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Guest Post by Ryan Goble… Uncommon Literacies: Teaching ‘This American Life’ (1)

Neglected Literacies

Beyond the common literacies of reading and writing are what I like to call the “neglected literacies” of speaking, listening, viewing and representing. The media associated with these literacies are often pushed aside in educational contexts in favor of the more commonly assessed skills related to print. While I’m not a cheerleader for the Common Core Standards (for some of the same reasons Jonathan Chase communicated in his Connect the Pop post), they are not without merit.

In my opinion, a strength of the Common Core is that it creates spaces for the inclusion of non-print texts. This, in turn, opens the possibility of moving educators away from pre-packaged textbooks with predetermined units of instruction, toward more inclusive and engaging classroom practices that utilize a wide range of texts. In the overview of the English Language Arts standards for “Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects” the documents state (on pg. 60 of this PDF) that students must be able to “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”

If the Common Core is serious about the statement above, a wide range of digital and media literacies should be coming to “a classroom near you.”

Many state and national tests are in the process of being aligned to these standards. Yes, our students are over-tested and these tests are rarely definitive indicators of student learning; HOWEVER, if media literacies became part of national assessments, curriculum could make a dramatic shift toward non-print texts. This paradigm shift would be worth getting excited about. In the past, organizations like the College Board have tinkered with digitally-based multi-multi-media assessments, and one hopes these ideas are resurrected as media education becomes a larger part of American classrooms.

Radio and “This American Life”

As a classroom teacher, administrator, and consultant, I’ve always believed in a balanced literacy practice—one that grabs every genre of text in multiple media. If one wants to create powerful learning experiences for students, every article, book, comic, radio show, song, commercial, film, website, video game or artwork related to the themes and questions one wants to explore, must be mindfully harnessed in our teaching and learning.

When I collaborate with school librarians, media specialists or teachers, we inevitably start talking about our favorite media to use in the classroom. Most of these professionals have incredibly thoughtful resources lists of “top ten apps, websites, songs, comics or movies.” Furthermore, I am continually amazed by school librarians’ ability to read, review and recommend young adult literature. That said, I have yet to encounter an educator or librarian that has shared a list of radio shows and podcasts they use to engage students.

I find this surprising in the context the past decade. New technologies have created a renaissance for audio-based media. The Internet has developed the capacity to stream audio from all over the planet and, of course, the iPod and iPhone have made all types of audio more portable. Sure, some special programs or collections would be offered as records, tapes or CDs, but generally if educators wanted to use a radio show in the classroom they would have to do considerable legwork to capture shows in analogue or digital formats.

Now, however, an endless supply of podcasts are available through the iTunes Podcast directory. Complementing podcasts, most traditional radio outlets stream their content online or through phone-based apps with content that is searchable and available on demand. With this deluge of audio it is not always obvious where to start. When I work with teachers we always dig around National Public Radio (NPR) as its diverse programming always floats to the top. One reason many educators might steer clear of NPR is because of its dry and emotionless stereotype as parodied in the famous Alex Baldwin skits on Saturday Night Live (please note that this clip is NOT classroom friendly).

Of course some NPR programming may reinforce this caricature but most of it is thoughtful, entertaining, and engaging. In fact, NPR has been doing such an exemplary job developing programming that Fast Company ran a feature in 2009 praising its business model and innovation.

While NPR’s news is excellent, and always classroom friendly, its syndicated programming is where librarians can find materials to “wow” students of all ages. There are many excellent shows to choose from, but for me This American Life (aka TAL) is the richest resource for teachers. First aired in 1995 out of WBEZ in Chicago, the show’s website now archives 17 years of hour-long programs.

Like The New Yorker and Harper’s magazine—which have supported and launched the careers of many of the American greats in letters—TAL popularized some of our most celebrated non-fiction and humor writers: Sarah Vowell, whom you may know as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles (listen to Act I of “Guns”); David Sedaris (listen to Act III of “Adventures At Poo Corner”); and comedian and now film star Mike Birbiglia (listen to Act I of “Stranger in the Night”).

At the top of each episode the host and creator, Ira Glass explains, “each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme.” This gives one a sense of the show, but hardly the full story.

Some stories take up the entire 60 minutes, while other shows are broken up into a series of acts, each a different length. While any of the long episodes are very teachable, acts under 15 minutes seem to be ideal for classroom use. This length does not push student’s attention span beyond the “point of no return.” At first students find This American Life to be a bit strange, but they usually enjoy the shows and are surprised that these types of programs exist on radio.

No matter how exciting any given story may be, students will struggle a bit to lock in to non-music based audio. This is usually because there are so few times in their school or home life where they are purely listening to a voice without visuals. Have you ever heard teachers complaining that students don’t listen? Guess what? This should not come as a surprise because listening as a literacy is rarely explicitly taught in schools. Pure audio texts provide opportunities to practice this skill.

As of this writing there are nearly 500 episodes of This American Life. In an attempt to help you explore the show, in the second part of this post I’ll be sharing a sampler of episodes and acts that I think exemplify TAL’s work and/or are excellent for teachers and teaching.

[So be sure to check out part 2 of Mr. Goble’s guest post when it goes live in a couple of days. Its list of recommended episodes touches on everything from contemporary politics and war to Shakespeare, comics, architecture, and youth/coming-of-age stories. Also included is a set of practical tips and resources on how to run media circles that I’m guessing you’ll find invaluable… -Peter]


Ryan R. Goble began his teaching career as a high school English teacher in Ann Arbor, MI. He has since taught, consulted and presented for a wide variety of students, schools and organizations all over the U.S., providing training in active learning, “better practices,” and new media. During his years in New York City he mentored teachers in all disciplines, coordinated curriculum and collaborated with the entire staff to develop professional learning communities at Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx.

Ryan’s work has been featured in publications like Teacher Magazine, The Boston Globe and The Detroit News. He has written for publications including the Journal of Staff Development, Journal of Media Literacy and the New York Times Learning Network. Presently, he’s co-writing curriculum on climate change and sustainability for NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. His first book (co-written with his mother), entitled Media Circles, is due out from Maupin House this fall.

Ryan also has an extensive background in the entertainment industry, working for Virgin Records, at NPR in Detroit, and at E! Entertainment Television in Los Angeles. His high school students have worked with creative talent such as actors Robin Williams and Julianne Moore, screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride, All The President’s Men) and director Spike Jonze. Ryan is the founder of, a company that started by creating rock and roll study guides but now focuses on consulting. He also blogs and shares many exciting resources through his online social network with over 6,400 educators all over the globe at “Making Curriculum Pop.” Based in Chicago, he currently adjuncts in the education departments of Aurora, Benedictine and Roosevelt Universities.

About Peter Gutierrez