School & District Management

English Teacher Bases Final Exam on ‘Serial’ Podcast

By Maggie DeBlasis — June 23, 2015 2 min read
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The final exam Alexa Schlechter gave her 10th graders this year wasn’t written, per se. Instead, according to KQED’s Mindshift, she found inspiration from the popular podcast “Serial” to give her students an opportunity to show their knowledge in a new format.

For months, Schlechter, who teaches English at Connecticut’s Norwalk High School, had immersed herself and her students in the world of “Serial,” a weekly audio program produced by This American Life about the real-life 1999 murder investigation of a Maryland teenager.

This spring, she told her students that, for their final exam, they would get into groups and, taking a cue from the show, record a series of audio pieces from the points of view of memoirists they’d studied over the year. The topic for discussion? A central idea from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the novels they read over the course of the year.

According to KQED, Schlechter received support from a school administrator and integrated Common Core State Standards into the assignment, with objectives like critical analysis, writing, and public speaking playing a part in the project. Students wrote reflections on their progress as individuals and as a group, as well as coming up with a short biographical presentation of the person they decided to “be” during their podcast.

The final products resulted in student podcasts that covered a wide variety of topics using an array of narrative approaches. One group focused on women’s repression in history while another highlighted the long-term impacts of childhood friendships. One student spoke as author Elie Wiesel, while another adopted the persona of Ron Burgundy of “Anchorman” fame.

“I wanted to push them beyond their comfort level and push myself beyond my own,” Schlechter told KQED. “How can I expect to have rigor in my classroom if it’s not rigorous?”

Putting stories into podcast form is something that students have shown an interest in and teachers like Schlechter are grasping the idea. Stories told in shorter bursts grab students’ attention spans and spark deeper conversations more than lengthy physical books. In the case of California high school English teacher Michael Godsey, listening to the podcast “triggered ideas for new ways to discuss the classics,” according to KQED, while students dug deeper into the events of the podcast to uncover answers almost as if it was a game.

“Teachers are desperate for new resources,” teacher Monica Brady-Myerov, founder and CEO of Listen Current, a site catered to cutting public radio snippets for classroom use, told KQED. “If you give teachers content-based audio, you’ll get so much more student engagement.”

You can listen to two of Schlechter’s students’ podcasts online, “The Silent Struggle” and “Real Life Radio.”

Image by Casey Fiesler/Flickr Creative Commons

More on “Serial” and its effect on alternative teaching methods:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.