Thursday, December 18, 2014

Quick Student Survey Results on Serial

Some people have emailed me asking about the students' reaction to Serial as a unit in my English class. Although I haven't yet completely digested all of this information and reflected on the entire experience, I'd thought I'd post some raw data from a survey I gave them this morning.

I'll offer some more specific reflections on the unit as a whole this weekend.

Some quick notes on the survey: 
1. They were polled before they listened to the season finale.
2. They took the survey on a Google form, completely unanimously, on a relatively private computer.

Some quick take-aways (for me):
1. Only 5% of the students marked "I don't care" to the question about "Who did it?" That's pretty amazing considering the reputation that teens have for their apathy. For purposes of comparison, I asked them to guess (or know) how many games our boys' basketball team won last year, and 45% marked "I couldn't care less."

2. Only 4% said they "didn't like" this podcast -- this coming from a community of students who are very willing to complain about the book they're being forced to read.

3. They seem like they're being pretty honest. Most of the them admitted to spacing out here and there, and many of them said they were "more apt to listen to podcast after this (but probably wouldn't)."

Which text would you rather study?

A play by Shakespeare22%
A short novel1210%
A non-fiction essay or article33%

How often did you drift off while listening to Serial?

A lot. I spaced out all the time.76%
Maybe once or twice an episode.1815%
Once or twice during a boring episode.7261%
I barely missed a word.2017%

Are you more apt to listen to other podcasts now that you've heard Serial?

No, I didn't really like this one.54%
Yes, but I probably won't5445%
Yes, and I probably will.5244%
I already have started listening to other ones.65%

Who did it?

Adnan, like Jay says.1412%
Jay, with help from Adnan1714%
Jay and Adnan, with help from a 3rd person.2017%
I have no idea.2218%
I don't care.65%
Somebody we don't know (like a serial killer)65%
Stephanie, with Jay's help1714%

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Serial" Lesson Plans (for Episode 1) are Ready!

Many teachers (and even a couple non-teachers) have asked me for formal lesson plans and ideas for teaching standards-based Serial to high school students. And maybe I went overboard here, but there are now 40 pages of teacher guides and printable handouts available -- just for the first episode. There are ten lessons in total, focusing on vocabulary, connotation, themes and motifs, structure, genre, close reading, some creative writing, and a fun memory game. Each lesson plan comes with a background, some additional options, and some personal observations on how it worked with my students, and they all cite the anchor standards that apply.

You can get straight to the lesson plans by clicking here.

Beyond the "normal" lesson planning, these took me about 25 hours to formalize into something I could share -- just finding the exact location for every vocab words took me about two hours. Then additionally, it took my wife several hours to make them look good for your students. But if you don't like them, then please send me an email and tell me how I can improve them.

Plans and ideas for the rest of the episodes will be ready by the end of the month (I'm hoping by Christmas), and will have 1-3 lessons per episode. They'll include the "crazy chart" and working with maps and cell phone logs, all the good stuff, but it will certainly not be 40 pages for each episode. They will also be free for a certain amount of time, and I'll be sure to let you know when they're ready.

In the meantime, if anybody can think of the best way we can just casually and freely share ideas and problems as a community of Serial-loving teachers, let me know -- I'm getting a pretty decent list of teachers interested in collaborating, including one from Woodlawn High School. On the list there are mainstream English teachers, AP English teachers, AVID teachers, EL teachers, and a couple of administrators. I'll post something soon about how we can all virtually hang out.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sorry, Adults: High school kids just aren't that into you. (No matter what you buy them.)

There's been a lot of growing excitement the past few years about modern and innovative ways to prepare children for careers, technology, and social paradigms of the future. I would just like to pause for a minute and remind everyone (including myself): High school kids have never been too excited about the adult world, and that hasn't changed. Don't get me wrong: I want wi-fi at my school, I like that LAUSD earmarked 1.3 billion dollars for iPads, and I want to teach skills that are relevant for the 21st century economy. But in our dizzy excitement to provide opportunities for our future employees, let's not blind ourselves to the fact that regardless of how many presents we buy them, high school kids just aren't that into us, our jobs, or our LinkedIn accounts.

A couple months ago, our high school tried to encourage the kids with their own "Bring Your Own Device" Day, but of my 150 students, I think maybe five of them brought devices they wouldn't have otherwise. We were surprised by the half-hearted participation when maybe we should not have been. For a week, we theorized about the possibility of misguided promotional efforts, student theft concerns, or poverty issues, when suddenly, feeling a minor epiphany, I asked the students directly: "You guys don't really like using technology at school, do you?" They smiled and laughed. One student spoke for the class: "No, but you teachers all think we do." Another student said, "We like playing games and sending messages to each other, but we don't want to use our phones for schoolwork." Their heads nodded emphatically in agreement.

I suddenly realized that just because the students love using their devices to connect with friends, sometimes to the point of obsession, this does not necessarily mean they want us involved in their circuitry. In fact, maybe just the opposite. And so, before we get too emotionally or financially invested into "College and Career Readiness anchor standards" (the self-proclaimed "backbone" of the CCSS), or explicitly preparing them to face "career challenges and a globally competitive workforce" (from the mission statement of The Partnership of 21st Century Skills), or get them excited about "the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century," maybe we should realize (or remember) that most teenagers don't want to even think about the job to which they're going to be assigned for the next five decades.

Or maybe this is just a personal revelation. I've spent most of my career with AP seniors who generally can't wait to get out of high school; now I'm teaching 10th and 11th grade "college prep" English and I'm presently blushing at my naive expectations.

Last week, in a similar way, I was surprised to find out that a great majority of my students don't use Twitter. Many of them shrugged off my double-take with complete disinterest; a few of them said they didn't see the point. I told them that Twitter is where I go to see headlines, and learn things, and read new perspectives on subjects that interest me. They nodded politely. They told me they still like Facebook, and love Snapchat, and really like playing interactive games. They sounded like a patient teacher repeating a lesson to me: We like to play games and send messages to each other. Twitter is not the medium for that. Twitter is for adults.

I didn't believe them until I persuaded a few of them to contribute to a hashtag (#TeensOnSerial) to converse with other high school students about their theories on the Serial podcast. I was stunned by how almost painful it was for them to collaborate about something school-related with students from another school, but how willingly they re-tweeted from celebrity accounts, celebrated "crazy" parties, or burst into dramatic laments about broken high school relationships. In other words, redundant Facebook posts and text messages made public.

My blog post about Serial and Shakespeare led to our class being seen in The Wall Street Journal,,, and the local newspaper, and they were genuinely stoked about all this. Likewise, I was so excited to make this a teachable moment: You guys can do this, too. I even asked a producer from NowThisNews (who looked so cool in her glass-walled big-city newsroom) right in front of all the students -- if any of these students had written a blog post titled "My teacher is teaching Serial instead of Shakespeare," would you have noticed them as potential writers, interns, or journalists? She said, "I would have noticed them in exactly the same way I noticed you, and in fact, they would've stood out much more." But alas, none of my students have voluntarily started blogs since then (or even a Twitter account).

I should know better. I flashed back on all the times I've asked for a volunteer to look something up on their phone during a lecture and got nothing but a lot of reluctant shifting; then one student would do the requested research, while immediately a dozen more would pretend to do the same thing so that they could have an excuse to check for messages from their friends.

I flashed back to one particular season as a JV baseball coach, when I would often get frustrated at the goofing around, and I would habitually lecture my team about the work ethic and focus needed to play baseball in college. Once, a player interrupted me in mid-rant and said timidly, "Coach, we're fifteen."

Indeed, my students are only fifteen -- they are just four years out of 6th grade, while they are 24 years (almost two of their lifetimes!) away from being my age. Maybe this is always on your mind, but it's something that so easy for me to forget.

It's also easy for me to forget that as high school students, my friends and I ridiculed the history teacher who "sold out" to become the dean. That to us, most adults looked relatively unhappy at their jobs. We really liked video games, wiffleball, and talking on the phone late at night, in low voices so our parents couldn't hear us.

To clarify, a few of the students look forward to adulthood. They engage in adult discourses, they are bored by general classroom discussions, and they usually take AP classes. The majority of the students, however, are fixated on immediate pleasures and a lifestyle that will soon be over. And for these kids, changing the way we present the subject matter won't fundamentally transform their desire to learn the standards, and it might even backfire. The thing is, if they don't like broccoli, they're still not going to like it if it's in a burrito, especially if they already like burritos.

What does this mean for me as a teacher? For starters, I have to stop basing some of my lessons on the assumption that they are consciously interested in earning a good place to work, the chance to pay tens of thousands of dollars to study even harder for four more years, or the opportunity to argue with adults at staff meetings (or on Twitter).

My students actually like to read; many of them read voluntarily for pleasure. I should probably focus on tapping into that affinity. But they don't read on their own to learn "domain-specific" vocabulary or engage in the global economy. They want to play games and talk with their friends. They like to solve mysteries, and they want to learn more about people. I remember when I was in high school, I wanted to major in English so that I could learn more about people, and maybe it would help me with the ladies. (And maybe it did -- I believe I married a perfect woman.) They like the Hunger Games, they like reading about Lennie and George, they like talking about the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. They like learning about people and how to deal with them, and applicable lessons on life -- their life, right now. That's how I can engage them.

They don't generally care about tone maps, or iambic pentameter, or MLA formatting. That doesn't mean I'm not going to teach those things; I'm just going to be more honest with my approach. I'm not going to pretend it's intrinsically interesting to them, and I'm not going to think that giving them laptops or infusing social networking into my lesson plans is going to change anything in that regard.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Minor updates about Serial friends, Serial lesson plans, and a teacher from Woodlawn High.

So this isn't the absolute truth, but I can say with significant veracity that I started this blog to show my students how it's done. Morro Bay High went all in with Google docs this year (which makes sense), and I taught computer apps during summer school (which makes no sense whatsoever). In a really clumsy totally collaborative way, the incoming freshmen and I taught each other how to blog, tweet, and identify memes, along with a few other useful skills. I wanted to share this with my juniors this fall, so I showed them my so-called blog (I called it "Blog blah blah"), showed them how to tweet about it (to my 21 followers), and introduced them to podcasts (Bill Simmons talking about the NFL controversies, and Serial). Then we just kept listening to Serial, and I wrote about how we were still listening to it (instead of reading Shakespeare), then I tweeted about it, and then finally I hashtagged that holla. Soon after that, the The Wall Street Journal emailed me, then a few other journalists, and then quite a few excited teachers who were also teaching Serial, or at least thinking about it.

"What a great lesson for my students!" I exclaimed inside my own head. Soon, I thought, so many students will be blogging and sharing and publishing and laughing together with glee (except for the times they're serious, and trying to think of the perfect word, with their eyebrows scrunched in concentration), and they'll all start understanding the truly connective power of language. That idea, however, turned out to be my falsest prophesy ever. Oh well. Someday.

We're still at zero voluntary student blogs (I'll write about that soon), but the kids have enjoyed seeing themselves in the news, and I've really enjoyed making some new friends. Even though they don't read newspapers, the kids were excited to see themselves in The Wall Street Journal and; meanwhile, I enjoyed my talks with Matt Collette (the writer of the article) and reading some of his past articles. Some of my students got to enjoy a long Skype interview with, where Sarah Frank asked us questions about Serial while we enjoyed asking her about her job and the industry in general (and found a website they really like). We were interviewed by the local newspaper, and now we're seeing us written about in French and Spanish newspapers. And while maybe they haven't been motivated to write their own posts (yet), they've been excited to come to class and work hard, and they really do feel on the cutting edge of a popular new kind of literature. So that's cool.

Meanwhile, I've been receiving emails from excited teachers who are either asking for, or offering, lesson plans and ideas for teaching Serial in the classroom. We haven't formalized any true collaborative projects yet (the #teensonserial hashtag kind of fizzled), but we have some good ideas. We're trying to figure out how to schedule Skype meetings with other classes, or trade our own self-made podcasts about our theories with another school, or maybe just collaborate on a shared document. If anybody has a good idea, please send it our way.

In the meantime, while I've heard from teachers from all over the country, the most exciting was a teacher asking for lesson ideas -- from Woodlawn High. How cool is that?? Some of his colleagues graduated with Jay, and they knew the whole cast of characters. We talked on the phone for almost 45 minutes, and I don't want to give away all his secrets, but I'll give you some of the easy (but interesting) takeaways. First of all, he sounded as sure as Adnan when he said there's "no way" to get from school to Best Buy in the time provided. I know this doesn't really matter now, but I still thought it was interesting. I also didn't buy that Adnan had never heard of Leakin Park (it looks so big on Google Maps), so he asked his kids the next day: less than 10% of them had heard of it. And the truly stunning statistic he gave me: He estimates that "two of the 150" teachers there have heard of the podcast, and almost none of the non-Pakistani students have any idea of its existence. Hopefully, if some of us teachers figure out a way to work together in a collaborative effort, he'll be a big part of it.

And finally, for those people asking for formal lesson plans, I swear they'll be done by the end of the week. There are ten lessons for the first episode all finished, but I'm trying to make them absolutely perfect. You'll hear from me soon. 

In the meantime, two more days till the next episode...