Richard TerrellFriday, October 15, 2021
Dr. Alex Melonas teaches tenth-grade history at Altamont. Unlike most history courses, where assignments consist of papers, essays, and tests for each topic, Dr. Melonas’ class splits into groups of two or three and makes a podcast for each module of the course. Students are given a prompt pertaining to the topic, time parameters (for the length of the podcast), and a grading rubric that allows for freedom of choice in approach, so long as the topic is addressed and the entire group contributes.
Each group has a different way of approaching the assignment. Some script out every word for the podcast and others have a few main themes they want to address. Either way, the grading rubric emphasizes that the podcast needs to have a conversational tone.
Although most people have no idea how to go about making a podcast, students have a podcast recording app on their laptops and can learn how to do new things via YouTube and the Internet.
A junior who completed the assignment last year, Bud Riley, said, “I preferred the podcast assignment to a more traditional assignment because it engages you more with your classmates, and his class was more personable because of the podcast assignment.”
(People with an Altamont email address can listen to an example of a student podcast on redlining in Birmingham here.)
The Acta Diurna asked Dr. Melonas more about the thinking behind his unconventional assignment.
“What was the goal of utilizing the podcast rather than a more traditional type of assignment?”
“There are two answers to this question. First, simply put, what I’ve learned by participating in some of the things we do at the school, like our Professional Learning Communities (PLC), is that we aren’t doing what we think we’re doing when we utilize traditional teaching and learning methods. I’m not convinced that even in the most narrow sense of teaching, getting students to remember things, that we’re accomplishing our goal. In other words, there is a growing awareness that we need to experiment with how students engage with course content because most of our approaches don’t work that well. But there is a secondary goal for me. I think that authentic learning focuses on the convergence of teaching and learning, where students are enlisted as both knowledge-producers and knowledge-consumers. A lot of learning is simply not authentic. The question for me is: how do we create a learning environment – a learning culture, really – where students embrace their role as co-creators of the classroom? My hope is that this podcast project is one way to encourage students to do so, or at the very least, is a more productive way to get students to learn the course content.”
Now that you’ve been using the podcast assignment for a year, how do you feel about the assignment? Has it worked? What aspects do you like and dislike about the podcast? And, do you believe students prefer the podcast assignment or a more traditional type of assignment?
“I’ll try to answer these questions together. I have mixed feelings. What’s implied in the question I raised above, about changing our school’s learning culture, is that teachers have to open themselves up to the possibility that they aren’t just teachers but learners, too. The podcast project is deliberately designed to tailor my role in the classroom to that of a facilitator, where I provide students with some scaffolding, some material, some nudging and so forth, but in the end, they are going to be teaching me and other students. Still, at various moments, when students are encouraged to reflect on the podcast project as a project, students tell me that I’m missing the forest for the trees. Several students have insisted, for instance, that without systemic, school-wide buy-in to the broader goals of this project, what’s the point? A teacher, a classroom – even a handful of teachers or classrooms – won’t change culture. Students will continue to enter classrooms with the more narrow learning and teaching expectations of traditional designs. A lot of students, during these reflection moments, are also really hard on themselves in a way that’s revealing. A common response was: ‘I like the podcast project, but I didn’t learn as much because I didn’t know what you think is important.’ Though I urged them to understand that they offer incredibly valuable contributions, and that they learn from each other not only from me – especially when pushed or guided appropriately – in the end, as they see it, they are students and I’m the teacher. Those roles, those identities, are set, and they are simply doing what’s expected. I think they see it that way because they have been taught to see it that way. The podcast project encourages them to shift their views on that, to try something new, but whether this has the broader effects I’m aiming for is an open question.”
Some parents tend to have strong opinions regarding even the simplest things. Have you gotten any pushback or support from parents?
“Parent response has been positive, overwhelmingly, which is revealing. A response you often hear when people propose more experimental teaching approaches is that, because of the priority put on grades and college, teaching and learning approaches that are less focused on narrow instrumental concerns (what specifically does a student have to do to pass this class and move on?) but emphasize larger, more substantive though abstract goals (how do I teach a student to learn how to learn?) won’t garner a lot of parent buy-in. The suggestion is straightforward: parents care about a model of education that emphasizes mere certification, not a broader understanding of learning. My experience with parents tells me that we should be giving parents a lot more credit than that. Of course, there are external constraints on what teachers can do. As long as colleges care about testing, AP exams, etc., then we have to care, too. Grades will always matter. But over the last little while, I’ve started to wonder if the real constraint isn’t the parents at all, it isn’t the college board at all, it’s us – our attitudes, as teachers, our expectations about what our roles are...”