Classroom Perspectives, Featured, History, Social Studies

More than Just Chit-Chat: Teaching Social Studies with Podcasts

More than Just Chit-Chat: Teaching Social Studies with Podcasts

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2024 Issue

By David Allyn

Social studies teachers often feel pulled in numerous directions at once. We want to cover national history and world history. The past and the present. Essay writing and public speaking. But there is a limited amount of time in the school year, and it often feels like we can’t give our students everything they need.

Meanwhile, in the United States, students’ knowledge of both history and civics is at an all-time low. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a steep decline in 8th-graders’ knowledge and comprehension of history and civics. Only 13 percent of students rated as “proficient” in history, while just 22 percent reached proficiency in civics, the lowest percentages in decades.

In my classes at Avenues, a private, non-sectarian school in New York City, I use a team-structured, project-based approach to teach history and civics. It’s an approach that covers nearly all the bases: it requires students to research the past, examine current events, tackle controversial topics, engage in formal writing, and develop their public speaking skills. Best of all, they get to engage in research that is deeply meaningful and relevant to them, which inspires students to pour themselves into their work.

For this project, students are divided into teams of four and must work together to create a website and podcast on a specific theme. Last year’s theme was: “A real, or perceived, threat to liberal democracy.”

Substantial Requirements

The students first choose a specific subtopic related to the theme. I share with them a long list of options to choose from. (Potential subtopics from this past year included election denialism, voter fraud, misinformation, book bans, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, and “cancel culture.”) I also provide students with an extensive set of requirements for their websites and podcasts.

These requirements are critical to the success of the project. They ensure that the students do substantive—and not merely superficial—work. I have found that setting the bar high gives students a sense of pride when their projects are done. As a coach once said to me, “An easy game is never much fun.” There needs to be a genuine challenge to make any task enjoyable.

To that end, every website is required to have the following:

  • an overview page with background information critical to understanding the topic
  • a timeline of key events related to the topic
  • profiles of key players
  • at least 3 graphs or charts, as well as an explanatory paragraph for each
  • a selection of 10 articles/websites for further reading (with 3–5 sentence blurbs describing each item)
  • a link to at least 1 primary source document (with a blurb about it)
  • a section providing cross-cultural comparisons
  • a list of references
  • an “About Us” page
  • a link to the students’ podcast

The podcasts must be “informational and serious.” For their homework, the students listen to an episode of Freakonomics so that they gain a sense of what I mean by this. I don’t want them to simply record a lot of chit-chat. Rather, I want them to create sophisticated, information-rich audio programs that would be interesting and engaging to an adult audience.

Each podcast must include:

  • an introduction to the topic
  • a “big question” that the podcast aims to answer
  • a discussion of competing views
  • some clips of interviews with at least three experts on the topic conducted by the students themselves

It’s this last requirement that makes the website and podcast project thrilling for students. I explain that they can interview academics, policymakers, activists, non-profit staff members, politicians, or journalists. Whoever they interview must be credible authorities who are knowledgeable about the topic at hand.

At first, the students are skeptical and a little bit dismayed that I’d expect them—mere students—to secure interviews with people they don’t know. “How are we supposed to find experts?” they ask.

“Research your topic and then email prospective interviewees,” I answer.

“But who’s going to talk to us?”

ADVERTISEMENT





“They’ll talk to you,” I reassure them. “You’ll see.”

Inspiring Results

Once I give the instructions, students are off and running. With a clear goal in front of them, it’s incredible how self-motivated they become. Of course, it helps when a topic like “real or perceived threats to liberal democracy” is inherently interesting to most students. They understand that the world is facing a range of crises, and they want to better understand those challenges. Meanwhile, each team wants to create the best website and the best podcast, so there is an element of competition that adds to the excitement.

I should say here that, as a teacher, I don’t think it is my job to tell students what to believe or, in the case of last year’s theme, what to view as a threat to liberal democracy. For that project, I simply specified that the students needed to focus on a “real, or perceived, threat.” Some students believed the restriction of abortion rights to be a real threat to liberal democracy, while others did not. But everyone agreed that it could be perceived as a threat by many, and therefore was a valid topic for research. Same with gun control laws, unbridled speech on the Internet, and judicial limits on government efforts to stop climate change.

Because the projects have so many separate but related components, the students become fully absorbed in them. Nothing feels like busywork and nothing seems trivial. At this point, my role as a teacher is simply to provide guidance when necessary.

Often, this means explaining concepts the students don’t understand (though just as often it’s a matter of reminding them that they can search online for answers). Other times, it means pointing them in the direction of trustworthy resources—this includes demonstrating how to use Google Scholar. (As a side note, I have partnered with our library team to ensure that all students have unlimited access to the New York Times.) I show them how to find contact information for members of staff on non-profit websites and how to parse government documents.

Throughout the project period, I also provide feedback on their timelines, their graphs, their document blurbs, and the other sections of their websites. Some students struggle to decide how far back their timelines should go—as far back as ancient Rome or only as far back as one year ago—but that’s part of the learning process. Of course, there are no right answers to such questions, but the students should be able to defend their choices if challenged.

In terms of setting up interviews, it helps to provide students with a sample email. I keep it very simple: “Dear Ms. Jones, we are 10th grade students working on a podcast about ‘x.’ Given your expertise on the topic, we are hoping you might be available for an interview. Would you be willing to talk with us for 20–30 minutes? If so, what dates/times would work for you?” I also share a sample follow-up email if they haven’t heard back in two weeks.

The results that my students produce are consistently impressive and inspiring. I have had some students interview sitting U.S. senators and representatives, journalists based in London and Paris, professors at top research universities, and activists around the world.

When the projects are completed, the students present their websites in class and listen to each other’s podcasts as homework. This past year there were presentations on the spread of disinformation, attempts to limit the teaching of Black and LGBTQ+ history, efforts to ban abortion, and the use of executive actions by American presidents. It was a deeply rewarding time as the students proudly taught their peers what they had learned, and gleaned from one another valuable lessons about the past, present, and future of liberal democracy.

Feedback

Students who have completed the project in previous years have given the following feedback:

  • “I think this was definitely my favorite project of the year.”
  • “There were many skills that I learned such as how to work with a group, edit an entire podcast, and choose thoughtful questions for interviewees. All of these skills will also help me in the future, thank you!”
  • “This project was very fun and I felt that I learned so much about lobbying.”
  • “Thanks to the cold-call interview requirement, I feel more comfortable doing so. In fact, I even cold-called some of the major park organizations in NYC for a project in another course, and got two responses from Central and Prospect Park. Thank you so much for everything Dr. Allyn!”
  • “I had a lot of fun during this project thank you for assigning.”

Final Takeaways

Project-based teaching takes careful planning and work, but the benefits are innumerable. Students often feel a sense of ownership over their learning, they feel invested in their research and writing, and they feel compelled to do their very best. A project like the one I have described above also erases the problem of academic dishonesty. Who wants to waste time determining whether an essay was written by a chatbot? When tasked with producing a website and a podcast with a complex set of requirements, there’s simply no way for students to submit work that isn’t their own.

I am very fortunate to work at a school that encourages project-based teaching. Well-designed projects give students the chance to grow and learn in ways they will remember for the rest of their lives. I am constantly inspired by the feedback I have received about this project. Students in previous years have told me that not only do they feel more prepared for the future, having gained more confidence in their research and interview skills, they have also learned more about current events, the government, and how to fight for causes they believe in.

My hope is that more and more schools will embrace project-based work and come to see its extraordinary pedagogical value. I can’t recommend it highly enough and my students feel the same way!


David Allyn, PhD, teaches at Avenues: The World School in New York City. He holds a PhD in History from Harvard University and has taught at Princeton University and Marymount Manhattan College.