Karen Keating's eighth-grade English students at Lower Dauphin Middle School in Hummelstown, Pa., fire up their laptops and gather a bundle of snowball microphones. With the click of a mouse, their laptops become studios, and they're ready to record.
Keating's class is writing, producing and editing podcasts that they'll submit to the NPR Student Podcast Challenge, and, like many teachers, Keating is using apps to help them make it happen.
As teachers and students around the country are working on their podcasts, we checked in with educators to see what digital tools they're using.
The good news? Many of these apps are free. They're also accessible. In many classrooms these days, teachers and students have their own laptops, Chromebooks or iPads. In many cases, the technology is already downloaded and, like Keating's eighth-graders, students these days are pretty tech-savvy already.
All of which means teachers can focus on the substance — ideas, writing, narrative, editing — instead of process.
"I can spend time helping students develop their stories rather than explaining the app," says Amanda Suttle, an English teacher who's using the Anchor app to help her juniors and seniors get their podcasts in shape at Licking Valley High School in Newark, Ohio.
So, with several weeks still to go before the contest deadline, here are some of the apps and programs teachers told us they're using. (Of course, we're not endorsing these, we're just sharing what we've heard from many of you).
Developed by Spotify, think of Anchor as a mobile recording studio: With a wi-fi connection, you can record with multiple people in different locations at the same time (as long as they have the app).
And you can edit what you record right in the app, using simple tools like trimming and removing segments. Other tools let you add transitions, sound effects and background music to help make your podcast unique (NOTE: Please read our strict rules on what music you can add to your submission).
Another benefit for students doing lots of experimenting: No storage limits.
Amanda Suttle says that when she started using Anchor, she didn't know anything about editing sound. Anchor made it easy. "It's intuitive," she says. "I love how user-friendly it is, and it's easy to explain."
Of the more advanced, laptop-focused software, Audacity is one of the most popular ones we heard about. It's an audio recording and editing package that is downloadable for both Windows and Mac users.
With Audacity, you can record directly on your computer's microphone or an external one (although, the audio doesn't need to be recorded with the software to edit it there).
Eric Applen, who teaches 21st century technology and careers at Friedell Middle School in Rochester, Minn., oversees the school's podcast club and says he taught himself how to use Audacity. "It just has some really handy features," he says. "It comes down to what's accessible for students and easy for them to use."
He says one of his favorite features is the ability to put together audio segments that were recorded at different times to create one episode.
Audacity can also export files in various formats, including the wave file format you'll need to submit for the Podcast Challenge.
Stacy Kreitzer is an instructional technology coach for Lower Dauphin Middle School and Lower Dauphin High School in Hummelstown, Pa. She helps teachers learn how to use the software on their laptops — she's an Audacity fan.
"It has all the bells and whistles for those that want to use it," she explains, "but it's also simple enough for the students that just want and need the basics."
Shari Jones' sixth-grade language arts students are using WeVideo to record and edit their podcast at Independence Elementary School in Liberty Township, Ohio.
WeVideo is a desktop and mobile app where users can upload, trim and arrange both audio and video clips.
This is her second time submitting to the Podcast Challenge, and Jones says she started using WeVideo this year because it doesn't have an age restriction for children like previous apps she's used.
"This is more user friendly and all sixth graders have access to this WeVideo," says Jones. "They can do it more independently. They have step-by-step directions."
Students with Google accounts, like Jones' class, can save their podcasts to their Google Drive through WeVideo. Jones says this makes it easier to export their submissions for the challenge.
Timothy Belmont, an English and public speaking teacher at Lyndhurst High School in Lyndhurst, N.J., wanted to give his students the option to go more in-depth with audio recording and editing. For him, Soundtrap is an accessible way to do that.
"It's like a fully functional studio," says Belmont. "They can use it on their iPad through their web browser, but they can also use it on a laptop."
Soundtrap is an online, collaborative music workstation that can edit and record vocals and instruments.
"You can even have students who are not necessarily in the same place record together collaboratively," says Belmont. That, he adds, "can extend the assignment from just being during class time to being outside of class."
Since Soundtrap is web-based, there's no installation required and all projects also save to the cloud, allowing students to access their files from multiple devices.
Joanne Stanley's English students at Swift Creek Middle School in Midlothian, Va., are also using Soundtrap. She says she hasn't used the app very much, and she doesn't have to: Her students have taken the lead and they are working through the "kinks" together.
GarageBand is a music creation studio that is automatically installed in all Mac and iOS devices. As long as there's an iPhone, students can record and produce their podcasts anywhere.
In New Jersey, Timothy Belmont says his students are using GarageBand as well as Soundtrap. He likes the accessibility and says that many of his students were already familiar with it: "Some of the students had already used GarageBand for other classes, whether they were recording things or just experimenting."
These of course are just a few of the options out there, and some of the educators say it's been a trial-and-error process to find the right app for their students, and their experience level.
"My advice is to check with students first to see what their experience is with recording and listening to podcasts," says Applen. "Secondly, teachers should not be afraid to reach out to the podcast world and ask for help. There are tons of podcasters out there that are willing to share their stories and experience to help get others started."