Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Sound of Memory: Using Audio to Spark Learning

Next Tuesday will mark the 29th anniversary of the death of John Lennon.

Stumbled across this most unique document of that night on YouTube. It's a recording of a scan through the radio airwaves of NYC on the eve of the 8th of December, 1980.

Long before the advent of the mainstream Internet, we (likely as a whole species) have had this innate desire to record things. Scribes, redactors, editors, painters, printers, photographers... recordists all.

Personally, I've always been most in-tuned with audio recording.

I try to bring as much audio into my classes as possible. As a Latin teacher, you might think that I'm talking about a lot of pronunciation and recitation; but no, I kinda find a lot of that stuff to be a bit boring. When it comes to bringing audio into the class, I'm talking about using archival material; obscure pop songs; speeches; sound effects; and the sounds of real places, real people, and real things. I'm into bringing these things into the realm of my students' awareness and using them to catalyse new investigations, new discussions, new understandings and realizations about whatever we happen to be studying in class.

Folkways offers a number of interesting environmental recordings that can spark interesting discussions about sound, technology, memory, and the stuff of history; check out Sounds of the Office, Sounds of Medicine, Sounds of the Junkyard, and the mind-blowing Sounds of Insects.

If it's voices and real-life stories you are looking for, check out the website of the Third Coast Audio Festival. I've used their '99 Ways of Telling a Radio Story' to inspire my kids to write; and their podcast called Re:Sound is top notch.

They've also got an English language version of Peter Leonhard Braun's 'Bells in Europe' which, in telling the story of how the Nazis melted down bells to make weapons, is one of the most powerful and celebrated radio documentaries of all time.

And if you are looking for more info on good audio and striking radio, you might stop by KFAI Minneapolis/St. Paul's Listening Lounge blog. Their little list of links is essential.

Back in college, I fell in love with the 'little stuff' of art history. Sure, there were the Raphaels and Van Goghs, but I remember my favourite two museum-bound items were a little 16th century salt and pepper shaker set and an elegant ancient glass urn.

Relatively anonymous things. Relatively random.

But precious. And full of meaning.

It's like that with audio, too. A snippet of conversation or the reminder of a sound we haven't heard in some time can lead us into new investigations, new discussions, new understandings and realizations.

And so next Tuesday, I'm going to start our Latin III class with a listen to the Lennon/NYC recording. We're studying Horace right now -- the original 'carpe diem' guy. We've been talking a lot about what it means to express the things you hold in your memory; and we've been talking a lot about why art and poetry are such powerful and memorable forms of expression. We've been talking about why poets are remembered. We've been talking about the lyric of memory.

So, we'll listen. And think.

Who knows what kind of conversation it might spark.


  1. 29th. He died in 1980. I was nine, and really loved the Beatles, it hit me as a brick; one of my first lessons in mortality.

  2. You most likely will appreciate this Smithsonian/Folkways recording titled, A Documentary History of Broadcasting: 1920-1950: Radio Before Television. It is two 1/2 hour broadcasts from a Canadian series called, Ways of Mankind. The first half hour (A Word in your Ear) deals with language. It contains some priceless moments. You can listen to excerpts at


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