Monday, September 23, 2013

Listen Up

It sits calmly in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet.  Not sure how long it's been since the electricity has brought the small black box to life.  It's outdated.  Another example of how the new technology has replaced what once was state of the art.  It's a small portable tape recorder.
For the better part of three decades, this was my teaching tool of choice.  Funny how in a culture that is so visually oriented, there is much merit in hearing only sound.

I wonder now if this is something to be concerned about or another inconsequential thing to simply let go.  Seems like something that impacted my students lives in so many ways deserves better treatment.  Oh, I know that You Tube and Pandora and many other web sites have everything you need, but I can recall a few techniques/strategies that just can't be duplicated.
When students are asked to simply listen to a voice or a piece of music, it helps them focus.  It requires attention, it demands no outside distraction.  It's not multi dimensional.  And...it's something that a group of people can do all at the same time.
That tape recorder played works of literature often read by their authors.  It brought "Death of a Salesman," the original stage play, to thousands of young readers.
A Depression era farmer explained his plight to every class that read Steinbeck.  When he recounted how corn was down to -3 cents he started weeping recalling how "it was cheaper to burn it as firewood."  Sometimes I detected a tear or two in a listener's eye too.
That little Sony recorder showed thousands how to interview.  With a powerful tiny lapel mic activated, it could pick up everything in that classroom.  Therefore, silence prevailed, less one's personal habits or conversations be preserved for all to enjoy.
One way I learned to engage students with media, is to let them make programs themselves.  When an International Relations class requested to learn about the Vietnam War, that tape recorder was front and center.  "Our fathers and uncles fought in this war, yet we know very little about it," one student  said.  It was in the mid 80's and video tape hadn't become available for all quite yet.  We produced a radio show with script, sound, and first hand interviews.  That recorder did it all.
Then there were the talk shows.  Back before our current tabloid culture took firm hold of the media, there were programs that attempted to discuss big ideas rather than spending hours on who is the baby daddy.  Phil Donahue comes to mind.  He did shows on Tourette's syndrome and nuclear power.  His guests often presented opposing viewpoints.  What a great model for students to have a reasoned dialogue.  Attach a larger microphone with a wind screen to the tape recorder and you are in business.  Students would research a topic like Is intelligence inherited? and take the roles of panelists/ audience questioners/ witnesses, participants...et.al.  I'd usually play Donahue.  With a large extension chord I could roam the classroom and record the program.  Then as we listened to ourselves, and fully enjoyed that, we were reviewing all the concepts, arguments, and data relevant to the topic at hand.
These things are not done any more.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  But radio survives, for some.  That tape recorder seldom let me down.

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