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Guest Post by Ryan Goble… Uncommon Literacies: Teaching ‘This American Life’ (2)

X-Men/This American Life Cross-Over; Poster available at

[Ryan Goble continues his guest post after first having made the case both for listening skills as a “neglected literacy,” and for the radio program This American Life as a particularly rich resource for librarians and educators. Mr. Goble’s full (and impressive) biography can also be found at part 1. And please note that all images below for individual episodes are those found at the TAL site. -Peter]

Media Resources

Episode 175: Babysitting (JAN 5, 2001) – Act 1 “What Big Teeth You Have”

I play this episode as an exemplar of This American Life because it has many unexpected turns, elicits a wide range of emotions, and deals with adults reflecting on their youth. It captures what TAL does best:  it finds unique characters in extra-ordinary situations. Here we meet brothers in rural Idaho where the eldest functioned as the primary babysitter, and he ends up tormenting the younger siblings in creative, humorous and disturbing ways. I use this story in my graduate Adolescent Psychology and Media Education classes. It is teachable with adults but—unless you’re doing a unit on bullying—it is not an easy audio for the K-12 classroom in light of a conclusion that defies a more sanitized message of the type that you might expect from an afterschool special.

Episode 177: American Limbo (FEB 9, 2001) – “Prologue”

This whole episode knocked me off my feet, especially the surreal coming of age story in Act II about a Florida family of eight who lives on the lam for seven years. At 23 minutes this act exceeds my 15-minute rule of thumb. Fortunately, the prologue about an illegal Chinese immigrant who speaks no English is a powerful story about someone “here in America but not part of it at all.” All the stories probe this paradox and link nicely to units with American Dream or Immigration themes.

Episode 265: Fake Science (MAY 21, 2004) – Act III “Beauty Science”

This act explores the “scientific methods” used by People Magazine to create their “Most Beautiful People” issue. The producer wryly notes in the description of the act that its scientific list “somehow [ended] up with a list of people who have movies coming out this summer.” This is excellent for science (or social science) classes talking about how research is done, or for an economics class and anyone doing media education or instruction built around the themes of beauty and self-image. Science teachers looking for more classroom audio might also explore a show that takes many cues from This American LifeRadio Lab.

Episode 449: Middle School (OCT 28, 2011) and Episode 424: Kid Politics(JAN 14, 2011)

“7th graders at a costume dance, dressed as characters from The Outsiders.”

These two episodes are centered on young adults. Both shows are broken into small (under 15-minute) acts, and almost any of these could be used in whole or part for staff development or in classroom settings. In the “Middle School” episode students and adults will get a kick out of the teacher who explains his “swooping” technique at school dances. These shows also include reflections on the brain science of adolescents, changing your racial identity to fit in, some unorthodox teaching techniques at a charter school in New Jersey, a story about third graders in China participating in their first election, and a Brooklyn school where kids quite literally run the school. Stories in both shows pair nicely with virtually any young adult novel and “Kid Politics” is a the kind of episode every social studies teacher will want to share with their students.

Episode 464: Invisible Made Visible (MAY 14, 2012)  – Act I “Does A Bear Hit In the Woods”

TAL episodes rarely lock into a simple genre. I think this is one of the reasons the show continues to be fascinating week in and week out. The show’s tone is created by combing elements of traditional genres—comedy, tragedy, news, drama, coming-of-age stories, thrillers, investigative reporting—into surprising hybrids. This story about a blind father and his toddler daughter confronting bears and blindness will likely have students laughing, crying, and terrified over the course of the seven-minutes. As the show’s title suggests, this can be linked nicely to any unit of study where a teacher is exploring “the unseen.”

Episode 218: Act V (AUG 9, 2002)

This is for any librarian who comes across an English teacher struggling to teach Hamlet. This full-length episode follows a group of inmates at a high security prison who, over the course of six months, stage a production of Act V of Hamlet. Again, this show explores unique American lives with humor, heartbreak, and horror as the actor-inmates grapple with Hamlet’s decisions by connecting the Bard’s tale to their own complicated personal histories. Educators can easily choose chunks of the story to excerpt or play the entire show. Obvious links to Hamlet aside, this episode dovetails nicely with thematic units designed around choices, consequences, or cultural norms and expectations.

“Lost Buildings” DVD

In 2007-2008 This American Life took a “visual turn” producing two seasons of the show on cable television. While the show did not continue, TAL has found a happy middle ground by broadcasting “live” shows to movie theatres across the country and developing feature films from radio material. Prior to the show’s television debut there were early experiments with visuals at live shows like “Lost Buildings.” This story was a collaboration between host Ira Glass and the famous comics artist Chris Ware (author of the famous graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth).

“Lost Buildings” follows the story of Tim Samuelson “who became obsessed with old buildings, especially the buildings of Louis Sullivan in Chicago, during the 1960’s and 70’s when they were being torn down.” In the context of what I’ve told you about other broadcasts it is safe to assume the tag line reveals as much as it conceals. Someone has uploaded the video to Vimeo, but I highly recommend purchasing the DVD to support the work of TAL and because it comes with a beautifully designed booklet including photos and backstory that you can use to supplement the film. Educators can link this short to themes of love, loss, progress, passion as well as the preservation and presentation of histories.

While none of the shows I highlighted above link directly to big news events, this is a common occurrence. There are many stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (“Iraq After Us”  and “Ten Years In” are two of many), TAL produced a four-part series explaining the financial breakdown of 2008 in lay terms (collected on a CD but available as individual episodes online), and there is an excellent story about Apple’s manufacturing practices in China that also deals with fact-checking the news (“Retraction”).

The best part is you can easily search the show’s website by date, tag, or contributor; or if you are looking for geographic connections, the site has a new Story Globe feature where you can search stories in a geotagged map (as the below screen shot illustrates).

All the shows stream for free at the site, but if you’re concerned about Internet connections you can also purchase and download episodes to your computer, smart phone, or iPod for 99 cents through iTunes or Amazon. Adding to the classroom accessibility of the show, TAL also has an iPhone app  that allows you to stream any episode through your phone.

For those interested in how the show is created there are two insightful resources aboout the process of creating radio narratives. First, Ira Glass collaborated with comics artist Jessica Abel to create Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a now out-of-print comic book that explains how the radio program is made. An easier resource to find is a lengthy, four-part series of interviews on storytelling that is available on YouTube; part 1 is embedded below to give you a sense of what you’ll find before exploring parts 2, 3, and 4.

If you’re looking for a nicely abbreviated version of this series, a two-minute clip drawn from these interviews was produced by visual artist David Shiyang Liu using kinetic typography.  This carefully selected edit reads like a motivational speech to inspire students struggling to produce creative work.

How-To: Media Circles

Should you decide to incorporate audio into your classroom it is essential that you find a good (read “bumpin’) pair of speakers to heighten the listening experience for students. Combining affordability (under $100), portability, and sound quality, I highly recommend Bose’s Companion 2 Series II PC Multimedia speakers.

My other suggestion is to avoid teaching these radio shows by creating study guides that are bottom-feed on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Questions that emphasize lower level thinking skills like “Who was the main character?” and “Where does this story take place?” rarely engage students in the type of critical, higher order thinking that creates a meaningful learning experience.

Creating differentiated and flexible structures for students to collaboratively explore a text is ideal. If you are in need of ideas for how to do this, you can join (using your Facebook, Google or Yahoo ID) the social network I curate for teachers called Making Curriculum Pop. At this Ning Network you will find blogs and PDF’s to help create active learning around media texts. Many “Learning Experience Organizers” (aka LEOs) —the fancy term my mother and I coined for cool study guides—are shared there. The “Connect The Minds (CTM) Activity,” “Beta Media Circles Part I,” “Did You Read Quiz?” – Cartoon Edition” and “Three 4 Thinking” will help you make students’ This American Life listening experience meaningful through a wide range of active-leaning strategies.

This American Life doesn’t just develop listening skills but—when combined with the aforementioned LEOs—harness the all the literacies of reading, writing, speaking, viewing and representing. This broadcast enjoys a weekly audience of over 2 million listeners across the globe. One hopes students, teachers, and librarians will become a larger percentage of these listeners in the future. If our job as educators is to engage the hearts and minds of our students I can think of no better pop cultural text than This American Life to uncover the silly, strange, and sublime states of the human condition with our students.

About Peter Gutierrez