It all started with Serial. As my long-time readers know, I’m a huge proponent of using podcasts in the classroom. You can read my reasoning and research here: Why You Should Be Using Podcasts in Secondary ELA and find lots of podcast posts on my blog, but it all started with teaching the Serial podcast season one.
Update: A lot has happened since this was published. While this post is still full of relevant and engaging Serial ideas, you will also want to read my latest post to get caught up: Updated Serial Lesson Plans : Teaching Serial After Adnan’s Release
Now back to this original post….
Picture it: It’s May of 2015, so close to graduation that we can smell the sweat from a cramped auditorium, and I’m desperately trying to find ANYTHING that will cure my 12th graders’ senioritis. Enter the Serial Podcast from the creators of This American Life, hosted by Sarah Koenig.
Serial season one is a true story about a high school romance gone terribly wrong. The victim, Hae Min Lee, is mysteriously murdered, and her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, has been in prison ever since. However, he proclaims his innocence and a lot of experts believe him. Where’s the lie?
On the surface this sounds like a basic true crime podcast that indulges our morbid curiosity (which is great for student buy-in!). However, it’s a lot more than that. It’s a real work of journalism (the first of its kind) and provides a legitimate literary nonfiction unit of study. Just like Dolly Parton’s America podcast which I’ve also used in class, Serial season 1 also won a Peabody Award for excellence in storytelling.
By using the Serial podcast in the classroom as a FREE educational tool, you can captivate high school students and engage them in ELA skills like detecting bias, recognizing rhetoric, and analyzing literary nonfiction.
WARNING: Like many of the books we use in ELA, the Serial podcast does contain graphic scenes and language. I highly recommend listening to the podcast before teaching Serial to make sure that it is a great fit for your classroom. In my opinion, Serial podcast season 1 is best for 11th and 12th grade students. If you are looking for a Serial-like podcast with less language, I recommend individual episodes of Criminal, or you can find lots more educational podcast recommendations for any grade level here: Podcasts for Kids: An epic list of activities and podcasts for school
Engaging ideas for teaching Serial podcast season one in high school ELA
Now I’m going to turn this blog post over to Claudia Curtis, a creative high school ELA teacher in Florida who is full of engaging ideas for teaching Serial podcast season one! She put her own spin on my Serial lesson plans, and I’m thrilled to share her work!
My kids are burnt out. My kids are exhausted. My kids are reeling from a post-quarantine era that was rampant with procrastination, plagiarism, and cheating. This unit brought us so much unity and joy, and I’d love to share how I was able to pursue some academic peace. This is my third year teaching SERIAL, and this is what I’ve learned.
1.) Take your classroom (digital or otherwise) back to the ’90s.
- Room Transformation, Props, photos from your teen years, playlist.
- Hook & Engagement, big KTW Vibes here.
2.) Warning: vulnerability ahead!
- Compare & Contrast what it means to be a teenager then & now.
3.) Finding a balance between the true-crime phenomenon and the gravity of the death of Hae Min Lee.
4.) Logistical Benefits: group seating, annotations, offering choice, and a sneak peek at my resources.
Transform your classroom for teaching Serial
I start most of my major lessons with room transformations. Now I know the Frugal Frans and Busy Bobs are about to come for me but just…hear me out.
Why do I do it? Because I am selfish. When those tiny humans come into class on the Monday of a new unit in utter awe and excitement of what the future holds it fills MY cup. Yeah sure, I do it for the kids blah blah. I do it for ME. Because let’s face it y’all, if we don’t bring the wonder to the classroom, if we aren’t having fun during our day, how can they?
But how, Curtis? I don’t have the money. Ask. Ask your colleagues.
Ask your friends and family. By now all my teacher group chats have grown accustomed to me asking for a ham costume, a flapper dress, a cowbell, or roller skates. They don’t even question my strange requests anymore: “Curtis is up to something.” And they either have it or they don’t.
Ask your alumni; they so desperately want to give back to a classroom tradition and they feel so empowered to leave a piece of themselves behind.
What I can’t get from colleagues I harass my family for. So often people let me keep things, because they are kind and generous and don’t use their Lord of the Flies conch shell as elaborately as I do to reenact the death of Piggy. (May he rest in peace.)
Ok, ok, maybe I could round up some props but I don’t have the time!
You can conquer this in two ways. One, ask prior students to help after school in an effort to avoid spoiling the surprise, or just ask current students if they want to be part of an elite crime scene squad to prepare for the upcoming unit! Then…pay them in donuts. It’s also really fun to chat and explain and break down aspects of the case as a sneak peek with those special ducks who come and spend time with you! This setup didn’t take an hour after school. And most of it I just pack in a box that says “SERIAL” and bust it out next year.
What to pick?
Staples I have for every room transformation: an old paint-covered, sawed into, janky folding table (your school may even have one you could borrow, become besties with the maintenance staff) and a black fabric tablecloth. I suggest investing in a cloth one, the plastic ones don’t survive teenagers. Then I hide all my remaining “evidence” under the table and bust it out as the plot unfolds. I just printed out serial letters and the evidence from the website my first year, and then added some red string. You can use pushpins but mine are actually magnets covering a whiteboard.
Now, I have a family member who is a police officer for a local department, so I do admit I have an unfair advantage. However, we have a number of resource officers at our school that I think would most certainly oblige me with my crime scene tape, old evidence boxes and envelopes, etc. You can buy similar but, I’m on a teacher budget so I need donations.
Lastly, anything from the 90s, because these kids CANNOT relate. And this is the nostalgia factor. For example, I have an old cell phone, a CD player, a Walkman, a corded phone, and aviators.
- Table or counter
- Brown Kraft paper
- Red string
- Printed evidence from the serial website
- SERIAL logo letters from the website
- Map books
- Magnifying glass
- Police evidence envelopes, boxes, bags, pouches
- Crime scene tape
- Old cell phone
- Old landline phone
- Detective outfits
- Briefcase (holds my student notebooks, coloring sheets, pens)
- Passed Notes folded high school style
- Cereal boxes (very optional)
Make text to self connections when teaching Serial podcast
2.) Everything changes, but everything stays the same: Teenagers.
I love a good list. Make a list of what being a teen felt like, and what it looked like for you. For me, that was a lot of emo music, passing notes, burn books, three-way calling, and a lot of LYING. Then I made a list of what it was like for teens in SERIAL, a great deal of overlap, with strict parents, note passing, etc. Then I made a list of what the equivalents are in 2022: Life360, social media, and texting.
Explain your experience, connect to the players of ’99, and then ASK (not tell) your students what the modern-day version for them is? Let them educate you, they are drawing real-world connections to the text! I learned so much, they laughed a lot hearing their snarky teacher as a sneaky teen, & we all empathized with Adnan & Hae.
Every episode as we listen to the audio I frequently stop, to ask “what’s the 2022” version of this? Adnan showing Aisha Hae’s letter, which they write on the back of, is the equivalent to sending your friend screenshots of texts from someone else.
You can do this on a whiteboard, poster board, a collaborative google slide, jamboard, or whatever fits your school atmosphere.
Angst: What’s it like being a teenager in 2022?
You could then easily affirm for them, this withstands the test of time from your own high school experience of any decade.
- What’s a diary in 2022?
- What’s a common curfew in 2022?
- What are some of your parent’s rules about dating?
- Who are you allowed to drive with or give rides to?
- Do your parents know who you text?
- Do you ever say you’re somewhere you aren’t, or with someone you’re not?
- What if Hae had LIFE360?
- Have you ever had to talk to your friend’s parents on the phone? (This is a HARD NO for them.)
I also happened upon a number of 90’s Tik Toks with toys, music, and fashion, and would often start class with one of those, asking, do you think Hae had a Tomogachi? What JNCOs did Jay wear?
Be respectful while listening to Serial podcast in the classroom
3.) “I have a life, it’s not the life I planned or imagined, but, I have a life.” – Adnan Syed
Drawing these connections vehemently reinforced the devastating reality of the situation. For me, this is the first time all year my students are exposed to nonfiction, and these “characters” truly need to be real for my students to connect.
There is a cultural phenomenon we are all aware of, with crime documentaries. It’s gotta say something about us, that we relax by listening to murders and kidnappings, but ultimately students are immediately engaged.
Occasionally, they will mess up, they will make a joke out of pocket, they will be working on an assignment and do something inconsiderate. Use these opportunities for connection. Oftentimes for me posing questions like “What would Hae’s family think?” or a “How might Adnan’s mom feel about that sentiment?” Quickly snaps my learners back into the right mindset. Be patient with them & yourself. I teach at a very affluent Catholic high school, and my students know nothing about Muslim culture, and we spent a good deal of time unpacking bias, wealth, and privilege.
They were enraged, and broken-hearted by the 2016 court appeal, and when I revealed the 2022 update that the DNA was finally being tested they were truly invested four weeks later. They cared. Finally.
Change it up when using Serial in the classroom
4.) Academia meets Engagement
Due to covid protocols, this year I still had to seat my students in rows, which I abhor, but by fourth quarter I was brazen and went back to my old ways of groups, and that simple switch made students eager to come to class, and engage with one another. So small shifts go such a long way in breaking the norm. It also encouraged them to annotate twice as much as they normally would.
I use Ashley’s Episode One Assignment stations as a bell ringer each day of the first week of teaching SERIAL. I start their very first day with an adapted version of the schedule though, I do it in waves.
Anything I usually do, I don’t do with SERIAL. For example, we are a 1:1 iPad school. So I offer hard copies of my detective’s notebook, and on the first day when they come in there are sheets of paper on their desks with my adapted version of the memory “game”. The simple act of giving them a pen or pencil makes everything unusual immediately.
The memory exercise is done in waves as I watch my students become annoyed and frustrated, while I sit back and smile. In wave one, I pick a date six weeks prior, and make them write down everything in three minutes, and put a timer on the board. They are not allowed to make a sound, and immediately ask questions that I refuse to answer; when in doubt, shrug it out. After the timer, I ask, why was that frustrating? What made that difficult? You can also offer an incentive to up the stakes, candy goes a long way to the person who has the “most” items on their schedule. In wave two, I allow them to use our LMS app, Canvas, and a calendar but nothing else to fill in some gaps. And then we process & debrief again. Lastly, I ask them what they want access to most, and they all say Snapchat, Camera Roll, & Texts. So I let the reigns go and let them fill in the missing hours during wave three. Since I seat them in groups, they may chat afterward, when their schedule is more defined. Often, a concert, a trip, or celebration or any of the science Sarah presents in the Podcast quickly presents itself. Then I start episode one the next day.
A few episodes into teaching Serial, I usually play the Red Dot Game to break up the monotony. This game is typically used for McCarthyism & the Red Scare by English teachers & Social study teachers alike, but it definitely fits for SERIAL as well. You can simply google it if you’re unfamiliar and find so many free resources.
My favorite anecdote is from my very first year, I did SERIAL during the height of covid & quarantine in April 2020 as the 7th period for some very bored seniors. We met each morning and ate CEREAL at 7:00 am before zoom school. Playing the red dot game virtually with a tight-knit group of senior friends presented its own charms when one of my favorite humans shouted into the screen: “It’s Susy! She’s vegan!” Which ultimately, is a terrible reason to accuse someone of guilt, but you better believe we unpacked how that is the equivalent of shouting “it’s the Muslim boy” afterwards in our debriefing. I spend the entire game observing them and not intervening. Sometimes I don’t even give someone a red dot, and let them attack each other, other times, I do multiples, and sometimes, I tell someone a week in advance secretly. You could also of course use Gimkit in “Trust No One” mode seated in a circle if you are a techie school like us.
Some other adaptations happen when I incorporate Flipgrid. You could do it weekly but I do it at the beginning & end. Students don’t need to write anything just a casual defense or prosecution of Adnan conversationally, and Flipgrid gives me the data in a spreadsheet, so I can still grade it much more efficiently than watching each 2-minute video. Highly recommend this option.
This year I gave students hard copies, and google slides versions of my detective notebook after I saw how hard they were working. They are not the best at note-taking (despite my best annotation lesson efforts) so I created these fill-in-the-blank options.
I do use Ashley’s unit assignments, however, I allow students to select which assignments they want to do, with a minimum of one per week. Simply allowing choice empowers my learners, and it also wins me favor with parents.
Lastly, this year my students struggled in the second semester, so I caved and gave them extra credit when teaching Serial. I offered them a chance to take a thematic photo (which is where most of these pics came from.) I gave some parameters, their face couldn’t be in it, they had to be in uniform, no logos. High school-themed, detective noir, cereal, but nothing mocking or gruesome, or inaccurate to the text. They got a lot of photo editing in, and creativity was exercised in comparing their photos with each other trying to one-up their neighbor in a cooperative competition to impress or amuse their teacher.
The SNL sketch is the ONLY way to close the unit.
Close the case, with laughter. It has curative properties.
Thank you Claudia! This post took me back! If you would like a ready-made unit plan for teaching Serial, check out my resource here: Serial Podcast Season One Unit Plan, Activities, and Literary Nonfiction Study
Please continue reading here for more ideas and information: Updated Serial Lesson Plans : Teaching Serial After Adnan’s Release