This summer Waltham High School, in Massachusetts, did something very different for its summer reading. They chose a podcast. Not just any podcast, but the most popular, breakthrough podcast of our time—Serial. The 12 episode series re-examines the case of a teenager who was convicted of killing his former girlfriend. It asks the audience to consider—Did he really do it?
Emilie Perna is an ELA teacher at Waltham High School and was part of the group that chose the Serial podcast. We asked her about the experience of listening to a podcast for their “One School, One Story” project.
Why did Waltham chose a podcast instead of a book for summer reading?
Last year, a committee of educators sought to find books that were age appropriate, relevant, and interdisciplinary. It was a difficult search, and meanwhile, many on the committee listened to Serial after meetings and they couldn’t wait to discuss the latest episode. One of the teachers jokingly said we should consider using the podcast instead of summer reading. We didn’t take the idea seriously at first but after some thought we realized that its content and medium aligned well with our curriculum goals and feedback we received from students.
What’s been the reaction from students and parents to the podcast?
Students loved listening to Serial. We received emails from them telling us how much they enjoyed the podcast and how they listened with their parents on road trips. We also had a twitter account set up and different teachers and students tweeted various articles proposing Adnan’s guilt or innocence.
What were the challenges with listening?
Ensuring equal access to digital devices was an immediate challenge. Working with school adjustment counselors, guidance counselors, and the ELL Finish Strong Program coordinator, the Committee was able to quietly identify students in need, and provide them with donated iPods/MP3 players.
Translating the podcast into other languages was also difficult. But with the help of The Summer Reading Committee, we created Serial episode summaries in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese, and two (fabulous) students created audio recordings of the episode summaries in Spanish, which were then posted to WalthamReads.org. The Committee also created
character lists, a vocabulary list, and a timeline of events, which were all translated into multiple languages and distributed in packets to all SPED and ELL students. Lastly, the Waltham Public Library volunteered to hold Serial ‘listening parties’ and discussion groups throughout the summer for WHS families and the broader community.
Teaching Serial during the school year can also be a time challenge. But Listenwise has a rich library of engaging and compelling public radio stories so you can keep the listening and learning going throughout the year!
What types of school based activities did you do related to the podcast this fall?
When students arrived in the fall, we held the “One School, One Story” day on September 11th. On this day every teacher taught a lesson connected to the story. The Summer Reading Committee created a sample list of lesson ideas by department.
On that day students walked into an English class ready to present an opening statement for the prosecution or defense team of Adnan. In Science class they acted as forensic investigators studying actual bugs in various stages to help determine how long a body has been decomposing. In Math class they looked at real maps of Baltimore, plotted cell towers and the pings to determine if Jay’s story added up. In History class they made connections to a pre-9/11 world and looked at the ramifications of being a Muslim man on trial with a jury comprised of mostly of Black men and women. In Dance class they choreographed a dance to the song, “Murder She Wrote” and the Media classes conducted their first podcast in their newly built podcast studio. Throughout the day, teachers and students tweeted their lessons and opinions to our twitter account @Waltham Reads.
Finally, WHS capped off its summer Serial project, One Story, One School, with two guest speakers. Florence Graves, director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and Angel Echavarria, a man she worked to exonerate after 21 years of a wrongful murder conviction, spoke to our students about their experiences.
What were the benefits of listening?
This has been our most successful year of “One School, One Story”. There was an infectious passion and enthusiasm felt from both staff and students. It is also energizing to argue and discuss real world issues with teens and adults—issues that are often relegated to the sidelines but provide such a rich opportunity for learning. I couldn’t be happier that we leveraged Serial in the classroom.