Monday, February 1, 2016

Teaching Episode 3 of Serial (Season 2)

A couple of my classes are already through Episode 5 and are looking forward to Thursday's new episode, but most of my classes are still on Episode 3, working on their second exercise of their formal writing. I don't have anything shockingly new to report, but I do have a few quick observations and reiterations.

1. The students really like the projected transcripts, and so do I. We sit in a semi-darkened room and read the story together on the big screen while we listen to the podcast. It's so good for their reading comprehension, and it's really helping them focus on their listening skills. But I think they like literally "being on the same page" as their friends, and sharing a story communally. I have never asked them to read the transcripts, and not all of them do -- but a surprising majority of them voluntarily read and get mad at me if I forget to scroll down.

2. As before, I love how accessible the podcast is. If a student goes on vacation or "home hospital," it's so easy to email them a copy of the exercises and let them keep up on their own.

3. With her "Zoom" structure of telling the story with a widening viewpoint, the kids have a chance to consider themes at different levels -- a hallmark of literature. I do miss the characters of Season 1, and trying to figure out who's lying and when and why, but ultimately this season feels much wider and deeper, and I think it's going to prove to be more profound.

For this particular episode, we're working on turning our notes into an essay, and then making our essays "half as long" (in the spirit of A River Runs Through It), and then half as long again, to intensify our writing. Once we have our intense summaries, we compare them to Koenig's more expansive writing and consider "art as an inspiration for empathy" -- it's making for some great classroom discussions.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Listening to Podcasts in the High School Classroom -- compared to reading novels.

Last year, when I had my English students listen to Serial instead of reading a play, I did it mostly as an experiment. I wanted to know if they could stay focused while listening to a story, and if so, whether their engagement in a contemporary story would help me as a teacher.

What I noticed is that their focus on the podcast was better than when reading books. I can't  prove this, but judging by their faces, their reactions to provocative scenes, their quiz scores, the subsequent classroom discussions, and an informal poll, my students remained consistently locked in on Sarah Koenig's story--better than almost any other story I've ever taught.

And yes, this engagement made it easy and fun to teach both a love of literature and the skill set delineated in the Common Core.

But I still felt a little guilty. I'm one of those people who believe that listening to a book on tape is not really "reading a book." This apprehension increased as I started teaching the second season of Serial.

So I did a little research and found that listening comprehension can be just as important as reading comprehension, maybe more important.

One study shows that listening comprehension "becomes the dominant influence on reading comprehension," especially as students get older, and highlights a growing number of students who are struggling with reading because of their "deficit listening skills." It's really a fascinating article, especially with some great examples from real life and "Mad Men."

Another study shows dramatic evidence that children who have been read to score higher on various comprehension tests, and started using longer, more complex, sentences to tell their own stories. They concluded: "Time invested in listening to stories is time well spent." 

Yet another fascinating study shows that children who watch TV with "same language subtitles" (SLS) showed significant gains in decoding skills, and concluded that "the potential of SLS in India and other countries is enormous" and "especially powerful."

Now that third study is not about listening instead of reading; it's about reading while listening. Which brings me to Season 2 of Serial. Unlike last season, when transcripts weren't provided by Serial, I'm able to project the words on the big screen while we listen to it. It's awesome.

It's awesome because I don't "make" them read. They have activities, lessons, and quizzes centered around the podcast, but they can look wherever they want. I'm intrigued by how many of them read along voluntarily, and a few of them even yelp out a "Hey!" when I forget to scroll down in time.

What this also allows and encourages is good meta-cognitive discussions with the students -- I love to hear them talk about how they learn best, and how they comprehend complicated stories.

The articles I read that hate on listening to a story (instead of reading it) are interesting, but don't apply to my class. "Frontiers in Psychology" reports that people are more apt to be distracted while listening rather than reading; but in my class, they do both.

The Wall Street Journal points out that many people who listen to audiobooks are distracted by other activities, like driving their car, or doing the dishes. But my kids are in a darkened room, with illuminated large text, and Bowe's voice coming through the speakers.

And even without the perfect conditions in my classroom, it's not certain the haters have very much scientific evidence to stand on. That same WSJ article points out that "Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that for competent readers, there is virtually no difference between listening to a story and reading it." And for incompetent readers, the studies above show that listening to the words while reading them dramatically helps with their decoding skills.

Additionally, Olga Khazan points out in that audiobooks (or podcasts) "pre-determines an aspect of language called prosody, or the musicality of words," which helps with both enjoyment and comprehension.

I'll keep dropping new links to other studies on this post. Feel free to send your own links, either for or against podcasts in an English classroom. Until then, we're going to keep listening to one story, told week by week.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Teaching Episode 2 of Serial (from Season 2)

Today I used the second episode of Serial (Season 2) in my Criminal Justice class, and just like the first episode, it was compelling and engaging for the students. However, it did provide its own set of challenges:

1. It's long. When I listened on my own, I appreciated the longer form, but in a high school class, it's a little tougher for them to stay locked in for that length of time. The listening guides helped them focus, as did my "Ramifications" handout, but I also had to pause it 4-5 times so that we could take a short listening break, do a friendly classroom discussion, and re-engage. Fortunately, there's plenty to talk about -- for example, they enjoyed talking about what it would feel like to have a unarmed Taliban soldier suddenly walk into our room (assuming we were armed and at war).

2. There aren't as many visuals as the first episode. I showed them the leaflets, which they liked, and they also appreciated the map. But there wasn't the amount of video we had in the first episode, which was fine because...

3. I projected the transcript up on the big screen, which was a big help. Many studies prove how good it is for students to listen to high-level English while reading it, and this is a perfect text for that. Also, this episode features heavy accents, which is especially difficult for students for whom English is a second language, and so the transcripts helped everyone (including me).

Then we skipped my other four exercises that I use for English class (because this is just an elective) and went straight to the "Finding Bowe Bergdahl" game, which was a great way to end the class. In this game, students exchange playing cards (face down) with each other while a few "soldiers" try to find Bergdahl (the Ace of Spades) before he gets to "Pakistan" (the wall on the west side of my classroom). The Kings are IEDs that cause the soldiers to lose a man. Everyone had fun with it for 10-15 minutes, but ultimately the "soldiers" got a little exasperated, just as I planned. It kicked off a great little discussion about how 10 minutes of looking for the Ace of Spades compares to three weeks of actually looking for Bergdahl. "I get it now," one girl said. "I'd be so over it."

Also, a quick note on timing: We have a block schedule, so we got the whole thing done in a day, but there's no way to get the whole episode done in a single hour with any kind of significant analysis or discussion. Most teachers will want to split this one in half.

Happy weekend!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Additional Resources for Serial 2

As I'm teaching the second season of Serial in my high school classroom, I'm excited to discover that the kids love the story of Bowe as much as the story of Adnan. I thought maybe without the high school setting, they might lose a little engagement, but it hasn't been the case.

I did feel, however, that this story moves a bit slower, and it's a bit longer, and the setting is literally foreign to them. I felt the constant compulsion to include photos or videos through the projector while they listened. It was very cool -- we were in semi-darkness, listening to the story (with their reading guides in front of them), with maps, videos, or photos projected onto the big screen in front of the classroom.

The resources on the site are great. I played some of the "Bergdahl's Release" video right after Sarah described it; I showed them the map of Afghanistan; and once Bowe's plan was described, I used the "Fly Over OP Mest" map, which they found fascinating.

In my published lesson plans, I suggest using the Zoom video and the fly-over of FOB Sharana, and I played both of these when they were mentioned in the first episode.

But I also found myself heading to the Internet for a few extra images, and I thought I'd share:

Here is a video of the Afghan army doing traffic checks, just for the sake of seeing the scenery.

Here is a video of the Marines doing a traffic checkpoint in Afghanistan. It's not the Army, but it gives a sense of their job and the terrain. The kids were fascinated for a few minutes.

Here is a good photo of OP Mest.

I didn't use the entire videos listed above, but I put a couple of the fly-overs on loop a few times. I had them all on silent while I played the podcast from my iPhone.

I'll keep leaving notes here on my blog as we go through the second season.

And if you're interested, over a hundred pages of lesson plans are available at the TpT site.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lesson Plans for first 3 episodes of Serial (Season 2) now published!

I'm not going to brag exactly, but I'm not going to hide my pride when it comes to the latest bundle of Serial lesson plans:

- 24 of the 26 CCSS anchor standards are addressed in the third episode alone. I think the only standard the bundle is missing is the one about using technology to publish a document, and any teacher can easily take care of this on their own.

- The bundle includes three healthy lists of vocabulary, three quizzes, about 15 stand-alone lessons, a few ELA lessons that will help with any text (not just Serial), several writing prompts, plenty of discussion prompts, and about a billion timestamps to help anybody navigate the podcasts.

- The first person this is going to help is me. Normally I would scribble down timestamps and prompts and then misplace them. Now I have them in one spot, and about 20 worksheets ready to print out. It's going to be a great January.

- I'm also going to have some days with substitute teachers coming up (conferences I'm speaking at, etc.), and it's so relieving to know that everything is already written out for them.

- I'm also really proud of my wife, soulmate, and graphic designer (all one person!) for making these worksheets look waaaaaay better than I could ever make them on my own. She's also a pretty good editor for when I start babbling or assuming more than I should.

- I also like the fact that our lots and lots of hours of work will save so many hours of work for other teachers.

As always, the plans are available at our TpT store; and as always, we love feedback, ideas, and even questions.  Have fun with the discussions, and Happy 2016!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Serial Podcast Lesson Plans (for Season 2) are now ready for Episode 2!

The plans for Episode 2 are all finished, and I can't wait to put them into action! I might have done a little bit too much front-loading (there are seven exercises, a game, and a quiz), but it should make for an trouble-free, totally fun January. I'm proud to say that 19 of the 26 anchor standards are addressed in this unit alone, and I'm pretty confident this season of Serial will be as interesting as the first season (if not more).

I've already done some of the pre-writing exercises with my Criminal Justice class, and they were giddy to hear the story of Bowe Bergdahl. Of course, I can't use a majority of my lessons with this class (since they're designed for ELA), but some are pretty applicable, and it just feels great to have timestamps for all the crucial quotes, a few naughty words, and the challenging vocabulary.

As usual, the 47 pages of resources (and 30 hours of work) is available to the public at our TpT store, where you can also find the first episode and the third episode (soon!). And, of course, you can also find the 300-something pages of lesson plans and resources on the first season of Serial.

And as always, feel free to ask questions and give feedback to what you think of the podcast, and how it's working in the classroom!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Serial 2 DUSTWUN lesson plans are now available!

Thanks to the help of my talented wife Melissa, the lesson plans for the first episode of Serial (Season 2) are now available.

The unit contains 42 pages that include 6 exercises, a quiz, printable worksheets, vocabulary words, and engaging prompts. Best of all, there are lots of timestamps so you can keep track of key scenes, vocabulary words, naughty words (there are two little ones), and the general form of Sarah Koenig's storytelling.

Feel free to send me reactions, comments, or ideas for improvement. Otherwise, enjoy!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Serial (Season 2) Lesson Plans

Yes, I was up early this morning and I've already heard the first episode of Serial (Season 2) twice.

Yes, it's great -- it's hard to remember exactly how excited I was about the first episode of the first season, but right now I feel like I like this season more.

And yes, there will be lesson plans published, and hopefully soon. The vocab lessons are prepared, the quick-write prompts are ready, and there are plans for exercises on connotation and narrative form. I'll announce as soon as they're ready!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Will Jones and his Poetic Retirement Tour

When it comes to poetry readings, I firmly believe that 95% of the common ones just bore the entire audience, while the other 5% completely engage everyone's complete attention. I will always remember how Maya Angelou completely owned an entire gymnasium for an entire hour before everyone just sort of floated out into the parking lot. At Cal Poly, everyone hung on every word of Sekou the Misfit; and in Boulder, everyone in the super-cool, totally apathetic coffee shop would suddenly stop talking and stop drinking whatever they were drinking when Glenn Hergenhahn took the stage.

Last week, Will Jones had one of those unforgettable performances. He packed the the room at the Palm Street Theater, and had everyone laughing, and feeling, and sharing in the communal experience of life. The audience's appreciation of his words was evident—like the cases I mentioned above, I don't think a single person missed a single word.

Will was a role model of mine when he was a principal at SLO High (where I taught English). Now, he's a role model in retirement. It seems every week, he's climbing a large mountain or publishing an article. This poetry reading was a perfect example, one where he explicitly announced: "This is how you do retirement!" He had all the bravado and personal excitement of somebody running down their bucket list, but he balanced it with a humorous humility, exemplified when he proudly announced that we could buy a signed copy of his book, and then immediately admitted with a big smile, "I have no idea who I think I am."

The poetry itself was a great lesson on how to look at, appreciate, and reflect on life.
The poetry reading was a great lesson on how to actually live life.

More of this, everybody. More of this.

P.S. Will wrote on his Facebook page, "True Stories from My Past Volume 2, is now available online at Go to and enter the title or the ISBN, 9781495146138, to order a copy. I will mail it to you personally."

And there's also a great YouTube video of one of his poems at

Creating our own "Serial" podcast of "The Crucible"

A few months ago, I published some very thorough lesson plans for using the Serial podcast in the high school classroom, and in the final unit, I suggested helping students create their own podcast. It's project-based, it's fun, it's using technology, and it's a great summative assignment. Then KQED's Mind/Shift did a feature on our class that included our plans to re-tell the story of The Crucible in a short podcast.

So teachers have been emailing me and asking: How did it go?

The short answer: It went great. The kids were engaged, they were driven by an authentic goal, they had fun, they were creative, and they were collaborative. On my end, it worked as a excellent summative assessment—it was very clear which students understood the finer points of The Crucible and the structure of Serial, and which ones did didn't have the same handle.

The longer answer: It took much longer than I thought it would. I should definitely know better, but I somehow thought that we could analyze Serial's structure, read The Crucible, and then just ask them to put the two together. In reality, they needed a lot of scaffolding, and many groups needed my guidance at every step. As it is, we're still not done. Even the sample I'm going to include on this post is unfinished—they want to add music and sound effects, and they'd like to re-record their voices.

As briefly as I can, I'll take you through the steps, and I won't be shy about telling you where things got difficult. And, of course, you can do this with any text, not just The Crucible.

Step 1: Analyze the form and structure of the pilot episode of Serial. This is one of the fundamental lessons in my published unit, and it breaks down all the elements of classic story-telling (the hook, the introduction, characterization, plot, etc.), and it asks students to study how much time is dedicated to each element, what order they're in, the tone of each segment, and so on. They write this down on a giant timeline in their journals. This takes at least an hour to actually physically write (the episode is almost an hour by itself), and many of the students needed help identifying the various elements. It certainly helped to do it in groups, but even then, they needed my help.

Step 2: Read The Crucible (or any text). For example, I've heard a couple teachers mention Hamlet. In any case, with their recent analysis in mind, the students are primed to explicitly note the story elements in whatever text they're reading, and should map out a similar timeline. Several good class discussions came from comparing and contrasting the form and structure of the two stories. Also, we were surprised and delighted by the some similarities in the stories themselves (they both have mysteries, liars, betrayals, court scenes, and even forbidden dancing in the opening scenes).

Step 3: Consider how to tell one story in the form of the other. Along with some direct instruction and advice, I also showed them SNL's very funny re-telling of "Kris Kringle" in the form of Serial. I honestly thought that would be enough, and maybe for some classes, it would be. But my class (11th grade English) needed a little more scaffolding.

Step 4: Guided comparisons. While they sketched out the different parts of their podcast, I gave them a handout to use for reference and assessment. (Ultimately, this is how I graded their project.) The actual handout is much longer than this (3 pages) and looks a lot better, but this is the basic gist:

Comparing Stories

For each aspect of the story, briefly summarize how Sarah accomplished that part, how your group accomplished that part, and how the two versions compare (Are they similar or radically different? Is one better than the other for a particular reason?).

Short (10-second) hook. 
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Longer hook.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Introduction of narrator.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Observations about a psychological or deeper truth.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Description of the crime and the victim.
Serial’s version:
Your group’s version:
How they compare:

Step 5: Determination of group roles. This might happen before Step 4, but in any case, each group (usually no more than four students) had to decide how they're dividing their labor. They should explicitly write this down for your assessment purposes and also to hold them responsible for their individual expectations. Some groups divided the writing into segments, while others had a "reading expert" and a "creative writing expert" and so on.

Step 6: Write the draft. This is what took far longer than I expected. The more people in the group, the longer it takes. There were some two-student groups that finished this in an hour, but the bigger groups took twice as long. There are just lots of brainstorming, discussions, arguments, and compromises (which are all great things, but time-consuming). Emphasize that these podcasts shouldn't be any longer than 5-6 minutes.

Step 7: Do a "live reading" for the class. Again, I did not do enough scaffolding here. If your class is like mine, you'll have to explicitly tell them to prepare a script for each team member (rather than pass around a single script). They should also practice at least once or twice before stuttering through their script in front of the class in a monotone voice. You should also warn them that you might cut them off at the 5-minute mark (some of them will be long and tedious, and you want to keep some enthusiasm and interest with the rest of the class.)

Step 8: Groups get feedback. This can come from you and/or the other classmates. My former AP classes were very generous with their friendly, constructive feedback; my "college prep" kids are a little more shy.

Step 9: Create final draft, based on feedback and reconsiderations.

Step 10: Record the podcast using Audacity. They just did this in another classroom (our digital photography class), and technically speaking, this should only take 10 minutes. In reality, I sent one "pioneer group" first (their sample is included below), and it took a lot longer than that. First, they all shared a microphone and didn't like the sound. They decided to re-do it the next class using four different computers with four different microphones, but the teacher re-directed them to the Mac in a smaller, secluded room, which seemed to work fine. But they still don't love their voices, their pauses between lines was intentional but ultimately bad for the listening experience, and they still need to include music and sounds. But now it's Spring Break, so we'll have to wait another week or two.

Bonus Step 11: Publishing the podcast. Ha! I thought this would be easy. I am very much a pioneer of my own little world, and you can sometimes choose a different adjective than "skeptical." I thought I could just copy and paste the mp3 to Blogger. Instead, I lost about two hours Googling ways to insert code and so on. Reading this blog may have saved you two hours! As you can see below, I went with Soundcloud, which I found very user-friendly. Sign up for an account, upload your mp3, and then google "embedding soundcloud blogger" (or wherever). I'm very bad at this kind of stuff, and I found it pretty easy. (I think.) (You can hear the podcast below, right?)

Let's give it a shot: Remember this is unfinished! (We're on Spring Break.)

And please share yours! (Somehow.) (Send me a link or something.)