and defend it by using evidence.

  1. I find a podcast I think my students would find interesting. If it has a transcript, that is very helpful as it is a tool for students who aren’t adept at listening yet. It’s best if it has an argumentative or questioning slant already. I would check out the vocabulary and pre-teach it if necessary (I didn’t do this for Freakonomics, and I think it would have helped my ELLs as well as most of my other students).
  2. After listening, I create a note-taking form students will use. It is not enough to just say, “take notes”—at least not for my kids. They need more structure, especially if it is their first real podcast experience.
  3. We discuss protocols for listening–attentiveness, putting the cell phones away, and asking me to stop the podcast so they can write down their thoughts. This should be scaffolded as well.
  4. I show them the note-taking form and get their feedback on it. Does it make sense, and if so why not? What could we add? Subtract? This at least gets them thinking about what the best way to take notes looks like.
  5. I present the question associated with the podcast to get students’ prior knowledge running.
  6. I begin with stopping as necessary for the first couple of claims, then ask them to raise their hand or signal me to pause while they point out the claim, evidence, and source. I’m still working at them becoming less dependent on me for this. I’d love some ideas if you have them!
  7. Often when we stop to add a claim, I’ll ask them–“who said that?” It forces them to go back to the transcript (or you can replay the last minute or so) if they don’t remember, and identify the source.
  8. Once we are finished with the podcast, we review the claims and whether they are in the right “spot.” What I’ve provided here is a Yes/No type of note-taking. We discuss how claims can be used to support either side if that’s the case. A powerful part of this being complete is that students have the “evidence” and now they have to organize it and start writing. Most of the investigative legwork is finished. The ideas don’t have to come out of thin air. I had to point out to all students that each of them has something to write about if they took good notes.
  9. While I did not do this, I think having a structured discussion (Philosophical chairs, Socratic seminar, or Citation Circles) is a necessary component of reviewing the ideas and potential claims.
  10. While writing, students may have to re-listen or go back to the transcript. That is something my students are struggling with, as they think if they’ve listened once, they got everything they needed to out of it. Not true.

I am currently in the process of evaluating my class’s essay on the Freakonomics podcast. I’ll update with how it goes!

Teachers, how do you use podcasts in your teaching? Comment below!

Happy Halloween!




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