National Writing Project

Podcasts Contribute to “Whole New Kind of Teaching and Learning” at the Nebraska Writing Project

By: Joe Bellino
Date: February 25, 2009

Summary: In a program funded by a Technology Liaisons Network minigrant, Nebraska Writing Project teacher-consultants first learned about podcasting, then had their students create podcasts in their classrooms.


“I am from my little brother’s heart, the number one person who means the most to me.”

“I am from backyard campouts and big black dog kisses.”

“I am from keeping my memories in journals, photo albums, and scrapbooks.”

These lines of poetry, written by students in Nebraska, weren’t mere lines of text on a page of paper meant only for the eyes of their teacher. The students benefited from a Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) program that helped their teachers explore the use of podcasting, or Web-based audio broadcasts, in the classroom.

As part of a Technology Liaisons Network minigrant project, Nebraska Writing Project technology liaison Cyndi Dwyer and co-director Susan Martens-Baker created a yearlong program in which teacher-consultants first learned about podcasting, then had their students create podcasts in their classrooms.

The first podcasts the students created followed the model of a poem called “Where I’m From,” written by poet George Ella Lyon . Students wrote about significant places, events, and activities in their lives. “We have people who live in urban sites and rural sites,” Dwyer said, “and we wanted to have lots of different versions of that poem.”

The students were more open to revising and they definitely became more aware of audience.

Podcasting—Best Experience of a Teaching Life

Martens-Baker, who participated in the project with her own high school students, felt that the podcasting work was one of the best experiences of her high school teaching life.

“Something about seeing my freshmen hover around the microphone, hearing their writing voices come alive, and listening as they talked of sharing our podcasts with friends and relatives just felt like a whole new kind of teaching and learning,” she said.

Kim Ridder, a middle school teacher and another minigrant participant, was excited by the enthusiasm the project created among her students.

“They thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of our podcasting experience,” she said, “and turned in writing and reading responses that surpassed any work they had previously done without the use of technology.”

This story of teacher and student learning began when Dwyer was introduced to podcasting at a Nebraska Writing Project summer tech institute two years ago. It continued to take root at the Technology Liaisons Network’s Technology Matters 2007 Summer Institute in Chico, California, where Dwyer and Martens-Baker joined writing project leaders from other sites to share knowledge about technology tools that enhance the teaching of writing.

At that Technology Matters institute, participants spent four intense days working with online tools. They experimented with Google Docs, online forums, wikis, blogs, and podcasting, all Web-based tools that invite collaboration and publication via the Internet.

“They exposed us to so much really cool technology,” Dwyer said of the experience. “And then at night we’d think about what we wanted to bring home to Nebraska.”

Connecting People Across the State

A major part of the institute entailed drafting a minigrant proposal in which site teams would share their learning from that summer with colleagues back home. The focus of the grant was to nurture ongoing professional growth and provide sustained leadership development. Dwyer and Martens-Baker chose podcasting and the use of an online discussion forum as the content of their professional development.

To them podcasting was more than an intriguing tool to encourage their students’ creativity. They believed that talking about podcasting through their online discussion forum would also strengthen their work as teachers of teachers while supporting the Nebraska Writing Project’s continuity goals.

“It would help connect people across the state,” Dwyer said. “It would work well because of the wide area that our site covers.”

Additionally, publishing the podcasts from their own Web space would promote the work of their site and attract more teachers to their various programs. One other benefit of their project was that it helped them identify teachers to continue this work in leadership capacities.

Challenges and Learning

Once the site’s proposal was approved, finding twelve teachers interested in participating was not difficult because, as Dwyer said, there had already begun to be “a huge buzz about technology and how we can use it to develop our site.” The project began at an organizing meeting in September 2007, where the participants learned the basics of the podcasting software and hardware and were also introduced to the use of the online forum.

Some had a lot to learn. “Most of us were beginners with this,” Dwyer said. “We had been exposed to podcasting, but didn’t really know much about it.”

A part of the project that was not planned was making the best of the many challenges they faced. For example, Dwyer and Martens-Baker thought that a second meeting in January would help teachers deal with issues like identifying the best recordings and converting files to the proper format—but the Nebraska winter weather forced them to cancel that meeting. They found, however, that they could provide needed support to deal with many of the unexpected problems through their online discussion forum and via email.

Broadening the Audience, a Sense of Urgency

Looking back at how the podcasting work affected student writing, Martens-Baker felt that working on the “Where I’m From” poem was different from any other writing her students had previously done. Instead of creating one podcast for each student, they created one podcast for the entire class.

“We wanted it to be a whole poem that collectively captured our sense of place being freshmen at a rural school in Nebraska,” Martens-Baker said. The easy way for her to do this was to have her students share their drafts via a class wiki. “We had conversations about which sections went with other sections and what was overlapping, eventually settling on a final draft,” she added.

While Dwyer and Ridder preferred to have their students focus on individual poems, both felt that publishing the podcasts on the Internet brought a new sense of urgency that their work be “polished.”

“The students were more open to revising and they definitely became more aware of audience,” Dwyer said.

Even though the minigrant project is now complete, its effects have filtered into other areas of the Nebraska Writing Project’s mission.

“It helped invigorate and pull together teachers at our site who were already working toward integrating new technologies into their classrooms,” Martens-Baker said.

To maximize the energy that has been generated, the Nebraska Writing Project has put together a tech board—a group of teachers exploring new interactive technologies and their impact on NeWP.

Ridder, who is now part of the new tech board, believes strongly that the work of this leadership team will be critical in meeting NeWP’s goals.

“Computers and technology are very important in the lives of my students,” Ridder said, “and it is my job as their teacher to integrate it as much as possible into my teaching and their learning.”

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