The Two Week Audio Essay Unit

The unit began with students going to the This I Believe Website on their own outside of class and reading Edward R. Murrow's introduction to the series. I wanted students to understand audio essays as having a rich history, and I did not want students to connect audio essays specifically to podcasts and 21st century technology. Students then listened to any five of the more than 18,000 audio essays on the This I Believe Website. Keeping in mind that many of my students had never downloaded an audio file from the Internet before, I gave specific instructions for how to download and listen to the audio essays. Finally, students posted at least one response to at least one of the audio essays they had listened to to their blogs before class. The first linked assignment sheet shows the assignment sheet I gave students for their preparation activity. It ends with a note about an audio essay I recorded in Fall 2006. (Whenever I create a new assignment, I complete it myself a la Jim Corder (1975) to gauge how much time the assignment will take to complete and to get a sense of the issues and concerns that may arise for students as they work on it.) Unfortunately, that Fall 2006 audio essay of mine met its demise in the Great Blog Relocation Debacle of 2009 and I have not yet recorded a new one.

1. Preparation Activity Assignment Sheet

During the next class meeting, I wanted students to engage with how the expectations of listeners can be different from the expectations of readers; as Dangler, McCorkle, and Barrow (2007) explain,

Assignments that require students to produce their own class podcasts not only actively engages [sic] them in synthesizing course content and exposes them to a new mode of composing but also provides a critical opportunity for them to reflect upon the needs and expectations of their audience and how to reach that audience via the rhetorical elements specific to the medium.

I had students work in groups of three to five. I had arranged to RRCC’s laptop cart in class that day and each group had one laptop. I assigned each group one of the audio essays on the This I Believe website that none of the group members had blogged about (I selected three audio essays and assigned two groups to each audio essay). Groups were to listen together to their assigned essay and then discuss qualities of the essay not specific to its audio form, such as structure and organization, and then discuss qualities of the essay specific to its audio form, such as voice quality and pacing. The linked discussion guide below shows the handout I created to guide each group’s discussion. The class then listened to the audio essays the groups had worked with. The group that had worked with each essay led a discussion of  that essay. As students talked, I captured on the white board themes, ideas, and concepts that came up in the discussion, such as “funny anecdote at beginning captures attention,” “voice makes emphasis crystal clear,” “author makes fun of himself to connect to listener,” and “voices sound real (imperfect).” When discussion ended, I directed students’ attention to the board and the class discussed similarities and differences between written essays and audio essays.

2. Audio Essay Group Discussion Guide

During the last fifteen minutes of class, I gave students the assignment for their audio essays. I don’t give students length requirements for their written essays, but since I had framed the entire audio essay assignment within the context of the This I Believe series, I felt it made sense to keep the length requirement recommended by the essay series. The assignment asks students to write a draft, workshop it in class, revise the draft and workshop more as needed outside of class, practice reading it aloud and write cues, record the essay and edit the recording as needed, and then write a reflection. The link below shows the assignment I gave students. I wanted the assignment to have students not simply compose and record audio essays, but to think consciously about how they might use their voices to convey meaning; for this reason, I devoted an entire class period to having students practice reading their scripts aloud to small groups of their peers and write verbal cues into their scripts. 

3. Audio Essay Assignment Sheet

Step 8 asks students to complete the Audio Essay Analysis Worksheet, which islinked below. The questions are very similar to the discussion questions students used when they initially discussed the This I Believe audio essays in class.

4. Audio Essay Analysis Worksheet

During the Spring 2007 semester, in addition to having students compose and edit audio essays, I asked them to either re-envision a written essay as an audio essay or their audio essay as a written essay. This assignment is similar to what Donald Jones (2007, p. 216) calls a “conversion,” in which students take a written assignment and re-envision it as a digital text. Creating “conversions” allows Jones’ students to develop the ability to think critically about digital texts in addition to print texts. Similarly, my students developed a capability to think about genre and/or mode choices and options and their implications for composing. Adding this component to the assignment does not require any additional technology.
As I do with all my assignments, I worked with the students to create a grading rubric for the audio essays using a variation of dynamic criteria mapping as described in Bob Broad’s What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing (2003).

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