Uncovering the Stories in Our Community: Place-based Podcasting During the Pandemic

Course: 10th Grade English

Department: English Department

Institution: Twinsburg High School

Instructor: Margaret Delgado-Chernick

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 26 students, grades 10

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Google Sites, Google Meet, Screencastify, Chromebooks, Podcast, Red Cool Media

Author Bio: Margaret Delgado Chernick teaches Academic English and College Writing CCP at Twinsburg High School in Twinsburg, Ohio. Over the last five years, her involvement with the National Writing Project at Kent State University and the Write Where You Are partnership between NWP-KSU and Cuyahoga Valley National Park have inspired many Place-Based Learning Projects. She is currently developing the course of study for a class titled “Writing for Civic Engagement” that is built around the principles of Place-Based Learning and projects that connect students to the community.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” 
-Rachel Carson 

When schools moved to virtual and hybrid learning through the Covid pandemic, it became apparent that simply shifting our normal in-person lessons to a virtual format wouldn’t be enough. We needed to find new ways to approach instruction to keep kids engaged and interactive. Through the Write Out partnership program between the Kent State University National Writing Project and Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I’ve had the opportunity to become involved in some wonderful professional development on place-based writing. In the spring of 2021, I designed a podcast inquiry project for my sophomore students around the question, “What stories in our community deserve to be told?” This project evolved into one of the most authentic and rewarding experiences that I’ve ever had in a classroom setting. The opportunity to break free from the walls of the classroom during the pandemic was transformative as I discovered the value of Place-Based Education in practice.

Place-Based Education as a Pedagogy 

Place-Based Education is more of a shift in thinking about the role of the teacher and the classroom, rather than just a series of activities that may be implemented on field trips or walks around town. Teachers that embrace Place-Based Education as an approach recognize that all spaces have something to teach students; the school campus, the local park, and a student´s own home are all real-world classrooms that provide valuable learning possibilities. Though the modern understanding of Place-Based Education is still evolving, common ideas and terms associated with the approach are leading to an understanding of Place-Based Learning as a true pedagogy in education. In The Power of Place: Authentic Learning Through Place-Based Education, Tom Vander Ark, Emily Liebtag, and Nate McClennen take on the task of exploring the six design principles for Place-Based Education that have been established by the Teton Science Schools.

These design principles have given the dialogue about Place-Based Learning an entirely new legitimacy in education because they connect many other research-based best practices for learning. The Six Design Principles are: Community as Classroom, Learner-Centered, Inquiry-Based, Local to Global, Design Thinking, and Interdisciplinary (3). Several of these principles are already crucial pedagogical practices for 21st-century classrooms. Treating Place-Based Education as a separate pedagogy to shape instruction across the curriculum allows all students equal access to essential 21st-century skills that are essential to the future of our society. 

Designing and Implementing the “Stories of Our Community” Unit 

The Write Out workshop at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the summer of 2020 focused on finding stories in the places that surround us. At the workshop, one of the CVNP rangers told the story of a hate crime in the Valley in a location that I’ve driven past many times. I started to consider the other unknown stories that I drive past every day. The fact that many of my students felt “stuck” in places during the pandemic seemed to provide the perfect opportunity to uncover some of those stories. However, written stories of the community seem to gather dust in libraries and historical societies. My goal was to create a collection of stories about the community that could be easily shared and enjoyed by residents of all ages.  At the time, my students alternated between at-home asynchronous instruction and in-person instruction. While students were working independently on “at-home” days, I was instructing other students in-person. Therefore, it was important to design a project that involved a great deal of independent work. 

I had attended a few workshops that mentioned podcasting in the classroom, but, quite frankly, I wasn’t even in the practice of listening to podcasts for my own personal interests. The enthusiasm that the supervisor of Innovative Programs had for this project was crucial. She shared free podcast creation platforms and offered to train my students to use the technology.  Once we had defined the final product, I tackled the challenge of presenting an abstract project to fatigued students in April of a pandemic year. 

We began the unit with a discussion about the importance of storytelling in our world. Every discipline and career field relies on storytelling to some degree. The preservation of history, the continuity of traditions, the emotional connection to scientific data, the narratives involved in advertising, and the pathos created by politicians are all the result of strategically told stories. From there, I presented the central question, “What stories in our community deserve to be told?” At first, the most obvious, well-known stories about the town founders and leaders were suggested. However, after one student asked whether he could interview a local ghost hunter about a haunted house in town, the floodgates opened and ideas began pouring in.  Students decided on the stories that they planned to investigate and collected preliminary research to establish credibility and define elements of their stories. After establishing the idea that storytelling has value beyond entertainment and that our own stories are worth recording, we turned to an examination of the podcast as a genre. Students listened to a variety of podcasts collaboratively and discussed effective strategies used by producers and narrators. They also identified ineffective elements of the podcasts. From these discussions, we pulled together a set of success criteria for the podcasts to define our own vision of a successful product. 

Collaboration and Problem-Solving

Students used research and personal experience to practice scripting and recording introductions to their podcasts. They became incredibly attentive to the precise wording of each individual line and sought feedback from peers without being asked to do so. The fact that the final product would be housed on a Google Site that was intended to be shared certainly raised the stakes for the quality of the product. We also dedicated class time to finding music and sound effect clips (while taking copyright laws into account). I’ve never had a class so attentive to the importance of establishing mood and tone in writing. The discussions about specific word choice were organic and meaningful. 

The investigative nature of the project, the chosen genre, and my own personal goal of getting students out into the community meant that a personal interview was a required component of the podcast. Initially, students were very shy about the interview element of the project. We took the time to practice interviewing in the classroom and we discussed the difference between a “Q&A” and an “Interview”. I helped students write professional emails of inquiry to owners of local businesses, the historical society, regional park offices, and area artists to request interviews. It was incredible how many people were eager to help my students with this project. Students met with interviewees in person when possible, but some of our interviews were conducted through Google Meets or speaker phones with Screencastify recording the audio on student Chromebooks. When an interviewee was unable to meet in person, students asked classmates to stand in as voice actors to read emailed responses to questions for the sake of the recording. We found many creative ways to approach interviews, despite the pandemic. 

After experiencing online learning through Google Meet and other virtual platforms, learning the technology to record interviews and mix sound effects, narration, and music was surprisingly easy for my students. Once students had collected all of the pieces of their podcasts, they were trained by our technology specialist to use Red Cool Media to mix the elements together. Students connected music, sound effects, clips from their interviews, scripted introductions and conclusions, and bits of narration together to produce their final products. For about two weeks, the classroom and the hallways were fully of students speaking into microphones, listening to recordings, collaborating to improve sound quality and wording, and troubleshooting technology issues. The students became far more adept at navigating Red Cool Media and mixing podcast elements than I and they began to ask one another for help, rather than addressing all questions to me. Several students emerged as the evident “experts” on the technology and they were very willing to instruct me on the program. 

Reflection on the Final Project

In the end, every student in both of my sophomore classes produced a podcast that demonstrated mastery of an impressive number of Ohio State Standards. More importantly, they also used their own unique voices to tell the stories that they believed deserved to be preserved. They took an active role as residents of a community and they were affirmed and celebrated by the organizations, like the Historical Society and local businesses. When we took a day to listen to the podcasts that we had produced, students were easily able to discuss what they had learned and how it might apply to their future careers. I enjoyed reading reviews of the project and I particularly appreciated the students that recognized that they had gained valuable 21st-century skills. One student noted that “Through this podcast topic, I have learned how to edit audio clips, mix clips together, and plan an interview. Although I didn’t necessarily interview who I intended to, I learned how to adapt to different changes and challenges through this podcast process.” Another recognized that “By planning, editing, and revising my podcast,  it went from being just an interview to a whole podcast with narration and sound clips. Using the RedCoolMedia site, I learned so many new things about editing and working through my audios. After a couple days of working on my podcast and adding clips in, we did peer conferencing and collaboration. I was given helpful feedback from my classmate to make my audios louder on the volume changer site, I made those changes to make my podcast even better.

The absence of state testing and during the 2020-2021 school year opened my eyes to the possibilities for Place-Based Education. The problem-solving we tackled together was exactly what I had always envisioned for my classroom. Though I was not an expert on podcasting and I didn’t exactly know what types of success we would have in approaching members of the community for stories, I did know how to pursue the answer to a question and teach myself new skills. Rather than teaching the skills I knew to my students, I believe I taught them how to be curious, how to answer their questions, and how to learn for themselves. We failed together and celebrated together. For once, students appeared to forget about grades and focus on learning. Though the pressures of testing and curriculum alignment have returned in the 2021-2022 school year, I remain committed to designing Place-based projects that ask students to investigate the stories, history, science, social issues, problems, economic patterns, and potential for change in their own communities. I also remain committed to seeking opportunities for my students’ voices to be heard by authentic audiences and community partners. It is my hope that, in the future, I see the innovations that happened in my classroom during the 2020-2021 school year as the beginning of a wonderful transformation in my approach to instruction.

Student Handouts

Podcast Exploration– Before we began the project, we listened to short podcasts to build success criteria for our own products.

Conducting an Interview– We discussed the difference between a “Q&A” and an interview during class. Students practiced interviewing one another in the classroom before conducting interviews for their podcasts.

Podcast Research– Though podcast topics were local places, students conducted research about the locations online and explored related topics. For example, one student’s podcast on the Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn in Twinsburg led him to explore the history of Mail Pouch tobacco barns all over Ohio.

Great Beginnings– This exercise was wonderful for connecting word choice, music, and sound effects to the tone and mood of the piece.

Peer Review Guide– We held peer feedback sessions at each stage in the process. This is the peer review sheet for the introduction to the podcast.

Rubric for Reflection– The rubric was designed for reflection by students, rather than rating by the teacher. Students used the rubric throughout the project and I provided a grade and feedback on the exact same document.

Works Cited

Vander Ark, Tom, et al. The Power of Place: Authentic Learning Through Place-Base Education, ASCD, 2020.  

Additional Resources for Place-Based Education 

Bertling, Joy G. ¨Non-Place and the Future of Place-Based Education.” Environmental  Education Research, vol. 24, no 11, 2018, pp. 1627-1630. Accessed 9 June 2021.   

Brooke, Robert E., editor. Writing Suburban Citizenship: Place-Conscious Education and the Conundrum of Suburbia. Syracuse University Press, 2015. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1j2n6rz. Accessed 11 June 2021. Accessed 8 June 2021. 

Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Haymarket Books, 2021.  

Couros, George. The Innovator´s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity, Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., 2015.  

Deringer, S.A. ¨Mindful Place-Based Education: Mapping the Literature.” The Journal of  Experiential Education, vol. 40, no. 4, 2017, pp. 333-348. Accessed 9 June 2021. 

Gonzalez, Norma, et al., editors. Funds of Knowledge : Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms, Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.bgsu.edu/lib/bowlinggreenebooks/detail.action?docID=255629. Accessed 10 June 2021. 

Jennings, N., S. Swindler, and C. Koliba. ¨Place-Based Education in the Standards-Based Reform Era- Conflict Or Complement?” American Journal of Education, vol. 112, no 1, 2005, pp. 44-65. Accessed 11 June 2021. 

McInerney, Peter, et al. “‘Coming to a Place near You?” The Politics and Possibilities of a Critical Pedagogy of Place-Based Education.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 39, no. 1, Feb. 2011, pp. 3–16. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1359866X.2010.540894. Accessed 9 June 2021. 

Shannon, Deric, and Jeffery Galle, editors. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Pedagogy and Place-Based Education. Springer International Publishing, 2017. ebooks-ohiolink-edu.ezproxy.bgsu.edu, doi:10.1007/978-3-319-50621-0. Accessed 9 June 2021. 

Smith, Gregory A. ¨Place-Based Education: Learning to be Where we are.¨ Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 83, no. 8, 2002, pp. 584-594. Accessed 11 June 2021. 

Ormond, Charles. “Place Based Education in Practice.” The Ecology of School, edited by David P. Zandvliet SensePublishers. Ebooks-ohiolink-edu.ezproxy.bgsu.edu, doi:10.1007/978-94-6209-221-1. Accessed 9 June 2021. 

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