How to harness the power of podcasts

“Murderous Mary and the Rise of Erwin," the story of a killer elephant, wins NPR podcasting contest
By: | November 1, 2019
The benefits of podcast technology in the classroom include allowing students to research topics and stores in which they have deep interest. (Gettyimages.com: nicola Katie)The benefits of podcast technology in the classroom include allowing students to research topics and stores in which they have deep interest. (Gettyimages.com: nicola Katie)

What are the benefits of podcast technology in the classroom?

Trucks, and working on them after school in the parking lot of the local Walmart, is what the boys in Lindsay Johnson’s sixth-period English class at Rowan County Senior High School mostly wanted to discuss last school year.

So Johnson, who teaches in Kentucky’s Rowan County Schools, helped the students channel their enthusiasm into a podcast. While producing “Tales from the Walmart Parking Lot,” her students were more engaged than ever.


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“Most of the year, I was trying to make them do things my way—to change who they were to fit my class,” Johnson says. “It’s so powerful when as an educator, you allow yourself to be flexible to what would best suit your students.”

She structured the podcast as a panel discussion, and students auditioned to be among the five to record their stories. Then, the class came up with a list of questions for the moderator, a female student, to ask, including: “How do you feel when you pull into the Walmart parking lot?” “Do you think your time at the Walmart parking lot will ever come to an end?” and “Will you let your kids go to the Walmart parking lot?”

How the moderator elicited answers that transcended truck repair show the benefits of podcast technology in the classroom. The boys, in their thick Kentucky accents, painted a picture of a small-town brotherhood—with nicknames such as Catfish, Skeeter, Rooster, Big W and Bubbles—goofing around and trying to impress girls.

The boys also talked about their looming adult lives of work and family, and how their responsibilities may leave them with less free time to hang out with buddies.

Podcasting 101

First, listen to these podcasts:

Next, start podcasting

Adjunct professor and edtech expert Jacqui Murray’s website offers advice on podcast production, including where to find free recording and production tools.

Why podcast?

Some students can express themselves better via the spoken word than they can through writing, Murray says. Also, a podcast can be an effective platform for just about any subject. “A lot of teachers think starting podcasting means a lesson such as

‘Today we’re going to make a podcast,’ and it’s one and done,” she says. “But teachers should make podcasts a tool that always available to show evidence of learning or as an assessment.”

The team recorded their podcast using professional equipment at a local radio station. Johnson then submitted it to last spring’s NPR Student Podcast Challenge. The Walmart boys didn’t win. It’s hard to top a killer elephant after all (more on that later).

However, the show did get listed in NPR’s “8 Student-Made Podcasts That Made Us Smile” website post.

“I know how powerful writing can be, but if writing doesn’t work for some students, you can give them other options and platforms to share their stories,” Johnson says. “You can still ingrain that love of language.”

Benefits of podcast technology in the classroom: A killer elephant …

Erwin, Tennessee, may be the only town in America in which an elephant has been hung (from a crane) for murder.

During a 1916 circus show, Mary the elephant used her trunk to fling her trainer off of her back and then trampled him to death after he’d hit her with a stick.

When students in a joint English literature and U.S. history class at Elizabethton High School turned local stories into podcasts, “Murderous Mary and the Rise of Erwin” was an ideal choice. These Elizabethton City Schools students produced the podcast that shared first place in NPR’s contest.


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“When you hear a story about where you’re from, you think it’s interesting, but you have to figure out what is it about this story that everybody around America is going to find interesting,” says Alex Campbell, the social studies teacher who co-teaches the class with English teacher Tim Wasem.

Among the benefits of podcast technology in the classroom are that Campbell and Wasem ended up teaching not only history and composition, but also journalism as their students conducted interviews with community members.

Students at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee took first place in an NPR podcasting contest by producing and telling the story of a killer circus elephant.

Students at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee took first place in an NPR podcasting contest by producing and telling the story of a killer circus elephant.

“What made the students really care about the story is that they got to know the people whom the story impacted,” Campbell says.

The teachers built a podcasting studio in a corner of their classroom, with a computer, four USB microphones and a mixing board. Students conducted field interviews and invited other community members—including a mayor, local prosecutors and a surgeon—to the studio.

With four to five hours’ worth of material, they developed a storyboard, which got edited down to a 12-minute podcast.

“The thing that really shows you how engaged the students were is that they wanted to hear each other’s podcasts,” Campbell says. “I very rarely have students who want to look at somebody else’s essay or somebody else’s worksheet.”


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