Podcasts offer wealth of inspiration for teachers

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Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year Joshua Underwood gives instructions to juniors Megan Huber and Amanda Lee during chemistry class at Mason County High School.  Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 9, 2015
Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year Joshua Underwood gives instructions to juniors Megan Huber and Amanda Lee during chemistry class at Mason County High School.
Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 9, 2015

By Joshua Underwood
josh.underwood@mason.kyschools.us

Being a teacher is often as much about being an entertainer as it is being a conveyor of knowledge. We have to find ways to relate to the students so that they pay attention to the lesson and learn without it feeling so much like learning. I have found a great resource in tackling this problem to be podcasts. They are a wealth of interesting stories, discoveries and humor that can easily make their way into the classroom.

I realize that podcasts are not anything new, but the format has been evolving as it has gained popularity and so now there is a larger variety of high-quality shows. Below are some of the podcasts that I listen to and have worked into my classroom.

The first podcast that I listened to and still do to this day is Stuff You Should Know. Each episode walks you through how something works, ranging from alien hand syndrome and the Electoral College to subways and Interpol. They have also done short video casts and television shows. They have been doing this for quite some time, so there is a good collection to draw from as you think about your lessons. As a side note, I emailed them and they sent out a “Happy 10th Anniversary” to my wife for me, if that tells you anything about us.

Teaching in an eastern Kentucky classroom means that I hear – and use – many sayings whose origins I don’t know. That’s where A Way with Words comes in. You can email or call them with your words and phrases and they’ll help you trace where they came from. So the next time the kids ask you if you are about to blow a gasket, you can give them a short history of the phrase instead of actually doing so.

A podcast that has shorter episodes and covers a wide range of topics is 99% Invisible. It focuses a lot on the behind-the-scenes and overlooked aspects of the design of various types of objects, but that is far from a thorough description. You really just need to give it a listen. From listening, I’ve learned how a city was almost brought down by a poorly designed skyscraper, how there are a plethora of objects (not gifts, for you Three Amigos fans) that we pay to maintain that serve no real purpose, and how technology has changed the world of sign-making, which means my students have learned it as well.

It was pure serendipity that one of my units was changed forever by 99% Invisible. We were doing a unit on forces and structures in which students build a variety of objects and test their strengths. We had just started the unit when I turned on the podcast during my evening commute and the episode “Structural Integrity” came on. It is the story of the Citigroup Center, built to house Citibank in New York City.

The building was constructed with a weakness that, if exploited by Mother Nature, would have destroyed blocks of the city. It was fixed by the owner under the secrecy of night, leaving the many possible victims clueless of the potential peril they faced daily until repairs were completed. Thanks to this podcast, I suddenly had a unit with substantially more depth that had students researching this building and debating the ethics of the decision made by the owner to leave the public ignorant of the situation. I have had other lessons impacted by stories that I have heard on podcasts, but none had better timing than that one.

While I am truly fond of all three of these podcasts, I listen to several others that cover other types of content that I may share later. My hope is that in the meantime, you give podcasts a try (or try them again if it’s been a while) and then share with me and others ones that you’ve found to be entertaining and helpful. Because as we all know, there is a lot of material out there, some good and some bad, and there just isn’t enough time to find it all out for ourselves.

Joshua Underwood, who teaches chemistry at Mason County High School, is the 2015 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year. He will be sharing his educational experiences in and outside of the classroom with Kentucky Teacher readers during his yearlong reign.

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