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 Forbes.com 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 serialpodcast.org 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!