Using Podcasts in the ELA Classroom

Teaching today’s teens necessitates that we integrate technology into our practice. We get that. This is not new. But how? Sure, it does mean going digital, and many schools are making the move to 1:1 classrooms; that’s a great step in the right direction. Yet we cannot simply place laptops in front of students with digital versions of paper-based worksheets and feel as though we have that 21st-century-skills-box ticked.

No; it cannot be an add-on. We as educators need to find ways to interweave our instruction with digital experiences, to infuse our lessons with social media interactions, and to permeate our practice with new media elements. That’s how we make learning relevant and instructive with the technology we have at our fingertips.

So many teachers are doing this incredibly: teachers right here on this blog. For example, I have aimed to really do this with my music videos lesson plans which have students analyzing currently videos to help teach a range of ELA skills; Sara, from Secondary Sara has a year of multimedia poetry lessons which you really need to check out; Presto Plans has a great resource for using videos as writing prompts; and Nouvelle ELA uses webquests to help bring Shakespearean language to life.

Here is another way to integrate technology and new media in your ELA classroom: PODCASTS.

Ok, so there are a world of incredible podcasts out there, yet how exactly might they be used in the classroom? Here are just a few ideas for when/why I use them.

1. To teach LISTENING SKILLS: So much of communication is listening, and this really is a vital skill for students to learn. Podcasts are a great way to teach this skills as students really have to think about what they are listening to, and try to comprehend, engage with and respond to the contents. 

2. To teach NOTE TAKING SKILLS: It is vital that we help our students learn to take notes and make sense of the information with which they are engaging. Therefore, having them listen to podcasts and try out different note taking strategies, is a really important part of the ELA skillset. 

3. To help MAKE CONNECTIONS ACROSS GENRES: I love using podcast to pair with my novel studies: for example, when studying The Great Gatsby we might listen to a podcast about desire or the American dream. This will help students synthesise information across text and types of texts to provide more meaningful engagement and learning. 

4. To facilitate PROJECT-BASED LEARNING: Why not have students create their own podcasts? Not only does this help teach new media skills (editing, recording, designing etc.) but it can also be great for collaborative work, as well as helping student to think about communication of information and skills of delivery.

1) Hand out large pieces of paper and lots of colorful markers. 
2) Play an engaging podcast and instruct students to draw, write keywords, link ideas, make connections etc.

1) Instruct students to listen to a podcast for homework and to come to class with questions for discussion. 
2) In the next class, facilitate a discuss / complete a comprehension exercise / have students write an essay as a response.

1) Instruct students to listen to a podcast and take notes (You could use this FREE worksheet for this purpose) 
2) Hold a socratic discussion in response to the podcast: this hits both listening and speaking goals! 

1) Instruct students to find the podcast on their phones (if allowed). 
2) Go outside on a beautiful day to have them listen and breath in some fresh air! 

1) Have students listen to a podcast and just write down words and phrases, lots and lots of them that they pick up on. This could be a list, or sketch note.
2) Then have students write found poetry from these words noted: a great way to turn non-fiction into poetry, and scaffold the process of writing poetry.

If you are new to podcasts, you may be wondering how to even select one to use in the classroom. So here are just a few of my current favorites; yet I encourage you to get listening to find others that will work for your students.

TEDtalks are awesome. We all know that. But did you know that they also make fabulous podcasts? What I love about them is that often take a concept or idea, and then pull from a variety of talks on the stage, and weave them together with interviews and ideas. For example, their episode “The Hero’s Journey” would be an excellent addition to a mythology unit. 

This American Life
If you haven’t listened to This American Life yet, grab a coffee, put it on, go for a walk and listen with joy (while thinking about all the classroom possibilities!). Woven together through the iconic voice of Ira Glass, each episode follows a theme, and then in 4 acts this idea is examined from varying angles. My absolutely favorite episode is 3 Miles: a story of two schools divided by huge class disparities. This episode has sparked many a lively and meaningful debate in my classroom.

If you are looking for a way to collaborate across subjects, ask the science or computing department what the currently teaching, and then head over to Radiolab and look for something on that topic: indeed, they weave stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries which would be great to integrate into the classroom. A great starting place is the episode, Super Cool.

Looking at the invisible forces around us in the world, the two female presenters (yay!) of this podcast present some really thought-provoking stories and concepts. For example, I recently played the episode on Fear during my Lord of the Flies unit as we discussed the fear the boys experience on the island: we did this while sketchnoting and my students made connections between the contents of the podcast, and the theme of the novel.

The Allusionist
This one is great specifically for the ELA classroom: the host, Helen Zeltzman, explores words and phrases of the English language - the weird and the wonderful. Each episode is only 20 minutes long, and will be sure to spark an interest in the way we communicate with each other every day.

There are many great teaching resources out there for this one! I would be surprised if you hadn’t even heard of Serial as it certainly created quite the buzz and even made listeners out of those who had never even heard of podcasts. It is investigative journalism which tracks a true story over many episodes. One of the great parts of this is that you can listening to the whole season over many classes and really get into it as you would with a novel study. 

Do you use podcasts in your classroom? We'd love to hear which ones and how you use them!

9 Poetry Books for English Classes

We love putting good poetry into students’ hands, whether it’s in the form of a lesson or given to students as independent reading.

In particular, the nine of us feel that it is important for students to:
  • Give poetry a chance, deciding that they like it "after all"
  • See themselves reflected in what they read
  • Experience as many forms and styles of poetry as possible

Here are 9 of our best recommendations, ready to add now to your classroom library!

Bicycles, by Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni is a brilliant poet who elicits a lot of emotion in her work, but her style is informal enough that it’s easy to understand; students can easily relate to her content and storytelling. Though some poems are occasionally more “adult”, this would be a great book to excerpt for students who need to see more contemporary poetry in addition to the classics. - Secondary Sara

Depression & Other Magic Tricks, by Sabrina Benaim

Depression & Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim is an excellent collection of poems around the topics of depression and mental health. The poems will speak to older students (11th-12th grade) dealing with mental health issues, family troubles, failed loves and life in general. Beautifully written, the collection is full of creative figurative language, humour, wisdom and hope. The Canadian author is also an accomplished slam poet and many of her performances can be viewed online. I love having her poems accessible as both a performance and a written piece of work. - Addie Williams

Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs, by Erik Didriksen

Image by @oddandbookish

Erik Didriksen masterfully melds pop songs into Shakespearean sonnets in his poetry anthology, Pop Sonnets. The poems cover a wide variety of topics (love, heartbreak, despair) and introduce students to structural poetry, rhyme scheme, meter, and verse in an accessible and contemporary way. You can use this anthology simply as a way to hook your students into poetry or as a springboard for writing their own pop sonnets. - Presto Plans

Answering Back, by Carol Ann Duffy

In Answering Back, an anthology of poems edited by Carol Ann Duffy, living poets reply to the poetry of the past. For example, Billy Collins has crafted a poignant poem in response to W.H. Auden's "Musee de Beaux Arts;" while Roger McGough has penned a response to "Travel" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. These sets of poems are placed side by side to make the poetry of the past come alive again through the answering back of contemporary poets: great for teaching the compare and contrast essay form, or as a springboard to have students write their own responses to famous works. - Stacey Lloyd

One Last Word, by Nikki Grimes

In One Last Word, the fabulous Nikki Grimes responds to poems from the Harlem Renaissance. Using the “Golden Shovel” style, Grimes uses one line from each poem to craft her reply to these classics. Her poems are presented side by side with the originals by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many more! Your students will adore this beautifully-illustrated anthology and find inspiration for their own Golden Shovel poems. - Nouvelle ELA

Paint Me Like I Am, by Writerscorps

Paint Me Like I Am is a collection of poems written by teens, which creates a more personal connection for students as they can find themselves represented in the variety of poems. All of the teens have participated in national writing programs, like WritersCorps. Using these poems to help students find their voice in their own poetry is one of the many ways to incorporate Paint Me Like I Am in the ELA curriculum. - The SuperHERO Teacher

The You I’ve Never Known, by Ellen Hopkins

Ellen Hopkins writes young adult novels in free verse, and I can't keep them on my shelves. Hopkins' verse deals with mature and emotionally charged themes that pull the reader in from the first page. This, combined with the brevity of the poems, makes her books very appealing to reluctant readers. I have had many disengaged students finish her books in a few days and then rush back to my bookcase or to the library to get the next one. If you'd like to add more options for your reluctant readers, add a few of Hopkins' titles to your library. - Room 213

Poetry Speaks Who I Am, by Elise Paschen

Poetry Speaks Who I Am is the poetry book I wish I had when I was growing up. The adolescent years are awkward, and they are filled with firsts, fears, failures, friendships, and family. This brilliant anthology includes more than 100 poems that are sure to resonate with the students in our classrooms. What I especially like about this poetry collection is that it also includes a CD that is perfect to use in the classroom. I like playing a poem a couple times a month to my students at the beginning of class as a way to make poetry less intimidating and more accessible to students. - The Daring English Teacher

The Trouble with Poetry, by Billy Collins

Much of Billy Collins’s work is short, sweet, and thought-provoking. His style often bounces between humorous and profound, but always in a conversational style. The former US Poet Laureate also has a lot of classroom-friendly content available online through Project 180.  - The Classroom Sparrow

What other poetry books do you love to use in ELA
(or keep in your classroom library)?
Tell us in the comments!

Adding All 5 Senses to a Secondary ELA Lesson

I've always been a little jealous of math and science teachers, who can make things explode, move, change colors, and come to life. English teachers have to work a little harder to activate the five senses in a typical lesson.

Some of my best English teachers were the ones who turned a text into a sensory experience. When we read The Devil's Arithmetic in 7th grade, my teacher had us sit, cramped, underneath our desks to empathize with the cramped cattle cars carrying victims to concentration camps.

Most of us are hunting for ways to make our lessons pop: memorable class periods in which students move and really experience the content. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we see escape rooms, stations, maker spaces, and kinesthetic learning on the rise; these forms of learning make the mind-body connection stronger and help avoid the dangers of sitting for too long.

What secondary teachers sometimes forget is the brain science of activating all of the OTHER senses in addition to active movement. For example, did you know that..

Even if you’re low on time or budget, check out this list of ways to make your next lesson click on all cylinders.

(Psst - make sure you grab the FREE Sensory Lesson Planner to help you make your next class period rock!)

If you ARE allowed to bring in food to the classroom, small snacks have a double advantage: occupying students’ mouths (so they listen instead of talk!) and adding another dimension to what’s being discussed.

For example, I like to teach essays using the extended metaphor that they are like meals: the introduction is like a free sample, the conclusion is like dessert, and so on. Bringing in candy or snacks on these days to “match” the lesson is a HUGE hit! Get the conclusions lesson for FREE here.

I’ve also recently begun exploring the use of CANDY during annotation: specifically, showing students that active reading is like uncovering buried treasure in a text that’s hidden in plain sight. Read more about candy annotation here.

If you’re NOT allowed to feed students (or don’t have the budget for it), you can still activate this sense. Brain science tells us that powerful imagery can still activate your brain in similar ways that actually eating would. SO, use photographs, figurative language, or storytelling to make the visual of tasty foods come to life!

Anchor charts, PowerPoints with killer graphics, interactives, videos, and visually-appealing handouts are a great first step to keep students’ eyes where you want them (instead of, perhaps, on their phones or on each other).

Another option I really like are flipbooks, which are less visually intimidating than a thick packet of information. It also keeps more information at their fingertips, with less time skimming dense text to find an answer. I’ve begun using them as reference tools (like housing vocabulary) as well as teaching a process (like the brainstorm-draft-revise steps of the writing process).

For more ideas about how to make YOUR slideshows better (or how to get STUDENTS to make better visual aids), check out this awesome article by TED!

The go-to for many teachers is putting on Pandora or other soothing music during reading and writing time... but some lessons aren’t conducive to background noise (and, quite frankly, some students find it distracting).

One option is to sneak in “sound” through the use of song lyrics. Many teachers study songs for figurative language, grammatical patterns, or larger ideas like theme.

My favorite use of song lyrics is to use them to make my diagnostic grammar test less boring. By using song lyrics as the example sentences in questions, students end up “singing” different songs in their heads during the test… and suddenly, the assessment is MUCH less boring!

Another idea is to use sound either as a mnemonic device (like a cheer or rap) or to enhance whatever is being taught. (Can you IMAGINE adding sound effects to "I Hear America Singing" and "I, Too, Sing America"?)

This is arguably the hardest sense to incorporate into a lesson; a lot of scents can trigger students’ allergies (or can become a negative distraction if it’s a smell they don’t like).

Instead of using aerosol sprays and/or diffusers (which can be problematic), consider having smells in a jar (that can be opened and closed if individuals WANT to smell it).

In addition to having an actual smell, I tend to make a lot of corny jokes about smell that correspond to the topic. For example…
  • “This sentence smells like a run-on. Do you agree?”
  • (*Audibly sniffing*) “ fact, I smell about 26 run-on sentences in this room. Y’all better check your drafts again. It stinks in here.”
  • “Hmm, this paragraph smells minty, like theme. Let’s find the theme moment.
My 8th graders and I ended up making an entire LIST of “literary smells” that we “noticed” while reading. Yes, it’s silly, but it adds some cheesy humor to an otherwise dry moment. (Can you tell that I teach middle school?)

Escape rooms are currently popular for many reasons - they’re optimal kinesthetic experiences. Rotating through stations and doing scavenger hunts also allow students to move; my stations for “The Raven” helped break down a difficult poem and made it much more accessible to students who weren’t getting it.

However, even simpler trivia or review can get students on their feet. A popular game we played last year was Grammar Quidditch (read the full instructions for free in this blog post). I used it as a playful review game before final exams, but you can adapt it for any non-grammar topic (and also adapt it to fit in a smaller “field”, like your classroom, if you can’t go outside).

If you don’t have the time to craft an elaborate setup, don’t forget to try…
  • Snowball discussions
  • Four Corners debates/discussions
  • Gallery walks (for peer sharing and feedback)

You might also like these sensory resources:

What else can we do to create multisensory lessons?
Tell us in the comments!

Teaching the Harlem Renaissance with Intention

Teaching the Harlem Renaissance

Jazz, poetry, painting, and dancing. What could be more exciting than that? I’ve always loved the allure and razzle dazzle of the 20’s and 30’s, and I always knew my students would relish learning about this time period. As a new teacher in 2012, I really looked forward to teaching the Harlem Renaissance since I knew that it was a way to share a passion for poetry with my students. I did in February, since, you know—it was Black History Month.

It went okay.

Actually, it went really well. One of my toughest classes read The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, and the students transformed before my eyes. They were engaged and sharing stories from their own lives. I felt that I had finally connected with that class—mostly students of color from the low-income neighborhood the school was in. One of my favorite days of my first year of teaching was our Poetry Slam. Here’s the poem I shared:

Dorky, I know, but it gave voice to some of my insecurities from that time period. But as I reflected on that year and grew as a teacher, I wondered if I had really given them my “all”. As I began to get better informed, I wondered if I was guilty of glitzing up an era without addressing any of the systemic racism that spurred the Harlem Renaissance.

Fast forward to this year as I’m planning how to bring the Harlem Renaissance to life for a new batch of students. I’m inviting you, Coffee Shop friends, to come along on the journey with me today as I figure out how to serve my students better during Black History Month and every month.

I’m older now, and wiser. What can I do for my students to elicit conversation? I want to provide rigorous lessons and resources that don’t present just the “glossy images” or a list of inventors. I want to share real stories, real struggle, and real success with my students. I see this as my biggest responsibility in being an honest educator. As TNTP Bridge Fellow Zay Collier puts it, “Our kids are missing stories that can inspire them and remind them of who and what they can be.” Without hearing crucial voices, our students of every color won’t get a full picture of what it means to be an American.

I decided to build an Escape Room to introduce the Harlem Renaissance, and I thought long and hard about how to draw in elements for later, deeper discussions with students. I spent weeks on this, doing careful research and drawing in authentic source material. The result is one of my favorite Escape Rooms yet! I didn’t want to minimize any struggle by gamifying the introduction—that would be a gross injustice on my part as the teacher. Instead, I worked to achieve a balance between rigor and fun that would still be truthful in every aspect.

It’s time to get real with students, all year round. How can we teach Black History in a meaningful way, now and every day? Here are some steps I took, and some resources I used to get informed.

1.       Acknowledge the hard road.

As English teachers, it’s easy to focus on the teaching the Harlem Renaissance as just a series of awesome products [poems, art, literature]. Leave it to the Social Studies teachers to talk about the justice issues leading up to the art, right? Wrong. When teaching the Harlem Renaissance, it’s important to recognize that this outburst of expression was the waters breaking through the dam of oppression. This artistic era was a weapon against centuries of silencing and abuse.

The Goin’ North Project by West Chester University is a collection of oral histories from people who came to Philadelphia in the Great Migration. You can share snippets of these with your students (the full interviews are about an hour apiece) and discuss what people were living through in the Jim Crow South. Students can work in pairs and present one of the histories to another group or to the whole class. This is an excellent primary source for helping students understand the background for the Harlem Renaissance.

2.       Acknowledge the barriers.

As part of my research for developing my Escape Room, I read and learned much more about the Cotton Club and other speakeasies than I’d ever known. As a first-year teacher, I’m not sure I dug much deeper than “this place was where Duke Ellington got his start.” Now, I know I’d be remiss not to let students discover the barriers that existed, even as Black artists took the stage. It wasn’t until Duke Ellington had a hundred successful songs that he was able to convince the club to admit Black patrons (instead of just profiting from Black performers)!

Also, I want students to recognize that Black artists still face many similar struggles as those in the Harlem Renaissance. We still see instances of industry racism and cultural appropriation. Now, I’ll tie in pop culture and non-fiction as we discuss connections to today’s music and art scene. One instance I’ll bring up is Katy Perry’s own bouts of appropriation, as discussed in this Huffington Post article.

Want more inclusive teaching ideas?

3.       Discuss in-fighting and disagreements.

As teachers, we face a constant shortage of time. As a consequence, we can paint eras with a broad brush. This would be a huge mistake when teaching the Harlem Renaissance since so many artists and activists disagreed! Whereas some artists saw any publicity as good publicity (e.g., The Cotton Club), others did not. Langston Hughes gave a harsh critique of the environment he saw at The Cotton Club (remember, white patrons coming to watch Black artists), saying “strangers were given the best ringside tables to sit and stare at the Negro customers—like amusing animals in a zoo.” He would have preferred musicians not to perform at all rather than at the Cotton Club.

Black leaders had different ideas about the future of race relations in the United States. You can download this free Close Reading passage about the Cotton Club and Prohibition to get these conversations started with your students.

4.       Celebrate the art and progress.

Once you’ve provided your students with context and some lenses through which to view the era, teaching the Harlem Renaissance can definitely include a celebration. There was definitely glitz and glam and music and dance, and you should celebrate those things! I did a lot of swing dancing in college, so I love sharing dance moves with students. We watch some videos of pros [this video ofsome vintage Lindy Hop is AWESOME] and then we get up and do a few steps together.

And then, of course, we dig deep into some poetry and literature. I like to have my students do a short biographical research project about the Harlem Renaissance and present a clip of a song or read some poetry out loud for the class.

5.       Extend and enhance your thinking.

We continue to read The Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes as a class read aloud. I did a whole unit with my 8th graders back in 2012, but I like to at least read the novel with older students. It’s a short book, so we can get through it quickly, even if we read it all together.

A teacher friend also directed me to an online archive of W. E. B. DuBois’ magazine, TheCrisis. She uses an article from the September1917 issue to talk about the Red Summer with students. This source, contemporary to the events described, is priceless.

And even as you extend your own unit, challenge yourself to learn more. What books and articles are you reading to help you integrate history in your English classroom? How are you growing as an advocate for all students and their stories?

You can also grab a free QR Reference Sheet with Discussion & Research Questions for you and your students. 

Final words

And so, friends, as I think about my young teacher self from 2012, I try to have a little grace with her. However you’ve celebrated Black History Month in the past, have some grace with yourself. Celebrate your victories, and aim to improve the weaker elements. And even as we talk about teaching the Harlem Renaissance in February, recognize that we can amplify voices of people of color all year-round.

Further reading:

*Why Cultural Competence? (Article from the NEA)
*Dos and Don’ts of Teaching Black History (Article from

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