Can you use podcasts in your classroom? Absolutely! Podcasts are the perfect medium to help students practice listening comprehension skills, explore stories and learn more information. I’m very excited to share Circle Round, a wonderful folktale podcast for kids!
If you’re a regular reader of my site (sign up here), you know that I’m a big fan of podcasts. There are lots of reasons to incorporate this type of media into your classroom. From informational text to literature and poetry, the possibilities are endless!
In Taming the Wild Text: Literacy Strategies for Today’s Reader, Pam Allyn and I share some of the reasons we love podcasts. The book also includes a lesson plan and activity for students. Here is an excerpt from Taming the Wild Text:
“Technology tools place a wide range of multimedia into the hands of both teachers and students. Multimedia can include video, images, text, and interactive diagrams. Podcasts are a form of multimedia that can place audio recordings at students’ fingertips to connect children to a world of information. Listening to an episode of a science podcast can inspire students to read about a new topic. A podcast episode can also connect students to an instant read aloud full of sound effects and captivating narration. Children of all ages can access stories and information through video content. High-interest media can grab the attention of students, provide background knowledge, extend thinking, and reinforce content. Strengthen listening skills with students of all ages by effectively introducing multimedia use.” (p. 53)
Folktale Podcast for Kids
Rebecca Sheir, the host, writer and producer behind the Circle Round podcast reached out to me a few weeks ago. Circle Round is a children’s storytelling podcast that shares folktales tailored for a modern audience. With dozens of episodes, you can jump in right away and listen to them in any order. I recently listened to “The Unwelcome Guest” and absolutely loved it!
I had lots of questions for Rebecca, and she was kind enough to provide answers. I’m excited to introduce you to Circle Round and share a bit more about the story behind the podcast. At the very bottom of this post, you’ll find links to listen to this free podcast!
What was your inspiration for starting your podcast?
Jessica Alpert, a phenomenal producer at WBUR (Boston’s NPR news station), is the one who first inspired us to launch Circle Round. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jessica for many years now. When she learned that my husband (composer/sound designer Eric Shimelonis) and I had launched our own audio-production company, Sheir and Shim LLC, and that at the tail end of 2016 we’d relocated from Washington, D.C., to the Berkshires — not far from Boston — she told us about her long-held dream: to make WBUR’s first-ever child-focused program.
She envisioned a storytelling podcast that would take on a kind of radio-play style. Replete with an engaging host, dramatic scripts, gifted actors, and top-notch sound design and original music. She asked if Eric and I would produce a pilot episode. Jessica and I collaborated on the script, Jason Alexander signed on to play our lead, and the rest is history!
Podcasts in the Classroom
How can podcasts inspire and engage students?
As society zooms through this increasingly technological age, we’re seeing a growing — and, I’d argue, troubling — focus on glowing screens. You know: televisions, computer screens, smartphones and iPads that catch our eye and grip on to them, tightly. What sets podcasts apart is their inherent ability to inspire and engage our ears… to encourage us to dream up visualizations in our mind’s eye. In fact, we often refer to our Circle Round stories as “movies for your mind.”
Thus, the first thing podcasts can do is spark students’ imaginations, by allowing them to create their own mental images. In our storytelling podcast, for instance, we tend not to provide too many physical details about our characters. Instead, we want our audience to imagine how big the gold-hoarding dragon is, or what the King and Queen might be wearing as they visit the fairies deep in the forest. And Eric Shimelonis, our sound designer/composer, is especially minimalist when it comes to employing sound effects. He provides just enough audio texture to create an ambiance — the sound of crickets chirping here, a tree falling there — but he leaves plenty up to our listeners’ imaginations.
Circle Round is, of course, a fiction podcast. Nonfiction podcasts that are more information-based — i.e., shows about science, history, current events, etc. — can inspire and engage students in a whole different way. Sound is an especially intimate medium, and a podcast is at its best when you feel like the host/reporter/narrator is talking to you and you alone. This kind of content delivery is especially helpful when it comes to taking in and absorbing new knowledge. So the best informational podcasts out there can do a bang-up job of helping students learn everything from how stars form to where language comes from.
Would you recommend a specific episode for someone just finding your podcast?
Wow – with so many Circle Round episodes to choose from (nearly 40 at this point!), it’s hard to pick! But if I had to choose, I’d recommend the episode that’s most recent as I’m answering these questions right now: “The Unwelcome Guest.” Versions of this tale originally come from the Middle East. It’s one of many stories featuring a character named Nasruddin: a wise man who lived long ago.
Every Circle Round episode features at least one well-known voice from the stage, screen or airwaves. This time the star is Richard Kind. Most recently, Richard starred in the Amazon series Red Oaks, and Pixar’s Inside Out (Bing Bong forever!). You’ve also no doubt heard his voice in A Bug’s Life and Cars. On TV, his career goes back to Spin City and Mad About You, all the way up to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Gotham. On stage, the Drama Desk Award winner and Tony nominee has starred on Broadway in The Producers, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Candide, and Bounce, among others.
Richard put every ounce of body and soul into capturing and embodying this character. You can hear it in every line of dialogue — some of which he ad-libbed as we were recording! Sound designer and composer Eric Shimelonis uses a different solo instrument in every episode of Circle Round; for this one, he ordered an oud all the way from Istanbul! The sound of this stringed instrument is especially perfect for this particular story.
Each episode of Circle Round helps listeners think about different values and issues relevant to their everyday life. I especially enjoy the way this tale helps people young and old think twice before judging a book by its cover.
What do you hope students will take away from listening to your podcast?
Circle Round is a production of WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. Since the mission of public radio is to tell stories, our primary goal with Circle Round is to inspire younger listeners to build and develop that same love of storytelling. At the same time, we’re seeking to create an experience that’s entertaining for adults. We often call Circle Round a podcast “for kids and the grown-ups they love.”
At the end of our episodes we always say: “Now, it’s your turn.” Now that the folktale is over, we invite our listeners to take part in a specific activity — telling a story, creating a dramatic scene, drawing a picture — that reflects on the themes in the tale they just heard. We invite them to share their story, scene, picture, etc., with someone they love (a family member, a friend). So another goal is to spark dialogue, and provide a way for children to make connections with others as they delve into virtues and themes that have been shared around the world, throughout history – from sharing and generosity, to persistence and imagination.
Finally, our composer/sound designer, Eric Shimelonis, uses a different solo instrument in each and every story. You can hear an episode in which he and I actually discuss his musical approach here. This second season of the podcast, we name the instrument at the end of the episode, and include a special web feature about it. In that feature, we describe what the instrument is like and why we chose it for this folktale. We also include a photograph. So when students listen to Circle Round, we hope they’ll take away a heightened appreciation for music, instruments, and the art of underscoring an audio story.
Lesson Ideas for Podcasts
How can teachers use your podcast in their classroom?
The first thing that comes to mind is having students listen to the podcast, then participate in the “Now it’s your turn” activity. Often, we ask listeners to tell someone a story about a particular experience, or to draw a picture of a specific life moment, then share it with someone. A teacher could easily pair students up and have them share with each other.
As the writer of the majority of our Circle Round episodes, I try to find folktales that aren’t incredibly well-known, yet have numerous iterations out there in the world. I do my best to collect as many versions of each story as I can find — usually through books, but often via the internet — and then I use these source texts as inspiration for what eventually becomes the Circle Round adaptation. In a classroom setting, a teacher could choose an episode and find several versions of that particular story (again, in books or on the internet). Students can read through those versions first. Then, they can listen to the episode and compare/contrast. Or, they could do it the other way around. Reading the source material first, then listen to the episode.
This activity could be quite fun since we find a whole bunch of ways to adapt our stories for modern audiences. This includes making the folktales more gender-equitable. So, for instance, a male hero might become a female heroine (e.g. “Stella and the Dragon”). Or a caring mother might become a loving dad (e.g., “The Drum”). In other cases, we might change the plot from a king trying to choose a husband for the princess, to a princess trying to choose the person with whom she’s going to travel around the world (e.g., “The Princess in the Mirror”).
Finally, music teachers can use our podcast to help students learn about and appreciate a whole range of instruments. As I mentioned above, composer/sound designer Eric Shimelonis uses a different musical instrument to underscore each story. You can find an episode in which he and I discuss his approach here). Music teachers could have students listen to the podcast. Then they could do an entire lesson about that story’s instrument. Perhaps the teacher could even let the students try their hand at playing it — provided they have that instrument on hand!
- We include transcripts of every Circle Round script on our website. Teachers can cast students in different roles (characters and narrator) and have them act out each story. Another student or group of students could provide sound effects using everyday items in the classroom.
- We offer Coloring Pages for every story. Teachers can have students color these pages while they listen to episodes, or afterward. Alternately, teachers can ask students to create their own coloring pages, drawing whatever images resonate with them after the story is over!
Where do you see the medium of podcasts in 5 or 10 years?
That’s an excellent question since 5-10 years ago I never foresaw the podcast explosion that would eventually occur! But if I had to peer into my crystal ball, I’d say that the number of podcasts will keep rising, and the overall quality will improve. Right now, many podcasters have a lot of skills when it comes to writing, editing, recording, mixing, etc., but many do not.
I think the growing number of podcasts will encourage even the most amateur of amateurs/dabbling of dabblers to learn more about how to produce more compelling, quality content. In a way, we already see that happening. Many colleges are offering classes (even degrees!) in podcast production. You’re seeing quite a few podcast-certification programs and podcast-making workshops popping up here and there.
Starting a Classroom Podcast
If an educator or student wants to start their own podcast, what advice would you give them?
First off, with hundreds of thousands of podcasts already out there, I’d urge them to take a look at the existing market and make sure the idea they’re cooking up really does cover new ground.
From there, I’d ask the following questions:
- Budget: How will this project be funded? Will it be per-episode? Per-season? Who’s on staff? Is it just a host? Or are there writers, producers, editors, mixers, composers, etc.? Do you want to incorporate a preroll (message before the episode), midroll (message during the episode) or postroll (message after the episode) where you can sell advertising?
- Format: Will the podcast be interview-based? If so, how many interviews will you play per show? And would you ever interview more than one individual at a time? Alternately, will your podcast be more packaged and production-heavy: i.e., with scripted stories that include host/reporter voiceover and actualities (sound clips pulled from various interviews in the field)? Third option: would you make your show a combination of both…?
- Focus: Will each episode stand on its own? Or will the series be more serialized? If it’s the former, will each episode have its own theme?
- Recording equipment/Digital editing: What equipment will you use to record? Where are you going to record: in a studio, in the field, a combination of both? How are you going to handle the mixing/editing of the audio?
- Marketing: how will you spread the word? With hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there, how will you stand out… and get people to lend you their ears?
What podcast or podcasts do you listen to regularly?
Other than my own? Well, to be perfectly honest, these days I don’t listen to nearly as many podcasts as I’d like. I’m a work-at-home mom raising a two-year-old toddler, so most of my listening consists of music that the little fella and I can enjoy together. Right now we’re all about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and They Might Be Giant’s Flood album. But in terms of podcasts that I admire — and that I would binge on for hours and hours if I could — here’s a list:
- More Perfect
- Hidden Brain (bonus: you can hear host Shankar Vedantam co-star in one of our Circle Round episodes!)
- Planet Money
And here’s a list of podcasts I hope to check out soon. Maybe when my toddler finally goes to college…?
- Heaven’s Gate (p.s. host Glynn Washington co-starred in a very funny episode of Circle Round)
- Slow Burn
- Making Obama
- The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air)
I hope you’ll listen to a few episodes of the Circle Round podcast and introduce it to your students this school year. In addition to streaming each podcast episode straight from their webpage, you also can find Circle Round on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts!
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