Breaking News! Students Create Radio-Style Podcasts

--> from Educators' eZine "How am I going to get my students engaged in this activity? What can I do to make the subject relatable to them?" These are two questions I ask of myself whenever I attempt to craft a new lesson. And
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from Educators' eZine

"How am I going to get my students engaged in this activity? What can I do to make the subject relatable to them?" These are two questions I ask of myself whenever I attempt to craft a new lesson. And more and more I've been looking towards technology as the answer.

For example, my middle school, in Michigan's Oak Park, insists that we incorporate reading and writing across the curriculum, as standardized test results reveal these two areas to be a persistent weakness. Therefore it became my duty to incorporate reading and writing skills into my social studies curriculum. I just needed a vehicle to tie together the social studies content with the language arts skills. I knew right away that technology would ultimately be the answer. With so much out there, what was I going to use that would drive students to be successful. What would make them want to participate?

Birth of a Radio Station

I found the answer while playing around with some simple audio recording software and an inexpensive microphone. "Hey, kids," I thought, "let's put on a… radio station!" But a different type of station – not one that transmits across the airwaves but one that creates MP3 audio files posted on the school Website and thus available for listening any time and from any place. After logging onto the site, a user would click on our 'radio station' link to hear the program and even also copy it to a blank CD to take home and share with their family. It would be an ongoing audio program update-able anytime.

We decided to call it Anderson Student-Run Radio. The podcasts consist of public service announcements, creative commercials, historic happenings, current events, and, of course, a bit of music. I encouraged my students to take ownership of the station. Eventually they took the ball and ran with it, adding programs to the station such as interviews, school politics, and editorials.

Integrating Curriculum in the Station

I soon began to realize how much of my own curriculum could be taught using this medium. To exercise their creative writing skills, I put students into groups of four and asked each to create a commercial for an imaginary product. To jazz-up the production values of their commercials I supplied them with royalty free sound effects and musical loops from SoundPak, a CD bundled with the excellent book Kid Cast – Podcasting in the Classroom. Of course musical commercials are only a small part of a radio program. Next we created 'newscasts.' As we were studying South Africa, I had them create mock interviews with important figures such as Nelson Mandela and with apartheid victims. Every student strove to get his/her story on the air.

The students were also challenged to write news stories concerning school activities as well as current events. "This Day in History" was another social studies activity where the students had to do real research to write a history-themed newscast. They also wrote and recorded public service announcements for the school to be played in between music and the news. These were simple writing pieces reminding students to pick up after themselves, not to run in the hallways, to be at class on time, etc.

Creating Authenticity

Because I wanted students to feel as though they were authentic radio "disc jockeys I had to teach them some radio lingo such as "Tag" – a catchy phrase that identifies the station and that usually plays between songs, news, interviews, etc. I challenged my students to create tags for our station. One seventh grader turned my generic example of, "Anderson Student Run Radio – Your place for great hits," into, "Anderson Student Run Radio – Your habitat for cherished hits!"

With the tags, news, and public service announcements written, it was time for the students to play their music. But first they had to research the band that they chose to showcase for the introduction to the song. Under the Fair Use copyright laws, we were only able to play 10% of the song – usually around the first 30 seconds – and then fade it out. Although the students were disappointed that the entire song wouldn't be heard in the broadcast, they quickly accepted the policy. On a positive note, it allowed more students to play the role of disc jockey during the program.

Organizing the Show

To keep organized we needed some type of flowchart. We needed to know who and what was going to be read, what was coming next, and what would follow. So we turned to Gliffy, the Web-based flow-chart creator. A typical sequence would start with a tag, followed up by a PSA or commercial, another tag, and then a DJ introducing a song. After 30 seconds of the song, the disc jockey would bring the audience back and introduce the news or the day in history. Our shows went on to be almost one hour long.

Equipment and Materials

To create such a project requires very little. Inexpensive microphones start at under $10, although the better the microphone, the better quality of your broadcast. Next, you'll need some multi-track audio recording software to record your audio into your computer in order to manipulate it. We used Adobe Audition, an amazing program but not inexpensive. For those on a tight budget Audacity is free to download and use. This lets you record multiple tracks of audio and then mix them down into a single track, or single audio file, to publish. Multi-track recording will allow you and your students to create very unique projects. For example, when I record a student speaking his tag on one track, I'll import some music onto a second track, mix the two tracks together, and create a professional sounding radio tag. The final step is to mix the entire show down into one file. There are two formats: 'MP3' and '.wav'. The mp3 format is preferable as it creates a smaller file than the Windows .wav format. If using Audacity, you will also need to download the special codec (an additional plug-in piece of software for the existing program) that allows you to mix your files down to the MP3 format. Otherwise, Audacity will mix your tracks together as a .wav file. Adobe Audition will mix to either a wav or MP3 without having to download extra codecs.

Publishing

So, now what do you do with this mixed down audio file? There are actually quite a few options out there for displaying your students' work. If you have a page on your school's Website, try posting it there. Or you may wish to start a special podcasting site using Podomatic, which provides your own Web page when you sign up. You then upload your MP3 file to the Podomatic site and your podcast is available from that page.

We even went a step further and actually broadcast the show over the airwaves. AM and FM hobby transmitters start at around $100 and can usually transmit the signal for up to a quarter mile. Since the shows are prerecorded, all we would have to do is run a cable from the computer's soundcard output to the transmitter's input, load up our radio show on the computer, and hit play. Once a week we try to play a program during lunchtime, setting up a portable stereo in the corner of the cafeteria while transmitting the radio signal from the computer.

Benefits to the Students

My original goal was to engage my students, and I surely did so. Of course they loved the opportunity to introduce and play their favorite songs on our station. But they became enthusiastic about writing scripts or stories for broadcast. They wanted the opportunity to be behind the microphone. They all wanted a copy of the final program on a CD to take home and share with their families and friends. They were proud of their accomplishments, and wanted to share their voice with others.

One of the added benefits was that the students learned to be analytical about their own work. They, not a teacher, decided if something needed to be re-recorded. They learned to recognize when certain words needed more emphasis. Some were unhappy with the vocal tone they chose, and decided to re-do their script. They became their own critic and took ownership of the project. They gained much more in articulation skills than they would have by simply reading aloud from a textbook. It was a much better way for them to polish their public speaking techniques. Without realizing it, they had hit standards and benchmarks across the curriculum – and they had a blast doing it.

Resources

Podcasting in Education

Podcasting and Education

KidCast: Podcasting in the Classroom

Email:Christopher Young

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