‘Ear Hustle’ in the Classroom

If you’ve ever listened to Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle to procrastinate on your work, then Maegan Woodlee and Benjamin Bush’s students will have you green with envy.

Woodlee, Bush and one other teacher are incorporating the show into the curricula for their 11th-grade English classes at Marion C. Moore School in Louisville, Kentucky.

Students listening and viewing photos of the men inside.
“The reason Maegan and I decided to teach Ear Hustle has a lot to do with battling apathy,” Bush said. “Maegan and I knew that the stories that [co-host] Earlonne was telling had the potential to hook our students. We both quickly became excited about the potential of this podcast to make our students curious about the world in ways that they never have been before.”

Bush said that one of the biggest challenges of teaching at a Title 1 school — a federal designation for schools with high percentages of children from low-income families — is keeping his students from becoming apathetic, and that teaching podcasts helps him keep kids engaged.

“The first podcast I ever taught in my classroom was Serial. It was a revelation for me,” Bush said. “Every time I teach Serial, students do their own research instantly, they hang on Sarah’s every word, they are excited to examine phone logs and track cell tower records in excruciating detail. All because they are enthralled by Adnan’s story.”

Students discussing unwritten rules of race inside and outside of prison during “Unwritten”.

Though Bush usually teaches high school seniors, when he found out he’d be teaching an 11th-grade English class, he knew Ear Hustle would engage students the way Serial had.

The class listens to episodes together, pausing to answer discussion questions as they go, with additional writing prompts at the beginning and end of each episode.

For Ear Hustle’s episode three, “Looking Out,” Woodlee and Bush started their lesson with a writing prompt about students’ experiences with pets — whether they’d had pets, and whether they think pets improve people’s quality of life.

Throughout the episode, Woodlee and Bush paused to ask questions that ensured active listening and comprehension, about basic facts from the show and students’ personal responses to certain segments, like their own answers to Yard Talk questions.

The final prompt, after “Looking Out” ended, was for students to write a full paragraph answering a creative writing question: “Imagine that you are an animal who is surviving in a prison. (You can live outside in the yard or inside.) Tell me what animal you are, then tell what the animal sees in its travels. Where does it live? How does it survive?”
Students measuring size of a cell during “Cellies”.

The goal of asking these questions is to get the students to engage actively with the material. And because it’s worked, as Bush says, to “bridge the apathy gap” for his students, he doesn’t think his use of podcasts in the classroom will end with Ear Hustle.

“If there are more podcasts out there like Serial and Ear Hustle, then we are excited to pursue them,” Bush said. “In general, I think that good teachers are constantly looking for content that will enthrall their students. Good podcasts absolutely have this potential.”

To keep up with the students, follow Maegan Woodlee on Twitter @mrs_woodlee or the school’s hashtag #knowMOORE.