NPR’s Code Switch: How a podcast makes me a better teacher

NPR’s Code Switch: How a podcast makes me a better teacher

By Kristin Taylor, CJE, Scholastic Press Rights director

We hope many of you will join us for our Zoom-In about “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. CST (RSVP here). One of the key points Zaretta Hammond makes in that book is that becoming a culturally responsive teacher means educating ourselves — immersing ourselves in diverse perspectives. 

One of my favorite ways to do this is to listen to podcasts hosted and produced by people whose voices are marginalized in mainstream media. As we spotlight resources aimed at antiracism, we would be remiss not to include some of the many outstanding podcasts being produced right now.

NPR’s Code Switch started as a blog, which I read regularly, so I was absolutely thrilled when it morphed into a podcast four years ago. The very first episode, “Can we talk about Whiteness?” debuted May 31, 2016, and I’ve been a devoted listener ever since. I was thrilled when they rebranded this year: their new tagline (“Race. In Your Face”) reflects an unflinching willingness to ask those hard questions and talk about them openly. 

Co-hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji blend stellar reporting with personal anecdotes; they have an easy camaraderie that gives the podcast warmth and humor, even when they are exploring some of the darkest and most troubling topics. They are experts, yet they freely admit questions about race and identity aren’t easily answered — one of the most common refrains on the show is “It’s complicated.” 

Gene Demby, NPR Code Switch co-host, records a live episode at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, 2017. The podcast gained national prominence in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 when it shot up to No. 1 on Apple Podcasts and was featured in Oprah Magazine. Photo by Kristin Taylor, MJE

The “Code Switch fam,” who they shout out every episode, bring a wealth of  perspectives and experiences, which is evident in the tremendous diversity of topics they tackle — from veteran reporter Karen Grigsby Bates’ episode “What’s in a Karen?” about the Karens (or Becky’s or Miss Ann’s) throughout history, to Alyssa Jeong Perry’s episode “One Korean American’s Reckoning” about the stereotype of the “quiet, submissive Asian” versus the actual history of Asian American resistance. They talk about immigration, Native treaty rights, Black resistance, Latinx identity, race in politics, how we use words — nothing is off limits, and everything is grounded in authentic voices and solid journalism.

I wasn’t surprised when I learned a college professor created a course around this podcast; I have learned more about race, ethnicity and identity from listening the past four years than I ever did in college.

I’ve been using episodes of the podcast in my high school journalism and English classrooms from the start. I know teachers in more conservative parts of the country are facing a lot of pressure and may not be able to do the same — I’ve heard stories of administrators telling teachers they aren’t even allowed to talk about Black Lives Matter due to parent backlash — but if you can’t use it in class, I encourage you to at least listen to it for yourself.

Whether you identify as white, a person of color (a contentious question they explored recently in “Is it time to say R.I.P. to POC?”) or a member of any marginalized group, this podcast provides insight into so many aspects of identity and asks such important questions that I believe there is something there for everyone.

In addition to these longer episodes, they do shorter “Word Watch” episodes that are fascinating — some audio and others as blog posts. A few examples of terms they cover: white trash, namaste, nappy, ghetto and white tears

10 episodes to get you started

If you’re sold, you may be asking yourself where to start. You could certainly start from the beginning, but that would take more time than any teacher has right now, so here’s a list of some of my favorite episodes to get a taste of the show. 

  1. Is it time to say R.I.P. to POC?, Sept. 30, 2020 — A fascinating discussion about the terms POC, BIPOC, how language changes over time and why “it’s complicated.”
  2. What’s in a Karen?, July 15, 2020 — Names for white women wielding their power against Black people aren’t new; Karen Grigsby Bates explores this history.
  3. A Decade of Watching Black People Die, May 31, 2020 — Why did white people finally start turning out to protest for Black lives after George Floyd’s death? This powerful episode revisits Jamil Smith’s powerful 2015 essay “What Does Seeing Black Men Die Do for You?”
  4. Ask Code Switch: What About Your Friends?, Jan. 22, 2020 — This episode explores how racism impacts interracial friendships.
  5. E Ola Ka ‘Olelo Hawai’i, June 12, 2019 — The incredible story of a group of second-language learners who re-centered and, arguably, saved the Hawaiian language.
  6. Our Homeland is Each Other, Oct. 10, 2018 — An episode focused on the complex identity of being a transracial adoptee.
  7. The Difficult Math Of Being Native American, Feb. 17, 2018 — This episode focuses on the controversial topic of “blood quantum” and the implications of finding love outside of Native communities.
  8. Who Put The ‘Hispanic’ In Hispanic Heritage Month?, Sept. 23, 2017 — Hispanic, Latino/a, Latinx…where do these terms come from, and how did Hispanic Heritage Month get its name?
  9. ‘Racial Impostor Syndrome’: Here Are Your Stories, June 8, 2017 — What does it mean to be a “real” part of your heritage group? This episode explores the stories of people who feel like imposters about some aspect of their identities.
  10. Say My Name, Say My Name (Correctly, Please), Aug. 9, 2016 — An important episode for all teachers, I think, as it explores the impact of mispronouncing names — or even giving someone an “easier” name — rather than learning them.

This article series of resources JEA is recommending to advisers in an effort to provide antiracist teaching resources to educators. JEA is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in its membership and practices. See the official statement here.

Founded in 1924, JEA supports free and responsible scholastic journalism by providing resources and educational opportunities, promoting professionalism, encouraging and rewarding student excellence and teacher achievement, and an atmosphere which encompasses diversity yet builds unity. It is headquartered at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

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