Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Simple Guide to Teaching "Serial" in high school

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 knowOther notes
Called gf "devil"4.32.9
Calling ex at 12:3043.7Over half up at midnight; average of 11:30
Crashing girls night5.42.1
Multiple gf's/towns3.77.9
Doing big favor for ex3.73.1
Using "kill" in convo4.45.7
Not paging Hae63.3
Awk convo with Sarah4.92.4
Parents crashing dance6.51.5including football games, movies
Mr. S70.3
Buying fancy jacket for ex4.40.8rare, not crazy
Shifting romantic priorities2.98.5
Doodling names 100+6.52.2
Aiding crime w/o telling cops7.43.7"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


  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.

    1. (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..

    2. 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...

  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!!

    1. 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..

    2. 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...

  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!!

    1. 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.

    2. 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...

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  5. 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.

    1. That is awesome! I did a similar thing with a science teacher at my school (we did collaborative lessons). How'd it work out with you?

  6. 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!

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  8. 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!

  9. 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!

    1. Not really. Episode 1 of Season 1 can be found as a "clean" version, but that's it. I have a really good way of shielding students, but not adults listening on their own. I have reached out to Serial and asked them to publish edited versions, and they actually said they'd try to work on that (now that they know how many students listen to it).

  10. Just curious do you think this could be used in a Contemporary World Issues class?

    1. I am about to teach this in my English 11 class along with Capote's "In Cold Blood" (won't let me italicize) and I think it would be amazing for CWI. There is also another pod cast called "Undisclosed" which focuses more stringently on the legal side of things, the down fall of the judicial system, and the prison system. I wish I could teach this hand in hand with a Social Studies teacher!

  11. Just curious do you think this could be used in a Contemporary World Issues class?

    1. I think it would work out okay, though I don't exactly know what your exactly class is like. My hunch is that Serial Season 2 (The Bowe Bergdahl story) would work out much better. I just finished the entire unit of lesson plans for all 11 episodes and there are seriously 40-50 terms and concepts that are "contemporary world issues." All kinds of international issues, and it includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Germany, and a relatively deep look at the intricacies of the U.S. government and their relationship with other countries and organizations.

  12. Hi Michael. I am so excited to teach this in my class. I am teaching it along with Capote's In Cold Blood. I can't wait to talk about all the social issues involved in these two pieces.

    1.'s it going?? (The teacher down the hall teaches In Cold Blood and absolutely swears by it.

  13. Hi,

    When you do detective notes, how do you direct your students? We are starting episode 1 in my co-taught World Lit class so I am excited.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      I've done it a little differently for each class, but almost all of them are driven by the central question: Is Adnan guilty? To this point, the kids get to practice the skill of choosing relevant details for their notes.

      Of course, there are also other guiding questions: Is anybody else guilty? Or: Who did it and how? Sarah Koenig's big question was "Who is lying?" and that works well. In other classes, we approach bigger questions about justice or storytelling. In my Criminal Justice class, students can choose to listen from the perspective of a police officer, prosecutor, or defense attorney. But whatever the case, they definitely need at least one central question to keep them engaged and their notes relevant.

      Have fun!