In the months leading up to the final exam, 10th grade teacher Alexa Schlechter struggled. She’s an English teacher — an educator of stories told through the written word. But instead of focusing solely on classic books read in the 10th grade, she and her students at Norwalk High School in Connecticut were immersed in a teenage story about murder, set in the 1990s, detailed in blog posts, communicated in audio: Serial, the hit podcast from the producers of This American Life.
After spending months listening to Serial and talking about it as a class, a two-hour sit-down final seemed pointless, irrelevant and an inaccurate gauge of all the learning that had taken place throughout the year. But learning as we know it in schools must be assessed. How else would adults know what kids have learned? So Alexa pursued an end-of-year assessment, possibly worthy of MailChimp (Mail Khimp?), in the form of a podcast.
While driving to school one day, thinking about Serial host Sarah Koenig’s frustrating evolution over the course of the series, Schlechter had what she calls an “aha moment.” Her students would draw on the skills they learned while listening to and studying Serial. They would work in groups (imagine Koenig, Dana Chivvis, Julie Snyder, the engineer who came up with their theme song, Ira Glass). Students would create a series of podcasts told from the point of view of a memoirist they’d read earlier in the year, such as Alice Sebold.
“’You’ve lost your mind,’” Schlechter recalls her students saying when she introduced the assignment. But by breaking the project into discrete steps, and emphasizing the particular skills the students needed to demonstrate, Schlechter made the assignment come alive in her classes.Each group would discuss a central idea from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which the classes had recently analyzed, and ponder that theme as if they were the author of the previously-read memoir. Throughout, students were to integrate the priority standards from the Common Core into their work, including analysis, writing, collaboration and logical reasoning.
Already, the students had spent months discussing themes and central ideas in literature; this part of the project would be easy. But the final assignment forced them to consider literary themes from another’s viewpoint and work together to present these findings in a thoughtful podcast. And how to find common ground among memoirists as diverse as Elie Wiesel, Piper Kerman, Michael Vick and Dave Eggers? “Once they found what their memoirs had in common, I helped them figure out how that connected to a central idea in To Kill a Mockingbird, and then it was up to them to develop an idea for a podcast,” she says. “The sky was the limit in terms of creativity,” she adds.
The podcasts the students created varied widely in style and tone. One group of students named their podcast “The Silent Struggle,” referring to women’s repression in history. Memoir “authors” Al Michaels, Jeannette Walls, Cupcake Brown, Farrah Abraham, and Go Ask Alice diarist Alice Smith discussed their own troubles with drugs and drinking, and interviewed To Kill a Mockingbird character Mayella Ewell about her alcoholic father.
In “The Maycomb Zone: A Twist on the Twilight Zone,” another group analyzed the human tendency to make sense of the unknown by resorting to prejudice and bullying; some of the participants included Drew Brees, Muhammad Ali and Augusten Burroughs.
Other students aimed at humor. In studying the long-term impact of youthful friendships, “memoirists” in one group recounted a funny story from their childhoods, and then discussed revelatory experiences of Mockingbird children Dill, Scout and Jem. Reflecting the creativity the assignment inspired, another collection of 10th graders turned their podcast into a radio call-in show, featuring Nelson Mandela and “Ron Burgundy.”
As demanding as it was, the assignment involved more than group podcast presentations. To stay on top of daily assignments, every student was required to write a paragraph assessing how she and her group performed that day. Before sharing their podcasts in class, students also needed to come up with a five-minute biographical presentation on their memoir author, using any kind of medium they preferred; some kids recorded raps, while others produced short movies and commercials. And on the last day of class, every pupil had to hand in a two-page reflection paper on the experience.
Adding to the students’ challenge, they all needed to be proficient in Google Classroom, Google Forms, Edublogs, and Soundtrap.com, an online site that allows students to record and create their own music.
Schlechter read every update and tried to resolve brewing conflicts before they became unmanageable. “Almost every problem has had to do with communication,” she says, adding that she talks often with students about finding better ways to stay connected. And the daily feedback has been surprisingly positive, Schlechter says. Rather than complain about a classmate not doing his or her fair share, many students use the regular assessment to acknowledge a group member’s great idea or hilarious delivery.
“They’ve really done it,” Schlechter says about her students, who are presenting their podcasts in class during the time carved-out for finals. She’d had doubts at the early stages of the project, wondering if she’d been too ambitious in assigning such complex and time-consuming work to scads of teenagers so close to the start of summer. Support from a school administrator and her own determination to press forward kept her going. “I wanted to push them beyond their comfort level and push myself beyond my own,” she adds. “How can I expect to have rigor in my classroom if it’s not rigorous?” Schlechter asks.