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School Races to Promote Reading Through Podcasts


"I had one second-grade student who was very quiet and very serious. He always answered in one or two words," recalled Malissia Bell. "When he recorded his podcasts, the computer teacher and I realized he had a stuttering problem. He was able to edit out his stuttering, and it sounded terrific. That is the power of technology."


Help! I'm Not a Techie!

When starting out podcasting, it's important not to feel threatened because you don't know everything about the new technology.

There are students who "get it" right from the beginning, says Malissia Bell and, yes, those kids can help you! She emphasizes the need to identify "techie kids" and give them the opportunity to lead and teach others, even educators.

"Have a plan, but be flexible," she advises. "Let the kids help you. I find myself getting my folder to look at what step comes next when I haven't done something for a while. Kids don't need folders with steps. They just remember it, and that works for me."

A helping hand from the school district comes in the form of a brief summer in-service. A teacher may bring two students, and they work on podcasting together. During that time, Bell and her helpers create the sound files and record the tagline for their project's Web page as well as construct the ending credits.

"Those two kids come back and immediately teach four more kids, and we have two experts in each fifth grade room," reports Bell. "I move more into the role of coach of the project at that point."

As student technology leadership program coordinator for Brandeis Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, Bell searches for long-term projects that allow students to teach other students and staff members about aspects of technology. Because she also is the library media specialist, podcasting about books seemed a natural fit. With the help of computer teacher Meg Wilson, Bell challenged every student in the school to record a podcast about a favorite book. She called the program Race to 500, with the goal of creating 500 podcasts to be published on the school Web site and allow users to read hundreds of recommendations for great books.

Brandeis is a very diverse school with a large ESL program. Some students have been in the United States for only a year, having previously resided in refugee camps. Others spend as much as 45 minutes on a bus to reach the school -- a math, science, and technology magnet. Still other students attend Brandeis at the behest of their parents, who desire the diverse environment that neighborhood schools can't provide.

"After teaching kids from so many cultures, I've come to really appreciate the involvement many of our kids have with their extended families," Bell told Education World. "Grandparents visit from other countries and stay for a month at a time, and vice versa. This project allows extended families to be involved in the child's school by creating a podcast on a favorite book."

Through a grant, flip cameras were purchased, permitting video to be included in the Race to 500 podcasts. Bell allowed one student to borrow a camera for a visit to India over an extended Thanksgiving break. The child lined up aunts, uncles, and grandparents to do podcasts about books, and her mother borrowed ten literary selections to take with them on the trip.

"The thought that so many extended family members wanted to be involved in our school library still gives me chills," shared Bell. "I couldn't wait to see our books videotaped halfway around the world."


The recording process for the student podcasts is simple. The kids use Audacity, a free audio editor and recorder, to record their messages; they then put the audio files into Movie Maker and add sounds, titles, and more. Bell played completed podcasts in the library through a mounted projector and speakers. Watching students' faces as they heard their podcasts and received comments from others was rewarding.

"Fifth graders who had completed their podcasts then taught fourth graders. Fourth graders taught third graders. It traveled down," Bell explained. "When kindergarteners completed podcasts, we matched them up with fifth grade buddies. The older students helped the younger ones with writing, recording, editing -- basically the whole process of creating the podcast."

Fifth graders teach fourth graders, who teach third graders…and the process continues.

Photos provided by Malissia Bell

Podcasts were uploaded to the school Web site by class to make the job more manageable. When an entire class finished the activity, the files were converted and placed on the site. At times, three or four students in a class would struggle to read their scripts well enough to be recorded. Every class member knew that all the podcasts had to be ready in order for them to be published.

"I went down the hall one morning and saw that in one classroom, a few kids who needed more practice were reading their scripts to their tablemates," said Bell. "The teacher had incorporated the project into the morning work. Seeing kids listening and assisting one another as they read was priceless!"

Bell and Wilson never anticipated that the third grade would be the easiest to teach and lead through the project. By the time that the fifth and fourth graders had finished, the third graders were well aware of the project and had viewed some podcasts. They were eager to start.

"I wasn't prepared for the third graders to come in with their podcasts written. They thought if they had them written, we would head straight to the lab and start recording. They were ready," Bell reported. "The third graders also made it easier to get the podcasts completed. They didn't jump ahead of me at all and start clicking away and saving files in the wrong folders. Podcasting is relatively simple but very methodical. You can't jump ahead or skip any steps. I thought it would get harder with each age level, but I was wrong."


Students manage much of the
hands-on work of podcasting.

Race to 500 is truly an inclusive endeavor. At first, Bell had confidence that older students would embrace the work and easily master it, but she wondered how others -- early childhood classes, students in the ESL program, kindergarteners, the hearing impaired, struggling readers -- would respond. But it turned out that the students she worried about the most created the most precious podcasts. Bell says that one kindergartner's description of Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile brings a smile to every face. Anyone who hears his podcast wants to read the book.

The community-building generated by the project didn't end with the children. Students encouraged their parents to complete podcasts on conference day and gently prodded teachers and staff members to get involved.

"A fifth grade teacher created a podcast about The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and it is another great one. It also showcases the power of a blog," Bell stated. "Her students were thrilled that she did a podcast because she is not overly techie. The kid's comments to her on the blog showed how proud they were of her."

More Brandeis parents, staff members, and grandparents are joining the project. City officials are discussing plans to podcast at the school as well, and Bell is making an effort to broaden the project's reach. Some participants are conducting podcasts in English and in their native tongue, increasing the multicultural appeal. The teacher of the hearing impaired is doing video podcasts in sign language. All the podcasts highlight the library collection and encourage reading.

"As a librarian, I thought my love of books would be enough to move mountains. It's not," admitted Bell. "This technological world is changing every day, and we can hop on and join the kids and connect with them, or we can sit back and miss the show completely. Podcasting and technology is their world. I choose to join them."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Updated 06/08/2012