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Creating audio narratives

New York Teacher

My goal as a secondary ELA educator is to create a new narrative for the secondary-school English classroom as a digital media lab. I do this using modern pedagogy and by bringing student voices to the forefront of the classroom.

To that end, as an 11th- and 12th-grade ELA teacher at a project-based learning school in Berkeley, Calif., before I became a New York City public school teacher in late 2017, I turned a research unit into a podcasting unit and instructed my students, 65 percent of whom were English language learners, to become media makers for real-world audiences.

In the second half of the 2016–17 school year in Berkeley, I taught my seniors a unit on disaster and apocalyptic fiction, centered around “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. My students wrote two-page research papers on environmental disasters that happened in the world at different times. These disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis in faraway places at faraway times, were difficult for the students to grasp. The papers were unengaged and boring; my students were unengaged and bored.

I knew these students were resilient, funny and curious, but how could I spark their engagement? I realized that I wanted my students to research a disaster that happened close to home, one that was local, relevant and very, very real. This made me think of the fire that killed 36 people at a warehouse party in the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland on Dec. 2, 2016. To give their research a real audience, I tasked my students with creating an audio narrative about the fire.

My students had never recorded a podcast before. I had little experience editing audio, and I had never before scaffolded and facilitated the creation of (what turned out to be) an 87-minute podcast with 10 different interviewees.

My students were excited about the possibility of becoming investigative journalists and going out into the Bay Area to research the disaster. First, we pored over articles and videos about the fire. Their investigative strategies brought them to many different places to interact with people they never would have: architects, investigative journalists, DIY warehouse organizers, firefighters, Facebook employees and local young artists.

They emerged with much more complicated and nuanced understandings of the Bay Area housing crisis, the role of social media in disasters, city and safety code and criminal culpability than the mass media’s narrative that portrayed the warehouse fire as a “rave gone wrong.” This project was the literal creation of a new narrative — student-researched, student-edited, student-created and student-voiced.

The narrative, however, was not without its bumps on the (figurative) road. Technological problems plagued our journey the entire time and, at one point, I thought we were going to lose every audio clip we’d recorded. I wrote some tips on audio production that you can read in the New York Times. And you can listen to our final product on SoundCloud.

This project helped me learn that it’s OK to let student and teacher learning coincide and be simultaneous. I am excited by what I saw my students exhibit throughout this process — keen eagerness, deep frustration, meticulous research and the curiosity of true journalists.

Educator tips

Pick content that works for audio. Because the warehouse disaster was so recent and happened locally, my Berkeley students could talk to experts in the field. Pick a topic that lends itself to the task of researching and interviewing — two pillars of podcast production.

Anticipate technological glitches and flow with them! Be ready to learn from students; teenagers are probably more fluent in these tech tools than we are.

There are many different types of audio recording and editing software that you can use. We used Garageband (free on Apple computers) and SoundCloud (free) to post the podcast. There is also Audacity (free shareware) and Soundtrap (free for 14 days, then premium).

You’ll need a place to put your podcast so that others can get to it. To get your files over to iTunes, you can use Podbean (free), audioBoom (free), Libsyn (premium), and Blubrry (premium).

Students will want to include music and sound effects. Do not use any copyrighted materials of any length; instead use royalty-free music and sound effects like those on Pond5 and Freesound. Or have students create beats themselves!