Why I’m teaching Serial instead of Shakespeare

Not quite as engaging as a true crime podcast.
Not quite as engaging as a true crime podcast.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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As a high school English teacher, I used to spend at least four weeks on Hamlet. On an annual basis, we would happily discuss the potential causes of the protagonist’s insanity, the symptoms of depression, the cultural beliefs and norms of Renaissance England, and well…basically the nature of man. This year, I took a leap and replaced Shakespeare with “Serial,” a nonfiction podcast centered around the murder of an American high school girl, the subsequent investigation, and the potentially unjust imprisonment of her ex-boyfriend.

Although I am genuinely worried about how this contemporary story will end, I have no regrets yet. In fact, it’s been more fun, more engaging, and more conducive to learning the Common Core’s anchor standards in reading and writing than anything written by Shakespeare, Joyce, or anybody else. By far.

In no particular order, here are some of the reasons:

1. The teacher (me) doesn’t know how the story ends

Whenever I teach a novel for the first time, students believe that they might be answering my questions and solving problems in original ways. No matter how much I fake it, however, they can tell when I’m teaching Hamlet for the eighth straight year. Teaching “Serial” is even better than teaching a book for the first time—the story is literally not finished yet, so they know I don’t know the answers.

2. The nonfiction “murder mystery” genre makes it more conducive to problem-solving

We want our students to be critically-thinking problem solvers, and Reading Standard 7 specifically asks the students to combine multiple sources to solve a problem or question. “How much should we believe Jay’s story?” is an interesting, real-life question that could literally be solved; student engagement with this question is much higher than say, “Should Hamlet listen to his father’s ghost?”

3. Serial is hip and fresh

My students really, really don’t care about what a dead critic thinks about Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his own mother, but they definitely take notice when women are tweeting about how they’re looking for men who have an opinion on Adnan.

4. My students’ opinions might actually matter on social networking sites. Or in my class. Or in real life.

Nobody on the internet really cares about their thoughts on Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, and after eight years, I frankly don’t either (I’ve pretty much heard them all). But in this case, there’s a good chance they can blow my mind by uncovering a clue, and even a (very small) chance that their research could help bring justice to an imprisoned man.

5. The multi-media aspect encourages (requires) the students to synthesize information from a variety of sources

Yes, I know we can watch Shakespeare on YouTube and we can make models of the Globe Theater, but this does not compare to Serial’s collection of documents and photos. Not only does this multi-media aspect really help with the state standards and “21st Century Skills,” it’s just a good time. Maps, call logs, Google maps, hand-written letters…it’s fantastically fun and totally engaging. Today we put the Google Maps “street view” on the big screen and “drove” the exact route that Adnan allegedly took from his school to Best Buy. Creepy, but engaging. Speaking of which…

6. They actually listen to the story

Sorry, but the kids these days are not doing the homework like we dream we did when we were in high school. Their SparkNotes (on their phones) are in their pockets at all times. Even at the university, my friend (an English prof) says that students are watching the movie on their iPads while he lectures on Much Ado About Nothing. In this case, the students say “Wait, Mr. Godsey. Can you play back that last 10 seconds?” about every 10 minutes.


It’s easier to teach the state standards with Serial

As I illustrated in an earlier post, not only can I justify the use of Serial as a primary text, the podcast actually helps the students learn these fundamental skills more efficiently than most traditional texts, especially longer novels.

8. The state doesn’t really care if the students read Shakespeare

I don’t know if this is hyperbole or understatement, but it’s how I feel right now. “Serial” does not teach anything about iambic pentameter, English history, or the Renaissance, but none of these things are tested on the SBAC, the CAHSEE, the SAT, or any other test they might take outside of my class. Generally speaking, we’re being asked to teach the skills rather than the content (which are said to be easily accessible in 2014). More specifically, there is no school-wide, district-wide, or state-mandated test that has a single question about a particular piece of literature. “To be or not to be?” is not a multiple choice question that has any place on a state-mandated test, and nobody seems to care; I’m not even sure I do. As long as I teach students to read well and think critically, they can read Shakespeare on their own time.

But as a fellow English teacher asked yesterday, “What about the humanities?” And as my bible group asked two night ago, “What about wisdom?”  I don’t know. This will surely be another blog post—please feel free to contribute comments before I write about that.

In the meantime, I’m going home to pour a couple of bowls of cereal for me and my wife, and then we’re going to snuggle up and listen to the next episode of “Serial.” After all, it’s my homework.