Standards-based "Serial"

[Update: It took me about 40 hours (seriously) to get them looking good, but there are ten lessons available for just the first episode (which is the best one).  I’m going to publish episodes 2-4 today at the same site. I’m asking for a little bit of money because the work is literally swallowing up my entire Winter Break, but if you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment here, or email me at]

[Second update: Now that Season 1 is over, lots of people have been asking how the unit went as a whole. It went great! I survey the students too (over 100 of them), and posted the results on the latest post. Check it out if you’re interested.]

My 10th and 11thgrade English students are listening to the “Serial” podcast, and so far we are all loving it.  They are completely engaged and excited for future episodes, and it’s been very easy (and fun) for me to teach them reading and writing skills throughout the process.  But is my school and district happy about it?  To make sure, I’ve organized a list of ways that “Serial” is teaching us “21st Century Skills” and helping us prepare for state testing.

It turns out, not only can I justify the use of “Serial” as a primary text, the podcast actually helps us learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels. Thanks especially to the multi-media quality of the story, its contemporary relevance, and the variety of viewpoints both within and outside of the narrative, the students instinctively want to apply our common core fundamentals in a real-life problem-solving way.
I start the unit with an admittedly non-standard hook.  I ask them to write down what we did in class three days ago (who was there, who was absent, etc.), then what they did after school eight days ago, and then what they did after school exactly six weeks ago (like Adnan had to).  It’s extremely fun, and fascinating, and gets us right into the story.  I even had some pairs of students write down all the details of a shared event on their own (including clothing, time frame, and if either person ever left the other one’s sight) and then we compared the stories as if we were cops looking for inconsistencies. 
After that, it was all almost completely standards-based, and amazing easily to do so.

Reading Standard 1:

Showing comprehension of text: This is understanding text at a basic level, and it’s easy (and fun) and natural to do with “Serial” as the text. You can do this with an entire episode as a “text” or you can take a single person’s testimony (like Jay’s) as a “text.”
Citing direct evidence that leads to explicit meaning: Again, this comes naturally when listening to “Serial,” but it’s even easier when you limit “the text” to a single monologue. For example, what evidence is Jay offering that supports what he’s trying to say?
Infering conclusions based on previous evidence: I have never found a better text for getting to this level of this standard. Not only does this come naturally in this context, but it’s a good lesson in keeping them focused – what conclusion can you get from this evidence supplied in this text. (The students often want to make irrelevant claims like “but Jay is a drug dealer” which is a bit of an ad hominem attack).
Show where text leaves matters uncertain: This is usually so hard to teach to students until college (what is Shakespeare not saying??), but now it’s so easy to show them the value in recognizing the negative space of a narrative.  What is Jay leaving out? What is Adnan not saying? Maybe more importantly, what is our narrator leaving out of the story? More simply, what do you really want to ask these characters? Why aren’t they telling us?

Reading Standard 4: Determining connotative meanings, and analyzing their effect.

Analyzing impact of specific diction on meaning and tone: This is admittedly difficult, but no more than usual, and even more pertinent in a contemporary story in which we don’t exactly know where our narrator is coming from (or trying to go).

Reading Standard 5: Analysis of a text’s structure and order

Identify parts of the whole text: This is really fun, easy, and important to do with the first episode.  She starts with a great hook, she introduces herself, she establishes her credentials as a reliable narrator, she gives us a dark setting, she lightens the mood by showing how nice she is while interviewing funny people who obviously like talking with her, and so on.
Explain the relationship of parts to the whole: It doesn’t take much for the students to realize that those interviews humanize the narrator, lighten the mood, and provide info at the right time.  They can do this with each part of the episode.
Chart/diagram an entire text: It takes about 5-10 minutes for them to draw a timeline of the first episode in their journals.  They can do this with friends, and they have fun doing it. The art of storytelling becomes very clear, very quickly.
Make judgments on why the author made these structural decisions: It’s easy to see how we could write our own story using this exact form, and a great time to do a “copy change” and allow the students an hour to write their own narratives following her lead.

Reading Standard 6: Assessing point of view and purpose, and corresponding form.

Identify the point of view and purpose: As with all of these standards, the students find this more exciting and relevant when using a contemporary story like “Serial.” This is great practice for standardized tests, but it’s also fun and easy to pinpoint who these characters are and analyze “what’s in it for them.” For the more advanced students, they can get a good lesson on analyzing a narrator’s point of view (objective reporter?) and purpose.  Every class’s first answer was  “to get Adnan out of jail” which leads to a great discussion on purpose (which is probably something more like “she’s trying to tell a good story to interest or entertain us enough to listen next week”).
Explain how the way the text is written helps the author with the purpose: See Standard 5.
Explain how the text would be written differently if there were a different purpose: The previous lesson leads directly to consideration of how she would change her form, tone, and audience if she were tyring to free Adnan.

Reading Standard 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media.

Combine an understanding of visual information with your reading: This is where “Serial” is superior to most texts.  Today we looked at the call logs, the map of the cell phone towers, an aerial view of Woodlawn High, and a street view of Best Buy. We actually used the street view to “drive” the exact route that Jay describes.  This not only supplements our primary “reading” of the text, it literally informs it (our opinions changed once we did our own direct research).
Compare/contrast a written text with a different medium to evaluate each: There have been some excellent, insightful “quick-writes” done about the pros and cons of listening to a story instead of reading one.  Even a student-centered chart of evaluation is interesting, quick, insightful, and touching on higher orders of thinking.
Analyze various stories in different media: There are plenty of “different media” in the self-contained world of “Serial,” but you/they can easily find other blogs and forums that are on fire with passionate discourse.
Combine multiple sources and formats of info to solve a problem or question: This is exactly what “Serial” seems to be all about.  After Episode 5, I demanded that my “detectives” (or lawyers or whatever) move on from passively judging and actually pose a theory or two that fits with all the evidence presented.

Reading Standard 8: Evaluating arguments

Identify the argument and list the claims: This is basically just common comprehension. A good start, particularly if you’re scaffolding for certain students.
Evaluate the line of reasoning: We do a unit on logic, so they have fun applying their learning to a real-life case.  What character’s arguments (including the narrator’s!) make logical sense?
Evaluate the relevance, truthfulness, and sufficiency of evidence: Again, this is just “Serial” in a nutshell. All across the country, people are telling their friends to tune in every Thursday so they can evaluate the relevance, truthfulness, and sufficiency of evidence with each other.

Reading Standard 9: Analyzing multiple texts that address similar themes and subjects.

Show how different viewpoints address the same subject in different ways: This one seems pretty difficult to me, but worthwhile if your students can handle it. How are people who share a viewpoint sharing it in different ways? How are opposing viewpoints being presented in superior, inferior, or similar ways?

The Writing Standards

The anchor standards for writing can be addressed so easily that I’m not going to waste your time spelling it out.  All that I’ll say is that since we’re getting so many opportunities to evaluate so many different sources, the students are allowed a unique experience to use their standard-based skills in a very real way.  And unlike experiences where they are reading “old” literature, they have a very real opportunity to synthesize the information into a genuinely new and unpublished perspective.
Writing Standards 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9 all have to do with developing claims based on evidence found from various sources that have been critically evaluated.  Writing Standards 4 and 5 address basic writing skills, and Standard 6 will come into play if your students want to join Twitter, Reddit, or any other site to engage in their relevant discussions.
If you have any more ideas of how to use “Serial” to teach the Common Core, please share!  My students usually listen to each episode about a week after it comes out, so I can screen it for appropriate content and create a suitable lesson plan. In other words, I have no specific plans for the next six episodes – feel free to help out…

19 thoughts on “Standards-based "Serial"

  1. Not sure if my last comment worked – but you deserve a shout out so I'm trying again! I linked to your blog from the piece on Slate. I am hooked on Serial, and I just know my ELL students would be too if I could find a way to use it in the classroom. Thanks for sharing some great ideas and for motivating me to give it a try!

  2. I think Serial could work *great* with ELL students — they might even have some perspective on what some critics are saying about the white narrator snooping in on other cultures. Thanks for the shout out, and please send updates and/or updates if you go for it…

  3. I am getting ready to start “Serial” with my students. As an avid “This American Life” listener, I was instantly won-over when “Serial” arrived. I have already “hooked” my students and they are just as excited as I am (which is refreshing) to start the series. Thank you for the tips and insight. Let's share, if possible.

  4. Absolutely let's share! I'm almost done with 10 different formal lesson plans, but I'm still tinkering with them, formally testing them on my students, etc.. I'll let you know when they're ready (which is soon).

  5. I am thrilled to find your blog, Michael! I have been Serially obsessed myself, and I've been in the process of putting together a unit for my 10th grade English students. You have amazing ideas! I'm curious to hear what you are doing for your formal assessments. Thanks for sharing all of your experiences; I hope my students are equally as enthralled.

  6. I'd love to get in on this! I have to get this unit approached by my supervisor and department head because our district wants us using our (boringggg) Pearson anthologies for everything. I have compiled essential questions, general performance tasks, etc…all the stuff my district wants to see to make sure I'm meeting my CCSS. I'd love to share daily lesson plans! Would a shared doc make sense?

  7. I would also love to get in on a shared document. I teach struggling readers and am now preparing to use these pod casts in my second semester curriculum. I could use all the help I can get. Thanks for inspiring me!!

  8. Yes! I teach 10th graders with language based learning disabilities. I'm hoping to do this with a group of my honors kids after the holiday break, and would love love love to share resources!

  9. Hi Emily — 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…

  10. Hi Linda — 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…

  11. Hi Christy — 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… (so happy they're finally finished!)

  12. Hi AmberLee — 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…

  13. I am SO excited to teach this, and just got it approved from my administrators! I had the idea to use the Serial podcast for the argumentative writing unit coming up, and stumbled upon your lesson plans.
    I am curious about which “texts” you are using for these lessons. I purchased the 40 page lesson plans/worksheets and did not see any I was wondering if there was a of a link to the articles, transcripts, and testimonies you used as the texts for these lessons. I just purchased this lesson, so I haven't gone through everything thoroughly as of yet. I am looking forward to purchasing the other units as well! Thanks for sharing!

  14. So glad to hear it!
    There are a couple different ways to assign an argumentative writing project — I actually used a prompt for this as the main part of the final, but there are little assignments along the way.

    As far as texts go, This American Life's website has an official (and clean) transcript of Episode 1, and the rest I get from, which has transcripts you can edit yourself. All the links are in my official lesson plans, including links to some articles and resources — Rabia's blog, Jay's interview, and a few others…

    Tell me how it goes! I'm excited to hear how the kids (and you) like it.

  15. Hello! I'm considering using Serial in my 9th and/or 10th grade English classrooms this semester and buying the materials you have on TPT. I have two questions for you before I decide if this will work for my classroom. First of all, if you had to pick one of the seasons to start with, which would it be? My initial thought is that Season 1 might be more engaging for struggling readers but also more problematic due to the touchy subject matter. On the other hand, Season 2 is appealing since it's the current installment. Secondly, how do you incorporate this into your daily/weekly plans? Do you have all Serial all the time, or do you devote specific days to cover the content and tackle other material other days of the week?


  16. Hi Alana,

    Great questions.
    My gut reaction is the same as yours — I'd go with the first season since it's a done deal and so many teachers have confirmed student engagement. The lesson plans are done, and they're verified by many teachers.

    On the other hand, I am enjoying Season 2 for the same reasons you mentioned. It's now, and the kids really like it. Also, I'm finding this season more educational in many ways, especially in regards to international affairs, and I like these lessons better. But…it's not over yet, so I can't promise where the story ends up.

    In regards to your second question, I used Season 1 as a treat after they had finished other lessons. I would choose a lesson or two to go with each episode. Now, I have so many things that I want to do with each lesson that Serial is my only “text” I'm using every day. One day we focus on archetypes (there's a lesson included) all day and we listen a little. The next day it's connotation (lesson included) and then we listen a little. So it's a lot of English lessons and only a little Serial every day, but yes, it's all Serial-based right now for at least a couple weeks (maybe more).

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