• Torri Phelan, Janis Cloakey and Steve Webb

Pictured from left: Torri Phelan, Janis Cloakey and Steve Webb. Video: Salmon Creek students describe their experiences podcasting.

In Vancouver Public Schools, digital technology is an essential tool to prepare students for college and the workforce. This focus on technology is part of our strategic plan, developed with strong community input, and is reinforced with two-time voter support for a technology levy that funds devices, infrastructure and training.

Teachers across the district are using this technology to help students learn differently and take active roles in their education. In this episode of the Inside Vancouver Public Schools podcast, you’ll hear from two innovative teachers who are helping their students speak out and learn in new ways about not only technology, but also collaboration and communication.

Hello and welcome to the Inside Vancouver Public Schools podcast. I’m Steve Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.

This episode is a podcast about podcasts. I spoke with two teachers who are using technology creatively to give their students a different way to synthesize information, work on collaboration and communication skills and have fun.

Here’s our conversation.

Steve Webb: We’re joined today by Torri Phelan, a fifth grade teacher at Sacajawea, and Janis Cloakey, another fifth grade teacher here at Salmon Creek Elementary School, and our conversation focus today really is about the utilization of podcasts in an integrated unit focused on ELA [English/language arts] standards and history standards. Talk to me a little bit about how this idea came to be.

Torri Phelan: Well, I love listening to podcasts, and my team and I at Sacajawea have been talking about the production work that we want our students to do and what makes sense both for them going into middle and high school, but then also what kind of production work do they see in the real world? A lot of them listen to podcasts, or some of them have. They read blogs, they read listicles, stuff like that. My team at Sacajawea has been trying to figure out how to get some of that more authentic production work mixed in with the five paragraph essay-type stuff that we’ve traditionally done, so I spoke about podcasting at the Tech Day that we had back in October and chatted with some people there and got excited about having my students create their own podcast. I have three little kids at home and so my time isn’t that extensive, so I tend to just get an idea and jump in with both feet.

Janis Cloakey: So for me, I use kind of my literature circle, kind of a literature circle type of format which I’ve been doing for years. Only in that format, the kids were just writing and then they would meet in groups and they would discuss and it didn’t go any further than that. I wanted to find some way for them to be able to discuss but it to go to another classroom or even their own their own classmates. So a few years ago I used a weblog called Kid Blog, and that was wonderful. And then once we got the iPads, we moved to creating groups on Seesaw, and again I just I wanted them to take that one step further to be able to have other kids in the district be able to listen to their podcast. so that’s kind of where that all kind of developed.

Steve: Nice, nice. I really like the way in which we’re thinking pretty strategically and creatively about not just leveraging the digital asset, the learning resources, in a manner that substitutes that technology for old technology, but more importantly creates an opportunity for kids to either adapt or modify or sort of reinvent their learning, which really is getting at higher-order thinking skills.

Tell me a little bit about the nature of the student podcast, the project itself. I understand we’re leveraging some historical fiction and some of the historical context around the American Revolution. Talk a little bit about that for me.

Janis: I’ll go ahead and talk about that because that’s kind of what my podcast was all about. So, a large focus in our social studies curriculum is learning about the Revolutionary War, so about halfway through the year we do a historical fiction novel study. Kids read fiction about the Revolutionary War, and the characters are all children that are the same ages as our kids, so it’s very engaging. We had three—basically three groups and three different novels. We had three different segments, if you will, and kids had to read a certain amount of chapters and then they had to kind of go back to the worksheet and fill out a worksheet. And so then again substituting the podcasting in place of kind of the lit circle discussions and again, I kind of borrowed Torri’s procedure, and that’s kind of where she came in.

Torri: Well and to add to the historical piece of your podcast, my students did podcasts on books of choice, so they they weren’t necessarily historical fiction books. One of my groups did choose Bud, Not Buddy, which is a historical fiction book. On their own through doing the podcast, they were called to research some of this history piece. You know, Hoovervilles and the Great Depression and some of that, and so just without even my guidance they were diving into some of these things that they knew their audience would not understand without having read the book, and so they then had to fill in the gaps for a fifth-grade audience, an authentic audience.

Steve: Isn’t that cool?

Torri: Yeah.

Steve: That kids would be so curious to extend their own learning is really motivational; that’s pretty powerful.

Janis: They were so engaged without really even realizing that they were engaged.

Torri: I had so many coming in at lunch to finish up and edit.

Janis: I did, too.

Steve: Talk a little bit about some of the assets and resources that your students used in order to create these podcasts.

Torri: Well, we had sort of a learning curve, I mean as we always do. Again like I said I didn’t do months of planning for this because I don’t have months to plan, but we just kind of jumped in and Jim Jeffers and Erica Anderson, our ITF [instructional technology facilitator], and I sat in the library and played with microphones and tried to figure out the configuration in which you could have four or five fifth-graders independently sitting around and capturing the sound, and would it work just to use the iPad microphone or would we need to invest money or find microphones somewhere that we could borrow?

Steve: And what did we learn?

Torri: It got complicated and we learned that for our purposes the iPad microphones were just fine.

Steve: Sweet!

Torri: And so for my class we, you know, we joke that at our school we’ve got green screens up on every wall so we might as well paint them, but it was sort of like that doing the podcast. You had kids hiding in corners and under tables and in libraries trying to find a quiet space to record, and then your kids—

Janis: Well, they they built a little studio. I had some cardboard, some trifold.

Steve: Nice!

Janis: Oh my gosh, it was the cutest thing! They had these elaborate little studios where they could just go by themselves. In fact I did get a picture of it because it was it was so cute the way they just kind of took it upon themselves to sort of make those adjustments as needed, so that was really, really nice.

Torri: I think as far as the programs and stuff that we used, we did play a little bit around with different apps and whatnot, but you know even in the time period from when I was learning in school how to use these sort of devices that we had and now it has changed so much in that they don’t want you to stand there and give them half-an-hour tutorials on how to use iMovie to put together a podcast. You show them three things and then they just do it. And more often than not—and you’re probably in the same position—a student or group didn’t know how to do something and I just sent them to another group because at some point I don’t know those answers anymore. And that’s a cool thing to see too and builds some more of those skills that they’re going to need later in life.

Steve: Just talk a little bit about your transition with this emphasis on future-ready learning experiences, future-ready learning tools, in order to produce future-ready graduates and just the supports that are in place and how you’ve leveraged relationships across schools. And just your own learning curve here in order to kind of create these kind of contexts and conditions for students at Sacajawea and here at Salmon Creek to thrive.

Janis: So I actually podcast a lot along with my kids because I wanted to experience the process. I wanted to experience the productive struggle and just kind of the work from start to finish. I noticed, like my kids, that every segment that we podcast—every episode I should say—we got better and better. We became more comfortable with the process and we wanted to get better, and so it was so exciting to be able to podcast right along with my students.

Steve: Janis, I really appreciate the productive-struggle modeling. I mean, we’re all lifelong learners. And that really demonstrates the kind of risk-taking that we invite our young people to take in our classrooms each and every day.

Janis: We’re taking it too.

Steve: Yeah, right on! Thank you for that.

I think it’s kind of important to take some time to really see and listen to how students experience this. I can feel the passion and joy and excitement from you both, but let’s take a look at this quick video here and see how students reacted to this learning experience.

Cooper: I feel like if you’re doing with somebody else you get to hear more than just one side. So if you do mess up, well, your partner can tell you, “Oh I don’t think this is right; I think this would be better.”

Peyton: “Are we going to do this music or this music, or are we gonna write this first or that first? What makes more sense?” It was a lot of communication and a lot of cooperation.

Anthony: I chose a group that I wouldn’t usually do podcasts with or anything like any group thing set with, and I’ve actually gotten to know them like really well. Another thing about it is it’s actually more interactive than just doing a book report by yourself because you’re doing it with a group and you’re actually having a lot of fun.

Maya: We got to learn something new. We got to try it out and test it and then do it for real.

Steve: From the mouths of babes… Pretty powerful.

Anthony was remarking that he worked with a podcast group that typically he would not work with on another project or assignment and just spoke positively about that experience. When we think about sort of the social and emotional learning outcomes, how does that make either one of you feel?

Torri: For me it’s nice because my students did choose their groups last time, and some of the people that they really enjoy spending time with socially they didn’t end up working very well with and so we did have to do a lot of problem-solving.

Steve: (Jokingly) I’m shocked.

Torri: I know, right?


I’ll be interested to see next time, when we start this again in May, who they will choose to work with. Listening to these students talk makes me think about those learning targets that we tell the kids or put up on the board or have them write in their notebooks. You never write all the targets that you have in your mind or in your plans, and we don’t probably—I don’t—write targets about learning to work with a group and becoming independent and cooperating with each other, but it’s neat that that’s what they pull out from there anyway because that is my intent with a lot of my lessons and I’m sure yours too, so it’s nice when you hear them say stuff like that.

Steve: So what’s next?

Janis: I didn’t want to answer that question. I wanted to put it out to my kids. I posted a question on Canvas today and I asked the kids to respond to it. I asked them, “Where would you like to go with this next? Are there other areas that you’d like to do podcasting in?” I have to tell you I was not prepared for the wonderful responses I got. I had a student that said (it was Peyton), she said in Reading Wonders, when we read our anthology stories, it would be neat to have a group of students podcast it so that other students could listen to it and then read along in their anthology. I thought, oh my gosh, why haven’t I been doing that? Some of the responses—I was totally floored.

Steve: It’s when we invite students to extend learning in ways that are really transformative and invite them to share their ideas, they’ll let us know. We just need to lean in enough and listen. So thank you for doing that. How about you, Torri?

Torri: My students do want to do another round of this this year, but they are also interested in those other subjects as well. I have had them several times this leap year listen to a podcast called Brains On, which is a science podcast for kids, in some of those transition times or when I need to get a little more information about a subject to them but they don’t want to hear my voice anymore. I think I’m excited to do some in different subjects as well and hopefully we can collaborate next year.

Janis: I’m sure we will!

Steve: Well, I want to thank you both for your visionary leadership and cultivating future-ready learning experiences for our students in Vancouver Public Schools and at Sacajawea and here at Salmon Creek, and I want to thank you for joining us in this table conversation today. So stay future-focused, have fun and continue to engage our students in joyful learning experiences.

My thanks to Janis and Torri for sharing their insights. If you’d like to see more from our conversation, head over to YouTube and check out the VanSD TV channel.

And thank you for tuning in. Take care.

“I actually podcast a lot along with my kids because I wanted to experience the process. I wanted to experience the productive struggle and just kind of the work from start to finish.” —Teacher Janis Cloakey

“It’s more for that growth mindset, and that power of positive struggle, and the interaction between the students and the technology and other students when they don’t understand what they’re doing that I think are the skills that I value and why I will continue to do projects like that and projects like this.” —Torri Phelan