A Simple Guide to Teaching "Serial" in high school

[UPDATE (9/5/17): While everything below is useful, since the time I posted this, I’ve developed a comprehensive unit plan covering the entire first season of Serial, as well as thorough plans for just episode 1 of season 1. Depending on how curious you are in exploring Serial as a primary text, you’ll be really happy with both of these.]

Last week, I wrote about why I’m choosing to use “Serial” as the primary text instead of Shakespeare in my high school English class. I also wrote way too much about how easy it is to use this “Serial” to teach the state standards (and which standards in particular).

But since then, many people have asked how we’re using “Serial” in the classroom, and (shocking!) they didn’t want to wade through my catalog of CC anchor standards. So here’s a more user-friendly summary of what the 11th graders have been doing for the past month in regards to the podcast.

1. I introduced the podcast just like Sarah Koenig did — with a mind-experiment based on Adnan’s experience.

I have linked to a basic handout right here, but it’s basically asking the same questions our narrator did. Could the students remember class three days ago, or their afternoon from six weeks ago?

This activity was fun, it set a positive tone, and it verified one of our narrator’s first claims. For what it’s worth, fewer than half of the students could elaborate on the details of class from a few days ago, and even fewer could mention anything from a week previous.  In fact, I accidentally picked a class period that had a fire drill in the middle of it, and only 3 of the 32 students wrote “fire drill” somewhere in their description.  A couple students surprised me by remembering what they did exactly six weeks earlier (or so they say) for the same reason Sarah mentioned — something interesting happened on that exact date, like a birthday party or something.

Standards addressed: Writing narratives, sequencing events, using details, etc. (W 3)

2. The first episode provided a perfect lesson in form and structure

“Serial” would not have taken off as a pop sensation if it weren’t for the classic opening chapter. When prompted, my 11th graders can recognize the form and the purpose: the mysterious phone call from prison (the hook), the exciting situation (to keep our attention), the introduction of the narrator and corresponding credentials (to establish a reliable narrator), the fun interviews with people who laugh out loud and open up to her (to establish that our narrator is friendly and a good person, and to lighten the mood after presentation of a dark topic), and so on.  The students had a difficult time remembering all the elements on their own, but I let them try, and then they got in groups to synthesize their memories. After that, we charted the entire episode on the whiteboard.

Not only could they move from recognition of structural elements to actual formal analysis, they were excited to imagine telling their own story using a similar “template” (which would be a great assignment).

Standards addressed: Analysis of a text’s structure and order (R 5) and word choice (R 4)

3. More on Episode 1: Stories within stories. So many points of view. So many purposes.

I’m linking to my rudimentary handout here, but any decent English teacher can use the various stories in the first episode to inspire any number of discussions, projects, or assignments. They can analyze the different points of view and the corresponding story that goes with each one (including the narrator’s!). The conversations on “purpose,” which are usually a grind, we’re so fruitful. And finally, teaching the students to recognize what’s not being said is usually nearly impossible (what is Shakespeare not saying in Act 1? The students don’t really know or care), but in this case it’s completely natural to ask about the “blank spots” in some of these narratives (especially the narrator’s!)

Standards addressed: Point of view, purpose, how it shapes text (R 6) and contrasting one medium with another (R 6).

4. Evaluating the evidence.

We did this with the political debates a couple years ago, but holy cow, it is way easier with “Serial.”

I don’t think I need to explain how this not only possible to “evaluate truthfulness” within this story, but it’s the primary reason why people are addicted to their Thursday fix.  Here’s a link to my really simple handout.

Standards addressed: Identifying arguments, evaluating reasoning, and evaluating relevance, truthfulness, and sufficiency of evidence (R 8).

5. Using clues to supplement the story (combining visual information with our reading)

Serial’s website provides plenty of fun clues, but English teachers are always trying to encourage their students to find their own primary sources. My school is also encouraging us to teach the kids “21st century skills” and our ESLR’s include “using technology.” So we went beyond the website a little, and used Google maps (the “street view” in particular) and drove the exact route that Jay drove (allegedly) and Sarah drove (literally). We could see an aerial view of the buses that block the school’s exit, we “drove” to Best Buy, and the students themselves noticed that the trees don’t cover the Best Buy parking lot very much, at least not in January. We also learned how to get a screen shot from “Street View” onto this blog. That might sound incidental, but it’s not at Morro Bay high school.

Standards addressed: Synthesizing and including visual information, multiple sources, and different media (R 7).

6. Talking about typical high school behavior.

We had a rich and entertaining discussion about what my students think is normal or “sketchy” behavior, and I’m sure any English teacher could facilitate similar discussions. After the kids identified what they thought might seem suspicious, they used their speaking and listening skills to poll their classmates; and then they used their “skills across the curriculum” to come up with class averages and show them on a spreadsheet. They asked each other how crazy a behavior seemed (from 1-10), and how many high school students they knew who would engage in similar behavior.  This inspired a separate blog post, but I’ll include the chart here:

“Crazy score” # of kids similar kids we know Other notes
Called gf “devil” 4.3 2.9
Calling ex at 12:30 4 3.7 Over half up at midnight; average of 11:30
Crashing girls night 5.4 2.1
Multiple gf’s/towns 3.7 7.9
Doing big favor for ex 3.7 3.1
Using “kill” in convo 4.4 5.7
Not paging Hae 6 3.3
Awk convo with Sarah 4.9 2.4
Parents crashing dance 6.5 1.5 including football games, movies
Mr. S 7 0.3
Buying fancy jacket for ex 4.4 0.8 rare, not crazy
Shifting romantic priorities 2.9 8.5
Doodling names 100+ 6.5 2.2
Aiding crime w/o telling cops 7.4 3.7 “Y’all know 3 people who are a 7?” “Yes”

Standards addressed: Various listening and speaking standards, including cooperative soft skills and problem solving.
7. Now it’s time for my students to become lawyers
They’ve spent almost a month now as critical, but nevertheless semi-passive, readers. Now as they’re coming up on Episode 5 and 6, I’m requiring them to take stands.  If they think Adnan is innocent (one group has #freeadnan on their group nametag), now is the time to assert that they would actually let Adnan out of jail, and then convince us why.  I’ll write more about this as it happens but I think it’s safe to say…
Standards addressed: Almost all of the writing standards, and some of the listening/speaking standards.
8. Other Notes
There is occasional bad language (could the nice people at Serial publish an edited teen-friendly version?) but it’s not worse than Catcher in the Rye or Shakespeare (if you read carefully). In any case, I get a couple episodes ahead of them, and write down the moments of bad language and then mute it just in case.
There are also some scenes that Sarah calls “disturbing” but again, not any more disturbing than all the death we read about in more orthodox literature.
I’ve read a lot recently, however, that this is different because the disturbing scenes are concerning corpses of a real person, not Hamlet, and I do take this seriously. We talk about that in class, which is a nice teachable moment, but also — and this might be startling — I’m not sure I’m going to finish the story as a class.  It’s another reason I’m a couple episodes ahead of them.

Likewise, there are articles about how there may not be a satisfying conclusion because this is not a fictional story. Personally, I am in the camp of people who feel that there are enough literary aspects to this story that there better be a real conclusion, but we’ll see.  Worst case scenario, this will inspire us to consider the concepts of genre and modern media, and evaluate the form of the text.

9. Update on Lesson Plans!

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 they are literally swallowing up my entire Winter Break, but if you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment here, or email me at mrgodsey@gmail.com.


18 thoughts on “A Simple Guide to Teaching "Serial" in high school

  1. Just wanted to say I appreciate you blogging this experience, and I think I might try something like this in my 9th grade English or Intro to Debate class. It sounds like a really interesting and engaging lesson plan.

  2. Figuring out how to implement this in my own classroom has become my new obsession (thanks, Slate). Thank you for sharing your handouts, insights, warnings, and advice as you teach this — especially the start-up info in this post. This teacher appreciates it immensely!!

  3. I also found your site via the Slate article and have been really interested in this idea!! I have had a tough time motivating my juniors this year and am hoping this might shake them from their doldrums. You have certainly inspired me! Thank you for all you are so freely sharing here. I will be checking back often, hoping to introduce this to my classes in mid January.

    Would you mind if I posted a link to your site and to the Slate article on Edmodo for other English 9-12 teachers? Thank you again!!

  4. Thanks for the positive thoughts, Chris. I'll definitely have formal lesson plans posted soon — they're actually done already, but then I decided to get perfect with them (put the exact time stamps down for the examples, etc.). I'll let you know when each lesson plan comes out.

    And absolutely post a link to my site anywhere you want. Thanks for asking, but go ahead and spread the word.

  5. (I answered this awhile ago, but I think I forgot to directly reply to your post. Sorry about that.)

    Sounds great. For 9th graders, I'd cut the end of the “Mr. S” episode (ep 2 I think), and maybe some of the language (depends on you and your school), and for debate class you don't need every part of every episode; but in any case, it could be fun and exciting. Don't forget the documents (call logs, etc.) for debate. If you go for it, please keep me updated and send me any new ideas..

  6. The first batch of lessons are almost done — they're just being tinkered with, and perfectly edited and so on…I'll let you know when they're done. Thanks for the positive thoughts..

  7. Hi Tony — 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…

  8. Hi Julie — 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…

  9. Hi Chris — 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. I was pretty excited to stumble across this blog. I just started using Serial in my forensics class. I am able to use some of your stuff and tweak it to work in my class. Our discussions are quite interesting looking at the forensic and legal side of the case.

  11. I wish I had discovered your blog before I began working with the podcast in my English II Honors class in early November. We will wrap up the Unit in the next 2-3 weeks. Currently, my class is on Episode 6. We have an attorney coming in to speak to the class next week – the students are both excited and engaged!

  12. Hi, I am currently listening to season1 for my own enjoyment. I was wondering if you had kept track of the bad language. I'm not sharing this with students but don't want to hear the language myself. Thanks!

  13. Hi, I am currently listening to season1 for my own enjoyment. I was wondering if you had kept track of the bad language. I'm not sharing this with students but don't want to hear the language myself. Thanks!

  14. Hi, I am currently listening to season1 for my own enjoyment. I was wondering if you had kept track of the bad language. I'm not sharing this with students but don't want to hear the language myself. Thanks!

  15. I am sitting in my new classroom at a new school, trying desperately to come up with engaging texts to teach my students. I get to map my own curriculum which is super exciting but also a little overwhelming. This will be my first year teaching English at an alternative charter school in Chicago. My students live with violence. I can’t think of anything that would be more engaging to them than something like “Serial”. Any tips on how to get started beyond what you have mentioned here?

    1. Sounds like you’re on the right path! The most excited teachers have been the ones in situations like the one you describe. I think you’ll love it.

      I have no real “advice” though besides diving in. If you’re not quite sure, just look at the first episode’s lesson plans. They stand on their own, and if you and your class enjoys it, then there are 11 more episodes and lesson plans to go with them. (Plus we just published plans on creating podcasts). Just use the links in this post and keep me updated on how well it goes!

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