9:41 am
Tue May 7, 2002

This American Life in the Classroom

Bringing radio into the classroom...

Below you'll find brief descriptions, sent in by teachers all over the country, of how they're using This American Life with their students.

You also can visit the brand-new TAL/educators bulletin board at Salon.com -- and check out the comic book, Radio: An Illustrated Guide, which shows readers, step-by-step, how to craft a radio story in the style of This American Life. The comics are available at a discount for classroom use.

TAL in Creative Writing and Composition classes:

I used the Port Chicago story from the "Jobs That Take Over Your Life" episode in my ninth grade English class as a starting off point and inspiration for a persuasive essay. I used it for the first time a little over a year ago shortly after I started teaching "for reals" (as opposed to student teaching). While I was using it, my principal came in to observe me and decide whether or not he wanted to keep me on board. I later heard through the grape vine that he was impressed. The biggest thrill, however, came from one of my students who asked "How come I've never heard of this before?" I love being an English teacher that gets to teach history. I also created a curriculum unit plan about violence that used your "Guns" episode. The segments I used were "Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun;" and "Patato, Poh-tah-to."
~Daniel Dadmun, Stephan W. Kearny High School

I am a community college English composition teacher who uses your materials in class. My class reads about, discusses and then writes (mostly badly) about contemporary issues and I've used "Take a Negro Home Tonight" in discussions about race and some of the gang-related interviews/stories in our cultural outlaw section and I plan to use (but haven't yet) some of the gender-related episodes as well.
~Andrea Cornachio

I'm using some TAL stories in my creative writing class at the University of New Mexico. We've been talking about the way stories change when you're listening to them, as opposed to reading them on the page, but I'm also using them to illustrate other elements of the craft of storytelling. My students also get some extra credit if they listen to the show and think about how the show uses storytelling devices in segments that aren't fiction.
~Miriam Schacht

My students in my comp classes are using TAL as a kind of "radio textbook/reader" (they love the shows very much) and our computer lab is set up with earphones and streaming capacity.
~Dr. Fergal O'Doherty, Palomar College, Southern California


When teaching nonfiction,we use Sarah Vowell's piece about her dad and the guns to introduce narrative. When the sophomores hear her voice, they are eager to express their own stories. I have had the best results from the narrative writing assignment when using Sarah's voice.
~Phyllis Copt, Lawrence Free State High School, Lawrence, KS


I am about to start trying to use TAL in my classroom as part of a nonfiction series. I also plan to use it to encourage students to write/tell their own personal narratives. I teach 9th - 12th grade English, and absolutely love the show. I want to incorporate the art of telling a story and reintroduce radio as an art form outside the very familiar music mode. It's also a great point of departure to talk about what the "American experience" is.

TAL in Documentary/Media Studies classes:

I teach media studies at a large high school in Durham, NC. Your show was brought to my attention by a student of mine a year ago who wanted to do an independent study for me. His idea was to document his thoughts on his senior year of high school while exploring his mixed feelings about moving away from his "dreadful" hometown. He approached the project as if he was writing it specifically for your program. We spent many afternoons in my office listening to tapes of your broadcast and being amused and moved by stories that documented experiences as wide-ranging as a little girl's first day of school to a man's former occupation as a "Squirrel Cop." The exercise ultimately yielded several drafts of a script that encouraged my student to explore his feelings while examining critically and analytically his own personal style of written and spoken expression. He learned alot about himself in the process. I will be incorporating this "audio documentary" approach into all my classes this year. The quality of the final products will be varied but the process will certainly prove to be invaluable. It's always about the process anyway.
~Jeff Arndt, Media Studies, C. E. Jordan High School, Durham, NC

TAL in Drama classes:

I played "Fiasco!" for my drama students. We spent the day discussing what made a successful performance. I was trying to get at the idea that art is that fine line that's achieved when everything is just right. It's also a good lesson in not going too far over the top, which can be a problem with kids raised on Jerry Springer.
~Ammy Hill

TAL in English as a Second Language classes:

One activity I have done with my upper-level eighth grade English as a Second Language students is with the "What Are You Looking At?" episode, specifically with Lucia's story: It's on my web page under "Breaking Down Racial Barriers."
~Adriane Moser, Concord Middle School, Concord, North Carolina

I teach an Advanced English as a Second Language class for Durham Technical Community College in both Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My students need to practice their listening skills, so I occasionally give listening tests based on excerpts from your show. The main one I can think of is the episode called "Welcome to America." It starts out with a group of people taking the oath of citizenship. (A lot of students were surprised about some of the things in the oath of citizenship, especially the idea of being loyal first and foremost to the United States). Later (in another class) I used a section of the tape where the Austrian teachers were being interviewed to come teach in NYC -- because we were discussing job interviews. Last Christmas we did some true/false listening stuff based on "SantaLand Diaries." Basically, the listening exercises in ESL textbooks are typically quite dull and I try to use stuff from TAL because it's more interesting.
~Karin Abell, Durham Tech ESL

TAL in Literature/Language Arts classes:

I am a Language Arts teacher in Weymouth, MA who has used TAL excepts in class -- one notable lesson included the schitzophrenia test cut from the TAL CD. In Modern American Authors we talked about social maladjustment with Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and I augmented it with chapters from Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, and the TAL monologue. I have used other excerpts to teach narrative and point of view. I also have a link to the TAL site on my Period 3+6 website for the kids to check out.
~John Pappas, Dorchester, MA

I am a high school English teacher. During an impromptu conversation with one of my classes, I assigned one of your shows as homework. We were reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and there are several stylistic similarities between how you tell your stories and how Faulkner tells his. I was thrilled when the episode assigned turned out to be about politics and the power of words because I thought it dovetailed with the themes of our reading in an incredibly salient way. In politics, as in the novel, everyone has a separate agenda and expresses it in a variety of ways. I ended up having one of the best classes of the year when we discussed this assignment, and some of the papers I got comparing and contrasting the thematic similarities between the book and the show were incredibly creative.
~Meghan Keane, English teacher/ Girls' XC coach, Belchertown High School

I just did a quick unit on autobiography with my high school freshman. All the examples in the text book were depressing so I was searching for an autobiographical story that had a lighter tone. Then I remembered "Squirrel Cop." It was a piece you did on the show about first days. I figured that if it wasn't too long (these are freshman, remember) that it would be perfect for them. The piece is 14 minutes, which was just about as long as they could sit in one place quietly. I developed a worksheet to go along with the piece that called attention to the structure of the story. I think it worked pretty well. They were antsy at first, but as soon as the cop sees the homeowner's wife they started really paying attention. Then when the flashlight is dropped they got hooked.
~Nick Mullins

I've used the entire "What Are You Looking At?" with my AP Literature seniors. The context was Greek mythology, as the piece riffs from Cupid and Psyche. I thought the show was wonderful anyway, especially the ironies inherent in a radio show that was broadcast "live, onstage," and so fit it into my course for the kids to experience. Some few had been regular listeners anyway. A few more are now.
~Diana Kraus, English Teacher, Topsham, Maine

TAL in Psychology classes:

I teach a variety of psychology classes that include sections on persuasion. I use tapes of the NPR fund drives and the TAL fund drive segments in particular to illustrate different influence techniques. The two TAL segments I play for my classes employ norm-based persuasion. I use them to illustrate injunctive and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms tell us what we ought to do, whereas descriptive norms tell us what people actually do in a particular situation. For example, if you walk down a street and see a bunch of trash, the injunctive norm tells you that "people shouldn't litter," but the descriptive norm tells you that "people do litter here." The first segment I use is the one in which Ira talks to Sidney Townsend (the Starbucks guy) about why he hasn't pledged and gets him to promise to pledge. The guilt Sidney feels is based on the injunctive norm that public radio listeners should pledge, or more generally, that when people get something of value (public radio) they should reciprocate with something of value ($$$) in return. This segment is pretty effective, psychologically, given the "punishment" (embarrassment and social censure) that Sidney receives for violating the norm. The second segment I use is the one in which Ira talks to the hot dog company about getting 10 cases for the price of 1. This segment is funny, and it indirectly attempts to send the same message as the previous segment (that listeners should feel an obligation to pledge -- that too many listeners are taking a free ride). Unfortunately, the strongest message that it sends is a descriptive norm: that 9 out of 10 listeners don't pledge! This tells listeners that the vast majority of other listeners don't pledge, and when people are faced with an ambiguous situation ("should I pledge, or should I not pledge?") they often look to the actions of similar others to determine the right thing to do. As a result, this segment may actually backfire by inhibiting rather than promoting pledging. The ubiquitous ringing telephone that plays throughout the fund drives is an example of an effective use of descriptive norms.
~Brad Sagarin, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL

TAL in Rhetoric classes:

I teach a "writing intensive" elective rhetoric course at the University of Texas at Austin. Each of these "E 309K"s has a special topic or flavor, and the course I've designed focuses on documentaries in various mediums (book, radio, film). We listen to a few TAL segments in class, both to analyze from a rhetorical stance and to seek inspiration when writing our own documentaries.
~Laura Wilder, Assistant Instructor, Division of Rhetoric and Composition, University of Texas at Austin

TAL in Sociology/American Culture classes:

Most recently I've been recommending Sarah Vowell's piece "Goth" as one of the best introductions to Erving Goffman's concept of dramaturgy.


I've used your show a number of times in the classroom here at UM. In the past, I've been quite successful with the "Take a Negro Home Tonight" show (in conjunction with Ron Suskind's A Hope In the Unseen to highlight the intersection of race and class) "Be Careful Who You Pretend to Be" (to show the psychological power of racism), "Sentencing" (to show the absurdity that can occur when politics is mixed w/ policy-making, esp. in light of the Vietnam war. Everyone knew that the war (in Vietnam and on drugs) was a lost cause but changing the policy would be surrendering, which was/is inconceivable). I've found that stopping the tape at various points (especially with the Suskind/Jennings interview), launching into a brief discussion with the students (perhaps asking them to predict what Jennings will say and why) and then rolling the tape again has helped to maintain their attention by creating suspense.
~Paul Ching, Program in American Culture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI


I've used TAL in multiple sociology classes I have taught at 3 (yes, three) different colleges/universities in the environs of Minneapolis-Saint Paul. I have often used it to introduce topics for discussion. In particular, I have found that "Monogamy" serves as a good basis for discussing marriage/family issues in Intro to Sociology. For this particular class, I typically will break between the various acts and get people's reactions/thoughts. What I find most interesting is that students who would normally not criticize certain behaviors are more likely to criticize Sylvere and Chris or the people interviewed by Dan Savage. (Frequently raised comment: If you aren't going to be monogomous, then why would you get married?) I use this discussion to highlight how norms of marriage and the family are socially constructed and internalized. I know my partner (who teaches high school civics in the Minneapolis Public Schools) has used Dan Savage's "My Life as a Self-Hating Republican" to teach about political participation to her ninth grade civics classes. I have also used the piece for Social Psychology labs as a case study to apply theories of persuasion.
~Erik Larson

To contribute descriptions of what you're doing with This American Life in the classroom, or maybe even samples of student work, just email WCBE and This American Life with TAL EDUCATIONAL USE in the subject heading.