My Entry into Teaching About Religion
From 2013 to 2018, I was a 10th-12th grade English teacher in Columbia, Missouri. My 12th grade course was a language arts-social studies elective known in the district curriculum catalog as “Classical Ideas & World Religions.” The course was designed and implemented in the district in the late 1980’s by a teacher named George Frissell; George became my mentor when my school came to offer the class. George’s vision was that students would read primary source material from different religious traditions, study how current events related to religions occur all around us all over the world each day, and then have students engage in meaningful dialogue with local guest speakers who are scholars or practitioners of various religions. The course is a massive source of pride within the district and it’s common to see current and former students all over town wearing the course t-shirts.
The origin of my podcasting
Each year, around 20 guest speakers visited my room to engage with my students in arguably the best conversations I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Guest speakers never prepared notes or lectures for students, much to their delight. Instead, I would have a live Google Document that every student could access in class each day. When a student would ask a question suitable to asking a specific person, instead of answering it, I would say “Put it in the doc.” Throughout 4-5 class periods leading up to a guest speaker, we compiled more than 50 questions, which I then sorted, categorized, and printed out for each student. The guests, who prepared nothing, were essentially bombarded with real and authentic questions by 17 and 18 year olds for 75 minutes. These are conversations I thought to myself regularly, “I wish this was recorded.” Students also regularly expressed that they wished the conversations were recorded. The idea that podcasting could become a form of curriculum occurred to me during these conversations.
As a public school teacher, privacy guidelines are strict. Unless I got permission waivers for every guardian, I could not publish any recordings of students talking to guest speakers. And i wasn’t interested in recording just to have it get lost in an archaic external hard drive. I wanted recordings to mean something. In what was a flippant suggestion given without any thought, one of my students said, “You should record a conversation with our guest speakers so my parents can listen to it.” In that off-the-cuff remark, multiple ideas struck me: First, I could record podcast interviews with my guest speakers to share with students who were absent OR their parents could listen to it to gain a peace-of-mind that my course wasn’t seeking to indoctrinate or alter religious worldviews; Second, families could discuss the conversations for extra credit; Third, I could build a local religious community repository of resources for our entire town; Lastly, I could learn how to make a podcast to share with other teachers for use in world religions high school curriculum.
In the summer of 2017, I launched the Classical Ideas Podcast with a series of around 20 interviews with local religious community members in and around Columbia, Missouri. The focus was on the local and featured a wide variety of the people who came to meet my students. It served as a classroom resource for me and for the other high school across town that was also teaching the course. Parents emailed me telling me about how much they and their student enjoyed discussing the in-class experience and the podcast episode with that person. I became hyper-focused on creating enjoyable podcast interviews. About 20 episodes in, I began contacting publicists to interview the authors and scholars whose work I was featuring in the course reading list. The podcast blossomed into a book, article, and pedagogy-focused show which has come to feature 250 episodes, over 500,000 downloads, features New York Times bestselling authors, Pulitzer Prize-winners, and continues as of the writing of this essay.
Being a part of the religious studies academic community through the non-traditional role of “high school teaching podcaster” has helped me build relationships while focusing on my sole intent of remaining curious about what new work was being released, continuing my own professional development, and being a part of an academic community I admire through the service of doing a kind of audio literature review. The awareness that extremely smart people with lifetimes of impressive work behind them are willing to tell me about their lives on a recording that will be preserved for years to come matters to me. Podcasting is oral history and hearing the stories of how scholars and authors have forged their path to caring about their work is important to me, and I think modeling what you care about to students will be useful.
Podcast series for students
Since 2018, I have taught for Mizzou Academy, the fully online high school housed within the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development. I have begun to incorporate podcasting as assessment in my curriculum at Mizzou Academy for many reasons. The benefits of podcasting as a curriculum are immense. Podcasting is a public scholarship since podcasts can be cited. Conversations with scholars and teachers about their professional lives is oral history. Podcasting builds relationships. If a person has an extremely niche interest and an affinity for podcasting, stories that no one else might capture get captured. Podcasting also builds skills through using recording equipment, editing and production software, developing inquiry-based questions, and verbal communication practice.
Throughout my world religions semester course at Mizzou Academy, students listen to numerous clips of me interviewing experts, scholars, and authors on topics related to the curriculum from the Classical Ideas Podcast. There are reflection activities where students respond to the interview clips they hear, where I model interviewing techniques and tone in each lesson. To build off of my modeling, the students in my online world religions class at Mizzou Academy create a four-episode podcast series throughout their semester.
Episode One Prompt
The interview modeling in lesson one, which features 15 interview clips about religious literacy, leads directly into the first assessment where students make their first episode. The first episode is their introduction to their series where they define what they see as the purpose of “religious literacy,” the course’s guiding principle, and they also contextualize their own life within religion and state what their goals and questions are regarding the scope of the course. The finished product averages around 4-5 minutes in length.
Episodes Two and Three Prompt
The second and third episodes have an identical task, but are around separate religions. Episodes two and three are titled “This Week in Religion.” Students report on an event that happened the week of their episode’s recording that is related to one of the religions they study. They cite two sources, summarize the event, briefly connect the event to the history of the religion under examination, state their personal observations about their impressions of the event, and then list follow-up questions that they want to know more about if they could talk to those impacted by the event or talk to an expert or historian with expertise related to the event. These two episodes are usually 5-7 minutes in length.
Episode Four Prompt
The fourth episode is the culminating centerpiece of the podcast series: an interview with a practitioner of a religion of the student’s choosing. Students choose guests, send invitations, prepare questions, and record interviews, usually via Zoom or in person for a Storycorps-like conversation about the guest’s life within a religious tradition. Students must prepare questions in advance for their guest, schedule a time, record the interview, write an introduction and two takeaway lessons for the post-interview section of the episodes, and edit the contents. When completed, this episode is usually between 10-20 minutes and is a portion of the final project for the course.
Curriculum Design: Always Current
Writing curriculum for an online audience is challenging because information will sometimes become irrelevant and dated. The prompts for this podcast series were written in 2020 and I wrote them with the goal that they be self-renewing with current relevance. If a podcast prompt asks students to define religious literacy in their view, then to report on two current events, and then asks them to interview a local religious leader, these prompts renew in relevance and timeliness. These are topics about which students can just as easily create a podcast in the year 2032 as 2022. Designing the assessments to be current is an excellent strategy for efficient curriculum planning because more time can be spent on assessing the work of students than having to constantly revise the prompts.
Teaching students with no knowledge of how to podcast requires some planning. If students wish for their podcast to be available in the world, they can use a free service called Anchor, an all-in-one podcasting host site that allows students to record, edit, and upload podcasts directly to the web. The instructions on the website lead students through the basics of how to record and edit a podcast.
For students who do not wish for their podcast to be public, but wish to learn editing skills for audio, the free softwares of Garageband (Mac) and Audacity (PC) are readily available and come pre-loaded on nearly all computers. It is likely students have these softwares on their computers and don’t even realize it! For these two softwares, I created a “how-to” instruction handout with screenshots of how to create a new project, how to create tracks, how to fade music in and out to transition between sections, and keystroke commands for how to remove sections of audio. A basic handout is easy to create and for each of the students who have submitted podcasts for my course, only a tiny handful have ever run into technical difficulties requiring my deeper assistance. I am now convinced that anyone can learn to podcast!
When my podcasting journey began in 2017, I remember saying I would do “about ten or so” episodes. My colleagues found it amusing, the media specialists in my high school thought it was interesting, and I never expected I would come to find the hobby so fulfilling. As someone who pursued a doctoral degree, but never finished, podcasting and interviewing professors, scholars, and authors about their work feels like I’m honoring some of the intellectual pursuits I initially set out to achieve with my sights set on the professoriate. However, when something doesn’t work in life, it doesn’t mean another door won’t open. Pursuing a career in academia looks many ways, depending on the person and podcasting has kept my foot in the door of the world of higher education. I get to talk to professors from various stages of the tenure track and non-tenure track, graduate students and PhD candidates, other teachers, journalists, and people who ignite curiosity within me. Interviewing people for over 250 episodes on the Classical Ideas Podcast started with talking to my friends and has led to interviews with Pulitzer Prize winners, a celebrity chef with his own Netflix series, and New York Times bestselling authors. Modeling to my students that “you never know where this will lead” is one of the best pedagogical reasons I can offer to why you should have your students make podcasts. Not only will it allow you to hear their voices in their work in a way writing doesn’t allow, but they can pursue topics that really engage them. After all, aren’t we teachers for the students?
Listen to the show: https://linktr.ee/classicalideas
A report from the Aspen Institute which lists me: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Understanding-Religious-Literacy-FINAL.pdf
About the Author:
Greg Soden is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Mizzou Academy in Columbia, Missouri. He is the creator and host of The Classical Ideas Podcast and On Religion with Greg Soden (New Books Network) featuring over 250 interviews with scholars, authors, journalists, and educators about the world’s religious traditions. Greg splits his time between New York and Missouri.