I’m Replacing Shakespeare with "Serial"

As a high school English teacher, I used to spend at least four weeks on Hamlet. On an annual basis, we would happily discuss the potential causes of the protagonist’s insanity, the symptoms of depression, the cultural beliefs and norms of Renaissance England, and well…basically the nature of man.  This year, I took a leap and replaced Shakespeare with “Serial,” a nonfiction podcast centered around the murder of an American high school girl, the subsequent investigation, and the potentially unjust imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend.

Although I am genuinely worried about how this contemporary story will end, I have no regrets yet. In fact, it’s been more fun, more engaging, and more conducive to learning the Common Core’s anchor standards in reading and writing than anything written by Shakespeare, Joyce, or anybody else.  By far.

In no particular order, here are some of the reasons:

1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends.  Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, they believe that they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. Not matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamlet for the eighth straight year. Teaching “Serial” is even better than teaching a book for the first time — the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.

2. The nonfiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving. We want our students to be critically-thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 specifically asks the students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

3. Serial is hip and fresh.  My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.

4. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites.  Or in my class.  Or in real life. Nobody on the Internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

5. The multi-media aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesize information from a variety of sources.  Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and we can make models of the Globe Theater, but this does not compare to Serial’s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multi-media aspect really help with the state standards and “21st Century Skills,” it’s just a good time.  Maps, call logs, Google maps, hand-written letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps “street view” on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…

6. They actually listen to the story. Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we dream we did when we were in high school.  Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at the university, my friend (an English prof) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About Nothing. In this case, the students say “Wait, Mr. Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every ten minutes.

7. It’s easier to teach the state standards with “Serial.” As I illustrated in an earlier post, not only can I justify the use of “Serial” as a primary text, the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.

8. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare. I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. “Serial” does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history, or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the SBAC, the CAHSEE, the SAT, or any other test they might take outside of my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (which are said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide, or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.
             But as a fellow English teacher asked yesterday, “What about the humanities?”  And as my bible group asked two night ago, “What about wisdom?”  I don’t know. This will surely be another blog post — please feel free to contribute comments before I write about that.

In the meantime, it’s Thursday.  I’m going home to pour a couple of bowls of cereal for me and my wife, and then we’re going to snuggle up and listen to the next episode of “Serial.” After all, it’s my homework.

32 thoughts on “I’m Replacing Shakespeare with "Serial"

  1. If the state standards were totally in line with the skills taught in Assassin's Creed, and they never tested us on history on the standardized tests, then yes, I probably would. In any case, you're right — it's a good thing I'm not teaching history.

  2. Maybe you can do it, but I tried teaching Hamlet in two weeks to AP seniors and found that wasn't nearly enough time. Three is the bare minimum, and four or five weeks was just about right. Now I'm teaching “college prep” juniors on a block schedule. I'm not efficient enough to cover all five acts, the basics of blank verse, Renaissance norms, classroom discussions, assessments, essays, etc. in two weeks. It takes these juniors a few hours just to get through an act.

  3. I read Shakespeare when I was younger and our underfunded, ethnically mixed desert town managed to do well enough with it (Shout out to Ms. Beeson, Imperial High School 2003). She made the material relevant to our minds which were more concerned with much more base pursuits. I'm glad I had a teacher like her because it has helped me with figuring out how to connect lesson material to the students' own experiences in my own teaching practice.

    However, I think you're right on in tapping into the digital native mentality and going with something really ambitious and frankly meaningful here. The students are getting a crash course into the workings of all it means to have committed a crime. Not to mention that there are questions of media ethics that are frankly more relevant than ever to a group of young people in the post-Snowden, never mind post-Google/Internet Archive, world. And having students piece together the mystery with you by incorporating digital realia like the notes, transcripts and Google Maps.

    On a bittersweet note, I have to say that despite having had every intention to, I have yet to make the time to pursue the work of Shakespeare on my own. So to that end, I'm not sure I agree fully with your conclusion. On the other hand, I think that you are giving the students a just as memorable and possibly more “useful” experience and encouraging kids to reflect on their own media consumption.

    That's good work by any measure, Mr. Godsey. I'm inspired.

  4. Thanks, Fernando, for the inspiring words. And I think you're right about the media ethics aspect — we talk about it already, but I think I should probably ramp that up. And regarding the bittersweet observation, it's never too late to read Hamlet — read my latest post about my thoughts on this (I'd be interested in your thoughts).

  5. As a Junior in high school (Lindbergh High Saint Louis) I am concerned that teachers are now only trying to meet state standards. I love that your approach is new and fresh but are you truly teaching the kids to develop decision and reasoning skills that will help them advance American society? I feel these cut and dry standards are robbing my generation of the variety of teaching styles and depth in subjects and replacing it with a unified system. I feel without variety in teaching across the nation different types of thinkers will not be able to collaborate to better solve society's problems and instead many people with a unified style of thinking will be approaching problems the same one-dimensional way resulting in a band-aid instead of innovation through the problem. What are your thoughts on these Common Core Standards?

  6. Impressive reply, Daniel. I hope you read the post I published today — it specifically addresses your concern, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

    My immediate response, however, is to say that the CCSS aren't failing to develop the decision and reasoning skills you mention; in fact, I think that's what I think they're primarily focused on. And as a result, I can use Serial, Shakespeare, or any other text and teach them the skills they need to “solve society's problems.” My anxiety is almost the opposite of yours — I'm afraid that by offering so many teaching styles, learning styles, and contemporary texts, we're robbing your generation the classic texts, taught in a classical manner.

  7. I have been thinking about using Serial in my English 3 class for a few weeks now. I love that you have found a way to incorporate the common core standards into this unconventional lesson. Any chance you'd be willing to share your lesson plans?

  8. All I can offer right now is the other two posts on this blog: “Standards-based Serial” and “A Simple Guide…” I don't have more specific lesson plans, but a lot of people are asking, so I might do that over Thanksgiving. I'm also asking everyone to send me their ideas, but so far I haven't heard any…

  9. Just a quick update…I'm coming out with my first batch of Serial lesson plans soon. I'm just tinkering with them, formally testing them on my students, etc…I'll be sure to let you know when they're ready.

  10. Hi there
    I would love to check out any lesson plans you have put together for Serial. I just started listening and I am hooked. I am seriously thinking about using it this Spring for my disengaged 12th graders. I am interested in seeing how you scaffold and sequence your lessons. Thanks!!!

  11. Thank you! I am really looking forward to planning this unit. Have you considered presenting at the NCTE convention next November? This would be a phenomenal workshop to attend.

  12. I would love to know how you're using Serial in your classroom. I have juniors, and I think they would love this. I've never taught anything like this before, so I would appreciate any guidance. Thanks!

  13. Hi Hannah — in case you're interested, a link to 40 pages of lesson plans were just posted on latest post of the blog. They include printable worksheets, vocabulary lists, etc…

  14. Hi Kelly — in case you're interested, a link to 40 pages of lesson plans were just posted on latest post of the blog. They include printable worksheets, vocabulary lists, etc…

  15. In case any of you are interested, a link to 40 pages of lesson plans were just posted on latest post of the blog. They include printable worksheets, vocabulary lists, etc… (so happy to be finished with them!)

  16. Hi Michael,

    Thanks so much for your curriculum! I plan on using some of it next semester if I get approval from my administration. I know you mentioned that on thisamericanlife there is a “clean” version of the podcast. I couldn't find it. Is there any other edited version that you know about? I doubt my admin will approve of it with the profanity.
    Thanks again!

  17. My pleasure. Hopefully you can use it.

    The “clean version” is at thisamericanlife.org under the “radio archives”. The title is called “The Alibi.” I think you can also use their search feature and just look for Serial. So far that's the only episode they've posted, but the next two episodes don't have any profanity.

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