Three (Common Core) Justifications for Binge Listening To Serial

Winter break can be a time of pure relaxation…or a time for relaxation with a purpose. Here are three Common Core based reasons you should be binge listening to NPR’s Serial.

A teacher friend asked me this weekend if I had started planning for next semester, which totally interrupted my fantasy of being a woman of leisure. Truth be told, though, January 5th is fast approaching. The teenagers will expect me to be well rested and prepared for our second semester adventures in learning.

It’s a good thing that I, like most teachers, never really stop planning. Every conversation, book reading, TV binge watching session has the potential to yield seeds for a great lesson. Even in vacation mode, my mind is busy filing away ideas and information to bring back to my classroom.

Take for instance my current obsession with the NPR podcast, Serial.

Here’s a very generic synopsis: Serial is twelve part series from the creators of This American Life. Each 40-45 minute episode digs into what host Sarah Koenig feels is unresolved information about the trial of Adnan Syed. Syed, who was convicted of the first-degree murder of ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000, is currently serving a life sentence in a correctional facility in Maryland.

I have binge-listened to all twelve episodes in the past few weeks and am incredibly excited for all the ways this podcast could be used in my classroom.

I will not get into all the details of Koenig’s investigations and hypothesis because I do not want to steal the joy of those who haven’t yet begun listening. Instead, here are a three skills I plan to use “Episode One: The Alibi” to hone in my 10th grade English classroom come the New Year. 

Skill one: Analysis

The Common Core standards are filled with analysis tasks. Unfortunately, analysis is one of those tricky teacher words that gets used all the time but isn’t always explicitly defined.

Analysis, in my classroom, typically means that students are breaking a piece of text apart into the building blocks of craft.

Serial is a great piece of text to analyze for rhetorical strategy, structure of argument and logical organization of thinking. Each episode analyzes a different set of evidence and provides theories and questions for future episodes.

The first episode sets up Koenig’s purpose for her investigation and introduces some of the challenges she anticipates facing in her process. This episode is specifically useful for addressing Common Core Standard RI.9-10.6, which asks students to “determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.”

To meet this standard, I would have students determine Koenig’s rhetorical purpose and analyze if it could be matched by her proposed methods, which she very explicitly lays out in this episode. Additionally, I would have students analyze the actual content of the episode to comment on how other key players in the case might be advancing their own purposes using the same criteria.

Skill Two: Listening

My colleagues and I have worked hard to bring in quality audio texts for students to listen to in an effort to meet the speaking and listening strand of Common Core. Serial presents a unique opportunity to meet these standards in a very engaging way.

Take, for example, Common Core Standard SL.9-10.3, which asks students to “evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.”

Koenig explores this with each of the witnesses she interviews. “Episode One: The Alibi” explores the challenges of remembering specific details about a day where nothing significant happens. She uses this exploration to promote the idea that the flaws of human memory will always taint an expert witness’s testimony.

To meet this particular standard, students can evaluate the evidence presented by each witness by creating a rubric to measure the evidence for validity. Additionally, students can evaluate Koenig herself as a speaker and determine where her point of view/bias and rhetorical purpose get in the way of her reasoning.

Skill Three: Modeling Our Own Learning

I think the reason I am so excited about using this podcast in my classroom is because I realize that Serial has had me practicing these skills myself.

From the start of the series to the end, I have had to analyze the evidence of Syed’s case and Koenig’s presentation of that evidence through a variety of filters to determine what is valid and what is not. I have my opinions about the Nisha call and Jay’s testimony and have specific pieces of evidence that I can cite to support my theories.

Most importantly, though, I, along with thousands of my fellow fans, am excited to participate in conversations, both virtual and face to face, to discuss these ideas.

Ultimately, though, Serial, and things like it, are not only engaging texts for classroom use, they are part of a new kind of literacy, bred from social media and online accessibility, that our students will need tools to engage with.

So, if you’ve already listened, I hope you are as excited about all of this as I am. If you haven’t listened yet, then you have some (very exciting!) homework.

Happy planning!

Picture Credit: By Brian Turner (Flickr: My Trusty Gavel) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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