Using Serial (season 1) to teach journalism

by Mr. Sheehy

I am not a great journalism teacher. I’ve been teaching the class for four years (it’s a semester long writing class for seniors) and have altered my approach drastically in many ways, experimenting with our working time, with what I ask of students and how I motivate them, with the direction of my lessons. This year I wanted to improve their grasp of investigative journalism, to help them see what it is, both how hard it is and what is really going on with it. In truth, I have struggled to spark students’ interest in journalism, in its relevance, and since I see investigative reporting as the most exciting part of journalism (real change brought about from diligent reporting, the whole watchdog for a Democratic Society ideal) I thought emphasizing this area might be the best way to spark interest and build the relevance of the whole enterprise.

So this year we listened to season one of Serial, the wildly popular 2014 podcast. We listened in class, which we can do because our school uses a block schedule (95 minute classes), and I asked students to answer particular questions about each episode. After listening we continued working on our regular news stories for the school paper.

I thought our listening to it might show us a good example of investigative journalism but also lend us a view inside the process, what goes into putting all this together, because Sarah Koenig is so conversational and open about what she is trying to do and how she does it.

We finished the last episode today, and I am on the fence about its worth.

That was a lot of class time. Early on it felt completely worth it, but somewhere around episode nine I began to wonder whether I’d do this again. The episodes vary in length but generally run 40 to 50 minutes. With 12 episodes, that’s a lot of class time to give to this project (at least nine hours).

But then again, I have taught this class for years and know that what I had been doing with that time was not working. I was continually disappointed with the results of my instruction. The content was good, but somehow it never hooked my seniors, whose minds were set more on completing their high school careers than the nuances of clutter in their prose. No matter how good the lessons’ content was, if the students didn’t learn them, they weren’t good. So did Serial lead to greater net learning?

I am happy with students’ responses to my questions about each episode. They were thoughtful and insightful. They were clearly listening (no napping, no playing on their phones). They were developing their own opinions. They were understanding what Koenig was doing as a storyteller when I asked them to consider her methods. And they were ready to riot when one person affirmed Adnan should have been convicted (they voted 17-1 to acquit him, not believing he was innocent so much as not sure he was guilty).

All the students said they thought it was worth the time we spent on it. One qualified her comments a tad, recognizing that we spent twelve class periods on it and I might not want to do that again, but she still voted for it. Another student told me, “It helped with how I view journalism,” which is encouraging, though it’s possible I primed her for that kind of feedback, as I had asked them what they learned about journalism and whether I should do it again.

Likely the key measure of the experience will be how students respond in their own work, their own journalism. Their big project for the quarter is to write their own investigative piece. The results from past classes have been mixed (many students have passed off basic news reports as investigative pieces), so if this group writes a series of truly investigative reports, I would be encouraged. But I also have to admit that such results can depend as much on the topics students discover as on their understanding of the skills. If I can suggest a number of great ideas, students will seize them and frequently write good stories, but if I can’t think of enough topics, a dearth of interesting stories may result.

I have done worse things than this Serial unit–though nothing as long–so I’m not scared to try it again. While students enjoyed it, I’m not particularly confident in its place and am definitely fishing for other ideas. If I come across one, I will be content to toss Serial back into the pond.

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