It’s hard to be away from my students for such a long time. It’s made me think about what’s missing now that I’ve gone online. There’s nothing like seeing them. I miss the social interaction and the little jokes we trade with each other at the start of class. I also miss how students get worked up about fictional characters. We’d probably be arguing about the relationship between Gogol and Moushumi right now, characters in The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. But sometimes, I think the biggest thing missing is their voices. The long explanations and deliberations. The opinions and the stories.
Last week, I tried to replace that void with a podcast assignment (free resource) on the novel where students think about their name. Instead of writing a traditional introduction, I ask them to begin speaking about how the story of Gogol’s name became the way he connected with his parents. I then ask them to talk about their name and include an interview with a parent or guardian. The conclusion, the end of the podcast, is where they think about their name and their family, and how their name represents who they are.
When I was in high school studying The Joy Luck Club, my teacher had a similar assignment where we had to interview our parents. I remember learning so much from them by just asking a few questions. I’d love to have a record of that conversation. So in this bizarre virtual world we live in, it’s the perfect time to assign a podcast. I love hearing their voices – I just listened to one student discover that her parents picked her name because it was the only name in both Scotland and India.
In my Media Studies class, we’ll get enough time to explore what’s now become the art of the podcast. There’s tremendous literary value in podcasts like Serial, Invisibilia, Radiolab, The Moth, and Freakonomics. Consider the first monologue from the podcast S-Town:
I'm told fixing an old clock can be maddening. You're constantly wondering if you've just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you've got are these vague witness marks, which might not even mean what you think they mean. So at every moment along the way, you have to decide if you're wasting your time or not.
Before I played my first podcast in class, the first season and episode of Serial, I thought, there’s no way they’re going to sit through this. Many of the episodes run around forty-five minutes. Unbelievably, they took notes like I’ve never seen before. They wanted to capture every word. The podcast takes us back to oral epic poetry – it demands the mind’s attention just like a lengthy novel. What the novel tries to capture in vernacular, like an actor on a stage, the podcast offers in the speaker’s authentic voice and emotion. And there's no distracting image that flashes at you every few seconds. The podcast combines the world of the idea with the world of the story. I love that they can be organized like an essay (try Radio Rookies) or really casual and spontaneous. Especially now, I see the need to create a space online where students can listen to each other craft their ideas and their voice.
The Teacher's Workshop
online professional development for high school English teachers