Casey Fiesler/Flickr
Casey Fiesler/Flickr

It didn’t take long for Michael Godsey, an English teacher at Morro Bay High School in California, to realize that his decision to use a public radio podcast in the classroom was a wise one. It wasn’t any old podcast he was introducing to his classes. It was “Serial,” the murder-mystery phenomenon produced by reporter Sarah Koenig of “This American Life,” which already was transfixing a wide swath of the adult population.

“Even if they weren’t into it, I told them it was the most popular podcast of all time, and that was interesting,” Godsey says. He needn’t have worried. The podcast seized his five classrooms of 10th- and 11th-graders. “I had kids cutting other classes so they could come listen to it again,” he says. “Kids who were sick, who never did their homework, were listening at home.”

Godsey is one of a growing number of educators who are using podcasts like “Serial” to motivate their classrooms and address education requirements set by the Common Core state standards. Improving students’ listening skills is one of the essential components of the new education mandates, and using audio in the classroom can be an effective way to promote listening.

Students in Michael Godsey's class review cell phone logs from the Serial podcast. Credit: Michael Godsey.
Students in Michael Godsey’s class review cell phone logs from the Serial podcast. Credit: Michael Godsey.

“It’s a really nice way to spend time together as a class,” says Eleanor Lear, a high school English teacher at a private all-girls school, who has been using podcasts from Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life” and WNYC’s “Radiolab” for about four years. Powerful podcasts that tell good stories not only captivate students, Godsey adds, but also help them tune out the static of modern life.

“I think the kids really appreciate getting the story told to them, as opposed to so much hitting their senses,” he says. “They’re not overstimulated by it,” he says, noting that contemporary podcasts resemble radio shows from the past.

Learning through listening has surprising educational advantages as well. Students can listen to content two-to-three grade levels higher than they can read, according to Monica Brady-Myerov. She spent her career in public radio and now runs an online site, Listen Current, to help schools make better use of public radio’s rich strain of stories. An unfamiliar word that might stop them on the page doesn’t compel them to tune out from a story told aloud. Also, kids for whom English is a second language benefit from hearing spoken English and following along with an accompanying transcript, she says.

If podcasts are a modern version of old-time radio programs, then “Serial” is this generation’s “War of the Worlds.” No one has packed up a car to escape fictitious aliens, as they did after listening to Orson Welles’ tall tale, but “Serial” listeners of all ages have been swept up by Koenig’s investigation into a decades-old murder of a high school girl in Baltimore.

The podcast’s first season consists of 12 40-45 minute “chapters” narrated by Koenig, involving interviews with former witnesses, detectives, lawyers and classmates of Adnan Syed. He was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and is now in prison. The series unfolds in real time — Koenig apparently is searching for answers along with the listeners — and challenges followers to wrestle with Adnan’s guilt, the criminal justice system and the events that unfolded around the day Lee was last seen alive, January 13, 1999. Last fall, “Serial” was the most popular podcast in the world, the Wall Street Journal reported, and set the iTunes record for fastest downloaded podcast.

Students at Norwalk High School discuss the Serial podcast, while images of key players loom on the wall, including Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig. Credit: Credit: Sabrina Hiller.
Students at Norwalk High School discuss the Serial podcast, while images of key players loom on the wall, including Adnan Syed, Hae Min Lee, Jay Wilds, Sarah Koenig and Rabia Chaudry. Credit: Credit: Alexa Schlechter.

Serial’s Appeal to Students

Students flock to the show for several reasons. The events took place during high school, making the subject matter feel familiar and relevant in a way that classic literature doesn’t, Godsey says, while the excellence of the storytelling takes hold of the listener. Narrator Sarah Koenig’s quick shifts in tone and perspectives — we spend three minutes with a lawyer, say, then with a former classmate and then a detective — is especially appealing to teenagers who bore easily, Godsey says. (“They were spaced out within three minutes of Edgar Allan Poe,” he adds, about that failed listening experiment.)

And “Serial” is novel, not only to the kids, but also to the teacher. “It was new to the world, and they were very excited that I didn’t know the outcome before they did,” Godsey says. When the semester ended, 90 percent of his students reported enjoying “Serial,” some suggesting that they preferred podcasts to written stories, novels or poems.

What do students learn from the experience? “They enjoy it so much that they don’t realize they’re learning at the highest level,” says Alexa Schlechter, a 10th-grade English teacher at Norwalk High School in Connecticut, who had never used a podcast in class before trying “Serial.” Listening to and engaging with “Serial” helps many students address one of the main challenges in developing their analytical skills: getting beyond simple explanations of what happened, and figuring out how and why an event occurred, she says. Poring over text of the transcripts in class to uncover answers, students also develop their critical reading skills, she says. (See how students answered questions about discrepancies between the cell phone records and Jay’s testimony at Schlechter’s blog.) Students publicly debated Syed’s guilt or innocence in Godsey’s classes, addressing a Common Core standard to improve speaking skills, and worked together with other students to create their own podcasts or present mock closing arguments.

Students also learned how to navigate Google maps, finding the exact streets in Baltimore where important events were said to have occurred, and “driving” them, virtually, to assess the evidence. And for some students, delving into “Serial” marked their introduction to public radio and to the adult educated world. “So often my students are disconnected from where my [adult] friends are,” Schlechter says. “Now there’s no divide.”

Students at Norwalk high School look at cell tower maps triggered by Adnan Syed's cell phone while discussing an assignment. Credit: Sabrina Hiller
Students at Norwalk High School look at cell tower maps from Serial of pings triggered by Adnan Syed’s cell phone while discussing discrepancies in Jay’s testimony. Credit: Alexa Schlechter

The Effect on Teachers

Teachers were similarly inspired, if occasionally overwhelmed by the out-of-class preparation required for such pioneering work. Godsey and Schlechter both were hooked on “Serial” when it dawned on them to share the learning experience with their classes, and their personal enthusiasm for the story drove their teaching. The energy and originality of the podcast inspired them as much as it did the students.

Because the case revolved around high school kids, teachers also were better able to appreciate their students’ contributions and point of view, in a way they might not have had they been discussing “The Great Gatsby” or “War and Peace.” In this way, “Serial” helped teachers better grasp their students’ fresh insights. And devoting so much class time to this one complex story triggered ideas for new ways to discuss the classics. Next semester, Godsey’s English classes are going to do their own “Serial”-style podcast, telling Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” from Abigail’s perspective.

Even the violent subject matter brought unexpected grace to the class. The humanities, after all, dwell on the conflicts within and among human beings, but novels and distant nonfiction can feel unconnected from teenagers’ lives. “Serial,” on the other hand, with its focus on the actual murder of a young woman and the current imprisonment of her convicted killer, forces listeners to confront — and feel — the reality of human frailty.

For her part, Schlechter is determined to keep the murder victim present in her students’ minds, so that the young girl at the center of the mystery isn’t lost in the class exercises. “I keep a photo of her in the classroom, so she’s not just a subject, or a character,” Schlechter says.

Beyond ‘Serial’

For those who don’t have the time or flexibility to devote to a story of such length, shorter podcasts can serve a similar purpose. Lear teaches a senior elective on racial depictions in American forms, and assigned a Radiolab story, “Ghosts of Football Past,” for its rich content. One of Godsey’s most memorable classes involved listening to “Pardon the Interruption,” an ESPN podcast, which addressed commentator Bill Simmons’ suspension from the sports network for slamming football commissioner Roger Goodell. In another class, Godsey put on a “This American Life” podcast, “Is This Working?” on discipline in school.

“They were totally into it,” he says, “and it inspired great conversation.”

As for teachers who insist on having structured lesson plans and prepared assignments to accompany a podcast, external resources are becoming available to schools. During the semester he taught “Serial,” Godsey created about 400 pages of lesson plans on Teachers Pay Teachers to accompany the podcasts, which he now sells to interested educators. Listen Current, just 2 years old, provides transcripts and lesson plans for public radio stories on a variety of subjects. Brady-Myerov estimates that 4,000 teachers used her materials last year, and that 100,000 students, middle through high school, tapped into their curated podcasts (much of the material is free.)

“Teachers are desperate for new resources,” she says, and public radio stories, which are known for being authentic, accurate, well told and sharply edited, are ideal for sparking student interest. For a class on the birth of the labor movement, for example, Listen Current recommends a public radio podcast that includes archival sound, music and voices.

“If you give teachers content-based audio, you’ll get so much more student engagement,” says Brady-Myerov.

To the extent that he can, Godsey is gearing up for “Serial’s” second season. He wonders if the first season’s rollicking success is replicable, at least for his students. Either way, the podcast has rebranded radio as the next new thing, despite the medium’s long history. For students accustomed to the flash-bang of modernity, ambling podcasts in the classroom may be just what they need.

Norwalk High School student Sabrina Hiller produced this video about how students Serial in Alexa Schlechter’s class:

  • Vivian

    Learning with different methods (reading, listening, discourse) sounds like a great idea to keep up student interest. I can imagine that for students who have trouble reading, podcasts must be a great way to improve their analysis and critical reading skills while working on reading skills in another class.

    Personally, I don’t like to listen to stories, because I feel like they’re really slow, and I identify as a visual learner, but whenever I watch videos without much happening on screen or listen to audiobooks, I find myself drawing things out, taking notes, and doing other things that enhance my learning as my other senses are free. Teaching students that there is flexibility in how they learn can be a very useful skill to maximize learning and increase interest as it personalizes their learning when they begin to see how they like to learn!

  • http://fanimeasia.wordpress.com Lychee

    With the prevalence of technology in schools, I think podcasts are a great way to pull together students and technology into an educational pair. Many teachers and parents worry about their kids spending too much time on their phones and computers playing games, but with podcasts, they don’t have to worry anymore. Also, podcasts are a “universal learning tool.” Unlike watching educational videos where students need to watch the screen, podcasts allow students to listen and learn while doing boring activities such as the dishes and the laundry. I hope to see more educational podcasts or literary podcasts in the future.

  • Todd Berman

    I was tasked with teaching one of those fun ‘invent your own country’ lessons. The 99% Invisible show about was a perfect supplement. The students loved it and asked for a repeat listen. vexillology http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-06-99-symbolic/

    Anytime you can get students using different disciplines and a variety of resources to tackle a problem is a win.

  • Beth Campbell

    I teach 7th grade science at an alternative school and use RadioLab as a key part of my instruction. I have a class set of MP3 players and my students and I hike on a trail behind our school while we listen. It is a fantastic way to incorporate physical activity and allow for movement and exploration while delivering engaging, content-rich instruction.

    • Jenny

      I want to be in this class, my goodness.

  • susanjoy

    I love using different sources to add depth to whatever text we’re studying, and I myself listen to great radio, so I can see the benefit. As an English teacher tasked with teaching Romeo and Juliet and the same classic texts, I see that only the really good readers get and enjoy Shakespeare. Makes me sad to say it, but perhaps we need to collectively lessen our cultural grip on the classic texts?? And yet.

  • wp

    just another way to dumb down education and demand less from students

    • wp

      they can listen at home at their leisure if they need such entertainment –why waste ‘school time’?

      • Margaret

        The can also read at home for entertainment, let’s ban reading, too!!

      • K

        How can you not see how this can be educational? Oh, probably because you’re not a teacher. The students are listening to a story then doing activities based on it. They are plotting points on maps, comparing time tables, using critical thinking to evaluate evidence. They are learning to question what people present as “truth” and figure out what actually happened. They are probably having classroom debates over who really committed the murder. But, you’re right, actually using their brains and giving them something they can get excited about is so much worse than just reading dry textbooks and trying to memorize dates and facts.

    • Dawn Madison Seatz

      how are they being dumbed down and demanding less? There is NO benefit from homework. Just because we had to do it doesn’t mean that it is beneficial. There is a whole new paradigm shift with education and the use of technology. we are not dumbing them down–just preparing them for THEIR world.

      • Karen

        I’ve learned more world history more quickly since I started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast than I ever did in any of my traditional history classrooms at a high quality private prep school.

        This guy who thinks that anything entertaining must be “dumb” and without educational value just doesn’t get it. Podcasts can’t replace an engaged, intelligent teacher as a guide. The right podcast, though, can be an incredibly useful tool for engaging our young people, stimulating their critical thinking skills, introducing them to new avenues and perspectives, and sparking their intellectual curiosity.

      • beth

        Homework is practicing the skills you are developing in school. Some kids may not need homework, for others it is crucial. However, teachers can try to be more creative with the format for homework to make it more authentic or interesting.

      • wp

        sounds like your happy just expecting less–
        johnny doesnt even have to know how to read anymore –the computer will just speak to him……
        great

        • Alexa Schlechter

          “Johnny” is reading a self-selected memoir at home, while annotating transcripts, analyzing evidence from serialpodcast.org, engaging in incredible discourse both in class and virtually on my blog (as shown here http://schlechter.edublogs.org/2015/03/13/what-the-heck-just-happened-2/), composing a expository essay and narrative pieces, preparing a persuasive speech, writing informal blog posts, creating his own podcasts, as well as a plethora of other amazing activities.

          Johnny is engaged, challenged, and synthesizing information well beyond his grade level, and he loves it.

    • David Reed

      This has got to be the most ignorant comment I’ve read today.

  • Emily Cohn

    What I think captured students so strongly about Serial was what my friend pointed out to me when we discussed it’s appeal: high school. The story that unfolded was really giving a voice to the kinds of interactions that consume teenagers’ worlds at the time that adults never really care about or give validation to. I think that Serial in particular makes them feel heard and legitimized. When looking for podcasts, I might try finding ones that tell a story about the age group you are teaching.

  • David Reed

    I homeschool my kids and we listen to podcasts all the time. Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class are amazing. Brains On! Science Podcast for Kids is also great.

  • allyson

    My issue with using Serial as English/lit class material is that it leaves almost nothing up to the imagination. Great literature stimulates imagination, and in our world of television, Smartphones and Google, children and adults alike are losing this particular concept.

    It’s no surprise that Serial is an easy resource for teachers. There is no challenging vocabulary, no richness of text, no vivid descriptions of people, voices, places, emotions. It’s the equivalent of watching a television show.

    I’m not encouraged this is being used as classroom material.

    • Lindsey

      I’m a soon-to-be English teacher, just finished my Master’s. Having been in a variety of classrooms over the past couple of years, I saw this and thought BRILLIANT. I think it’s a great idea especially for General Ed English classes. You are right… not stimulating the imagination. So probably not the best for AP students.

      If it only teaches listening/comprehension, then it is teaching a valuable skill. I worked with a teacher who showed films in a remedial English class and in an ACT prep class. She let them watch the movies (most based on literature) and they had to watch closely and take notes (note taking is a valuable study skill as well). She then tested them. It worked. If teacher could use Serial or other podcasts in a similar way, I can see it being beneficial. Of course, like everything in Education, it’s not one size fits all. I am also not encouraging an entire semester of listening… but one unit couldn’t hurt

      • Alexa Schlechter

        Not stimulating the imagination?! Definitely not the case!! My kids are writing narratives right now, following Episode Six. They’ve just tracked all the evidence and counter-argument that Sarah outlined, and now they have to find a reasonable explanation for Adnan’s side of the story: that it was just a normal day. Using textual evidence from Episode Six (yes, textual, because we pull from the transcript), they will write a narrative that from Adnan’s POV that makes sense of that evidence in a logical way and is believable that it was indeed just a normal day.

        Lots of skills at work there. While I understand that, at the surface, this might appear that kids are sitting and just listening, they are doing incredibly difficult, creative work that employs a number of high-level skills.

        I’m happy to share more if anyone is interested.

    • Alexa Schlechter

      Common Core calls for a 65% non-fiction, 35% fiction split. This unit is being used as my non-fiction unit. There is quite a bit of challenging vocabulary (Michael Godsey did a tremendous job in compiling vocabulary exercises for this unit), and by no stretch is anyone comparing this to Hemingway!

      • allyson

        Thank you for your replies.

        Out of curiosity, how would teachers like yourself address the use of drugs and the business of drug selling in the life of the high schoolers ? I don’t imply that a moral stand must be taken in the classroom, but illegal activities do play a dominant role in the lives of Syed and his friends, and in the events discussed in the podcast.

        Also, how do you feel about discussing the lives of real people as a teaching tool ? Any conflicts in that regard?

        • Alexa Schlechter

          Illegal activities have had a role in literature as far back as I can possibly think: Romeo strong-arming the druggist to sell him poison, Fagin in Oliver Twist, teaching children a life of crime, etc, etc, etc… I can’t think of a text that doesn’t have some sort of crime in it. Serial is hardly glorifying drug use, so it isn’t really an issue at all for us. Honestly, it just becomes part of the “plot” line. My students are more horrified that Jay works at the porn video store than of the drug use. If anything, I think this story is the perfect reason NOT to use drugs because had they not been high, the chances of them having a clearer recollection of the day of much greater. We have discussed that at length.

          In regards to the fact that we are using a real murder case as the content for class, I definitely have some qualms about it, hence why I try to humanize the “characters” as much as possible. Their pictures hang around my room, we talk about Hae and her parents regularly, and I often talk about how, as a mother, I would feel about the podcast in general. I feel it is important to keep the connection to the non-fiction aspects of this unit at all times; we use street view of Google Maps, we use the real handwritten letters from serialpodcast.org, and whatever else we can find that is public record. It isn’t entertainment for us. This is real analysis and at no point to we trivialize the fact that a child died.

        • Alexa Schlechter

          Illegal activities have been at the crux of literature since the beginning of time. If we look at the most popular books taught in schools:
          Romeo & Juliet: Romeo strong-arms the druggist to sell him poison, and they commit suicide.
          Huck Finn: Basically the entire thing!
          Julius Caesar: Stabbing

          I could keep going, and going….we discuss the role of drugs in Adnan’s life but honestly, it is more part of the “plot” and I hardly think the drug use is glorified. My students are more horrified by the fact that Jay works at a porn video store.

          I am very aware of the fact that we are discussing the murder of a real child, hence why I keep pictures of Hae, and all of the other individuals, around my classroom. As a mother, I often think and talk about how Hae’s own parents might feel about this podcast being used as entertainment and we make sure not to treat this unit as such. At no time is this viewed as funny or silly. Real people have been used as a teaching tool for a very long time, and I think it is incredibly important to do so.

        • Todd Berman

          honestly.

  • Augusta Avram

    I like the idea. One comment though: using the transcript with students whose first language is not English has very limited benefits for them. Podcasts are frequently used in ESL/EFL classes, and there are many types of activities that can be designed to support their language development.

  • lady stephanie

    While I would agree that using podcasts as a way to improve critical thinking skills seems beneficial, I’m fed up with hearing about the common core. I’m also greatly disappointed that we are normalizing murder. How about using critical thinking skills to address the harm we are doing to our planet? Or using critical thinking skills to research how the brain works and change society so we can make some attempts at halting brutal acts such as murder and rape. We murder and rape our planet. Perhaps these kids will begin using these skills outside the lens through which they are honing them (school, in-justice system, etc.).

  • I Think Therefore I Am

    Can anyone recommend great educational podcasts for 4th graders?

    • David Reed

      Brains On! Science Podcast for Kids is fantastic.

  • Meredith Curtis

    The comparison to War of the Worlds as a radio show was a poor one. While that was also a popular show in its time, it was fiction that many mistook for journalism. This incorrectly indicates that Serial’s content was also fiction when it is clearly a journalist’s best effort to portray true events involving a young woman’s death and a young man’s arrest and incarceration.

  • allyson

    Yes, however, these are contemporaries of your students, and people they can “relate to”.

    • Alexa Schlechter

      So was Holden Caulfield at one point (I won’t pretend he’s still their contemporary). Does that mean we shouldn’t teach Catcher in the Rye?

      Have some faith in me as a teacher that I can execute the lessons and material in such a way that my students understand that the illegal activity is just that: ILLEGAL activity, and have some faith in the kids; they are pretty darn amazing and will really surprise you.

  • Alexa Schlechter

    I wasn’t sure if this had posted the first time, so I apologize for the duplicate post, but the gist is the same. Also, I thank you for these comments because they have prompted some excellent discussion the last couple of class periods. My students are fascinated by the responses from this piece and we have had a blast talking about the various opinions. It has been a great lesson in digital citizenship for them.

Author

Linda Flanagan

Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall St. Journal, Newsweek, Running Times, and Mind/Shift, and she blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. Linda writes about education, culture, athletics, youth sports, mental health, politics, college admissions, and other curiosities. She also reviews books and conducts interviews.

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