[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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]
[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…