Podcast junkies, kidney transplants, and two innovative educators

Mar 02, 2016 by Mark Greenlaw

I’m a huge fan of podcasts – in fact my official FIRST bio mentions me as a “podcast junkie”. It’s actually to FIRST in which I owe my love of Podcasts. When I started this job 2 years ago, I began listening to Podcasts to maximize the value of my drive time on my 60 mile commute. My playlist includes podcasts on education (EdSurge, TeachThought, Every Classroom Matters) and marketing (On Brand, Marketing over Coffee, This Old Marketing, The Growth Show). But the first podcast I started listening to, the one that got me hooked, is the Freakonomics Radio podcast, recommended to me by my son.

The Freakonomics series started with the book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner titled “Freakonomics, A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything”. It’s a wonderful book which I highly recommend. The authors have since written four books and launched a podcast hosted by Stephen Dubner. The podcast uses economics and behavioral economics to study all kinds interesting of questions and topics. Many of their topics touch on the world of education, such as the episode I listened to on this morning’s drive which inspired me to write about the role of podcasts in education and lifelong learning.

The episode “Ask Not What Your Podcast Can Do for You” captured stories about people whose lives were influenced by Freakonomics. The first story was about a man who was inspired to donate a kidney after listening to an episode called “Make Me a Match” in which Nobel prize winner Alvin Roth described how he and others had created a series of algorithms that helped match people in need of a kidney transplant with potential donors. Dubner interviewed the donor, Ned, and then brought in the recipient of the kidney, Danielle, and they spoke together on air for the very first time. The story moved me to tears.

The second major segment was a story about two innovative educators who were inspired to do something different in their school after listening to the episode “How Is a Bad Radio Station Like Our Public-School System?”. The piece is about a pilot program in New York that allowed a school to customize the learning program for every student in the classroom. Dubner interviews two educators at Springdale High School in Springdale, Arkansas: Lynn Waldren is the social studies department chair and Scotty Person is a teacher in Lynn’s department.  Lynn and Scotty were inspired by the podcast to try to do something new in their class room to engage kids on a different level.

They conceived of a class designed completely around podcasts, which they called Pod Class Omni. It took them eight months to gain approval from the Arkansas Department of Education and their school district. According to Lynn:

“The state asked for roughly six revisions to get it to where they wanted it. And once we got that, then we had to figure out how to get it into the classroom. And we knew that we could — once we got it in — that there are so many interesting podcasts, that we could find the ones that would hook them, that would get them interested and get them thinking about stuff. As one of my students just the other day said, she said, “This class makes you think about things you normally wouldn’t think of, or things that you’ve never even heard of before.” And that’s really what our goal was, I think, initially, was just to expose them to things that they would not have normally come across.”

In addition to Freakonomics, the teachers have students listen to podcasts such as Radiolab, Planet Money, Memory Palace, 99% Invisible, and History of the World in 100 Objects.  Lynn goes on to say:

“And the students really enjoy the idea that this is the only class at Springdale High School and probably the only class in the state of Arkansas that you have to have earbuds. You get in trouble if you don’t bring your earbuds that day. And the students really get a kick out of that….And it’s really, really been great for us and if I could teach this all day, I would probably teach another 10 years. 

“One of the really high points in this class for me was, I guess, the third group that came through, which was the fall of 2014. I had a young lady, a senior girl, that came in one day. We had listened to a podcast. She’d gone home that night and told her family about it. And she told me the next day, that, “for the first time in my life I felt so smart.” And it gave me chills, and it still does today.  And she said that, that when she got home each day, the first thing that her family would want know was “what did you do in Pod class today.”  And what we are really hoping to do with this, what we tell the kids is take this out into the world, take it out there.”

Just like the story of the kidney donor, I found this story tremendously inspiring. Two educators, in the heartland of the country, innovating in their classrooms, inspiring students to love learning and become lifelong learners.  And that’s why I’m a podcast junkie.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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