Unit 6: Writing for Podcasts

Unit 6: Writing for Podcasts

Welcome to our sixth writing unit of the school year. Below, you will find a detailed description of each element as well as ways to put them together to make your own custom unit. To learn more, visit our writing curriculum overview.

If your students click or scroll around the offerings on NYTimes.com, they’ll soon see that there are many more ways to break news and tell stories these days than just via the written reporting they might associate with print newspapers. They’ll find photo essays, illustrations, graphs, videos, GIFs, podcasts and more.

Though you may not “read” multimedia the same way you do an article, writing still plays a starring role in creating it. In this unit, we’ll explore how that is so by focusing on podcasting, a medium that has exploded in popularity over the last several years and further surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

As all our units do, this one culminates in a student contest. At a time when we’re all stuck at home, we hope this challenge — one students can do from their bedrooms or at their kitchen tables — will provide an interesting, even fun, creative outlet.

How will students use writing in the process? They’ll be brainstorming and outlining, scripting and editing, researching, honing lists of questions, considering structure and flow, and thinking about hooking an audience and keeping it hooked. In other words, they’ll be using many of the same skills they’ve used across our writing units — they’ll just be doing it in a format that may be new for them.

Below, the core ingredients for our unit in more detail. We’ve suggested a sequence and created resources that are flexible enough for students to use on their own, or with help from a teacher or parent.

One great source of inspiration is our growing library of writing prompts. Several winning podcasts have grown directly out of this categorized list of over 1,000 questions, covering everything from video games and music to morality and government policy. And, of course, we publish two new writing prompts every school day, so your students can always search a stream of new ideas by scrolling through the collection to find something that speaks to them.

For example, what podcast ideas might your students be able to brainstorm in response to questions like these?

  • What do you know about your family’s history?

  • What was your most precious childhood possession?

  • What ethical dilemmas have you faced?

  • Is racial and economic diversity in schools important?

  • What era do you wish you had grown up in?

  • Are you the same person on social media as you are in real life?

  • What weaknesses and strengths about our world are being exposed by this pandemic?

Once your students have a list of great topic ideas, the next step is to figure out how they might work as podcasts. What format should they use? How will they hone their topic to work well as a five-minute podcast? What structure makes the most sense?

This is where the work of previous contest winners comes in handy. Even if your students aren’t planning to send their final compositions to our competition, showing them the successful “moves” kids their own age have made in answering those same questions can encourage them to experiment. We’ve gone back and listened to all the top podcasts in our 2018 and 2019 challenges, and used elements of them as examples in this step-by-step process students can follow as they make their own.

For example, what can they learn from the way one teenager interviews members of her family who have been incarcerated? From how another marks the transitions between the beginning, middle and end of his podcast about a famous April Fool’s hoax? From the way two young women have a seemingly unscripted conversation about “Their Eyes Were Watching God” on their podcast about black writers? This guided practice can help.

When we announced our first podcast contest, we also created a mini-unit to support it. You might use Project Audio: Teaching Students How to Produce Their Own Podcasts along with the mentor text guided practice above to support students in analyzing the techniques that make for good storytelling, interviewing and podcasting. The mini-unit also picks up where our mentor text piece leaves off, and helps with the nuts and bolts of recording and editing.

Here is the challenge we extend to middle and high school students:

Imagine yourself — or, perhaps, you and your friends — as hosts of your own podcast. What would you talk about?

Maybe you’d tell a story, perhaps about a childhood memory, an experience that changed your life, or a bad romance. Or maybe you’d rather interview guests about a topic you’re exploring, whether a news-related issue like gun violence or gender roles, or a hobby, passion or concern of your own? Or, maybe you’d just like to have a conversation — about pop culture, sports, food, fashion, technology, politics, or, if you’re stuck, any of these 1,000-plus topics we’ve rounded up to inspire you.

In our Third Annual Podcast Challenge, we invite teenagers to submit original work of five minutes or less. Our favorites will be featured on The Learning Network.

We hope your students will join us.