To Download or Not to Download

Serial, This American Life spinoff by Sarah Koenig
High school students working on a Serial unit in their English class are tasked with writing essays on their own theories of the case using information gleaned from the podcast as well as the maps, documents, and letters posted onto the show’s website.

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Here’s some news that ought to please Ira Glass: Serial is the new Shakespeare.

At least that’s the case in one California classroom, where high school teacher Michael Godsey did away with Hamlet, long a mainstay in his class, to use the wildly popular This American Life spinoff as one of his class’s primary texts.

Godsey’s decision was inspired partly by the Common Core standards, which, among other things, emphasize critical thinking skills and call for many high school teachers to incorporate more nonfiction into the classroom. Godsey’s move speaks to both the greatest fears and hopes surrounding the controversial curriculum standards: The introduction of Serial has reinvigorated the class, according to Godsey and some of his students, eliciting critical thought and igniting interest in all sorts of literary devices. (Is Serial host Sarah Koenig a reliable narrator? Is she reporting the story as it unfolds in a straightforward manner or instead dropping hints and red herrings the way a wily mystery novelist would?) But Godsey’s students are no longer reading and studying the iconic language and plots of Shakespeare, which is definitely not something the Common Core prescribes.

For the uninitiated (as if any Slate readers are), Serial is a weekly podcast reinvestigating the 1999 murder of Baltimore County high school senior Hae Min Lee. Cops at the time arrested ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed and a year later a jury found him guilty of murder. Syed’s been in prison ever since. The show is insanely compelling and, with 1 million listeners per episode, is podcasting’s first real watercooler hit.

In a way, Serial is about as Shakespearean as a story can get: You’ve got young lovers whose families don’t approve of their relationship. There’s a backstabbing friend. And it’s all built around the investigation of a mysterious death, though in this case it’s veteran reporter Sarah Koenig doing the poking around, not an increasingly unstable Prince Hamlet. Serial unspools its story in the same conversational language students use every day but still gives Godsey a chance to talk about the same things he can get at with Shakespeare: characters, reliable narrators, story structure, foreshadowing.

“Things like form are really hard to teach high school kids,” Godsey said. “Mostly because they just don’t care.”

Godsey says his monthlong unit on the podcast aligns with the Common Core. While you and I are revising our thoughts on whether Adnan did it, Godsey’s students are “citing direct evidence that leads to explicit meaning” and “inferring conclusions based on previous evidence.” Right now, they’re writing essays drafting their own theories of the case using information they’ve gleaned from both the podcast and the maps, documents, and letters posted onto the show’s website. “It’s like my own little Reddit of 150 kids,” Godsey jokes.

In a lot of classes, “there’s always someone in class with their head on their desk, not participating at all,” said student Allie Gutwein, 17. But now that they’re studying Serial, “that just doesn’t happen in this class.”

The new standards call for challenging readings, increased emphasis on nonfiction, and a focus on depth over breadth in high school English classes. Teachers should be asking students to make written arguments using specific evidence from reading assignments, often pulling together examples from multiple texts. Godsey, who has been blogging his way through this new unit, cites the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction as one motivation for selecting Serial as a course text.

But the students will be spending less time reading since Serial is an auditory text. And Carol Jago, of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA, who sat on a panel that oversaw the rollout of the English and language arts Common Core standards, worries that some English teachers who drop classic fiction readings for nonfiction ones might be misinterpreting the standards. Under the Common Core, about 70 percent of what high schoolers read is supposed to be nonfiction, but that’s across all classes—not just English. So instead of moving away from teaching full novels and plays to their students to meet the nonfiction requirement, schools could consider adding more nonfiction readings in other subject areas. That way, they would be less likely to lose something as iconic as Shakespeare. There’s a broad misunderstanding of this point, Jago said. She does see value in teaching something like Serial, but not at the expense of the classics. It’d be better, she says, as a one-day exercise, perhaps paired up against something like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, not a monthlong unit on its own.

“It’s hard not to come off as the cranky old English teacher who just likes Shakespeare,” she admits. But Jago says there’s a reason we still teach these classic texts: They carry deep lessons about our shared humanity that have lasted for decades, even centuries. “When a student says ‘Why are we reading Hamlet?,’ you need to have an answer for that,” Jago said. (One possible answer: “It’s gross for Hamlet to think about his mother having sex with his uncle. He’s repelled by this at a visceral level,” she recently told me. “You set that conversation and kids are going to get that, and they’re going to want to read that play. Teachers can be good tricksters.”)

Morro Bay High School principal Kyle Pruitt said he’s encouraging his teachers to see the Common Core as an opportunity to re-evaluate how they’re teaching classes and experiment with the kind of lessons they’re using, an invitation that opened the door for Godsey’s Serial unit. Pruitt has asked his teachers to consider a “flipped classroom” model, for instance, where they spend more class time on projects and group work, and less time listening to lectures. Pruitt believes the model can give teachers additional time to encourage the kind of critical thinking skills that the Common Core emphasizes. And a lot of what used to be classroom mainstays—including lectures—can instead be homework, perhaps consumed via video or podcast.

Just 15 or 20 of the school’s 50 teachers have tried a flipped classroom, or something similar, Pruitt said. Many others are uneasy about such a dramatic shift in their teaching. “They’re scared to death,” he said. “Teachers want to be thought of as doing a good job, so when you tell them to completely change their mindset, it’s spooky.”

That hasn’t been an issue for Godsey, although he’s having some second thoughts about ditching Shakespeare. “As a lover of the humanities, it does make me cringe,” he said. After Thanksgiving, Godsey will dive into a somewhat more time-tested text: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Godsey’s students are about an episode behind on Serial right now, as it takes a bit longer to consume each one while taking notes and engaging in classroom discussion. With no end date for the series yet declared, the unit will be over well before the season is. So while Koenig hasn’t presented her own theory of the case yet, that’s precisely what Godsey’s asking his students-turned-detectives to do, through soundly reasoned argumentative essays.

“They love that I don’t know the answer,” Godsey said, which isn’t usually the case with Shakespeare. So, did Adnan kill Hae? “I think he did it,” 16-year-old Vanessa Ordonez told me. “But I also think he didn’t do it.” Which, at this point, I think we can all agree is pretty sound critical reasoning.