A few months back we came across and free math app that we were initially pretty excited about. We saw that it was free daily word problems that were newsy and cross-curricular and, given that most apps are pretty easy to use, we hope that it was something enriching that was also self-directed. And maybe we were pinning too much on something that is, after all, free to us. After the initial excitement, however, we lost steam on using this app quickly. The problem was that there were a few errors in the app: one of the solutions was wrong and one of the problems was phrased in such a convoluted way that I had to look ahead to the answer and then reverse engineer it so that I could explain to my kids what it was asking. So we simply stopped using it. Lesson learned. Another bonus of this experience is that I am much less likely to assume that “free” and “quality” always go hand in hand.
Fortunately, we have found at least some content on-line that has been free and has delivered on being high quality, and engaging. Below are a few of the podcasts that our kids enjoying listening to and that, as homeschooling parents, we find has high quality content.
Six minutes I do not know how many times the children have listened to this. It seems like it has gotta be close to 52 million. As Ms6yo Z explained to me, “everytime I listen, I notice something that I didn’t notice before.” This podcast is a sci-fi coming of age, family story told in six-minute increments. It begins when the Anders — mom Monica, dad James, son Cyrus, and daughter Birdie — pull a girl from the water off the coast of Alaska. When it becomes apparent that she has amnesia, the parents tell her that she is their daughter. Thus starts a story which is, really, at its heart about what it means to be family (and particularly siblings) told with a backdrop of mystery, hover boards, conversations around artificial intelligence, and, of course, school “frienemies” and drama. The other day, the finale of the entire series was posted and my daughters were simultaneously thrilled and sad that it was coming to an end, a sign of any good story well told.
Pants on Fire is a game show featuring a kid contestant, two guest adults (one of whom is lying ), a robot named LISA (live in studio audience), and a host named Deborah Goldstein. Both adults claim to be an expert in a similar field (past topics on different episodes have included mushrooms, hip-hop, and sewing), but only one actually is. Each must answer the kid contestant’s questions and generally keep up with the LISA and host banter to convince the contestant that he or she is the expert. At the end, the kid guesses who the liar is. And then each of the adults is asked to correct mistakes and lies (so that listeners don’t end up walking away with misinformation). The two older girls (10 and 6) love this show. I think there’s something very appealing to them about considering what is the truth and what is a lie and the idea that adults might sometimes “break” those rules but that it’s all in the name of good fun. They also walk away having learned real information about different jobs and areas of expertise. It’s almost like a fun “career” day for homeschool kids where they get to learn about all the different things adults do in the world right in their own homes and in the entertaining context of a game.
Tara Tremendous is another “sci-fi” type of adventure which features Tara, who was an ordinary girl until she acquired all of the superpowers of all of the superheroes in the world. There is, of course, a nefarious evil doctor who is trying to steal them from her along with wise and caring mentors who guide her through learning about her powers. Oh, and music. It’s a musical. My kids sometimes fast-forward through the music (at least on their second or third lesson; yes, they listen to some of these podcasts that many times), but there was one tune “Ordinary” that they will search out to listen to over and over and will often break into spontaneously, as if they themselves were in a musical. I think that what appeals to them is, like in many stories, this idea of an ordinary child (who actually also has a really tough go of things) suddenly being extra-ordinary (sort of like little orphan Annie). And while both of them have said they wouldn’t want to be Tara or to have her powers, even as an adult, I do find this narrative appealing.
Earth Rangers Before posting this set of reviews here, I asked the two older kids (10 and 6) to tell me what their top podcasts are right now. So I got the run down on the three above. But then the next day, Ms6yoZ came up to me, kind of quietly and said, almost in a whisper, “I also like one more podcast. It’s called Earth Rangers.” As the younger sister, Z is often pulled into older kid interests — like the three podcasts listed above — but she’s still only 6 and she finds ways to carve out time and space for all the stuff that she might say is “kiddish” in front of Ms10yoA. I suspect that Earth Rangers is directed at a younger audience and while her older sister might scoff, the 6yo still loves to learn the basics of animals and enjoys the soothing simplicity of a podcast directed at younger kids.
BONUS: Recommendations for grown ups!
A few years ago, there was a Peter Pan Live! showing on TV. We watched it together as a family. Afterwards, I said to my brother-in-law, whose kids are all older than mine and who has been a parent for about 8 years longer than I have, that it was really hard to “hate watch” anything once you have kids. I just get caught up in seeing these things that a decade ago, I would have thought were cheesy or hokey, through my kids’ eyes. “Yeah,” my brother in law said, “That’s the reason to have kids!”
That being said, as much as I love to see and hear and consume all of this made for kid content and particularly to be able to consume it through their fresh senses, sometimes I do need adult content. I like to be able to plug in the headphones while I cook dinner or, even better, while I knit, and listen to something made for adults. And the two recommendations I have are definitely made for adults.
The Score: Bank Robber Diaries GO OUT AND FIND THIS PODCAST AND LISTEN TO IT. Joe Loya tells the story of his life in this series of podcasts. No wait. That sentence is just not even remotely close to what this podcast is doing. Joe Loya weaves an incredible tapestry of long, twisting, unbroken narrative threads, colorful characters, heartaching humanity, and emotional and spiritual redemption. Nope. Still not there yet. Trust me. Just listen to this podcast. (In the meantime, I’ll work on a sentence that might vaguely capture its essence.)
Joe Loya robbed 30 banks in 14 months and served time in prison after he was caught. Right after I started listening to this podcast, I read Just Mercy for my book club. Just Mercy, was, in my opinion, not very good. Amongst other issues, I don’t think that the author, Bryan Stevenson, is as good a writer as he is a lawyer. (Writers should be paid to write and be paid to ghost write for lawyers. But I digress.) At times, his bias was strong as to be a disservice to the truth and honest reflection on the ways in which the system can and should be changed in order to be redemptive rather than just punitive. In Just Mercy, Stevenson tells several stories of children raised in situations of profound poverty, abuse, neglect, and violence. Many wind up in the justice system where they are further victimized. So this raised the question for me: what do we, as a society, need to do and what changes do we need to make to help these kids who have been raised in these situations? Ultimately, the book Just Mercy seems to be saying: the justice system is not a place of redemption. I don’t know that Joe Loya would disagree with this. But his story, as he tells it in this podcast, does reveal to us how one individual can and did redeem himself and heal himself if not through prison then certainly while in the prison system. And perhaps Joe Loya’s ultimate healing was in spite of his time served; but part of what he seems to be saying in the podcast is that, had he not had a lot of time to himself to think and to be by himself, he might not have received as much healing he did from his childhood of profound abuse.
Loya is best known as the “Beirut Bandit” (because the media at the time interpreted his appearance as middle eastern and because alliteration) but as this podcast illustrates, his true God-given gift is that of storytelling. Aside from his innate understanding of narrative structure and tension, even the timbre of texture of his voice is 1800 thread count, like liquid silk poured into your ear. This was one of the reasons why I did find the extra auditory flourishes (the music and the occasional sound effect) to be completely unnecessary and at times even a bit of a distraction. But I get it. I’ve never made a podcast but I imagine it’s super fun to play with all of those auditory gadgets. But please don’t let this one criticism stand in the way between you and this symphonic celebration of storytelling.
In the fall of 2002, I was in a remote area of the Thailand/ Burma border where the only news I received on a daily basis was from a sketchy Voice of America radio signal and the occasional Thai (English language) newspaper. The closest town (where I could get on the internet in small, linoleum floored shops) was a half hour drive away, usually on a pick up truck tricked out to fit twenty people in the back. So while I heard news of the DC sniper at the time, I was about as far away from it as I could have been and certainly not living it in the “real time” that my parents and other loved ones back in and around my DC hometown were living it. The first shootings took place in various locations that triangulate where my parents live, work, and shop.
And perhaps the distance at the time is what makes me so hungry right now to hear about what actually happened at the time. Now that I live in that same geographical triangle that my parents did, the DC sniper feels shockingly real, perhaps even more than it seemed even at the time. So I am primed to be an ideal, hungry listener to Monster: DC Sniper. But, this combined with the reporting (both at the time and now) on this podcast makes for an incredible podcast investigating this complicated event and negotiating the multiple players and themes involved. I am currently one episode behind from what has been released, but I know that this podcast will continue to give what it has given from the beginning: an in-depth look from multiple perspectives on how two men could cause wreak so much havoc in this part of the country and including an examination of how a society (our society) and culture makes such events possible.