Podcasts have had a place in language learning for years, and rightfully so. The medium provides an on-the-go, in-the-car, whenever-you’re-ready platform for learners of all ages. The ability to target level and replay make podcasts a fantastic learning tool. Notes in Spanish, Un idioma sin fronteras and Coffee Break Spanish are some of my favorites. I’ve kept up with them myself and I’ve shared them with my students.
About a year ago my focus switched from listening to podcasts to creating them. Creating class podcasts is a great way to work all language skills in an interest-driven, student centered project. The process includes writing, peer and teacher review, recording and post-production. It has been my experience that students take to the project enthusiastically. In addition, they have demonstrated skills in the area of recording, editing or post production.
My students have written, recorded and produced podcasts reviewing food and culture in Latin America, describing Mesoamerican civilizations and, most recently, reviewing the Museum of Science’s exhibit Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.
Every time we have created a podcast I have learned lesson about the process and the production. I’ll share some of what I have leaned and resources that I have found helpful below.
Phase 1: Writing
The success of a podcast project depends on the quality of the writing. As we say in Spanish, “Aunque se vista de seda, mona se queda.” I give students two to five days, depending on the length of the script and the detail of the topic. I have them write in Google Drive so that I can edit and comment. In many cases each student with write from the perspective of an expert in the field, a resident of the country, etc. I want them to have a voice of authority in their writing and speaking. In other cases, I have one student serve as journalist and the other as expert. This set-ups serve as Q&As. The dynamic will depend on a number of factors: How many students are in the class? How long do you want the podcast to be? What strengths and skills do students have? What strengths and skills do you want to stress?
In generally give students a series of prompts or questions. For beginning students, these are framed as questions to be answer in sequence. Each question is tied to a specific construction. For more advanced students, these are more open-ended prompts in both content and constructions.
Phase 2: Recording
This is the area where I have made the most progress over time. I have used Audacity and I still like it: it is pretty easy to use and it has just enough functions to keep an amateur like me busy. Originally I had students record right on my laptop. There were some advantages to this, namely that I had quality control and I did not have to worry about file conversion. That said, I found there was significant down-side: there was too much waiting around, student were limited in the number of takes they could record and class time got away from us. This year I have had students record the audio on their phones. (Luckily most in my students have smartphones.) They email the audio to me as an “.m4a” file. The problem? Audacity likes “.mp3” more than it likes “.m4a.” After looking around for a civilian solution, I came upon Online-Convert. It’s a high-performance tool for audio and video conversion for a low, low price. (It’s free!)
In some cases I have recorded a short intro and outro. In other cases I have left this to students as well.
Phase 3: Production
Once the “.mp3” files are ready, you can import them into Audacity. Audacity makes it easy to copy, rearrange, sequence and splice tracks. One of my favorite functions is “Change Tempo” because it allows you to change the tempo without changing the pitch. Students get a boost of confidence and you can keep the overall time to a desired limit. In some cases I have included a background track. In the production phase you can be as funky (fades) or functional as possible. I have to remind myself in situations like this that I am a Spanish teacher, not a producer. (See my post on iMovie.)
What have I learned from these experiences? Most of all, I’ve learned that when you give students an audience and time to reach it, they respond. They have been so much more creative and conscientious in our podcast productions than they used to be in the traditional PowerPoint in front of class. I have also learned that have a final product to share out in school and beyond is a great motivator. Finally I have learned that having both a written and recorded portfolio of student work allows me to track progress, pointing to specific areas of strength and weakness. I have also created an archive to look back on when it is time to write recommendations or better, challenge a new group in a new year.