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Serial podcast for extensive reading

I’ve wanted to use Serial in class since I first listened to it. But first.

A little background first

Every year, one curriculum assignment is a quasi-extensive reading book club with students (I say ‘quasi’ because of a few items I’ll get to in a minute). For reading, students typically have stuck to required content only (i.e. for their credit course and those we selected for their ARCs and research projects). The purpose of this assignment originated because of this: we value reading a lot to improve vocabulary, notice grammatical patterns, highlight differences in genre AND that reading shouldn’t always be a chore.

With little time –inside– the curriculum and classroom instruction to cover more reading in detail, we collectively decided to create a book club conducted solely through Facebook groups with a 5% overall mark attached. Since each instructor has a defined group of students (one or two sections of around 15 students each; we have 300+ students in total in this course), opportunity to select a book of their choice wouldn’t  be possible if each instructor forced only one book onto just their group of students. Increasing interaction between different groups of students and instructors was a factor, while not significantly increasing instructor workload. So, we created this process:

  1. Variety of choice: Each instructor (i.e. 12 of us this year) chooses a novel from varying genres that they want to read and might appeal to different types of students. We spread this over 12 weeks (this year), so aim for 200-300 pages.
  2. Reducing bias: These choices are listed anonymously (i.e. students don’t know which book each instructor has chosen) on a Google doc, linked to a synopsis of that book. Students have almost a month to investigate each of the choices.
  3. Surveying students: We open a Google form survey, where each student ranks their top 5 choices and gives all other books a zero to indicate they are not interested in it.
  4. Enrolling students: When the survey closes, we ‘enrol’ each student into one of their choices until they are full (we aim for an equal capacity in each book club for each instructor; usually this works out so that everyone gets their 1st – 3rd choice).
  5. Facebook Book Club groups: Students join the corresponding Facebook Group, which has been set up by the instructor. Because any student can be enrolled in any of the book clubs, instructors don’t necessarily have their own students, and students themselves get to interact with others they normally would not be able to.
  6. Weekly reading & discussion posts: Instructors create a reading guide/schedule for their books and post weekly discussion questions. We score amount of participation/interaction over grammar or other language issues.

It’s a pretty easy 5% to get if students do, in fact, read along and participate in the discussion. In this way, it tends to lean towards pleasure reading rather than punitive and rigorous activity.

How is it ‘quasi’?

Back to the ‘quasi’ issue: while there is a wide selection of books to choose from, they ultimately get put into one of their top choices, not necessarily the 1st choice or just a book they’ve opted for themselves. They also don’t read at their own pace because of the reading guide and discussion posts. We do require participation for each discussion posted during the one week following the posting, so that it’s a little cleaner for instructors to read and comment on; so older posts don’t bounce up to the top of the group on new responses; and to avoid any student from waiting until the end of term to answer everything, therefore increasing interaction among them. Also, the novels aren’t chosen by difficulty, so the language isn’t necessarily just below their proficiency and hence it can be a challenge. But the reward is completing a regular novel in English, which several students have remarked is a proud accomplishment. And finally, there is a grade attached, so it’s not without its stakes entirely.

Back to novel choice

In the past, I’ve stuck to novels, some with better qualities than others. In addition to page length and genre variety, you also need to consider how easily you can divide up the book over the span of the book club. It’s not like books are so cleanly divided into equal length chapters. Additionally, classics (e.g. 1984) are a good choice for popularity, but then you run the risk of students sourcing it in their L1 or they’ve already read it in highschool. Another consideration: variety of and ability to create weekly discussion posts. Does the plot moves enough each week? Can there be enough possible answers for 20+ students not to simply agree with a previous comment?

I agonise over which book I want to choose each year. Often it comes down to whether or not I want to read something new. Other times it’s about length and topic that I think might be popular in selection (you never want to end up being the book that every student gives a zero to). A few of my experiences thus far:

  1. Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood = long and a bit challenging to read, but the plot created good questions. Not many people selected it.
  2. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams = very funny and philosophical. It was wildly popular with students.
  3. Misery, Stephen King = too long, too little happens chapter by chapter for discussion posts.
  4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Alexander Freed = this one was great, very timely with the new movie.
  5. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood = with the new TV series approaching (at the time), this one was very engaging and one that most Canadians have read in highschool anyway so helpful culturally.
  6. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger = it was OK, but parts seemed a bit outdated and hard to identify with
  7. Rendez-vous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke = the plot allowed for a lot of mystery.

This year = the podcast

So, where am I going with this? Ahh yes: my agony in book selection. Ever since I listened to the first season of the Serial podcast, I’ve wanted to use in my teaching, but since I don’t focus on listening skills, never found a justifiable reason to do so.  If you’ve somehow managed to completely ignore Serial through its overwhelming popularity and the fact that it arguably resurrected the podcast genre, it’s about an American true crime in 1999, where Adnan Syed was accused and convicted of murdering his highschool girlfirend, Hae Min Lee. By its nature, it’s episodic and ends with many questions each time. It also involves first generation immigrants, their kids, and the clash of cultural expectations on them: engaging stuff and on point.

In my relentless search to find a book like it, it dawned on me that the podcast itself may have been transcribed i.e. reading material! A closer search uncovered various forms by various people: episode by episode in Word docs, as a whole in PDF, episode by episode on Genius with the ability to annotate any part of it by users of Genius (which looks VERY cool). It’s split into exactly 12 episodes (or 288 pages in total): perfect for dividing up across my 12 weeks. It exposes students to a very different genre: podcast and script. Plus, the podcast site itself has a ton of supplemental materials that are referred to in the series itself: maps, original letters from friends of the accused, timelines of events, etc. I’m very excited to give this a try.

You may ask yourself: but can’t the students just listen to the podcast and avoid reading altogether? Isn’t reading the point? The answer is yes. But my rebuttal is that there’s no way to control whether students opt for the audiobook versions of other choices (Edit: I’ve just come across ReadListenLearn, which are graded audio readers–might be handy for someone). Plus, in discussion posts I plan to refer to specific areas of the transcript itself (and perhaps even ask them to annotate on Genius…). Let them also listen to the podcast as well if they wish. A lovely side-effect may be interesting them in extensive listening through other podcasts after all is said and done.

So I’m going to throw out these questions into the ELT abyss: 

Q1: Do you use podcasts in ELT?  🎧
Q2: Do you ‘quasi’ anything, like our extensive reading activity? 📙
Q3: Do you use Facebook Groups with your students for any purpose? 👨‍👨‍👧‍👦
Q4: Hey, listen to Serial Season One (OK, that’s not a real question). 🎙️

Once the book club is over, I’ll let you know how it went.

PS – This Facebook Book Club has been of great interest academically that both a colleague’s PhD thesis (about online communication between learners) and my own MA dissertation (about how what teachers believe about extensive reading connect to their own interactions in this assignment) were based on it…

Further reading
Naomi Epstein –

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Hi Tyson,

My students don’t have enough language to access Serial. I have tried excerpts but it died a death. I look forward to other comments. Cheers.

Tyson Seburn

Thanks for the comment, Marc. 🙂 I hope you have a class one day with the language to experiment with higher level texts.

Ann Kumm

I used Serial for an extensive listening portfolio this summer (higher-level listening course). I have always had a lot of success using podcasts (and TV series) due to the fact that students develop a shared context. Regarding students being able to simply listen instead of read, I had the same issue but in reverse, and I found that having both was an asset—students were able to analyze the music choices, examine narrator word choice in context with transcripts, etc. Many of the activities my colleague and I developed for our listening portfolio would probably work in your reading course as well. Feel free to ask me questions about how I used them (I’m not sure I included explicit instructions on a few documents). Here are a few of the docs:
-People Involved:
-Legal English Glossary:
-Episode Vocab (Ep. 1-5 = completed):
-Episode 1 Class Discussion (station activity):

Ann Kumm

Note that my portfolio was also “quasi” extensive. We did activities in class for episode 1 to garner interest and set them on the right path, but the rest of the activities assigned were very similar to those you described above (well, kind of). Maybe “extensive” isn’t the best word to use now that I think about it.

Tyson Seburn

Thanks so much for the incredibly generous share! They are very useful (and attractive). I’ll definitely integrate some into the book club.

Ann Kumm

Of course! Not sure how much would be of use for your specific course; nevertheless, let me know if you do macgyver any of the materials.

I would love to see what reading-specific activities, tasks, etc. you have planned to do. It is always insightful to see what magic others do with the same content.

Tyson Seburn

Since it’s entirely done over Facebook, I’ll largely be adding discussion posts over the course of the term (starting Nov 3). It’s the variety and the student responses that are most interesting in this type of purely online activity. Having said that, I may direct students to some of these documents and gobble up a few ideas from them for said discussion posts.

Ann Kumm

I had students answer questions via discussion board throughout the class, and at the end of the course they turned in a portfolio with these docs in them. I am curious how much more interactivity would happen on a social media platform. I have tried using Facebook for a course in the past but never in a formal capacity

The “People Involved” doc was rather useful (took forever to figure out how to organize…still bothered by some bits). I found that students became really chatty when it came to discussing how much Sarah did or did not believe Adnan (and if she was biased). I almost forgot to include her, which would have been unfortunate because she often provoked the most productive conversations via discussion board.

I also had a ongoing evidence board up in the class which allowed students to debate/talk about the podcast before and after classes (mostly wondering why the hell Stephanie was so removed from the podcast). Luckily for me, it also served as a reminder for students to do the work. 😉 It would be interesting to see how students would create and organize a collaborative evidence board through an app (or even using Google Slides).

Tyson Seburn

The difference I see here is that I never actually see these students in person (except maybe passing by in some building where they know me but I don’t know them) as only occasionally does one of my in-class students make it into my book club. So it’s all on Facebook and I have no other way to communicate with them or remind them about anything. One day I’d like to deliver an entire course on Serial. haha

Ann Kumm

I just reread how many students you have in the course and realized what you meant by *totally* online. Doh! Your course is massive. In a given semester, we have 20-50 in our bridge course.

[…] connection has helped. More on this and where we’re going on a research level. Next time on Serial. No wait, wrong post. […]

[…] Seburn, T. 2017, October 12. Serial podcast for extensive reading [blog]. Available here. […]

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