Listen & Learn

One thing that surprised me during last spring’s testing season was the heavy use of computer-voice instructions and listening passages on our state’s Common Core-style exam, the SBAC. I hadn’t really taught listening as a specific skill set, yet my students’ scores told me that they needed help there – badly.

To sharpen that skill set, I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts, hoping to find high-interest, school-appropriate shows that’ll fit within one class period.

This American Life’s Serial Season 1 podcast, which covers the case of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior in Maryland who was murdered in 1999, has captivated many classrooms. Lee’s ex-boyfriend and classmate, Adnan Syed, was arrested and convicted of the murder and the Serial podcast raises many questions about the case. It’s great listening, for sure, but the amount of swearing in some of the episodes and the graphic content surrounding the crime made it unusable in my classroom. Way out of bounds. So I started listening to all types of programs, hoping to find something that would work for kids in my town.

Trouble is, few podcasts are built with a teen audience in mind. Most of the compelling programs (you know, the ones that don’t immediately cause students’ eyes to glaze over with boredom) quickly can become rather…um…adult in nature.

So when I found Criminal, I was delighted. Not every episode created by this professional production team is appropriate for our classrooms, but I’ve found three episodes that have been a great match.

I call these lessons “Listen & Learn” and they’ve become the perfect tool to use whenever I need a half-hour or so to catch my breath.

Listen & Learn #1: Tony, the Tiger
Students listen to a 19-minute podcast focused on the case of Tony, a tiger that serves as a roadside attraction at a truck stop in Louisiana. This podcast presents both sides of an argument and allows our students to draw their own conclusions.


Listen & Learn #2: Deep Dive in a Tar Pit
This time, kids listen to an 18-minute program focused on a police officer who volunteered to dive into the thick, toxic sludge of La Brea tar pits to recover evidence in a murder investigation. The reporter presents a modern case of bravery and allows students to clarify their views on the nature of heroism.


Listen & Learn #3: Money Tree
This one’s a 24-minute episode focused on the case of a young woman who learned at age 19 that someone had stolen her identity way back when she was 11 years old. Then, she went on a search to find the thief and eventually made a shocking discovery. In this case, students learn about identity theft and betrayal. They definitely had a lot to say about this one during our latest debrief.


Do you know of any other podcasts that produce teen-appropriate content? I’m always on the prowl for programs to bring to my kids, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been truckin’ through a great program only to have someone drop a curse word two-thirds of the way through an otherwise-awesome episode. Sigh…

Definitely send me a comment with link/s if you have a favorite podcast/nugget of audio gold. If it hits the mark (interesting to teens, not too long, clean, lots to chat about), I’ll do my best to turn it into a full lesson (Disclaimer: When time allows). In lieu of leads from my blog friends, I’ll just keep posting these occasionally as I find them.

Teach on, everyone!

Photo Credits:
Earbud: Marcus Quigmire, Flickr, CCBY-SA2.0.
Tony, the Tiger: Janusz Sobolewski, Flickr, CC2.0.
Tar Pit: Betsy Weber, Flickr, CC2.0.
Money: Ervins Strauhmanis, Flickr, CC2.0.

18 thoughts on “Listen & Learn

  1. Great stuff Laura! Looking forward to using it when I get back to the classroom!

    Despite being a native English speaker, I was born in a different country to one of my mother tongues (I grew up speaking both English and Spanish; followed closely by Portuguese when we moved to Brazil, and Dutch, cause Dad said so – he’s the family native dutchie hahha) and therefore when wanting to go to university in the US I was required to take the TOEFL. Despite the ease of the exam, the listenings were impossible to understand – and they weren’t even computerized voices! ARGH!

    Your students will surely thank you forever for having them practice listenings and helping them understand those horrid recordings!

    Have a great New Years’ and let’s hope 2017 is better than this one!

  2. Holy smokes, Carolyn! And I thought my struggles through high school French were tough. You definitely have me beat. Impressive! And, yes, I’m feeling bullish on 2017. Let’s make it great! 🙂

  3. I love this! I’ve been teetering on the edge of using Serial with my Jrs this semester as we really focus in on analysis and argument, but I’ve hesitated. This might be a way to get us started! Thanks, as usual, and Happy New Year!

  4. Ivy Byron says:

    Thank you for these Laura!! I always find inpiration, encouragement, and solidarity here in your corner of the www.
    Happy New Year to you & yours.

  5. Yeah, Sinead, I really wanted to use Serial, too, but it pushes just a bit too hard on the line of classroom appropriateness. I know many communities are fine with it, but my world tends to tilt toward the conservative so I’ve had to set it aside. The program’s definitely worth a listen and might be a great match for you, depending on lots of factors. I’m loving these single-class period Listen & Learn activities, though. Same skills without devoting to a whole unit of study and my kids like working at their own pace with their own earbuds/devices. It’s working for me! 🙂

  6. Thanks, Ivy! That’s my aim. So glad you’ve found my cozy little corner of the web. Cheers to a happy 2017!

  7. Have you tried What You Didn’t Learn in History Class? I know it falls into the realm of Social Studies, but I have really enjoyed the episodes. It’s been a while since I listened to that Podcast, and I can’t remember if they swear. I have also used Myths and Legends with some success in my mythology class. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the suggestions, Kate! I’ll give ’em both a listen. 🙂

  9. There is a new podcast called Homecoming that I think you may be able to use. It’s fiction, but similar to Serial, in that it adds to the story each episode and requires the listener to put clues together. There are swear words (could maybe find an edited version?), but the content isn’t graphic and I think it would definitely hold your students’ attention. There are currently six episodes and each story is about 23 minutes long.

    I love your blog and use it as a treat to check in when I need some inspiration! Thanks for all you do for the teaching world!

  10. Thanks for this, Kristin! I’ll definitely give Homecoming a listen. So glad you found my blog and think of it as a treat. Love that! 🙂

  11. Melissa Meverden says:

    I’m an avid This American Life listener, and some segments of their episodes could be great.
    I just played Act One from this Transformers episode for my husband because it’s so hilarious and heart warming. It’s about 10 minutes, I think.

    TED Radio Hour is also awesome, and if a kid wanted to dig deeper into the subject of the episode, they can easily listen to or watch the TED talks which are referenced in the podcast. (I know you already use and love TED talks in your teaching.) A recent episode was on the Hero’s Journey, which I’ve taught for years as part of English 1 for 9th graders. Did you know that George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars (often touted as great example of the Hero’s Journey), was BUDDIES with Joseph Campbell? The first 7 or so minutes of that episode are SO COOL and would be such a great introduction to studying hero’s journey.

  12. Wow, oh wow, Melissa! These are two absolute jewels! I was just going to give a couple of minutes to each and ended up listening to both of the entire programs. Loving the idea of how you can change your life in just a moment – perfect for this time of year, right? And the Hero’s Journey TED Radio Hour will definitely be an “after” activity when my freshmen finish our next journey through The Odyssey. The launch is perfect for the beginning of our Hero’s Journey research and then we’ll return to the full program when we finish the poem, which will help connect a lot of those “why should a teen care about this” dots. Thanks for sharing the good stuff! 🙂

  13. Hi Laura, I used this yesterday with my 9th graders. They all got really quiet and engaged in the Tony the Tiger podcast. It was great. We are going to continue our discussion of the questions today. Thank you!

  14. Oh yeah, Rachel, I pull one of these lessons out whenever I just need a quiet half-hour when I’m not “on,” you know how it goes. In every class I’ve used these lessons from 9th grade to 11th, the room just falls silent as Phoebe Judge and the Criminal team cast their spell. It’s great! Be sure to also check out the Deep Dive in a Tar Pit – my kids say that one’s their favorite so far. Thanks for the feedback! 🙂

  15. Hi Laura! I teach 7th grade. I’ve used NPR, This I Believe podcasts and had students write their own essays. Some of the best writing I’ve ever read. Perfect segway into Tedx speeches.

  16. Great idea, Amy! I can definitely see a lot of spin-off ideas from that “This I Believe” theme. Any episodes that particularly resonated with your kids?

  17. Thanks for the cool link, JerseyBuckeye! Looks like I have something fun to listen to during the morning commute. 🙂

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