The moment I heard Dolly Parton’s America Podcast, I knew it was something special. My trained English teacher ear was right because this podcast has since topped the charts and went on to win a Peabody Award for excellence in storytelling.
Just like with teaching the Serial podcast, I wanted to share this brilliant work of journalism with my students, so I happily spent the summer creating a unit for the Dolly Parton’s America podcast. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to teach this podcast unit twice (we are on a block schedule), I can confidently say that it’s our favorite unit of the year!
In case you can’t zoom into read student feedback on the Jamboard, here are some of my favorites:
- “The tone of the podcast was always just right. Calm but kept the listener engaged”
- “The diversity of the different individuals that were on the podcast was impressive and everyone was very well represented”
- “I really enjoyed how most of the topics they talked about had different viewpoints and not just one”
- “Even if Jad may have disagreed with some of the interviews, he did not show it, and remained staying respectful to all. He is a more neutral person, which makes people more open to talking to him”
- “It was just overall a good podcast, I didn’t think I was going to like it going into it but I genuinely liked the podcast”
If you have never listened to Dolly Parton’s America, then I urge you to do so. First of all, it’s truly one of the BEST podcast series I’ve ever listened to (and that’s saying something since I listen to A LOT of podcasts); you will enjoy it, trust me. Secondly, while this podcast is RICH in topics that students care about, it contains mature topics meant for a mature audience so please preview the content. Only you can determine what is best for your listening community. Thirdly, you will be able to better evaluate how your students will connect to the surface level Dolly theme depending on your area. I live in the heart of Dolly country so it was a easy choice for me, but I also reached out of teachers across the country to hear how their students reacted.
From the feedback I’ve received so far, the universal topics are enough to engage listeners even if they don’t know Dolly Parton or enjoy country music. Ms. Blume from Seattle wrote that though engagement is tough all the way around in a virtual setting, that her students are “generally interested in this unit. They’ll unmute (often rate) and LOVE the assignments where they get to choose a song to write about. We’ve talked a lot about whether celebrities have a responsibility to use their platforms for good or if they can be purely entertainers, and we’ve talked about how Dolly walks the line of managing to do a little of both. Basically, it was little bit of a tough sell early on, but kids are pretty into it now! One student said the other day, Miss I think I’m a Dolly stan now!?” Haha!
If you are here to be inspired to use Dolly Parton’s America in a classroom setting, then read on to find out why I believe it holds a worthy spot on a curriculum map. If you want to use the podcast resources I created for this unit, you can find those here: Teaching Dolly Parton’s America
Our main ELA goal this year is to disrupt our white male author cannon. Beyond its literary merit, the Dolly Parton’s America Podcast is beautifully diverse. To start, both producers of this award-winning podcast have Middle Eastern heritage, Jad Abumrad from Lebanon and Shima Oliaee with an Iranian background, that lend poignant point-of-views to their narrative. Then, there’s the diverse list of interviewees. From the first openly gay bluegrass musician, to a Republican representative working to rid Tennessee’s capital of a KKK bust, to a Black journalist who single-handedly convinced the Dolly corporation to rethink its Dixie Stampede, this podcast is full of assorted voices that encompass what it means to be diversely American. And finally, there’s the main show – Dolly herself. In a male dominated industry, Dolly has taken her fiercely female self to the top, ranking among the top country music artists of all time. As an incredible businesswoman, influential philanthropist, and iconic musician, Dolly’s interview provides endless inspiration.
Considered a great unifier, Dolly provides opportunities to navigate challenging topics in the classroom while addressing the nuances of opposing viewpoints. I promise this podcast will fill you up, make you think, and stay with you for a very long time. Which brings me to my next point:
Dolly Parton’s America has gifted ELA teachers with important yet approachable discussion points packaged in an entertaining format and wrapped in a pretty pink bow. Many of the hard-hitting topics like recent political unrest and civil protests are difficult to navigate in the classroom, but with the help of the brilliantly produced podcast, my students were able to think deeply and hold civil discussions.
For example, episode 8 “Dixie Disappearance” brings on a Republican state rep to gain traction for removing a KKK leader’s statue from the Tennessee state capitol building. To prep for this conversation, we did a lesson on rhetoric then color coded his interview to analyze his rhetorical techniques. Then, students used their own rhetoric to write letters to state representatives voicing their opinions about who should be honored amongst these prominent alcoves in the capitol.
However, this podcast isn’t all about divisive issues. It also includes beautiful stories that bring us together. This podcast falls into the literary nonfiction category and literary elements are a treat to unpack. For example, the first episode gives us a narrative mentor text gem. We hear just a snippet from Pilgrimage to Dollywood which is enough to inspire students to write their own mini memoir in which a song frames a moment in their lives. The paragraphs students submit for this assignment are the best writing I see all year.
Another lovely example is in episode 4 “Neon Moss” when we get to travel not only to Dolly’s Tennessee mountain home but also to Jad’s dad’s Lebanese mountain home. I cry every single time I hear his father talk about his homeland. It’s moving and memorable. To help students reflect, they do a “window, mirror, and sliding glass door” prompt.
While this podcast unit can stand alone, it also provides endless pairing opportunities. For example, my class is loosely British Literature (we are moving to World Lit to make it more diverse) so I was able to incorporate Pastoral Poetry with “Tennessee Mountain Home” and a microcosm theme to replace Lord of the Flies.
Additionally, I worked in lots of ELA skills using this podcast as the “text.” For example, I had my most successful critical lens lesson plan ever using songs. I also worked in narrative and persuasive writing as I mentioned above.
But there are so many other pairing opportunities with this podcast! If you teach American Literature, this podcast is a perfect tool to dissect what it means to be American through the written word. There are also amble American dream themes and numerous places to pair poetry and short stories.
To start, podcasts make the perfect distance learning tool. You can read all of the reasons here: Podcasts for Kids: An epic list of activities and podcasts for school
But for a truly poetic connection, Dolly donated 1 million dollars to Vanderbilt’s vaccine efforts. She did this to honor her longtime friend Naji Abumrad, who is Jad (the producer’s) father. That million contributed to the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.
God bless Dolly Parton and God bless Dolly Parton’s America! You can download my unit plan here: Dolly Parton’s America