Serial: A True-Crime Story
Teach how to analyze sources, ask good questions, and defend theories with evidence through the lens of an addicting true-crime story.
By Elijah Ammen
Serial. It's the podcast your friends won't shut up about. Or maybe it's the podcast you're personally obsessed with.
Or, if you're like me, it's the thing that made you stop and say, "Hmm... people actually listen to podcasts?"
Serial defies easy explanations, but here it goes: It is a spinoff show of This American Life and it tells a single story week by week. This first season tells the real-life story surrounding the 1999 murder of a high school girl, Hae Min Lee. Eventually, her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged with her murder, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. It seems like a simple, albeit tragic event.
Enter Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial. For the past year, she has been investigating this story, including receiving weekly phone calls from Adnan while he is in a maximum security prison in Baltimore. Adnan never pled guilty and still maintains his innocence. The podcast consists of 12 episodes during which Sarah Koenig searches for the truth in a quagmire of mishandled evidence, corrupt lawyers, and contradictory testimonies.
It's the real-life connection that makes this story so powerful. We hear interviews with Adnan, we listen to old friends talk about events that are 15 years past, we eavesdrop into court testimony. It's an artfully crafted podcast, with dramatic twists and turns as the host, Sarah Koenig, parses out information in a style that is more mystery novel than actual fact.
Several teachers have written articles about the academic value of Serial, including this one on why he's teaching Serial instead of Shakespeare. While I reject his one-or-the-other assumption, I decided to teach Serial in my creative writing class.
Yes, I decided to teach a nonfiction audio podcast in my class about creative writing. It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But the craft of creative writing is not exclusive to fiction. Few, if any, of my students will pursue a career purely in creative writing, but those skills of description, figurative language, persuasion, and story structure are transferable to a myriad of other careers. When my class listened to the podcast, they analyzed how a narrator's choice of words or the order of information can sway an audience. This helped them become discerning listeners, because they understood that even the truth can be manipulated through its presentation.
Questioning the Narrator and Witnesses
This concept of an unreliable narrator is vital for learners to understand. This is more than just a literary concept—it's a life skill. The ability to question a source and look for bias or prejudice turns young people from passive consumers of information into thoughtful critics. This is particularly useful in the modern deluge of information available on any electronic device. If a young person is not able to analyze the reliability of a source, they will be pulled down into the whirlpool of Internet misinformation.
That's the beauty of Serial. We not only analyze each witness and source of information, we analyze the narrator and host herself. What biases does Sarah Koenig bring to the mic? How has her personal background framed her perspective of the facts? What are her motivations for telling this story?
You may want to pre-teach some of these skills before jumping into the complexity of this podcast. Consider the following:
- Analyze an argument, using Lincoln's first Inaugural Address.
- Stage a debate to teach questioning and cross-examination, so your class understands the methods used in court.
- For younger students, discuss how to look for evidence to support an argument.
Additional Serial Resources to Support Instruction
Serial has become an obsession for many, particularly because of the open-ended nature of the story. Adnan is still in jail. We may never know what actually happened. But that hasn't stopped a vibrant online community from coming up with their own theories, visiting the locations in the podcasts, and creating detailed Google Maps of every place mentioned in connection with Adnan.
The first stop is the Serial website. There, you can find the episodes, the background information, documents about the case, evidence and theories, and more. They also have a handy instructional page so you can download the episodes to your phone and greatly improve your commutes.
There is also a cornucopia of fan-created resources a Google search away, though they sometimes spiral off into conspiracy theories. However, you should at least check out this excellent article on what Serial teaches about storytelling.
Setting Up a Mock Trial
After listening to the podcasts, reading countless blogs and Reddit posts, and composing a few outlandish theories myself, I was stuck. How am I going to teach this in a coherent manner? It's too sporadic, too random. Surely kids won't sit in a classroom just... listening? How am I going to fit 10 hours of a podcast into the seven and a half instructional hours I had to teach this?
So I collaborated with the criminal justice teacher at my school, and we arranged a mock trial competition. His class would take the defense, and mine would take the prosecution. This gave a focus to our study and a competitive spirit that motivated teenagers to listen to the podcast outside of class. Without prompting, I had students who had never turned in a homework assignment come up to me and passionately argue about a recent episode. This culminated in our mock trial, with actual evidence (like affidavits and phone logs) from the Serial website, role-players as witnesses, and a student jury.
Even if you don't have the assistance of a criminal justice teacher, it's not too difficult to create your own mock trial:
- Pre-teach courtroom procedure.
- Write out opening statements for the prosecution and defense.
- Follow this New York Times learning blog steps for your own mock trial.
- Find additional information on the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court's webpage.
Because we had a goal, it gave a focus to our research. We only listened to the first three podcasts together in class, but we had focused notetaking. We analyzed the motive, opportunity, and means for each suspect in the case. We mapped out the scene where Hae's body was found buried. Finally, we made a simple pro and con sheet. What evidence could be used for the prosecution, and what evidence could be used for the defense? Ultimately, we realized that most of the evidence could be used by either side—it just mattered how you spun it.
That's the ultimate lesson your class can learn from this experience. Serial is not a simple whodunnit. It's an analysis of the system, a serious look at the flaws and gaps in our justice system. This kind of social critique is more than just an academic exercise—it's a chance for young people to become thoughtful and analytical citizens.