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.


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.

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 mrgodsey@gmail.com.]

[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…