Summer Posts

Now Hear This! Podcasts for Summer Listening

Summer is almost here and what better place to listen to podcasts than on a long car or plane trip. As a kid, I remember listening to old radio broadcasts like the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. The voice actors and sound effects would let my 10 year-old imagination run wild but not be as frightened as actually watching a horror movie. And now with a smartphone, your kid can listen to a podcast and play Two Dots or Candy Crush at the same time.

Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite podcasts in alphabetical order including links and suggested age ranges. Parents and teachers may want to listen to these episodes beforehand, especially for younger children. You can also find these in your podcast app.

I sometimes play various clips for my students as examples of the power of story and as a way to experience oral storytelling which precedes writing and film. By middle school, many classrooms no longer listen to stories read out loud even though listening to stories improves reading and writing by bolstering vocabulary, articulation and sequencing.

So, this summer, plug in a podcast and encourage your kids to listen to a story. They will be enriched while being entertained.

  1.  More Perfect. Ages 12 and up.

Jad Abumrad of the podcast RadioLab (also a recommended podcast) started this series based on the US Constitution and its Amendments. This series is a must-listen for high school students studying government and a terrific refresher on what makes the US Constitution and the American experiment so unique. In addition to teaching about the specific amendments, Abumrad, a creative writing and music major from Oberlin, recruited various singer-songwriters and bands to write and record songs inspired by a specific amendment. It’s like Schoolhouse Rock with an indie-pop vibe.

  1. Serial. Season One. Ages 13 and up.

I binge-listened to the first season where intrepid reporter Sarah Koenig investigates the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee. Did her boyfriend 17 year-old Adnan Syed kill her? What Sarah finds results in more legal wranglings over whether Syed deserves a new trial because his defense and the state’s prosecution botched things up. Season One of Serial was the first podcast to win a Peabody Award for reporting.

  1. Spooked. Ages 8 and up, depending on the story. Some stories are more appropriate for older kids.

Glynn Washington is the host and producer of another podcast called Snap Judgment, an edgier version of This American Life. Every Halloween, Snap Judgment devotes an episode to supernatural tales and Washington has now posted these in his separate podcast Spooked. Among my favorites is “My Special Friend.” Baywatch actress Donna D-Errico tells her childhood encounter with a lonely girl from beyond.

  1. This American Life. Ages 10 and up.

First aired in 1995, this radio show started the genre of narrative journalism by choosing a theme for each episode illustrated by personal stories. It also launched the careers of writer David Sedaris and humorist Mike Birbiglia. Host and producer Ira Glass has expanded This American Life into TV and film, but audio, whether via radio or podcast, still seems best suited to present these quirky, personal stories.

Bonus link: CBS Mystery Theater hosted by EG Marshall. Ages 8 and up, depending on the story. Some stories are more appropriate for older kids. For parents and teachers, this website has an index of famous short stories and novels adapted as radio plays.

The Enchanted Classroom…a cautionary tale

Once upon a time, in a land called Silicon Valley, there was a great and mighty school district that cast a powerful spell over the parents and teachers. With the wave of a wand, all the textbooks and all the lessons of all the teachers were magically placed inside a small, silver box. Each child received one of these magical boxes. Within its sleek and polished covers, “the Chromebook” as it was christened, contained everything students needed to learn for school. “Oh, how wondrous!” the children exclaimed, clapping their hands in delight. “I can learn at my own pace.” “I can take the quizzes as many times as I want!” “I don’t need to fear failure. I know I am just ‘not yet’ ready.”

Time passed and day after day as the children clicked through their personalized playlist of educational modules, a strange malaise came over them. “I didn’t understand my lesson, but my friend is two weeks ahead and she can’t help me.” “Sometimes the teacher lectures about things I finished a month ago.” “I miss talking about the stories.” “Why should I come to school if all I do is stare at a magical glowing screen?”

Then, one day, after seeing their children’s delight turn to dismay, the parents decided to challenge technology’s irresistible charm. They wanted a place where technology served the students and did not rule them. A place where children were not kept isolated and alone, clicking at flashing screens, but instead, shared what they learned with one another. A place where class size was kept small so that every child could speak and gain confidence in themselves and their ideas. Teachers would guide and direct students, focusing their attention on what was most important to learn. Tests would include written answers so that students could show they had understood and synthesized the material and not merely guessed correctly on a multiple choice exam.

Soon, reawakened, the children discovered that sharing and speaking about ideas is the first step to writing about ideas. They discovered that taking notes by hand helps them to remember more than taking a screenshot. They discovered that technology is very useful to find videos, facts and new words, but that critical thinking arises from reading followed by discussion followed by writing and rewriting. Most importantly, they discovered that the magic of learning comes not from a small, silver box, but from their own minds, the most magical technology of all.

The End.

College Application Essays: To Toss or Not to Toss?

Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article called “Holding College Chiefs to Their Word” in which several college presidents answered their colleges’ application questions. The article also included links to the written responses by these college presidents.

In my college application essay workshops, I pass out these responses and have my students read them as if they were college admissions officers. They get ten minutes to read ten essays and decide whether to toss or not to toss an essay. And every year, the same essays are tossed and not tossed.

So what makes an essay toss-proof?

The toss-proof essay uses the five senses, dialogue and the Hero’s Journey. A good essay works like a film and employs concrete images to show, not tell. For example, Debora Spar, then-president of Barnard College writes about a typical day in her life juggling her career, three kids and various other mini-emergencies:

“Hello, love,” my husband says sweetly, “is there anything I can do to help?” My husband is in Buffalo. He is in Buffalo a lot lately. It’s cold there, and it snows. But I’m moving at lightning speed, racing between the kids, the speech, the conference, the roasting chicken, and the dying chipmunk. “No,” I say. ‘We’re all set.” Chaos and I are doing just fine.

Spar’s writing uses dialogue and the five senses, including the sense of touch (“cold…snows”) and even taste (“the roasting chicken”) to paint an image of her hectic day. The wry humor in her voice leaps off the page and every year, her essay makes it into the toss-proof pile.

The toss-worthy essay is the opposite. Rather than concrete images and the five senses, the toss-worthy essay uses abstract vocabulary; rather than dialogue, the toss-worthy essay quotes only the writer; rather than the Hero’s Journey, the toss-worthy essay tells us with dull summaries. Compare Spar’s vivid description with the desiccated, beef-jerky dry prose of Amy Gutmann, president of University of Pennsylvania. Professor Gutmann teaches political philosophy and ethics, yet her writing is curiously devoid of specific, concrete examples of how humans should actually govern each other. Her multi-syllabic words ramble on, signifying nothing.

I had developed a theory of deliberative democracy with Dennis Thompson, which we offered as an antidote to the coarseness, intransigence, and extremism that too often has degraded democratic politics and public discourse…[W]e presented a model for placing moral reasoning at the center of everyday politics, and for making the most out of the many moral disagreements that come with the territory of democratic politics.

No succinct anecdote to illustrate her theory. No five senses. No dialogue (she could have quoted Dennis Thompson, whoever the heck he is). And who is he? Why doesn’t she describe him? Or at least attribute an appositive to him? Name-dropping only works with celebrities. Every year, Gutmann’s essay makes it into the toss-worthy pile.

Read for yourself. The link is below. A student faced with having to write a college application essay, can avoid writing a toss-worthy essay by using this summer to get started. OmegaTeaching offers ‘The Power of Story: College Application Essay’ workshops to give students the necessary nudge to write their essays and the tools to make their essays toss-proof!

Gamerman, Ellen. “Holding College Chiefs to Their Words.Wall Street Journal 6 May 2009.

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