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Podcasting the 1600s

Old world meets new when student podcasts bring the Jamestown settlement to life.

By Cindy Long

Amy Andrutonis sits before a microphone holding her script, pink corduroy-clad legs dangling from her chair. She idly tucks a loose strand of hair behind an ear and clears her throat as she waits for the sound engineers to digitally adjust the volume. When they’re ready to record, one punches his hand into the air, lowering each finger in a silent countdown. With his closed fist as her cue, Amy, 9, begins to read a first-person narrative about Running Feet, an Indian girl from the same village as Pocahontas. “I was an Indian girl, 17. I was used to taking care of the kids while their parents were hunting....”

Yet another episode of the “Jamestown 400th Anniversary Celebration” podcast is underway at Jamestown Elementary School. Though aptly named for the project, Jamestown Elementary is actually in Arlington, Virginia, about a three-hour drive from the historic site outside Williamsburg. And though the fourth-graders are well-acquainted with 17th century America—the study of Jamestown is part of their curriculum on Virginia history and geography—these are 21st century kids from an affluent Washington, D.C., suburb where iPod headphones are practically an appendage and downloading podcasts is second nature. Their older siblings may be bigger podcast users, but plenty of programs are targeted to the lunch box and recess set—look no further than Disney’s MouseTunes, Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants episodes, and MuggleCast and PotterCast from Harry Potter fan sites.

“Kids live with this kind of technology in their everyday lives,” says Camilla Gagliolo, the instructional technology coordinator at Jamestown. “They’re totally accustomed to it.”

It’s no surprise that students are comfortable with the technology. What may surprise you is how easy podcasting can be for teachers.

“It was so much easier than I thought it would be to incorporate podcasting into the curriculum,” says Kacey Cronin, whose fourth-grade class visited Jamestown last fall, armed with digital audio recorders and cameras, iPods, video cameras, and good old-fashioned notebooks. “They were in small groups and were responsible for recording the information they thought was important to capture. The students ran with it—which is often the case these days when it comes to technology.”

So What Is a Podcast, Exactly?

The New Oxford American Dictionary selected “podcast” as the Word of the Year for 2005, defining it as “a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player.” Despite their name, podcasts don’t require iPods—they’re digital audio files called MP3s that can be played on any computer or MP3 player.

Podcasts can be anything from a favorite radio program, a song, or a reading of a poem to a hobbyist offering tips, a news summary, or Amy’s first-person narrative about the Indian girl named Running Feet. Updates can be automatically delivered to a computer or MP3 player by subscribing to a Web feed. (For more explanations, visit “Podcasting101.”)

It’s easy to create and publish these recordings, according to education technology author Will Richardson. “As long as you have a way to make the recording, and as long as your students have access to the Internet, you can make this work,” he writes in Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.  Teachers can plug a microphone directly into the computer to record, or they can record directly into an MP3 player equipped with a special attachment. Another possibility is to purchase a handheld digital audio recorder—most cost less than $100.

Once the recordings are made, they can be edited with free applications like Audacity or Sound Studio, user-friendly programs where cutting, pasting, deleting, and rearranging is similar to text editing in Microsoft Word. You can even incorporate music and images, such as student drawings and photographs. The Jamestown podcast includes colonial music created by the fourth-graders with software called GarageBand.

On Cue with Curriculum

To align the podcasts with the curriculum, Gagliolo created handouts to help students produce their individual segments about a historical person or event from the Jamestown settlement. She told the students they could create their segments in different ways—as “an interview, a report, a poem, a word play, a skit, a ‘Did You Know’ segment, or any other creative way of communicating what you know and have learned.”

Some of the fourth-grade teachers were afraid the technology might interfere with the material, but “they saw their students become even more focused on the content,” says Gagliolo. “By presenting the information in different ways, and repeating what’s been learned, you’re setting off another set of sensory memorization.”

Fourth-grade teacher Kacey Cronin admits she was worried that the technology would be distracting during the field trip. “But it helped them focus more intently because they knew they had a job to do, and they were so excited to use the equipment,” she says. “Trying to help 10-year-olds understand and relate to what it was like in 1607 is not an easy task!” 

Gagliolo’s approach also addresses different learning styles. The podcasts involve many elements of broadcasting—writing, editing, oral presentation, and technical work. Creative writers record poetry, stories, or skits; artists provide drawings or photography; musicians produce songs; and the technicians piece it all together.

JoAnna Domson, 9, wears pink-rimmed glasses and likes creative writing. She wrote a skit about Mrs. Forrest and her maid, Anne Burras—the first women in the settlement of about 200 men. “Anne Burras is responsible for two firsts—she had the first wedding and the first baby,” she says. “I wanted to do a skit because I thought it would be fun, and because they’re interesting characters that aren’t talked about much in books.”

Once JoAnna finished writing and editing her skit, she worked with Matt Couch, one of nine fifth-graders on the podcasting technical team. The tech team produces the Jamestown historical podcast as well as the podcasts produced by other grades, such as the first-grade poetry readings and the kindergarten podcast about the class visit to the zoo. All of Jamestown’s more than 500 students get a chance to record a segment. Matt, 11, records and edits using Sound Studio. “I like working on the podcasts,” he says. “It can be a bore to listen to a recording for an hour, but hearing the voices can be funny. Once I heard this really mechanical sounding voice, and it turned out to be my own.”

Each student seems to find a niche in the podcasting process, but they all share one motivation—having their work presented to an actual audience. The Jamestown podcast page, a link off of the school’s Web site, gets as many as 400 visits a day from people around the world.

Those numbers will likely spike this spring because of attention from the other side of the pond. Fourth-graders from the British School of Washington, D.C., will contribute to the Jamestown podcast by sharing what it was like to live in England in 1607. And in May, the Jamestown Elementary chorus will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing for the Queen of England when she visits the historic site. Of course, the technical team will be on hand to record the podcast. “Their audience is unlimited,” Gagliolo says.

David Warlick, founder of the Education Podcast Network, agrees. “With podcasting, or blogging, or whatever the digital form, it stops being just a writing assignment and becomes a manner of communicating,” he says. “They’re engaged in a global discussion in a way we couldn’t have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. This is what the kids are doing when they get home—communicating and interacting with the world.” 

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