A small-group podcasting project seemed to be just the right way to engage students with the inquiry process, to explore a broad and multi-faceted topic, and to present their work to an authentic audience ... all with enough flexibility to let me adjust requirements and expectations as needed. It did not go quite the way I expected, and there are several changes I would make next year, but overall this was a fairly successful endeavor. So it seems to be worth sharing!
In each of my 4 eighth-grade classes, I had small groups (mostly quartets) making a podcast series of several episodes over the course of about 1 month. They used school-provided laptops and did most or all of the work during class time. These episodes chronicled their research on a self-selected inquiry question like "Why does Massachusetts spend so much money on health care?" or "How does the city government interact with the state?" Students reported what they had learned so far, explained problems encountered in their research, and (sometimes) included messages from a fake sponsor. The middle item was the most significant to me: I wanted to let students be transparent about the learning process, because inquiries don't travel in a straight line! (It helped that the saga of the Trump impeachment inquiry was occurring in the background of this project.)
A lot of my preparation time and energy were absorbed by solving practical problems. We have 47-minute daily periods, very heterogeneous classes, decent wifi, and laptop carts but no 1:1 device access. Also, my classroom is fairly large but the floor is tiled: it's basically an echo chamber. You might be able to use GarageBand or Audacity or something similar on dedicated computers ... I needed a cloud-based option. Our school's part-time IT Coordinator helped me identify Anchor.fm as a recording solution. I needed one student in each group to make a free account which would house their whole series. There were some mild glitches and limitations of the application, but it did the trick fairly well.
I tried several microphones, and after weeks of trial and error my favorite is the Samson GoMic, which costs about $30. I could only use USB connecting mics, because the school devices (and most low-end laptops) don't have an input jack. By the end of the project, I had two "recording studios" -- one with a GoMic and the other with a Samson Meteor tripod that I already owned.
Those "studios" were a special challenge. The first episodes sounded absolutely awful! They were recorded in the couple days before vacation as just a short introduction to each group's series -- no research had yet been done, so they could be less than 1 minute. When students said they were ready, I dimmed the lights to signal everyone else should be quiet. That signal did not work at all. Students were too excited and engaged with the project to keep their energy down (oh, did I mention this was December 20th?). Even still, the acoustics of my room made clean recordings impossible: tiled floors + cinderblock walls + cement ceilings = echo chamber!
I researched some podcasting websites and considered all kinds of possibilities (including just giving up on this idea) before I found a $20 solution: a cardboard box with acoustic foam spray-glued inside, and a basic moving blanket (from Home Depot) wrapped & stapled on the exterior. The microphone and laptop fit nicely inside, and the box is wide enough for 2 students to talk into it. A handy byproduct is that the box limits the number of students speaking at any one time. The initial episodes were problematic when 3 or 4 kids tried recording themselves together, and frequently getting a case of the giggles. That simplified the recording process, and when I made box #2 it got even better.
You could grade these projects any way you like. I'm in my first year of full-scale Standards-Based Grading, so my systems probably won't work for others (and that deserves at least one blog post of its own). It definitely helped to set expectations for the number of episodes and total minutes, so they had concrete targets.
Whatever your logistics, I highly recommend that you prompt students to reflect independently on their experience. These are the two questions/options I provided for my students, and I got a bunch of really thoughtful answers which indicated they had truly gained insights and/or skills from this project.
In my judgment, these were the best 4 podcast series overall:
JAMS and Jellies -- These 4 girls had too much fun together (and probably went overboard with musical transitions), but they also made many meaningful comparisons between local & state spending priorities.
The Search4Civics -- They made some entertaining fake sponsor ads, and investigated quite a bit about state budgetary spending.
Let's Taco 'Bout Civics -- This podcast is filled with taco-related wordplay, but they actually gathered lots of valuable information about municipal / state overlap of powers and duties.
Civics102 -- These 3 students took their original question in an unexpected direction: targeting racial discrimination in law enforcement! They even got a substantive interview with a US Marshal who lives in their hometown.
I hope this blog post helps to inspire, encourage, and support other educators who may try something similar!