SERIAL EPISODE 1
This 2 week lesson incorporates the CCSS ELA Standards using the Serial podcast, an engaging murder mystery podcast.
Use the following lesson plan to access the lesson materials. All materials are linked to live Google Docs. To copy the files, go into the Google Doc, click "File," then "Make a Copy."
Serial Podcast, Episode 1
This lesson is appropriate for ELA grades 7-12, but teachers may want to preview the content to make sure it is grade appropriate as the podcast discusses drug use, sex, and has some minor explicit language. For the sake of the lesson plans, the activities will be aligned with CCSS.ELA.9-10, but the standards do tend to translate across grade bands.
This lesson falls under the essential question, “What is truth?” and asks students to consider different perspectives to try to determine what the truth actually is and how we tell the truth as humans, storytellers, citizens, students, etc.
This lesson could easily be taught in isolation, or in the context of other lessons that explore a theme of perspectives.
Long-Term Focus Standards
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
Serialpodcast.org - access to podcasts
Students access the podcast through technology.
Documents can be assigned through LMS platforms.
Optional videos for mini-lessons are provided.
Students have access to the transcript, so they can read along as they are listening.
For students that struggle, you can preload the vocabulary terms, or fill in sections on the organizer for them.
There are “clean” versions of the podcast on YouTube that bleeps expletives. Additionally, students can download the mp3 to their phones or use the Spotify app to listen.
For time constraints, students will still get a comprehensive experience with the standards and be successful on the quiz if you skip activities 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 on the agenda. Alternatively, you may choose to do some of the aforementioned activities as homework to save time.
Reddit has a collection of translations of the podcast transcripts into Spanish (and other languages) for ELLs.
Tell students that they are about to hear a story about a boy named Adnan, told through the lens of a reporter, narrator Sarah Koenig. In the story, Adnan’s entire future depends on what happened in one afternoon. The problem is, Adnan can’t remember what happened that afternoon.
Have students break into groups of 4-6 students, and in each group, ask students to determine a common event that everyone attended about a month ago. This could be a dance, a party, a sporting event, or something outside of school. Once the students have determined an event, ask them to go back to their individual seats and record EVERYTHING they remember about the event - who was wearing what, when did everyone arrive, when did individuals leave, what events occurred and in what order?
After the accounts are written, ask students to get back into their groups and compare stories. Did anyone have different details? What would happen if police were questioning them about the event? Would their story conflict with anyone else’s?
Students can either listen to Episode 1 together as a class (I would do this at least for the first episode so that you can show them how to access the materials) or for homework if you have time constraints.
Have students follow along with the Episode 1 Transcript. This works best if they are annotating/highlighting evidence that either supports Adnan or the case against him.
If you listen in class, try to carve out at least 10 minutes to discuss afterwards because the students will want to talk about whether he is guilty/innocent. To hit the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, incorporate an accountable talk strategy and remind the students to use the transcript to refer back to.
Assign the Episode 1 Vocabulary to students. Do not let the students use a dictionary, unless they are using it to check the definition. Students should determine the meanings to words using the context clues in the text/transcript.
You may let lower-level students use a dictionary, or fill in the context clues/definitions for them. Additionally, ELL students may need a picture dictionary.
Teach the difference between Connotation and Denotation. (There are a lot of silly YouTube videos that explain the difference, but I prefer the video from Khan Academy.)
Assign the Episode 1 Connotation to students. Give them about 20 minutes to fill in the answers on their own, then come back as a group to discuss their responses. To hit the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, incorporate an accountable talk strategy and remind the students to use the transcript to refer back to. I let students add notes to their assignment as they are discussing because many don’t get them all correct the first time.
Finally, assign the students the following prompt (on the assignment doc) as a formative/exit ticket: What is the cumulative impact of the narrator’s diction? In other words, can you detect a bias in her description, or a way that she wants the listener to react? Remember to use evidence in your response. Grade using the Formative Rubric.
By now, the students should understand that Jay and Adnan have conflicting stories. This activity asks them to outline both characters’ accounts and then evaluate those accounts. Assign the Episode 1 Characters to students. Give them about 25 minutes to fill in the answers on their own, then come back as a group to discuss their responses. To hit the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, incorporate an accountable talk strategy and remind the students to use the transcript to refer back to. I let students add notes to their assignment as they are discussing because many don’t get them all correct the first time.
Finally, assign the students the following prompt (on the assignment doc) as a formative/exit ticket: At what point do you think the character is lying, or what parts do you predict he’ll change when he tells the story a second time? Why do you think this? Be sure to answer the questions completely and provide evidence and reasoning to support your answer. Grade using the Formative Rubric.
Since Serial is a 12-episode series, let students know that it is still too early to figure out a theme, but that we can start tracking motifs. (If you are introducing motifs, this video is a good resource that uses contemporary films.) One way to track motifs is to look at symbols or language that are used over and over. In the case of Episode 1, Koenig uses the words “know,” “remember,” “think,” “talk,” “kill,” “probably,” and “alibi” in excess. Assign students the Episode 1 Theme/Motif and break students into 7 groups using a classroom routine. Give each group one word on the assignment doc and give them instructions to figure out the number of times it is used (CTRL + F) and determine a possible theme. The first has been done as an example. When the groups are finished (about 5 minutes), each group should present their word to the class to fill in on their notecatchers.
You could decide to give each group a chart paper to write their theme statement on so that the statements could stay posted around the room during the remainder of the unit.
Explain to students that the conflict in a story is usually caused by clashing character motivations. This activity will ask students to look at different characters to determine what their motivations may be. Assign the Episode 1 Purpose/Perspective to students. Give them about 30 minutes to fill in the answers on their own, then come back as a group to discuss their responses. To hit the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, incorporate an accountable talk strategy and remind the students to use the transcript to refer back to.
(This assignment could also work as a jigsaw assignment.)
Explain to students that storytelling takes many forms. Typically, in a language arts class, we read written works. Serial is a story that is told primarily through voice. We read along with the transcript, but most people who heard the podcast didn’t have that advantage. They listened in their cars, at the gym, or while working on a project. Assign the Episode 1 Reading/Listening to students. Give them about 10 minutes to fill in the answers on their own, then come back as a group to discuss their responses. To hit the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards, incorporate an accountable talk strategy and remind the students to use the transcript to refer back to.
Finally, assign the students the following prompt (on the assignment doc) as a formative/exit ticket: Using evidence from the excerpt provided, write a paragraph to explain whether there is an advantage or disadvantage to reading or listening. Grade using the Formative Rubric.
This assignment allows students to explore primary documents that Sarah Koenig used for material in her podcast: Asia’s letters to Adnan. This activity is fun for the students and works best in groups, but it could also be assigned as independent work or as homework. Assign the Episode 1 Asia’s Letters to students and direct them to Asia’s Letters on the Serial website.
These materials were adapted from the Serial Unit by Mike and Melissa Godsey, open under CC attribution non-commercial.