Athina G. is a student at Brooklyn Middle School in New York. She’s also an award-winning audio producer.
“Racism is a form of prejudice from one people to another,” she explains in an audio story submitted alongside team members Marley, Gladys and Randy, who collectively entered NYC’s youth innovation showcase, Emoti-Con. The group took home the event’s Social Impact Award.
The promising producers are students with Global Kids Inc., a New York-based education nonprofit that provides in- and after-school programs for youth development. Their project, titled “Ears Wide Open,” was part of the organization’s recent dive into radio journalism—an unassuming edtech tool that’s now being used by educators to teach digital literacy, audio editing and journalistic storytelling.
Having recently entered the middle-school space, Sarah Giffin, an online leadership program associate for Global Kids, says the organization was looking for new ways to engage youth. So they turned to New York’s public radio station, WNYC, for ideas. What they found was Radio Rookies, an audio journalism training program that teaches teens how to produce radio stories and share them on national airwaves.
“Radio Rookies was really interested in seeing how their program would play out with middle schoolers,” says Giffin, whose role is to integrate technology in Global Kids’ human rights and global issues education. “They shared their curricular template and resources and let us run with it.”
Teaching Audio Tools
With Global Kids, Giffin used WNYC’s tools and insight for a slew of lessons. Students learned how to use audio recording devices on iPhones and mobile USB recorders. They worked with microphones, headphones and other handheld audio devices. And to refine their recordings, they learned fundamental editing skills on programs like Audacity, GarageBand and audioBoom.
They also learned about file-storing, saving, exporting and converting audio into different formats to be edited on different platforms.
“In a literal sense, students are using various technology and realizing there are many steps to connect what you say with what you hear on the other end,” says Giffin. “A mechanical understanding of what digital information is was a huge part of their learning.”
A New Platform
But audio editing is more than just understanding tools, Giffin tells her students. It’s also about capturing, curating and relaying information in a purposeful way.
“When our middle schoolers hear their voice recorded and played back to them, it’s a really wonderful and vulnerable moment,” says Giffin. Many of the youth she works with cringed at the sound of their own voice, which surprised Giffin, given the students frequently present and speak before audiences as part of the Global Kids program.
This is also the social media generation, Giffin points out. Students are on Snapchat, Instagram and other platforms. And like many of us, they take selfies and share bits about themselves online all the time. But something about audio was different.
“Hearing audio helped them realize ‘I have the power to make a claim that will stand alone as a statement, so I gotta really think about what I want to say, what I want to be heard, and what will represent my perspective,” Giffin says.
That’s when the lesson became less about editing sounds, and more about journalism.
“Students really got into a process of observing how their knowledge and perspective would grow and change as they were going through this process of research and doing interviews,” says Giffin. “From an educator’s perspective, it lets students… be intentional in editing what they want to say because that’s what’s going to be on the record.”
Seeing how the students’ own perspectives influenced a story also lended Giffin the opportunity to teach digital and news literacy—a timely lesson as educators grapple with explaining and instructing around fake news. When crafting their pieces, students had to make choices: what voices to include, which parts to cut and ultimately what stories to tell.
In doing so, Giffin says students often approached a story with their own biases and sought evidence to support or confirm it. “We had to talk about how that is a choice and how that will impact what the listener takes away,” she explains.
To challenge those tendencies, students listened to other radio pieces and were asked to respond to questions like “how would your perspective changed the piece,” “what was the author’s choice,” or “was there even a choice?”
“The real lesson was in how differently people think about a given topic,” says Giffin. “If students disagreed with something they heard, they had to come up with a real reason as to why they would exclude it [from their projects] other than just ‘I feel differently.’”
Sharing the News
Since 1999, Radio Rookies has trained youth to report on their own lives, experiences and communities. But more recently, Radio Rookies producer Kaari Pitkin says educators like Giffin began reaching out and asking how they could bring the program to their classrooms.
The station wanted to help, but resources were limited. “To really scale up and have hundreds of kids in this project would take a staff that we just don’t have the bandwidth to hire,” says Pitkin.
But the Radio Rookies team still wanted to give teachers something to use. With some funding from the Hive NYC Learning Network, the program began tinkering with the ideas to expand their project. And after hiring professional curriculum writers and after a few test runs, they now have something to share with all teachers: a free, downloadable Common Core-aligned curriculumthat teachers can use teach radio journalism in their own classrooms.
“We see this as a way to take our best practices and put it into the world for people to experiment with,” says Pitkin, “and also to get kids using these tools to engage with journalism, storytelling and their own experiences within the context of media making.”
Pitkin says the curriculum stands as a “living document,” which can be built upon and tweaked as more educators put it to use. To gather that feedback and allow educators to exchange ideas, the organization also created a private Facebook group for those who download the curriculum.
“We want people to be able to have a place to share and discuss the material and what they’re learning from it,” says Pitkin.
From the looks of the Facebook group (yes, we took a peek), the curriculum is taking off. Teachers are asking questions like, “How are educators teaching editing skills in their classrooms?” Educators outside of the U.S. are even drawing inspiration and sharing their work with the group.
“[Audio journalism skills] are basic leadership and development skills that young people can take into other projects they are doing,” says Giffin. “Radio and podcast are not just a project they did one time—it’s a part of their arsenal as leaders and changemakers.”