In some ELA circles I’m known as The Podcast Queen. Though I’m not sure where it started, I theorize that this title has been bestowed upon me because 1. I never shut up about podcasts and 2. Many of my podcast units, resources, and roundups have engaged classes when little else would, especially during distant learning.
While I gladly accept that title with honor, I humbly hope that this post knocks me off my throne a bit because I want to share my podcast power with the people. While I do enjoy creating engaging podcast unit plans like my Serial podcast teaching unit and Dolly Parton’s America podcast unit, I know interests, themes, and pairing needs are so diverse that I can’t possibly keep up with my royal duties. Therefore, I’m going share everything I know plus outsource what I don’t in hopes that you will feel confident to plan your own podcast unit!
How to plan a podcast unit
When it comes to creating a podcast unit plan, you could be looking for information on listening to podcasts in class or producing podcasts in class. Luckily, this post will cover both! To be successful with having students create podcasts, they must first listen to podcasts as mentor texts. Read to the end to get all the podcast unit planning information you will need!
1. Get Inspired to use podcasts in the classroom
I know, I know technically lessons plans should start with the academic standards, but honestly, how many of your best lessons ever started with reading an uninspiring list on the Common Core website?
With every one of my successful podcast units or induvial podcast lesson plans, I first listened to the podcasts out of personal interest then became so inspired that I knew I had to find a way to make it fit with my ELA standards.
I listen to at least one podcast every single day. However, I rarely listen to podcasts for school. Quite the opposite. I listen to unwind on evening walk or to pass the time on my daily commute. I listen to topics that make me happy such as travel podcasts. I listen to topics that tap into my other passions like home décor podcasts. I listen to topics that make me smarter such as informational podcasts. I listen to topics that freak me out like true crime podcasts. I listen to podcasts that have absolutely nothing to do with my curriculum, and yet, this is when my inspiration strikes!
So, my advice to you is to just start listening for your own enjoyment and get inspired by what you hear. However, if you have no time to be at the whims of the podcast muse, then let me direct you to some posts that will ENSURE you find inspiration for your podcast unit.
- Podcasts for Kids: An epic list of activities and podcasts for school
- Podcasts Pairings for the Secondary ELA Classroom
- Why You Should Be Using Podcasts in Secondary ELA
- Spooky Podcast Episodes for the ELA classroom
- Valentine’s Day or Love Themed podcasts for ELA
2. Evaluate the educational merit of podcasts
It’s important to measure the educational merit when planning a podcast unit. Of course, you should check for explicit language and sensitive topics, but your analysis should go way beyond that measurement. Educational merit is subjective when it comes to podcasts, however, I will give you some helpful podcast unit planning guidelines and examples.
Consider how the podcast is published for you podcast unit
Consider how the podcast is published: Just like with books, podcasts can either be self-published or published by credible media groups. While I listen to both types of podcasts for personal use, I tend to mostly use credited media-published podcasts in the classroom.
For example, Extra Pack of Peanuts and Travel with Rick Steves are two of my favorite travel podcasts.
If you are unfamiliar with Rick Steves, he is a published author and has a travel show that airs on PBS which known for its educational content. His podcast is produced and syndicated on public radio.
A number of his podcasts can work in an educational setting. I use “Becoming a Road Trip Pilgrim” when teaching The Canterbury Tales and “Ireland’s W. B. Yeats” when teaching Yeats. Steves highlights authors from abroad quite often, and his content goes really well when trying to build cultural context.
Extra Pack of Peanuts on the other hand is a self-published travel podcast. While he too talks about travel and culture, his show leans more toward entertainment than educational. However, there are always exceptions to the rules. His episode “College Education Beyond The States w/ Jennifer Viemont” is SUCH a great resource for high school students who are considering their higher education options. It’s a great episode to have in your back pocket on school days with lots of disruptions.
Practice: Wander with your ears by selecting an episode from both Travel with Rick Steves and Extra Pack of Peanuts and note the educational quality when it comes to a self-published vs media-published podcast.
Consider the depth and discussion points for your podcast unit
Consider the depth and discussion points: I’m not one to judge or censor reading choices. If my students are reading, I’m happy. I won’t shame their free-choice selections nor my own! That said, there are books that I’ve read for fun that I would not use as a teaching tool. Sure, they are entertaining and engrossing, but they don’t provide enough text complexity or topic depth to warrant a spot in my curriculum.
Podcasts in the classroom are the same. You should consider the depth and discussion points of the podcast before planning a podcast unit. This podcast educational merit measure is difficult to articulate, but once you listen to a comparison example, you will understand.
Overview: High school junior, Brittanee Drexel, just wanted to get away for spring break and have a good time with her friends at Myrtle Beach. Her mysterious disappearance would frustrate law enforcement and haunt her family for years to come.
Overview: The U.S. Navy attempted to develop a shark attack repellant after many sailors were attacked during WWII. The first step was the formation of a “Shark Research Panel,” which led to what we have today: the International Shark Attack File. When someone is attacked by a shark, anywhere in the world, the investigation closely resembles police work.
Both are true crime podcasts. Both have a beach setting. Both are gripping. Both are engaging. Both are well produced.
However, when measuring the educational merit, Criminal wins. Sure, this specific Crime Junkie episode can serve as a shocking cautionary tale for students getting ready to travel on their own for the first time, but the style of Criminal is deeper and provides more critical thinking opportunities.
Consider the why behind using a podcast unit over a different text
Consider the why behind using a podcast over a different text: Listening is literacy, but when choosing a podcast, it’s essential that you know WHY you are choosing to use a podcast over another form of “text” like a short story or article. When measuring the educational merit, make sure the podcast offers something unique and beneficial.
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (1990, p. ix)” – Rudine Sims Bishop
- Oftentimes podcasts provide diverse voices and perspectives where classics fall short.
- Many podcasts open “sliding glass doors” through sound effects, pacing, and conversational tones.
- Podcasts have the potential to create life-long learners who connect better with the auditory format over the written word.
Consider accessibility of your podcast unit
Consider accessibility: If you have hearing impaired students, emerging bilingual students, or striving comprehension students, transcripts are imperative (click here for research). Most media-published podcasts will provide transcripts. The easiest way to find these is to Google the exact podcast and episode title + “transcript.” Some podcasts require you to email and ask for the transcript so be sure to plan ahead for your podcast unit.
Another thing to consider is how students will access the podcast. If you are doing a whole class listening, you can play it through speakers. Most established podcasts have a website in which you can play the podcast directly from an embedded media player. I also like to teach students how to access the podcast on their phones because my ultimate goal is to open up a whole new FREE media library at their fingertips.
3 Select a series or single podcast unit
While this will obviously vary based on what you are inspired by, you will need to consider the type of podcast you are assigning. Just like when planning a short story unit or a novel unit, podcasts can either be a single short story or a podcast series (like a novel) and how you approach planning your podcast unit will vary based on which direction you take.
Podcasts in a series such as Serial, Dolly Parton’s America, and Following Harriet will need to be treated like chapter books. This means that each episode must be listened to in order and that you’ll follow an overarching theme.
If you are planning single podcast lesson plans, you can choose to incorporate podcasts as pairings. Or, just like with short stories, you can use induvial podcasts to teach or practice certain standards.
Both styles have a lot of benefits, but if this is your first time ever listening to podcasts in class, then I recommend listening to one single episode before committing to an entire series. This will allow you to gauge how your students respond and reflect on how to make an entire series successful.
You can find a list of single podcast episodes here: Podcasts for the classroom
4 Decide on a whole class listen or a pod squad
Again, just like with other ELA literature planning, you’ll need to decide if you are going to do a whole class podcast unit or set up pod squads. As with literature circles, pod squads offer several listening choices and students are grouped based on which choice they make. One big benefit to using podcasts is that there is no limit so no student should have to take their second or third choice because of limited book supply.
If you are well versed in planning literature circles then pod squads will come naturally to you. You can set up a podcast tasting so that students rate their first impressions from “hit a high note” to “fell flat.” You can find my podcast sampling resource in this bundle: Podcasts in the classroom resources
These digital podcast worksheets are a great resource to use for pod squads because they can work with any podcast!
One of the cons of forming pod squads is that you will need to find multiple podcasts with educational merit. If you are new to podcasts, this will be overwhelming. Another thing to note is that you will most likely need a class set of headphones and devices for pod squads.
While choice and voice are always important in the classroom, there’s also a lot of benefits to a whole class listening as well!
The color sheets keep students occupied and focused while they listen. However, just like if we were reading a long chapter, I make sure to pause the podcast to check for understanding, discuss key points, and do small activities.
I try to break up listening into 15-minute chunks as brain research suggests.
This podcast bundle offers podcast coloring sheets, podcast worksheets, and podcast activities for any podcast!
5 Hit the standards
As long as you properly judged the podcast for educational merit, then hitting your ELA standards will be no problem! This part is actually really fun for me because I LOVE nailing those standards with something fun and unique. 😊
For example, when teaching Dolly Parton’s America, I used an episode as a mentor text for narrative writing standards. You can see all the other standards I hit in this post: Teaching Dolly Parton’s America Podcast
When teaching Serial, we work on literary nonfiction, rhetoric, and bias just to name a few.
With single podcast episodes, it’s easy to hit pairing standards. Here’s an example:
Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.
Recently I paired the podcast Sum of All Parts episode 12.0 The Tattoowierer with Man’s Search for Meaning. We compared and contrasted the tone of each toward Capos, and it made for some poignant insight.
Your activities will vary based on your podcast selection, but if you need extra guidance, you can download my templates here: Digital Podcast Worksheets: Plan your podcast unit with these digital templates
6 Plan a podcast producing project
There are several ways you can end a podcast unit, but one of the most relevant ways to cap your unit is by letting students take everything they have learned from the mentor podcasts and show you what they know by producing their own podcast. For this step, I will turn it to over to my friend and tech expert Shana at Hello Teacher Lady. In her post, you will find everything you need to know about how to produce a podcast in the classroom! Read it here: How to Create Student Podcasts in the Classroom: All Your Questions, Answered