“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” –Albert Camus
No longer under the yoke of Senior Project, we found ourselves with massive gaps in the curriculum. For the first time ever, I was not the only one teaching senior English, so Stephanie Tinberg (first-year teacher) and I sat down to discuss how we would most like to teach the standards left dangling by the hasty departure of Senior Project. It didn’t take us long to brainstorm a diverse list of activities/assignments/texts that would make fantastic additions to the curriculum. At the heart of all of our ideas was Guided Inquiry.
In an attempt to expand the worldview of our students, Stephanie and I decided to experiment with a new genre: the podcast. Stephanie introduced me to the Serial Podcast produced by This American Life and hosted by Sarah Koenig. The podcast explores the case of a young man convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Seeing the story of a 17-year-old who had actually been tried for and convicted of murder was eye-opening. More impactful than a man their age going to prison was the reality that he may have been wrongly convicted. Koenig follows the information from the case and conducts her own investigation as she attempts to discover what actually happened that January day in 1999.
Sometimes in life, everything aligns to create a teachable moment like no other. Serial provided exactly that moment. Adnan Syed’s case was back in the news as we studied it. Because of new evidence unearthed by the podcast and a follow up podcast titled Undisclosed, Syed had petitioned for a post conviction hearing. It was granted. As we finished listening to the podcast in class, the actual young man from the story, now in his thirties, went back to court to possibly receive a new trial. The students were riveted as they watched this actually play out on the news and social media. The outcome of the hearing has yet to be determined, but students ask almost daily if there are any updates.
Guided Inquiry provided the perfect approach for students to explore this case and what it revealed about humanity, the justice system, and the idea of right and wrong. Students used the Guided Inquiry framework to conduct their own investigations into nearly every facet of the case. Because so many groups have worked on Syed’s behalf to uncover the truth, many of the primary documents from the case are available online including police reports, autopsy reports, police notes, depositions, and even evidence photos. We invited lawyers into the classroom to discuss what elements are required to craft a reliable defense. We invited the numerous teachers around the building who had also followed the podcast to join us as a Serial Support Group for students to discuss their theories and frustrations. Our ultimate goal was to share our findings in a sort of “closing argument” style presentation complete with an evidence board that allowed students to take their audience through their investigations and evidence.
When I spoke with my students upon completion of the project, I was surprised by their reactions. For the first time in my seventeen-year teaching career, my students declared that they wished they could have done MORE research. MORE! They wished they could have worked in small, supportive groups to go deeper into different elements of the case. They wanted real answers from this real experience. Eventually, a judge in a Baltimore courtroom will supply those answers. Now, we are at his mercy.
Our new focus on Guided Inquiry provided a chance to change for the better. We don’t practice it perfectly yet, but we are getting better with each new teaching unit. Our reflection is key to improving our teaching, but reflecting with our students has also proven to provide immeasurable growth. Most of our students appreciate our attempts to approach learning in new ways and also appreciate the opportunity to shape how that learning takes place in the classroom. Others are surprisingly fearful of new strategies and the freedom that comes with change.
English Department Chair
Jonathan Alder High School
Plain City, Ohio