Yes, there’s an ROI for podcasting! 

Hosts of my new podcast, Trinity Wright and Christina Dressel

The podcasting bug bit me 12 years ago when I worked in Marcom, in the heady days of blogging and podcasting. More recently, after I got back into it, my podcasts have been about the intersection of education and tech. Topics I teach in class. It’s a fun work/hobby if only because I learn so much on the job. And the ROI is not what I expected.

Consider how one interviews people. It’s different from how you might grill someone, or conduct a focus group. You’re not a ‘reporter’ although you are acting like a conduit for an audience whom the guest/interviewee does not see. Your questions are your software. Hardware could vary. [A Zoom H4N podcasting recorder I carried made people nervous; some said it looked like a Taser.]

In the past year I have learned so much. Like how to use a lavalier mic plugged into a laptop so it records directly to Hindenburg, or, if I’m in a rush, to Audacity or Anchor. I’ve discovered the value of an XLR cable, as opposed to USB in microphones. My ‘studio’ is always an empty classroom, even if means dodging the announcements on the PA system since there’s no soundproofed room — yet. This learning curve has also helped me add audio-recording into the curriculum for my Writing & Publishing class at Benjamin Franklin High School.

But in the past few months I began producing another podcast for the school. The podcast, ‘Fully Charged,’ has two hosts who between them have plenty of terrific topics: student achievement, counseling, history, and classical education. The first podcast (below) is about mental health, and stress.

Positive Charge – Episode 4 Fully Charged

How do we eliminate that 'negative charge' around us, and practice positivity? In this podcast, hosts Ms. Christina Dressel and Ms. Trinity Wight talk about the challenges we all face at school, and in life, and how we might diffuse those charges.  They should know. This show is called Fully Charged for a reason!
  1. Positive Charge – Episode 4
  2. Just Plane Angry – Episode 3
  3. Spiritual Authority – Auctoritas – Episode 2
  4. Salubritas! – Episode 1

Also available on Apple podcasts, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts

I SOON LEARNED THAT producing a show for someone else comes with its own challenges. Hardware and software notwithstanding (one mic or two?) getting two hosts into a room is more complicated than it might seem. Planning a show topic ahead of time is another. Teacher’s, after all have plenty on their plate with lesson plans et al. We now need an ‘editorial calendar’ so the topics are fresh, even though we record them ahead of time. Like milk, any topic does come with an expiration date which creeps up on you.

I need to help the hosts loosen up and feel like they are having a conversation. A classroom setting puts a cramp on this; after all, it’s where students come for ‘lessons’ — and a podcast should be an experience not a lesson. As Evo Terra reminds us, it is a one-to-one experience between one’s ears. A podcast may seem like a show but it is really not a performance. There can’t be cue cards or scripts, or memorized lines, or perfect monologues. On the other hand, winging it, won’t work. The hosts make mistakes; many times, the ums and aahs have to be left in.

AS FOR PRODUCTION, AND EDITING, yes there’s lots of this. But I found most of my production time involves keeping the podcast tight and focused, rather than perfect. As a podcast listener I like the pace to be quick, the content jam packed; the takeaways memorable. So as a podcast producer I’m conscious of this. Our listener — a student — has to juggle a podcast between homework, chores, a football game, dance rehearsals, siblings, and social media. He or she gives us the benefit of their time, so we need to respect that.

INTERESTINGLY, THESE LESSONS spill over into how I handle a classroom. Sure, the students are a captive audience in class, here from ‘bell to bell.’ But like a podcast I have to make sure the pace is clipped, jam-packed with useful takeaways. We don’t have music segues in a class lesson; (some use ‘anticipatory sets.’) But we could use smooth transitions that connect the dots. We don’t need to TED Talk our way through 50 minutes of a class period, but we could use cuts and transitions to keep students on the edge of their seats.

Podcasting and teaching have more in common than I once thought. I don’t need a ‘Taser’ for the latter — just give me a dry-erase marker.

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Fun fact: A podcast I had produced in 2009 (when I worked at Decision Theater, at Arizona State University) was about pandemic planning. It’s over here, if you’re curious.

History is unavoidable these days in the classroom.

How I paused my lesson plan to address the war.

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

Last week, I paused my lesson plan for a moment to address the war. My high school students (in a Writing & Publishing elective) had discussed a recent book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis. “Does this current crisis with the invasion of Ukraine seem like the next world war?” I asked them. I felt it was bizarre to go on with life, editing videos and writing stories as if this wasn’t happening. War is not always someone else’s problem, I added. In a globally connected world, especially in a world with hyper-connected media, it’s not something just happening ‘over there.’

Which led me to lean on a set of documents from Brown University’s Choices program. It’s got excellent discussion topics, and handouts like this for teaching with the news. I had them read the backgrounder, and analyze political cartoons for labels, symbolism analogy, irony, exaggeration and stereotyping. When you’re writing for the digital world today, you have to take into account the many facets of media — from Tik-Tok, and memes, to cartoons, which have served editorial purposes for as long as newspapers have been around.

Courtesy, US San Diego: https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb65537764/zoom/0

Political cartoons have a long legacy. There was Dr. Seuss, whose work included anti-fascist cartoons about Hitler and the rise of Nazism. There were those by Jerry Costello (‘Feeling the pinch’), and those like Punch cartoonist, Fougasse (Careless talk costs lives) who worked for the British ministry of information. Cartoonists, like writers are also journalists of a different caliber. The writer has a rectangle called a column. The cartoonist has a rectangle called a strip. Both must pack meaning into them.

Analyzing history through texts and events requires critical thinking. My colleague who teachers history class described how he was tremendously proud of how his students handled the discussion of the war in Ukraine. I’ll cite his description from a commentary he wrote in a school newsletter last week.

“Something marvelous happened in my classroom last week. Something that I have been waiting for my students to do the entire year. My traditional history class is going over American Imperialism right now, and the subject came up of when Americans should intervene in the affairs of another country. The class was saying what they believed I wanted to hear, namely “Mr. Klicker, this is a horrible thing that is happening, but that doesn’t mean we throw American lives away”. It was good, but their hearts weren’t in it. They were just saying words without any conviction behind them. So I decided to have a little fun. I was going to ‘poke the bear’ and see what I came up with.

“Well by THAT logic, class, I guess you would have stood by and let Hitler and the rest of the Nazis conquer Europe and complete the Holocaust!”

Normally, they just sit their in shock at the fact that I accused of being Nazis, or perhaps they’ll roll their eyes if they’re feeling especially sarcastic. But miraculously, for the first time all year, I heard the words I’ve been waiting to hear:

“Mr. Klicker!” one girl said, rolling both her head and her eyes at me, “You know that’s not true! You always do this and I’m tired of sitting here and taking it! This is way more complicated than that!”

He goes on to say that in a history class, it is far more important that he teaches them to stand up for their beliefs (even when they are attacked) instead of making sure they memorize all of the names and dates. He recognizes that critical thinking is a difficult thing to do — made even more difficult when called to disagree with a person you are supposed to admire and respect. “We have forgotten how to debate,” he says, “to stand up for ourselves and have conviction in our beliefs even when everyone else is telling us to stand down.”

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

There are plenty of resources for fostering civil discourse in the class room. In times like this, no matter what the subject matter, we have to address the moment in which the lesson is taught. I’ll leave you with two resources. These are guaranteed to start a great discussion in class:

1. People, including children, are singing inside bomb shelters to raise morale. Worth watching this. Why are these images of war so radially different to what might be on cable news, or on social media?

2. A story of an Ukrainian vlogger, Volodymyr Zolkin, who takes it upon himself to call up, randomly, people in Russia, and provide them with a different type of news. Read about it here, in the New Yorker.

Unexpected Lessons. When my class turned into a ‘newsroom.’

Today, no sooner I got to school, I saw an email to staff about a coffee truck stopping by. A fundraiser for the school’s Cheer team. Not your common or garden food truck (a converted horse trailer) Exchange Coffee is a company with an interesting origin story.

So as my students came to class — my Writing and Publishing class –I nixed the day’s assignment on my lesson plan and asked them if they like to work as an impromptu news team. Grab a camera and some mics I told them. Someone needed to prep for the story, to look up some background information of the owners of Exchange Coffee. Another began to write down possible questions on a small white board while two others tested the audio, and if the clip-on mic units were charged. Clip-on mics aren’t the best for impromptu stories, so one student, adapted our ‘dummy’ mic to the Hotec clip-on, so that it communicated back to the camera. We rushed downstairs. I asked the owners (who also make and serve the coffee) if it was OK to do a story about them.

Once that was cleared, I got the students to shoot some B-roll. A school bus rolling in. A weird half moon was rising as the sun came over the Queen Creek horizon. An engine roared –possibly a train or a noisy aircraft from the nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Sound engineer? Check. Camera person? Check. Reporter? Check.

As we began to roll, Don Meyer, an English teacher unexpectedly wheeled into frame, in full biking gear. Perfect! (I’ve featured Mr. Meyer on a podcast and blog post so I was confident this ‘customer’ would agree to being in the story.) The story was suddenly growing more legs. The ‘reporter’ began describing the scene, and got a interview with the owner/barista.

The audio quality turned out better than we expected. More than that, our reporter sounded like a reporter, despte just having 5 minutes of planning the story. The camera person got her right shots. Fifteen minutes to the bell, we switched off the tech and headed back to class to review the work.

NOW COMES THE LEARNING PART. I will play back the recording, and over the next few days and have the students critique their work. Could they have done anything different? What about lighting? What about camera angles? What if this was an ‘incident’? How would they handle it? Could they have interviewed customers? Could they have got a different camera angle – say from inside the truck?

Publishing in a digital world is tricky business. It’s never static. Stories, like lesson plans are always in flux. The best lessons are learned on the job. We are often poised at the top of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, ‘creating original work,’ investigating, revising, reconstructing knowledge in the moment. Sometimes a coffee truck hijacks the lesson plan. You adapt and run with it.

Tomorrow I have invited an author, Jessica McCann, talk to the class about the writing craft, about fiction, and picking out details for a story. Does a video story or podcast have something in common with a novel? We’ll ask!

NEXT WEEK, my students will be working on podcasts. Who knows where this –and what unplanned events – will take my class. Stay tuned. Didn’t I mention – my class starts at 6:30 am? I might need more coffee!

‘Colors of Colombo’ gives voice to the voiceless.

A Web developer and a journalist walk into a juice bar. The book that they just published paints the city I grew up in, in stunning light.

Photo by Nazly Ahmed

If you’ve lived here, you’d know when to duck a ball flying in your direction from a raucous cricket match. (The clue is often a pair of Bata slippers making do for a wicket.) Or where to find isso vadas, or chinese rolls; where that bicycle-tube repair guy on Galle Road sits under a piece of plastic; or what time the knife sharpener and choon pan tuktuk might arrive. These ‘experts’ and entrepreneurs however, are easy to miss because they just blend into the cacophony that is Colombo. Sadly many of them are hidden in plain sight like faded wall posters. But no worries – Nazly Ahmed has them in his viewfinder. He pulls up on his motorbike and takes in the details with his trusty camera. Lucky us! 

Colours of Colombo is a glimpse into that other side of Colombo, the lives lived in the shadow of the luxury apartment towers, and by unkempt beaches. It may be too small-scale a book to qualify for a coffee-table piece (which is my only beef with the collection. Visual storytelling like this ought to be seen in large format.) But the colours that pour out of it let us pay attention to those slices of life that are left out of tourist brochures. Who else would focus on a road sweeper in Mattakkuliya surrounded by grit, casting an ominous shadow? Or the tuktuk driver taking a nap like a cartoon strip framed against a giant piece of graffiti? Or the saravita seller’s serene, weatherbeaten face? These lead characters are part of the daily docudrama played out across the 15 zip codes of a city I once called home. Sadly, many of them are in transit, or worse, anonymous. Their names don’t roll in with the credits. Nazly (the photo-hobbyist and web developer) and Kris Thomas (the writer) have taken pains to put many names to faces, giving voice to the voiceless, a secondary, magnanimous accomplishment.

Reading this book made me wistfully attempt to recall those who’ve remained nameless in my childhood. (Your list is probably as big as mine.) The vedamahathaya down Havelock Road who once reset my dislocated elbow; the smiling lady outside St. Peter’s College who sold us ambarella achcharu through the iron gates. The tuktuk driver who religiously showed up on Sunday mornings to take my mother to church. The rickshaw man who transported my cousin and I to school and back. The kiri-karaya from Sagara Road. Their legacy is not found in my photo album. But they were itinerant actors who were part of a city drama never forgotten. 

Nazly and Kris don’t just take us back in time. They freeze the frame. I was glad to see that they all but ignored the parts of Colombo that privileged folk –and Instagrammers – go after. The bars, the buffet tables, the coffee shops. Yes there are some waterfronts in shimmering light, but some beaches (like one in Bambalapitiya) are murky. Shanties stand out against a backdrop of affluence. The other waterfront (a once hyped floating market), they note, is abandoned. 

By an unhappy coincidence the book comes out in a time when Sri Lanka is facing its biggest crisis. Colombo, where all the machinations of the political economy are worked out, is experiencing power cuts. A lighting effect –and irony –any photographer would not miss. We could be optimistic and see Colors of Colombo as a glimmer amid the virus of poor governance.

Writing and publishing 100 Books in 5 weeks. How did they do that?

When students sign up for a computer class, I tell them it’s a trick — they really signed up for a communications class that happen to have computers.

Inside pages of ‘Ciphers’ published in December 2021. More here.

In the last week of Fall semester my seventh grade students wrote and produced more than a hundred eBooks. A week before finals, many of them were burning the midnight oil proofing their chapters and fixing the ‘widows’ and orphans’ rather than cramming. They uploaded their final product as a PDF to Flipsnack, hit the ‘publish’ button and saw what five weeks of their creative writing project looked like.

Let me throw in some context about this assignment. Each semester my students take on a capstone project for which they have to prove that they understand document formatting. And by that I mean layout, design, fonts, margins, line spacing and all those nitty gritty features found on the ribbon of the most common applications they use — Google docs, Microsoft Word, Google Slides and PowerPoint.

I give them a few guidelines, and a 24-page template for the eBook created in Google Slides. Yes, Google Slides! An odd choice indeed for page layout. Having experimented with Microsoft Word and Google Docs several semesters ago, I discovered that PowerPoint or Slides are more flexible when it comes to formatting. Text boxes, drop-caps and margin control for instance work well.

There is considerable writing to be done, but the goal is to combine creative skills and mechanical tasks: To let students become storytellers, while making the text appeal to the eye. All this while doing the heavy lifting of research, copy editing, and design. They are shown how to design their book’s front and back cover in Canva, and import the PNG files. As for that back cover, I get them to create their own logo, insert a real barcode, and solicit two or more book reviews from their peers — reviews they place on the back cover. They must also write a blurb for the book (something a publisher or PR firm would do) and a short bio of themselves. The back-cover itself is one week’s worth of work! Authors may only use royalty-free images from sites that are in the Creative Commons. That means no Google Images.

They came up with their own book titles. And they were free to choose any genre, any subject. Many opted for fiction, but you’ll be surprised at the variety of non-fiction this year. I’ll get to the titles in a bit.

I’m sure you’re thinking — this is asking a lot of a 7th grader! And for anyone wondering why publish an eBook in a computer class, let me put it this way. Yes, my students are required to learn touch-typing and improve their speed and accuracy. We do this each week. But toward the end of the semester I tell them (half in jest) that they were tricked into believing they signed up for a computer class — when in fact they walked into a Communications class that happened to have computers. Not the other way around. The rationale, I tell them, is that the only purpose of ‘learning’ computers is to help them communicate better. Whether it is learning to code, making stunning presentations, designing a book cover, manipulating images in Photoshop, designing a website, or writing term papers or professional reports, the goal is always communication. The only reason you produce work for an audience — your teacher, a customer, an organization — is to communicate an idea. An eBook pulls together several of these core skills.

At the outset, when I tell students the book involves five chapters I hear a few groans. But very soon, I begin to see their story growing, the sentences inch-worming across a paragraph. The question I am always asked is if it’s OK to add a chapter or an extra page or two. Funny how they want that bar raised!

Apart from the usual Zombie InvasionHorror, and a few about dragons and cute animals, I noticed an explosion in creativity this year. (Something I wrote about in an article on Medium, titled, Start a Little Library, Side Effects Will Vary.”) I put it down to COVID, unleashing a fresh batch of creative juices. Consider these, handpicked to give you a sense of the diversity.

  • One book is set in an Escape Room with some creative plot twists.
  • Another trippy alien mystery, The Last Drop is scary. (it’s not about blood)
  • Like something intriguing? There’s a book titled, Ciphers with a techy, creative bent.
  • One on Beautiful Artwork is a truly aesthetic layout.
  • Interstellar is about space, but is not about that movie. It deals with the thermosphere and Braneworld Theory. (I had to look that term up!)
  • I was surprised to see a story on the ‘Witch Trials’ — with surprise angle. The author recounts the story of one of her ancestors caught up in the trials in Salem! How often do you get historical fiction with a personal angle to it?
  • A delightful book set in London is based on the urban legend of one ‘Spring-heeled Jack.

As I have found out with each class, a writing project like this has surprise endings. Many students who never considered writing tell me they have become passionate about it.

Check out the podcast about this story, below.

Richard Attenborough on Education

I was touched by Sir. Richard Attenborough’s story about why education should not be taken for granted.

Last year, he was granted an honorary degree by the University of Leicester, my alma mater. I never knew he didn’t actually go to college, though I knew he –and his brother David – were Leicester boys. We take education too much for granted, don’t we?

Listen to the first 6 minutes of this and you’ll know what I mean.

Richard Attenborough has a great sense of humor combined with humility. I know this for a fact because I was lucky to interview him while at the BBC, back in 1989 at Capital Radio studios in London. I wrote a post on that, back in 2014.

But this speech gives me more perspective. The man was really educated in the school of life – in the arts, in travel, in acting, in being in front of, and behind a camera. Yet he knows why we should never take knowledge for granted.

“To teach is to learn twice.” Or thrice.

So learned something about dark matter and Type 2 civilizations last month. From students. At 6:30 in the morning. This period is what’s known as a ‘zero-hour’ class in high schools like mine.

I had been invited to observe making presentations in a STEM class. The air was thick with magnetic fields and an ‘Oort cloud.’ It was followed by animated discussions that went on as casually as if they were discussing the pros and cons of Chick Fil-A. I tried remaining the fly on the wall, but the enthusiasm was too contagious to keep me on that wall. I found myself raising my hand to ask questions — reversing roles. I was that kid in the corner waiting to be called on!

You’re probably wondering about this Oort Cloud I mentioned in passing. A fascinating concept by Dutch astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort. According to one source, it is “a theoretical spherical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals that is believed to surround the sun.” I had never heard of this, so I raised my hand and asked the the student to explain planetesimals.

This, by the way, was a 10th grader who’s excitement could be mistaken for someone who had just won a NASA trip to the International Space Station. Unfortunately, it’s audio. You’d have to visualize the enthusiasm bouncing across the classroom. She barely glanced at her slides as she went on, which is what good presenters do. (Many students — and, sadly professionals — use a slide deck and do just the opposite.) She seemed to have installed the bullet points in her head; they were flung across the room with the velocity of teenager adjectives.

So here’s the larger point I’d like to make. I’ve been involved in STEM for many years, and it’s taken me on detours into Space science and, of course, robotics. But I now see STEM less as a destination, and more as an on-ramp. Even if these students may not be donning lab coats or invited to be part of some audacious project at SpaceX, just wrestling with complex topics like Type 2 civilizations and black holes give them the mindset to take on new challenges that will present themselves. I teach at a classical school where these same science students head to their next period in which they wrestle with the Iliad, followed by another class where they write papers on Hell, purgatory and Hamlet, or write a research proposal on the black plague. I know this because students come to my lab to work on these assignments. It’s a great way to learn from students.

Joseph Joubert, to whom the quote “He who teaches learns twice” is attributed, also said “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” I’ve debated the validity of STEM versus classical education and have come to this conclusion: It’s not an either-or argument. Our students must scrutinize the so-called ‘givens,’ and learn to defend topics they are passionate about, despite push-back. In academia we use a fancy term for this — a growth mindset. To me, it’s all about learning from unusual sources.

Twice, if I have to.

This was posted to Medium.com

Facebook, an algorithm out of control. So why do you still use the platform?

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, called it an inside joke shared by the ‘civic integrity’ group. I found the joke appalling on how it captures the scale of violence Facebook does in societies across the world.

“If you want to know what the next batch of at-risk countries was going to be, all you had to do was to look two years in the past at what the Facebook connectivity countries were.”

Basically Facebook would continue to expand its footprint, and by providing ‘more information’ it would knowingly turn on civic instability – just to make the platform more profitable.

That’s just the thumbnail. Now it’s worth listening in on the senate hearings today.

I deleted Facebook in March 2019. It never changed a thing.

Could AI have us for lunch?

I spoke to someone who uses two phones, but he uninstalled Twitter on both. He considers himself a ‘voracious’ consumer of podcasts but is careful about staying too long on the grid. Oh, and he recently co-founded an AI company — a software-as-services outfit.

Isura Silva is certainly no technophobe, nor is he a cheerleader of everything that Silicon Valley burps up. His insights into why technology could do our bidding, and not control our lives is refreshing. But I wanted to not just pick his brain on how he got to this place — into AI — but to understand his entrepreneurial mindset; why he is so optimistic when everything seems to be crumbling around him.

Isura considers social media as being potential forces of good. He and I disagree on this topic quite a bit. But he knows the downsides, first hand. So he aggressively filters the noise. He says he could slide back into technology controlling his time if he doesn’t take an aggressive stance. But there’s another area that Isura and I don’t see eye to eye – that AI could actually be beneficial to humanity, he believes. Which is why he co-founded an AI company in Sri Lanka. Sure, AI might free us of mundane tasks, I argued, but what about the dark side, of algorithms and machines replacing what makes us human?

“AI will eat the world,” Isura declared, understanding the irony.

Well, that’s exactly why I often talk to people like him. That’s why he’s featured on my latest podcast, and a longer version of our discussion here, on Medium.