Here at the New Times office, there are approximately three things we obsess over. One is sugar, for obvious reasons. Two is making fun of the in-office Dungeons And Dragons club by throwing ketchup packets at them. And three is Serial—the immensely popular podcast from the producers of This American Life.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- PODCLASS: Students in Michael Godsey’s 11th grade classroom analyze the various, narrative tools employed in the podcast 'Serial.'
We’re hardly alone in our fixation. Since its debut, the podcast has consistently topped the iTunes charts at No. 1, and it boasts around 1 million listeners per episode. It’s spurred a frenzy of discourse, memes, and at least two spin-off podcasts to discuss said podcast. Fans all over the world, from California to London to Australia, tune in every Thursday to hear host Sarah Koenig unravel the mystery behind the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student.
Michael Godsey, an English teacher at Morro Bay High School, is one of those fans. He became hooked because of his wife.
“She said, ‘You’re listening to this.’ Not ‘You should listen to this,’ but ‘You are listening to this,’” he recalled.
It was during a hiking trip, while absorbed in an episode, when Godsey conceived of a plan. Typically, he spends about four weeks during the school year teaching everyone’s favorite Denmark-based drama of ghosts and angst, Hamlet. But, he reasoned, the story of Serial was just as compelling. It could easily function as a classroom text.
“I was thinking, ‘This is the best told, best crafted story I’ve heard in a long time,” he said.
The series follows the real-life circumstances and consequences surrounding the 1999 murder of Woodlawn High School senior Hae Min Lee. She disappeared one afternoon in January. On Feb. 9, her body was found in a shallow grave in a park only a few miles from the school. Weeks later, her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on the basis of his acquaintance Jay’s testimony. For the last 15 years, Syed’s been in prison. He maintains he is innocent.
Of course, the story is far more complex than that. With meticulous detail and her affable commentary, Koenig investigates the evidence (almost exclusively circumstantial), court proceedings, testimonies, geography, and social context of the crime. What happened on that one afternoon in January? Who were these kids? Why did it happen? Who did it?
For the past month or so, Godsey and his 11th grade students have been investigating right alongside Sarah. With rapt ears, they listen to the podcast in class and at home, chat about potential theories in the hallways with friends, and incorporate the themes into the school’s Common Core standards.
As Godsey writes in his blog, “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.”
Every week, Godsey hands out assignments and projects based on the podcast. One asks the students to construct a timeline of episode one and identify the different functions of each part—i.e. the hook, characterization, rising action, and climax. They deconstruct all the elements of the story with the same tools one would use in the parsing of a poem. They close read witness letters, analyze testimonies, and look up locations on Google Maps. The lessons integrate multimedia, current events, and critical thinking in an interactive way that hackneyed talking points about Hamlet and his mommy issues probably aren’t able to achieve.
“It’s really intense,” Godsey said. “It opens up questions about author intentionality and about bias. I can’t think of another time when I’ve taught something that’s so real.”
This is all the result of an overall restructuring at Morro Bay High regarding pedagogical practices. Recently, the school has increasingly been emphasizing project-based and cross-curriculum learning. Alongside the literary analysis, Godsey has incorporated the use of statistics and encouraged conversations concerning the ethics of studying the lives of real people and real, tragic events.
What began as an experiment has developed into a massive success so far. National publications like Slate and The Wall Street Journal have featured Godsey’s lesson plans alongside a growing number of other classrooms that have started teaching the podcast. And, just last week, a teacher from Woodlawn High (the high school where the story of Serial takes place) reached out to Godsey, asking to collaborate.
But the question remains. Can a podcast be considered literature? Can it convey the same depth as Madame Bovary, Hamlet, or Grapes of Wrath?
“There’s more than the suspense of who did it,” Godsey said. “There’s the question of why are they doing it, why are they telling the story this way. I love the two levels. It’s really valuable for them [the students]. They don’t care about Steinbeck’s bias, but they do care about Serial.”
The students agree. When asked about the podcast’s appeal, the overwhelming answer was its relatability and accessibility.
“It’s already increased my healthy interest in investigation,” Jeff Raach said.
Though Godsey does admit some shortcomings.
“The characters are flat for literature,” he said. “But, in real life, people are flat.”
It’s true. Serial may not offer the same richness as a novel, a play, or a poem. But what it lacks in character complexity, it more than makes up for in teaching the craft of storytelling.
“I really like hearing a story as it’s being told with the rest of the world,” Raach said.
“You don’t start off knowing the answer, so you have to pay attention to what’s around,” Tiffany Revalee noted.
Unlike reading a novel, where you are presented with a polished, finished story, Serial is a work in progress. It offers an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look into how you structure a narrative, and how that narrative can have real-life, even criminal consequences.
As Godsey says, “It teaches not just the story, but the story about the story.”
Jessica Peña is busy listening to Serial! Duh! But if you must bother her, email her at email@example.com.