(There is one affiliate link in this post.)
In the past five years, podcasts have popped up all over the place. I’m personally addicted (in a good way) and I listen to history podcasts throughout my day. I’ve even written two posts about history podcasts for teachers. Making them a part of my middle school lessons is a natural fit.
There is just one problem…
Most podcasts are not written for middle school brains. Not even close. They’re often long, they jump from topic to topic, they use complex vocabulary, they use salty language… they just aren’t written (or spoken) with middle schoolers in mind.
Maybe someday, an enterprising teacher will decide to fill that niche. (Seriously, we need more!) In the meantime, I’ve curated a list of podcasts that will work in middle school History and Civics classrooms. I’m pleased to report that I found some gems! I’ve also generated a list of ideas for implementing them in your classroom and some guidelines to follow.
Podcasts are Awesome
Before I start extolling all the ways to use podcasts in your classroom, maybe I should first discuss why they can be so beneficial.
➭ Middle schoolers really require variety in the way that they access and comprehend information. Listening to a podcast just adds one more option into the teacher’s toolkit.
➭ For some random reason, students will often listen to a disembodied voice coming from a speaker better than they will listen to the voice of the teacher standing in the actual classroom. It’s a bummer, but yeah, it’s definitely true. (Bonus, it saves your voice and your own energy!)
➭You’ve probably noticed recently that your students struggle with really listening to anyone. Maybe it’s a product of remote learning? At any rate, podcast listening flexes that muscle.
➭ If a student misses class, they can listen to the podcast to see what they missed.
Although I fully advocate adding a podcast (or ten!) to your school year, there are some guidelines you should follow before you try your first.
Formative assessments are essential during podcast play and after the podcast is finished.
I’d love to just sit back and play a podcast for the full 40 minutes of my class, but I also recognize that my students wouldn’t be able to hold their focus for that amount of time. I listened to a ton of podcasts to write this blog post, and I even found myself zoning out. Just like anything with middle schoolers, teachers need to check for understanding throughout a lesson. A lecture can’t be one-sided and a podcast listening session can’t be either.
There are many creative ways that teachers can check for understanding. I generated a little list below to help you out!
During Podcast Play:
➭ Have students answer a question with a sentence or two. This could also be done on paper or through a program like Pear Deck.
➭ I’ve found that it’s really helpful to share the list of questions with the full class through Google Classroom and make it so that all students could edit the same page. I would then assign each student a question or two and it would be their responsibility to add in the answer.
➭ Provide students with a list of pre-filled digital tiles (like hexagonal tiles). Have them manipulate the tiles as they listen to the podcast.
➭ I’ve noticed that some teachers also use EdPuzzle for formative assessment. Although this is definitely an option, I would only use this if I couldn’t see my students in person. Listening to a podcast is an experience and it certainly wouldn’t be the same experience if each child were listening on a computer separately.
After the Podcast is finished:
➭ Don’t overthink it! Sometimes, it’s easiest just to present students with ONE critical question and discuss their answers.
➭ Create a mind map of the episode. Middle schoolers will often need some prompting with this, but it can encourage their brains to re-organize the information and better comprehend it!
➭ Give a critical thinking question, and have students use evidence from the podcast to respond.
➭ If they connected hexagons during the podcast… have them explain a few of the connections they made.
Can I edit a podcast?
Teachers should consider editing a podcast to meet the needs of their class. They might adjust the length, or delete out the ads, or any inappropriate dialogue. I’ve found that the best way to edit a podcast on a Mac is to record the audio file and then use Quicktime.
With that said, none of the recording options I’ve found provide great quality audio. Honestly, I think the best option is to use a separate playing device for the audio and have that available to pause and play within the class. That way, you can pause an episode and move forward as needed. I’ve actually downloaded a podcast on my phone, played it through my phone, and then broadcasted the podcast through my Anker. I know that’s a bit extra, so you might have a better option!
Curated Podcasts for History and Civics
Below, I curated a list of a ton of podcasts for your history and Civics classes. I solicited suggestions from my Instagram followers and I also found a bunch on my own. This list is definitely not exhaustive, so if you have suggestions, please add them to the comments. I would love to post more suggestions in the future.
I have not listened to each and every episode of each podcast. Not even close! Therefore, please pre-screen any episodes you might wish to utilize before presenting them to your class.
For each podcast, I tried to link the original web location. In a few cases, that wasn’t available, so I just linked to the most convenient website location. Most all of these podcasts are available on your favorite website app – like Spotify or Stitcher.
1865 – “April 15, 1865. President Lincoln is dead and the country in turmoil. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton takes control, determined to bring the assassin to justice—but the hunt for John Wilkes Booth isn’t all that grips Stanton. Lincoln’s successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson, is likely to bend to southern interests and undo the very progress for which Lincoln died. Edwin Stanton must employ every bit of political wile he can muster to secure the future of the freed slaves, and the nation. Consumed by his conviction, Stanton will betray his friends, his honor, and the very constitution he is sworn to protect, all to steer the country towards justice.”
- Format – As the name suggests, this podcast focuses specifically on the events of 1865. This is a play told through the podcast format, so there are acting characters and sound effects that will bring students into the story. Now that I’ve heard it, I couldn’t imagine beginning my Reconstruction unit without it.
- General Topics of Discussion – This is just about Lincoln’s assassination and the ensuing hunt for John Wilkes Booth.
- Average Length – Each podcast averages about 20 to 30 minutes in length.
- Notes – I can’t see teachers utilizing this whole podcast, but definitely try and use some. It’s a great introduction to the unit and teachers could utilize snippets at the beginning of class to hook students. It would help to show the images of some of the characters while the podcast is played.
The Agitators – “The Agitators tells of the enduring but tempestuous friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Great allies? Yes. And at times, great adversaries. Young abolitionists when they met in Rochester, New York in the 1840s, they were full of hope and a common purpose. As they grew to become the cultural icons we know today, their movements collided and their friendship was severely tested. Follow these brilliant, flawed, and rebellious activists with host Ashley C. Ford. Their message still matters.”
- Format – At the beginning of the podcast, there is some narrative background provided. The rest of each podcast is actually a play. Therefore, most of the podcast is acted and narrated. It’s so engrossing as it seems much more like an audiobook or an acted play. (It originally was a play.)
- General Topics of Discussion – This podcast focuses specifically on the relationship between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
- Average Length – Each podcast is between 20 and 25 minutes. There are six episodes in all.
- Notes – Teachers probably won’t have the opportunity to play all of the episodes to students, but even one would be a great addition to class. It’s a deep dive, but it’s worth it. Some of you may have read about Anthony’s tendency towards racist statements. The podcast doesn’t shy away from these topics.
American History Tellers – “The Cold War, Prohibition, the Gold Rush, the Space Race. Every part of your life – the words you speak, the ideas you share – can be traced to our history, but how well do you really know the stories that made America? We’ll take you to the events, the times and the people that shaped our nation. And we’ll show you how our history affected them, their families and affects you today. Hosted by Lindsay Graham (not the Senator).”
- Format – The narrator, Lindsay Graham, always introduces the podcast with a mini-skit (he usually plays all the parts) about the topic of the podcast. Even if you don’t use a full episode, these little vignettes are great for the beginning of class. The rest of each podcast is a narrative story, although little acted vignettes pop up throughout.
- General Topics of Discussion – There are SO MANY topics with this podcast. The Great Depression? Civil Rights? Prohibition? Revolutions? Bleeding Kansas? This podcast has episodes for each! Check out the weblink for the full list.
- Average Length – These podcasts average right about 40 minutes. If teachers were to edit out the commercials, they could probably get the episodes down to 35 minutes. I would suggest having students listen to the podcast over the course of two days.
- Notes – For the most part, Graham uses words that are decipherable to the average middle schooler. He gives a good overview without focusing on extraneous details that will make the podcast untenable to students. I do wish there were more actors (in some cases, Graham voices female characters and Black characters and it can just be odd), yet I understand that the issue is a matter of budget.
Civics 101 and Civics 101 Shorts – “What’s the difference between the House and the Senate? How do congressional investigations work? What is Federalist X actually about? Civics 101 is the podcast refresher course on the basics of how our democracy works.”
- Format – Civics 101 uses a variety of voices to discuss a topic. If available, they use primary source audio. They also have discussions between experts on a topic. In some cases, the discussion can get a little dry, but for the most part, they are able to hold interest.
- General Topics of Discussion – Civics 101 has a ton of podcasts. The regular podcast addresses specific court cases, like Loving v. Virginia, or New Jersey v. TLO, or questions like “How does the Electoral College Work?” The shorts episodes are (obviously) shorter and they hone in on the basics, including the Electoral College, or the Declaration of Independence. If you need to review a topic with students, these are fantastic!
- Average Length – The regular podcast clocks in around 30 to 40 minutes and the shorts are under 10 minutes.
- Notes – This podcast provides graphic organizers for teachers and a transcript for each podcast! This can help students to follow along with the podcast as they are listening.
Following Harriet – Narrated by broadcaster, author, and beloved TED talk speaker Celeste Headlee, “Following Harriet” goes into the life of Tubman, considered one of the bravest and most extraordinary women in our country’s history. Through interviews with leading historians, educators and the director of the film Harriet, it puts the American icon in a broader context and examines the 19th Century experience of African Americans, especially at major historical sites in Virginia.
- Format – There are three main episodes in this podcast. Each has a narrator and then interviews with varying historians.
- General Topics of Discussion – This podcast is specifically focused on Harriet Tubman, however, it takes her story and places it within the context of the time period.
- Average Length – Each episode is between 20 and 30 minutes.
- Notes – This podcast was produced to coincide with the movie Harriet. Therefore, it had a very limited episode count. I enjoyed the episodes, however, and the storytelling methods.
Greeking Out – “Oh Muses! Hear our podcast and allow us to recall some of the greatest stories ever told. Stories of gods and goddesses, monsters, and heroes! Enjoy this kid-friendly retelling of classic ancient Greek myths for the whole family.”
- Format – This podcast is presented in an upbeat jovial tone with jokes that students will love. (There’s a long tangent in the episode about the Ancient Olympics about the naked athletes. My students would be rolling in the aisles!)
- General Topics of Discussion – This podcast is specifically focused on the ancient Gods and Goddesses of the Greek myths.
- Average Length – The episodes range anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.
- Notes – Very kid-friendly, however, it’s kind of tangential to history. If you’re looking to entertain some of your students while the rest are on some random field trip/presentation/ sports event, this will work perfectly!
History This Week – “This week, something momentous happened. Whether or not it made the textbooks, it most certainly made history. Join the HISTORY This Week podcast as we turn back the clock to meet the people, visit the places and witness the moments that led us to where we are today.”
- Format – There is generally a narrator interspersed with background music, sound effects, and interviews with historians. The speed of the discussion is perfect. Not breakneck speed but also not so slow that you’re waiting for the next word. The script also used figurative vocabulary that helps students to visualize the topic.
- General Topics of Discussion – The podcast is all over the place. Recent episodes include discussions about Ida Tarbell and Standard Oil, female Soviet pilots, and Fannie Farmer (of the cookbook).
- Average Length – Each episode is between 25 and 40 minutes. There is a long ad break in the middle that could be removed.
- Notes – Given the reputation of the History Channel (and its long-running series about “Ancient Aliens), I listened to this podcast with some trepidation. I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the episodes! I would suggest that teachers use snippets in class to replace lectures.
Homeschool History – “Award-winning fun history lessons for all the family, presented by Horrible Histories‘ historian Greg Jenner. Full of facts and jokes, the series brings to life a broad range of historical topics, many linked to the school curriculum. Homeschool Histories is made by the producers of the much-loved Radio 4 podcast You’re Dead To Me.”
- Format – This one has a single narrator (Greg Jenner of Horrible Histories and You’re Dead to Me), however, he also employs a multitude of sound effects to help students visualize the events he’s describing. This podcast is British, so sometimes he uses language that will need deciphering by the teachers (takeout vs. takeaway for example), however, he writes the stories in a way that will draw in the listener.
- General Topics of Discussion – Jenner mainly focuses on World History topics and he often reviews topics that would be discussed in a class. For example, recent podcasts covered the Stone Age, Cleopatra, Mansa Musa, the Space Race, and Ancient Egyptian Religion.
- Average Length – Each episode lasts right around 15 minutes.
- Notes – At the end of each episode, there’s a quiz built right in! Teachers can pause the podcast to see if students remembered the details. The answers are then reviewed so students can check.
Anytime Now – Honest History – “Explore the tales you won’t find in your school textbook. From daring escapes to ingenious inventions. Anytime Now transports kids back in time with the incredible sounds and stories of the past.”
- Format – (NOTE: This podcast is brand new, so the story format could change.) Each episode has a new narrator who takes on a new topic.
- General Topics of Discussion – As is noted in the podcast description, this podcast explores history you won’t find in the history textbooks. Therefore, I would see this podcast more as enrichment than part of the core curriculum. The first four discuss Ellen and William Craft, Ada Lovelace, fashion, and Leopold von Ranke.
- Average Length – Each podcast is around 15 minutes.
- Notes – As this podcast is new, I’m really excited to see what topics they uncover.
The Ten News – “Publishing every Tuesday and Thursday, “The Ten News” will explore topics kids care about including current events, sports, science, gaming, pop culture, entertainment, and more.”
- Format – This podcast focuses on current events and breaks them down in a way that middle schoolers will understand. They add context to those stories that students see floating around the news (or more likely, Tik Tok). Each episode typically had a headline story and then at least one other story contained within. It also posts episodes two to three times a week
- General Topics of Discussion – Current events – recent podcasts have addressed carbon footprints, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Volcanic Eruptions.
- Average Length – Each podcast ranges between 10 and 15 minutes.
- Notes – The topics chosen seem more progressively minded. I would defend the use of the podcast in my classroom, but it’s something to be aware of before adding it to yours.
This Day in History Class – “From the desk of “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” “This Day in History Class” quickly recounts a tidbit from today’s events in history.”
- Format – Each podcast chooses one topic that is connected with that particular date. Some of the topics are more compelling than others, but the podcast is so short that it doesn’t really matter if students are invested in the topic of the day.
- General Topics of Discussion – This podcast provides a real variety. Recent episodes discuss Lincoln’s beard, Paddington Bear, and the Amityville murders.
- Average Length – These are quite succinct and typically last around 10 minutes. There are also ads at the beginning, so they are really even shorter.
- Notes – You know those minutes of class where you accidentally finished early, and know that your class will devolve into chaos within five minutes? This is for those moments.
The Past and the Curious – “Mick Sullivan created The Past and The Curious in 2016 and it is both a privilege and a labor of love. Since the beginning, many friends have joined the fun. We create the show in between family, work, gigs, and the many other commitments we’ve all got in our lives. We really think people will find value and joy in what we do, and no one else is doing something quite like it – so we create.”
- Format – Each episode is narrated by Mike Sullivan.
- General Topics of Discussion – This podcast really runs the gamut in terms of topics. In some cases, the choices can be a bit esoteric, but regardless, I really enjoyed the episodes, even if they rambled around history. Recent episodes discussed early hot air balloons, athletes Bobbie Rosenfeld and Muhammad Ali, Henry Knox, Sibyl Luddington, and the Hubble telescope. See? All over the place! I would suggest perusing the list of episodes to see if something fits with your curriculum.
- Average Length – Each episode measures just over 30 minutes.
- Notes – I really enjoyed this podcast, and I think your students will also. Often this podcast is divided into two stories, so you might use half a podcast in your class.
You’re Dead to Me – “The history podcast for people who don’t like history… and those who do. Greg Jenner brings together the best names in comedy and history to learn and laugh about the past.
- Format – The host, Greg Jenner, invites a comedian and a historian on the podcast to discuss a specific historical topic. There are two different versions of this podcast. The first are the originals and the second are the radio edits. DEFINITELY use the radio edits! The originals are fun, but they are certainly not made for students. They contain lots of inappropriateness and they are longer and a bit unwieldy.
- General Topics of Discussion – You’re Dead to Me covers all kinds of topics, including World, Ancient, and U.S. History. Recent episodes discussed the Aztecs, the Mayflower, and Neanderthals.
- Average Length – The radio edits measure about 30 minutes in length. There is an introduction that can be cut.
- Notes – These are fun and there are jokes (yay!), however, the academic level of the discussion really depends on the episode. They’re more conversational than the other podcasts suggested and I love how they just showcase people talking about history.
Much of this blog post was crowdsourced from my Instagram followers and from teachers I peppered with questions. Thank you for all your ideas! If there is anything I missed, please add it to the comments below.