Why More Teachers Should Use Podcasts

May 13, 2016

When we started the third of four quarters in February, I gave up on getting my students to read outside of class. Despite the fact that the approaching ACT and an AP English Language test were a couple months away, I said, “No more reading Atlantic articles for homework. Now,” I told them, “I need you to listen.” So every week, I’ve been assigning podcasts from NPR’s the Hidden Brain. The homework completion rate? Almost 100%.

Podcasts continue to gain popularity. But I didn’t give this assignment to join the bandwagon. I did it because of the thought-provoking experiences I had after listening to Hidden Brain or LatinoUSA on my morning commute. My eleven-year-old son, eight-year-old daughter, and I enjoy Maria Hinojosa’s podcast each week during our 40-minute drive. My son says, “Papi, you just like LatinoUSA because of the music.”

Well, yes, I dance in the car a little bit. But the stories help me bond with my children. One morning, we listened to the story of Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of the man who filed Mendez vs. Westminster—the lawsuit that preceded Brown vs. Board of Ed.

Mendez shared information about the discrimination against Mexican students, and how they could only go to public swimming pools on Mondays – after the busy weekend, after the water had been dirtied. At the end of the day Mondays, the pools would be emptied and filled with fresh water.

Stories like these give my children an insight into struggles they will thankfully never face, but which I want them to know of.

So it made sense to me to mix things up a bit for my high-school students. During the first semester, I assigned weekly readings from the Atlantic that followed a structure I came up with to develop students’ reading, thinking, social, and writing skills.

For 3rd quarter, I stepped back. They knew the structure. All I ask for at the end of each week is a one-page reflection that captured their contemplation and insights about the podcast.

On Fridays, we discuss their reactions to the podcast for a few minutes in small- and whole-groups. Then they take a multiple-choice critical-thinking quiz that I design. I follow classic standardized-test guidelines for the options. One is correct. One is wrong but sounds good. One is half right, half wrong. One is the opposite of the correct answer. I tell my students this is what I’m doing to help their thinking on the quiz. If I’m going to use unfamiliar vocabulary, I give them the terms before the quiz.

I come up with five items each week. Something simple. Because I make the items inference questions, students—even the straight-A superb test takers—struggle.

For the podcast on boredom, I searched for quotes related to the topic and came up with this (the answer is A):

Which statement does NOT express the podcast’s point about boredom:

A. “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”

B. “Teens think listening to music helps them concentrate. It doesn’t. It relieves them of the boredom that concentration on homework induces.”

C. “To do the same thing over and over again is not only boredom: it is to be controlled by rather than to control what you do.”

D. “One cannot long remain so absorbed in contemplation of emptiness without being increasingly attracted to it.”

For the podcast on originality, I came up with this (the answer is C):

It can reasonably be inferred that originality is more related to:

A. Ideas that are applicable and inevitable

B. Ideas that are a combination of growth mindset and a fixed mindset

C. Ideas that are pervasive and meticulous

D. Ideas that are crippling and precarious

What makes this practice appealing? In The Atlantic, Tiffanie Wen cited a 2009 study from The Annals of the New York Academy of Science that found participants becoming more empathic after listening to other people’s stories whether it was in audio, video, or text. I know I’m not alone in using podcasts. Michael Godsey wrote about his use of podcasts (also in The Atlantic).

The other reason I value podcasts is this: In a twenty-minute podcast, my Southwest side Chicago students (where most students are low-income) get exposure to ideas they might not access otherwise. They might like to read. Or they might not. But they will use their phones and keep those earbuds in. So, if I can’t beat ‘em, I gotta join ‘em. And they joined me, too.

This was some students wrote in their reflections:

One of the insightful soundbytes was about how we pick jobs that seem, at the moment, effortless. This caught my attention because I often pick classes that seem easy so that I only have to do the bare minimum. Then I become bored because there isn’t enough work to keep me interested. –Brianna

When I spoke to my mom, she agreed with the podcast and the idea of originals being people who procrastinate. They can be mistaken as lazy. Originals postpone their tasks to think or find a better way to do something, not to be lazy. –Marisol

This podcast episode gave me a new insight when it comes to empathy. Trying to connect with others, even your enemies, gives way to peace and understanding in life. Not everyone shares the same life, social class, financial status, race, or gender, so perspective is crucial. –Danny

The most insightful thing I learned from the podcast is that true empathy requires a person to step outside from their own emotions to view things entirely from the perspective of the other person. Feeling empathy towards our enemies can lead to remarkable things; one of them is that our enemy stops being our enemy. –Saul

Each week, I learn how my students discover that they are not the only ones struggling with relationships, identity, fear, or forgiveness. I see how they learn their struggles are universal, and they are not alone. So I’ll keep assigning these podcasts for homework until the end of the school year.

A couple of weeks ago, after listening to LatinoUSA’s episode about Latinos in rock ‘n roll, I tweeted that I was grateful for my flamenco-dancing daughter, and my singer son heard a voice in the closing say, “Seeing yourself in the music lets you know you can create things that matter.”

This sabiduría gave me a new way of explaining what we do in class to my students.

So I decided to start using a new directive at the beginning of each writing assignment: "Okay, students, for this writing task, I need you to create something that matters."

Ray Salazar, NBCT

Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools since 1995. He is a National Board Certified Teacher. His blog, The White Rhino, tied for second place in EWA's Community Members Best  Blog category in 2012. National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio aired his essays and the Chicago Tribune and CNN's Schools of Thought Blog published his editorials. Salazar earned a bachelor's degree in English/Secondary Education and master's degree in writing, with distinction, from DePaul University.  Visit his blog The White Rhino at Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay Contact: