Lessons from Podcasting with High Schoolers

This past year, my school let me do a cool thing. Every year in March, LCA takes a week to offer courses outside of the traditional academic curriculum; they call it Academics in Action. The week is intended to help students transition back into academic life from our 2-week Spring break, explore the applications of some of the academic disciplines about which they are passionate, and essentially to play with their scholarship a bit.

It’s a great week, and most, if not all, of the courses are pretty cool. We partner with outside medical facilities so students can get experience in industry labs; we have a Krav Maga instructor come and teach students basics; van loads of students visit local museums and international restaurants; students build their own electric guitars in our Maker Space. It’s fun.

IMG_1951

LCA’s Student Podcasting Setup

This year, the March Academics in Action week fell somewhat in line with NPR’s first ever Student Podcast Challenge. The deadline for the podcast challenge was the end of March, a week after our course would end, which should give students who wanted it time to polish their compositions before submitting. Also, our school’s Maker Space has a pretty sweet podcasting room with a variety of microphones, sound equipment, and mixing options.

As I’ve blogged about extensively in the past, sound composition is my area of passion. The mode is relevant, powerful, and absolutely riddled with effective and engaging attributes for teaching young writers how to create meaning using the tools available to them. This made the fortuitous timing of LCA’s Academics in Action week and NPR’s blogging competition irresistible to me, so I proposed the course. Once it was approved, I spent time excitedly designing ideas, running these ideas by colleagues, changing said ideas.

Being that it is now late June, I am able to report back on what went down when I took these ideas for a test drive. As with most things, particularly a first try at most things, there were major pros and cons.

Things that could have gone better:

  • Most of the students who signed up for my class were students who had taken my class(es) before, so many of them had a foundational understanding of the benefits and power of multimodal composition, the many ways you could interpret the words text or writing, and the creative writing process. However, that wasn’t true for all students. Students who had never been in class with me were at a disadvantage, as they did not know my mentality, vocabulary, or practice when composing with sound. In the future, requiring that students who enroll in the podcasting classes also be my current or prior students would cut down on this.
  • Everyone told me this. I knew this. Denial is a fickle mistress. A week is objectively not enough to teach students to compose in a new genre in a relatively unfamiliar mode. The timing of the course presented problems in 2 different areas.
    • There wasn’t enough of it. The courses are structured so that I saw my group of students for 3 hours a day, all 5 days of the week. The genre analysis alone, which a student would need to undergo thoroughly to understand podcasts, is easily a 3-hour process. Then, in order to really dig into sound composition, you need time to experiment and play with sound strategies: silence, music, voice, sound effects etc. It’s too much content for 15 hours.
    • There wasn’t enough space between the 15 hours. While 15 hours sounds like a lot, the hours are too close together. 3 hour stints on consecutive days. Students need time to think, process, and play. In order to power through the necessary content require to construct a podcast, we needed all 15 of those hours, so I wasn’t able to dedicate too many of them to play and experimentation, let alone percolating and processing.

 

Things that were awesome:

  • My grading for the course was extremely low stakes, so students felt free to play with their production. One group, although they did not actually end up creating anything that was admissible according to NPR’s guidelines, had a wildly good time recording a comedic ASMR composition. It was absolutely unusable, but they collaborated and experimented with some of the ways sound can impact an audience and interact with other sounds. It was low pressure and valuable.
  • Individual students made HUGE connections in their understandings of the writing process. One student of mine, who has really been struggling with her acceptance of the (albeit occasionally vague) rhetorical purpose of argumentative literary essays, had a major break through when arranging the content in her podcast. She made the connection that an informative podcast with its introduction, informational evidence, analysis, and then conclusion, mirrored the structures and strategies of an academic essay. This impacted both her sound writing and her alphabetic writing. Several students understood more traditional, academic genres in different ways through their experience with the sound composition exercises.
  • Multimodality breeds more multimodality. When composing their podcasts, students got creative with their writing processes, color coding scripts and creating visual conversation flowcharts to guide interviews. One student even preferred to knit while considering the layout of her podcast because she said she felt she could visualize the layout the same way she visualized a 2-D piece she knitted.
Image-1.png

Knitting and color coding podcast scripts.

  • The NPR competition site compiled a bunch of amazing resources to help teachers teach podcasting and students learn the process. These resources are partially uniquely created by NPR for this process and partially a collection of incredible resources from already existing organizations. While I put together my own course layout, I heavily supplemented with their materials and will return to their resources again in the future.

Did we win anything? Absolutely not. Did we have an amazing time exploring and playing with composition in a new mode? Absolutely. And some of the final versions of some podcasts were truly excellent. One student’s independent podcast on the complexities of race in the classical ballet world featured sound effects, interviews, music, recorded ambient noise, and narration, all intricately woven together. It was thoughtful and beautiful, and we all spent class time listening to and evaluating each others’ compositions which was another valuable component to our time together.

IMG_1106

As always happens whenever I push myself to integrate sound composition into my coursework, I am only further convicted of its power and importance as a relevant and influential mode for our 21st century students. While there are many things I will do differently when running courses like this in the future, this experience has been motivating and eye opening for me as a writer and an educator.

Advertisements

Composing with Sound, Post 4: Tools for Mixing Sounds

In my series on using sound composition in the English Language Arts classroom, my last post focused on how to go about collecting the sounds students need to create careful and intentional compositions. The next step after this is, of course, to put those sounds together in meaningful ways. For this, we need sound editing software. Luckily there are lots of excellent, FREE options available to us.

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 5.51.41 AM

The 3 best (and again, totally free) options I know of and have had success with are:

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 5.44.49 AM

Garage Band | A proprietary software put out by Apple for use with Apple products.

Pros:

  • It works smoothly with no bugs. I’ve never heard of a problem with Garage Band crashing.
  • The user interface is intuitive and easy-to-learn. It won’t take new users long to get comfortable.
  • It comes bundled with lots of pre-recorded material such as sound effects and music for students to use as they work. I personally don’t like this because I prefer to have my students go through the process of choosing and finding specific sounds, but the pre-loaded material definitely makes composing with sound a bit easier.

Cons:

  • This is made by and for Apple. It only works on Macs, so this can be limiting depending on what your students are using.
  • Sound editing options such as effects and processing options are more limited in Garage Band than in a more complex program like Audacity.

 

20150712001148_highResAndroidIcon

Beautiful Audio Editor | An experimental web-based audio editor for desktop and mobile.

Pros:

  • Beautiful Audio Editor is SUPER easy to use. The interface is simple and intuitive. You can show a student how to drive it in 10 minutes, and they’ll have what they need to complete basic tasks.
  • The program is web-based, do you don’t have to download anything. You can download the app if you’d like, or you can just visit the site and work from there.

Cons:

  • It’s still in the beta phase, so it is buggy, particularly on projects that exceed 300MB or around 45 minutes in length.
  • It only works with Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.
  • The simplicity of Beautiful Audio Editor comes at a cost; it is a little limited in what it can do.

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 5.47.48 AM

Audacity | A free, open-source sound editing software that works on any operating system.

Pros:

  • Audacity has been around since 2000, so it’s not buggy. It’s dependable, and there are LOTS of tutorials out there, as people have been using it successfully for years.
  • It is very powerful and can do basically everything. A student who is nervous and hesitant will be able to create basic compositions, but a student with some background in sound editing can really have some fun.
  • Audacity is cross-platform. You can use it on any operating system. It will work on Windows, Mac, or Linux, so students can use whatever devices they have available to them without limitation.

Cons:

  • Audacity can be complicated to use. It has a lot of functionality for a free software, but that means that it can be overwhelming to users of all ages who are new to composing with sound. This also means that, in a classroom setting, you have to budget some significant time for training students on how to use it well and confidently.
  • Audacity does not come with any pre-recorded material like Garage Band does. So newbies who are looking to play around have to gather all their materials.
  • I have read some accounts of Audacity crashing on users, but I personally have never had this happen.

All of these options allow multiple tracks, which helps students play with layering and sound interaction. All of them are free and very reasonable to teach students to use. There are also always new options emerging, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the tech blogs and top 10 lists out there.

In my opinion, the choice of which software to use comes down to complexity of the project and confidence of the teacher. Beautiful Audio Editor is the simplest, most basic of these options, but it is also the most limited and unreliable. Audacity is the most complicated, but it is also the most powerful. Garage Band seems to strike a balance between the options and may be a good starting place for classrooms that have adequate access to Mac devices.

Ultimately, the absolute best way to make the choice on which editor option is the best for you is to mess around with them! Create some smaller compositions of your own and see which editor makes the most sense to you and most closely meets your assignment needs.

Composing with Sound, Post 3: How to Acquire Sounds

As I work through this series of posts on composing with sound, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why sound is an important and often undervalued tool in the composition classroom. For this post, I’d like to focus briefly on some of the options our students have for acquiring the sounds they want to compose with.

The process of deciding what sounds students will use is a complicated network of strategic rhetorical choices. As the webtext I collaborated on for publication in Kairos outlines, there are 5 general categories of sound for composers to choose from:

  1. Music
  2. Sound Effects
  3. Voice
  4. Silence
  5. The interaction between these sounds

Our students have to acquire these sounds in order to make something out of them. Of course consideration has to be given to copyright laws and legality; however, the options for gathering sound assets are almost as limitless as the sounds themselves.

There are 2 basic options here.

  1. The most straightforward way to get the sounds your students need is often to have them create and record the sounds themselves. This might mean they write and perform a song or record sounds or voices from their daily lives, but they are the ones creating usable recordings from the sounds they hear. There are many different ways to do this well.
    • Most phones come equipped with simple recording capabilities. As an iPhone user, I love the Voice Memo app. This comes pre-loaded onto any iPhone and is wildly easy to use. You can name, export, and email recordings straight to your email where you can upload them for use in a sound composition. Below is a screenshot from my phone as I record using Voice Memo.
      IMG_1848
    • There are lots of affordable microphones available for purchase ranging from $15 to a few hundred dollars.
      • I use an Excelvan Studio Condenser Microphone, which I got on Amazon for around $15. This baby plugs easily into my computer’s audio jack where I can record the sounds in any recording software I like.
      • A step up that is very well-reviewed is the Blue Snowball microphone which goes for around $50. This is nice because it’s a high-quality recording device that just plugs right into your USB outlet.
      • The gold standard for an easy-to-use recording device is also put out by Blue Designs: the Yeti. Also USB-equipped, this buddy costs around $130.
      • If your school has a MakerSpace, it’s worth checking to see if that space includes any recording equipment or if they’d be willing to purchase some for school use.
  2. The other option available to your students is to locate pre-recorded, already existing sounds that they are free to use. There are loads of these for free on the internet; however, this is where you need to caution your students to be careful to only use materials that they have permission and legal right to use and remix. Ethically using someone else’s creations adds a layer of complexity to the process.
    • For music, Soundcloud and ccMixster have a variety of options available for free use.
    • For sound effects, Freesound has a library of free-use choices.
    • For voices, students and peers of mine have in the past solicited help from online actors. Posting a request with an explanation of the project on social media or Reddit can often result in a voluntary actor recording themselves and sending your students the material they need for free! Just make sure your students make their plans for the recordings very clear to any participants.
    • One of the biggest resources for pre-recorded sound assets is to search through the Creative Commons search function; this way you can be sure that the materials your students are finding are free for use in their compositions.

Once the sounds have been chosen and acquired, the process of creating a composition out of them becomes the main focus. This involves layering, arranging, and editing to create the desired effects. Tools to help educators with this next step of the process will be the focus of my next post as I keep plugging along in sharing some of the options out there for using sound in the classroom!

Composing with Sound In the Classroom, Post 2: Why Bother with Sound?

Before I get too deep into some of the logistics in my discussion on using sound composition in the high school classroom, I’d like to generally explain why I think more teachers of writing should be capitalizing on this gold mine of a mode.

As teachers, we only have our students in our rooms for a precious little amount of time, and the expanse of skills and knowledge we want to impart to them is truly bottomless. The process of paring down our lessons and units to no more than what is absolutely necessary and no less than what is irresistibly engaging for our students is the impossible task given to every educator. With this conundrum at hand, what makes sound composition worthy of our valuable and fleeting time together?

In response to this question, I have compiled the following list which is certainly only introductory; however, my hope is that it will serve as an entry point for educators considering incorporating sound into their curriculum.

  • I have blogged before about the importance of composing in a variety of modes. Equipping our students to be fluent, creative, and explorative in whatever modes are available to them is an integral piece of developing them into literate scholars in our current world. Sound is one of those modes!
  • Sound saturates our students’ lives. Music, podcasts, speeches, radio, and our own classroom instructions are all strategically constructed sound compositions designed to accomplish specific rhetorical goals in a targeted audience. It is important that we not miss opportunities to help our students become more aware of some of the genres and rhetoric swirling around them in these compositions by teaching them how sound works as a tool for making meaning.
  • Sound as a mode in the classroom is unusual and unexpected, which means it automatically places students outside their comfort zones. This is where they can most easily escape convention and imitation in order to find creativity and unique voice. This also promotes genre awareness as students work in a mode that invites the use of fixed, established genres as well as genre-invention.
  • Inclusive classrooms are authentically accessible for a wide range of students of different physical, cognitive, and linguistic ability levels. Using sound composition diversifies the accessibility of your classroom, creating more points of access into your material for more students.
  • Students often come to sound composition with a pre-established and somewhat instinctive understanding of how sound works. Based on their experience using and experiencing sound compositions, they will find themselves prepared to use sound strategies in ways that prompt real reflection on audience awareness, rhetorical goals, and genre decisions.

Traditionally, classrooms that explore non-alphabetic modes of composition employ the use of imagery, physical movement, video, or sculpture. While all of these modes are essential, I rarely find sound among them. This is exciting to me as an educator because it means we have this massive, untapped resource at our fingertips! My goal for the next few blog post is to offer some easy, free, and practical tools to help educators bring sound composition work into their classrooms.

Composing with Sound in the Classroom: Post 1

Anyone familiar with me or my work as a teacher or a scholar knows that I have the biggest soft spot in the world for any kind of compositional work involving sound. I’ve blogged for NCTE about it with some of my colleagues; I was part of a collaborative piece exploring sonic rhetoric that was published in the online journal Kairos; I incorporate audio options for my students in major assessments; and I try to bring sonic rhetoric into my classroom whenever humanly possible. I could (and will at a later date) go on, but my point here is that I believe composing with sound is a dynamic, inherently engaging way of teaching students to think creatively and carefully about the ways they make meaning in their work.

Despite the staggering wealth of opportunities for meaningful exploration and play that sound composition offers, I don’t often see it used in composition classrooms. I believe there are a variety of reasons for this, including but not limited to…

  • a general lack of appreciation for the value of multimodal composition
  • intimidation surrounding working in an unfamiliar mode and/or genre
  • uncertainty concerning how to authentically integrate the content into coursework
  • perhaps most significant, anxiety regarding the required technology

With this list in mind, I’d like to take my next few blog posts to address some of these common hindrances to sound composition in the classroom. While using sound to teach composition may sound complicated or confusing, my experience has shown it to be the exact opposite. There are actually VERY accessible, intuitive, and user-friendly solutions to many of these concerns, and I’m excited to share some of my experience with using sound in the classroom in the hopes that this might encourage other educators to take the risk and give sound composition a try with their students! I can absolutely promise that you and your students will LOVE the things you discover when composing with sound.

 

 

Storify is Dead (Almost)

I don’t know if you’ve heard the terrible news. My much beloved Storify is dying. On May 16, 2018, Storify will be shutting down and deleting all of its content. They’ve posted the message loud and clear on their soon-to-be-deleted homepage.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 10.00.42 AM

Storify has been a regular feature on this blog.

I’m still sorting out how best to preserve while still continuing to share the content that I and students have built using Storify’s platform. I have until May 16th to figure it all out. Apparently, after May, I will have the option to use Storify 2 which comes inside of a purchased Livefyre license, but, if Storify is no longer free, it loses its value for me.

So, for now, it appears that my stand-in for this year’s students will be Padlet, which is essentially an online bulletin board that allows students to individually or collaboratively arrange links, images, and text in a secure, but shareable space. I’ll report back on the usefulness of this stand-in; however, before I get too ahead of myself, a moment of silence for Storify.

Playing with My Friends

I’ve blogged before about how much joy I get out of playfully collaborating with my colleagues to create exciting and awesome new ideas and compositions. From presenting at conferences to reflectively exploring new areas of scholarship to writing this awesome piece on composing with sound for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, some of my best work has come from working alongside others to create something much greater and more complex than I could have come up with using just my mind alone.

Carrying on in this developing personal practice, I have teamed up with Kate Artz and Anne Mooney to publish our most recent piece with Kairos, “Transmodality in Action: A Manifesto.” It’s definitely my oddest, most experimental publication to date, but I love it passionately, largely because it was really really fun to make.

Don’t get me wrong; the scholarly value and complexity of my publications and research matters to me greatly. However, there is just no way around the fact that I like doing things that are a lot of fun with people that are fun to work with. Playing in this way inevitably leads me to create excellent work. And therein lies the heart of what I want to say in this post.

Here are some things that happen when I playfully explore my field alongside like minded colleagues:

  • I discover new facets and angles to issues that interest and excite me and that shape the way I think about my discipline.
  • I create high quality work that expresses my passion for my field and engages others to play with or dialogue over the ideas we are exploring.
  • I push myself to articulate my thoughts and observe how others understand and interact with them.
  • I find myself happily and willingly dedicating long hours of hard work to scholarly endeavors without excessive fatigue or frustration.
  • I develop habits of questioning, trying on multiple perspectives, and hunting for new ways to view things.
  • When a project draws to a close, I am eager and excited for new, bigger, and more elaborate projects.

I can say with certainty that my colleagues experience all these same benefits in their own ways. And if it’s true for us, it’s true for our students. Looking over this list, these are some of the core skills and experiences I want my students to have in my classroom. So while I am pouring over elaborate lesson plans and assessments, I resolve to make it a goal to carve out time to let my students and their friends play with composition and literature. Because that seems to be where the real magic happens.