[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|
|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|
|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”|
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.