Monday, April 6, 2015

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.)


  1. Hi Michael,

    Just wanted to let you know that I'll be launching a unit based on your plans next week.

    I work in a project-based school, and I'll be using your lessons to work through, as of right now, the first 5-6 episodes of Serial. We've been studying the bildungsroman and the idea of "the teenager" from a social science perspective all year.

    Right now the plan is to take half of the remaining quarter to genre-study w/ Serial, and then have students research and produce their own short podcast, audio documentary about a teen issue or an audio profile about another teen. My school is a 1:1 iPad school and I look forward to using this technology in a novel way for the kids.

    I am (of course) concerned about time. We're on a block of 77 minutes, but I see my kids every other day. What with testing, and other end-of-the-year requirements, I've only got about 16 class sessions to work with.

    I wonder if you can provide any insight into pacing? I read through your plans today, and my current sequence has us spending 7-8 class periods working through the first 6 episodes, and then running a workshop model for the final half of the unit. I'm wondering what I'm up against.

    1. First of all, everything you just wrote there was pretty inspiring. I love the themes, the use of tech, and I think it's smart to listen to the first 6 episodes and then transition into workshops (if you're going to listen to one more episode as a class, I would include Ep. 8 "The Deal with Jay" and/or the finale).

      Time-wise, I don't know what more to tell you beyond what I wrote above. The scripts might take longer than you think, so I would advise you to use a worksheet like I included above to help them with their blocking. (I was going to send you a pdf of my worksheet, but then I realized you were doing a different project.) Maybe you can design a template (or two or three options of templates) for them to fill out like a form before they do their rough drafts. Even better, have the class design a template or two, based on your genre studies. This will cut out a lot of the distracting bickering in each of your groups.

      Also, I'm encouraged by your 1:1 system. A lot of our inefficiency came from using two different classrooms and two different teachers. If they can record their podcast right at their desks (or nearby), I think you'll be much more efficient than we were.

      The good news: If you set it up right, it really doesn't take long to record and publish. Hopefully I'm saving you some of my time-wasting mistakes. Record straight to Audacity on the iPad, tinker with it (if you have to), and then use SoundCloud to publish it (if you want to publish it). You can technically do it in under 20 minutes (but it's taken us two weeks).

      And pleeeease share your successes (and lessons learned) with me here or at I'm very interested in upping my game in this area.

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