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Teaching the Podcast Serial, Season 1, Episode 1 with Sarah Koenig

I’m always surprised when my students give their full attention to an hour-long podcast.  What keeps kids locked into Serial is not the facts of the story.   Every true crime story comes with details that keep you guessing and doubting the truth.  Sometimes it’s easy to figure out the killer, but human nature makes us want to believe someone when they say they’re innocent. 


A narrative contains a set of facts, but only a truly great artist will present those facts to us in a way that’s creative and entertaining.  It’s true for any great novel like The Great Gatsby, Beloved, or To the Lighthouse.  We are more interested in the storytelling than the story.  In this case, it’s not the details as much as it is Sarah Koenig that makes us want to keep listening.  It’s her voice that matters, her reactions to hearing information and the way she describes the journey of discovery that makes Serial great literature. 


Instead of merely summarizing the facts of the case, Koenig lays out the story like a novel.  She first introduces the case by talking about memory and then interviewing teenagers about where they were on a certain random date.  This introduction is something the listener comes back to when they listen to the interviews and learn how the police create a timeline of events.  She plays clips of interviews with people that ultimately don’t matter to depict the frustrating process of investigation.  She’ll summarize key events in a timeline like a teacher.  She mixes narration, exposition, persuasion, and description.  Her project becomes more about interpreting words and body language as much as it is about uncovering the facts.  Even with all the comic relief, asides, and monologues, Koenig stays focused on examining how the criminal justice system works and uncovering the truth, which she does again in Season 3


It's Koenig’s wit that makes this podcast special.  She’s honest, spontaneous, and not afraid to speak what she thinks and feels, like a mix of Elizabeth Bishop and Jane Austen.  Here are some of my favorite moments:


“The case was like a Shakespearean mashup.”

“Obsession is too strong a word, let’s say fascination.”

“One of them is lying, and I really want to figure out who.”

“He’s the third person you need to remember.”

“That would mean Adnan was a psychopath probably.”

“Could someone that looks like that really strangle his girlfriend?  Idiotic, I know.”

“You could also read it as: how convenient, he doesn’t remember.”

“That is not a strategy.  That’s a f- up.”

“If I can get to the bottom of it, shouldn’t I try?”

“I’m like a bloodhound on this thing.”

“I feel like I just interviewed an ivory-billed woodpecker.”


If you’re interested in teaching podcasts, here a unit I cover in my classes or there is a section in my online course on teaching podcast.

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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