My Research Paper is a Podcast? Rethinking writing for the real world.


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As a technology integration coach by day, I get some pretty standard tech requests from educators like “Can you make me a Nearpod?” or  “Can you come teach a Minecraft lesson?” So when Lauren Drake, a teacher at Clarksville High School in Clarksville, TN approached me last year and said, “I want my students to create a podcast for the NPR student contest instead of write a research paper this year,” I was more than a little excited! In principle, the assignment is the same as a standard term paper: conduct research on a real world problem/event and report on your findings, including your own theories. In practice, the assignment takes on a dynamic life that both engages the students putting it together, as well as their classmates doing the listening.

Podcasting is so common in our everyday world right now.  There are even TV shows based around the creation of them. They are a medium that students are much more familiar with than the magazines or scholastic journals we all used to envision our hard work ending up in, and in fact in many way have taken the place of them. Keeping that in mind, they make the perfect real world way to engage students in conducting and reporting research.

In education, we often talk about being stuck in a rut, or not updating our practices.  A project like this is not always for the feint of heart. There were hours of planning discussions, training in sound tools and editing that took up a few class periods, collaboration among research teams that had to go beyond the classroom, and I’ll just tell you right now that this project resulted in zero submissions to the actual NPR contest for last year when we were finished.  So why bother?  Because we have to! Our world has changed, our kids have changed, so our teaching has to change as well even if our standards haven’t.  By thinking outside the box in her classroom, Mrs. Drake opened a world to students who hadn’t ever listened to a research based podcast; excited the students who listen to them all the time; and provided students with additional real world skills they can leave her classroom with and really use moving forward.  Creating media, after all, is a powerful and necessary skill in many of today’s career paths.  In addition this project teaches them real world collaboration in a more authentic way that requires them to learn and lean into their individual strengths to be a valuable part of their team. And while there weren’t any submissions that made the contest from our first run, what the students created was thought provoking, high interest, and witty, with topics ranging from the validity of the new state mandated family life curriculum in TN to dinosaur death matches. They were proud of themselves and what they made and so were we.

Let’s just emphasize one more time that rethinking education doesn’t always mean rethinking learning.  Sometimes it just means rethinking the process.  By stepping out of her comfort zone and pulling her students right along with her, Mrs. Drake has changed that process for her kids while still making sure they leave her with mastery of standards in research and writing practices. This year process began with the start of the school year. Part of the work for her class now includes listening to and reflecting on podcasts instead of just texts.

In addition, she’s rethought writing circles using strategies shared by Kelly Gallagher, and having students use Flip to record an analysis of their own writing and asking for feedback from their peers. (Click here to watch the teacher example Ms. Drake recorded for her students.)  Fellow students then use the comment feature in Flip to respond and offer help in improving the initial piece.  Talking through the writing in this way is so powerful, and unlike a simple class discussion, it allows students to go back to their own reflections and feedback from other students all throughout the process instead of just having a one and done experience. This level of collaboration is again standards based, but goes beyond to hone the practice into something they can employ as they move forward in their learning and/or careers post high school.

In reading this I hope you’re encouraged to try rethinking one of your own activities.  Remember that the process of changing the game in your classroom can often be a bumpy one, but much like offroading to get to a remote lookout point, the result of taking that path can yield breathtaking results that lead to breakthroughs in learning for students who are desperate for an education that is more relevant to their everyday world. Mrs. Drake feels that she is engaging her students on a more meaningful level which in turn strengthens her relationship with them, and that is having a direct impact on their buy in to their own learning process.

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Jamie WrightJamie Wright is a Technology Integration Coach for Clarksville Montgomery County School System in Clarksville, Tennessee, in addition to being a Professional Learning Specialist for NCCE. With over 20 years in public education, Jamie has worked with high school and middle school students, teaching Social Studies and English classes in both the regular and special education settings. She holds a BS in History, a Masters in Secondary Administration, and a Masters in Special Education. Jamie is a MIE Expert, a Google Level 2 Certified Educator, a Nearpod PioNear, and an ISTE Certified Educator with a passion for equitable learning for all, as well as designing creative and engaging instruction that grow students no matter where they started from. She has presented at multiple national conferences and she loves pouring into educators and energizing them to pour back into their students!

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