Radiolab: Media Literacy and Listening Skills

One of the best ways to employ Radiolab in the classroom is to treat it as a text.  The difficulty?  This text requires students to listen and respond without visuals.  This means a bit of explanation and modeling upfront.

A good opener is a Ted talk by Julian Treasure: 5 Ways to Listen Better.  In under eight minutes Treasure highlights the value of listening and skills to become better listeners.

During the video, have students watch, listen, and take notes on the following questions:

  • Identify two of Treasure’s arguments about modern society and listening.
  • List two things Treasure identifies as making listening difficult.
  • List the ways in which Treasure claims we can become better listeners.

After the video, have students examine Treasure’s arguments again.  Now, have them evaluate via writing and then discussion the validity of these arguments.

It should help to foster a good class discussion about how we listen as well as interact with one another.  As you approach using audio in class, have students especially keep in mind his argument about the filters and “order” to how good listeners approach their subject.

After a class discussion about listening, choose a Radiolab segment to use with students as a practice run of listening and identifying argument.  Radiolab’s website offers full-length podcasts as well as episode “segments” to stream or download.  Here are three segments and how they could be used in class:

Goat on a Cow  (23:02 minutes)

A piece about the human need to solve mysteries and write stories about people’s past.

  • What is the power of someone’s personality?  According to this “text?”  According to your reading and knowledge?
  • Why is it significant that the driving force was that this woman’s life was on the side of a highway?
  • Why do we feel the need to “solve” mysteries?  What is the power of research as it results to mysteries?
  • Ultimately, this is not a piece about goats or cows.  Or is it?  Why is this piece titled “Goat on a Cow?”

The Others…who are slipping away  (11:34 minutes)

Since the segment is about Hamlet, it’s a great way to end your study of just that text.  It’s also perfect for talking about revising, rewriting, or reinventing a text.  Is our interpretation of a text’s meaning okay?  Especially if it’s by Shakespeare?

Use the questions below to focus students while they listen:

  • Why is the difference between the “original” text of Hamlet and the folio version something of so much interest?  Explain why those four “O’s” could have so much significance.
  • How do we read and understand a character?  How does the actual text shape that understanding?  Does a change this small make a significant difference?
  • Evaluate actor Mark Rylance’s approach to being Hamlet.


It’s Alive?  (21:47 minutes)

Books like The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and The White Tiger all revolve around cities to some degree.  Consider having students discuss why cities are an important part of modern literature.  You may want to cut the piece short since there is reference in the last two minutes to different elements present within cities that might not be suitable for high school students.

Use the questions below to focus students while they listen:

  • What gives a city “personality” according to Bob Levine?
  • Why do we care about a city’s “personality?”
  • When they talk about each city’s own “beat” what it the larger implication?
  • Where does the “soul” of a city originate?

This podcast is remarkable.  I’ve listened to it multiple times and each time I’m moved to tears.  At the heart of the story, Kohn Ashmore.  Confined to a wheelchair since the age of eight, Ashmore’s voice is the central focus.  It a story about personal acceptance and self-understanding. It would be a perfect match to stories/novels like “The Scarlet Ibis,” The Catcher in the Rye or even Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Before listening to the story, have students define the connotations of the word slow.
Use the following questions to focus students while they listen:
  • How do we see ourselves?
  • Identify Ashmore’s reaction to the sound of his own voice?  What is significant about his reaction?  What does it suggest on a larger level.
  • What argument does Andy Mills make about his understanding of Ashmore?

Clearly this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what’s available on Radiolab.  It’s a starting point.  You can spend hours listening and searching.  Do it.  It will not be time wasted.  Don’t worry when you realize there is a whole episode on Words.  We’ll discuss that, in all its glory, tomorrow and the day after.

One comment

  1. Collin says:

    I would love to know if you have actually coupled “Slow” with Catcher in the Rye. As a long-time RadioLab lover, I am always looking to use it in the classroom at the right moments. And I think some of your ideas (as well as your blog in general) are great. If you have coupled them, how did it go? What did you do?

    Thanks! Keep up the posting. You ladies do a fantastic job.

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