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Waltham High assigns ‘Serial’ podcast to students, teachers

Instead of reading, this summer homework is all about listening

“Serial” tells the story of Adnan Syed, who was found guilty in 2000 for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend when he was then 19.

For two summers, they all read the same book. This year, they'll all listen to the same podcast.

When school lets out next month, students and teachers at Waltham High will be assigned to listen to "Serial," the wildly popular 12-episode podcast, for their all-school summer program "One School, One Story."

"Our main goal is to build a community around this," said Emilie Perna, an English teacher who co-chairs the summer reading committee. "This is a conversation starter."

"Serial" tells the story of Adnan Syed, who was found guilty in 2000 for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend when he was then 19. Host Sarah Koenig reexamined his case through interviews and evidence, raising questions about his trial and conviction.


Started three years ago, Waltham High's "One School, One Story" program gives everyone in the school community the same summer assignment. But the shift to a new media format does not mean students will be learning less, she said.

"I think even more so we can apply all of these literary terms," Perna said. "There is also so much more we can use in other classrooms."

Perna pointed to a Mind Shift article published in March by KQED about an English teacher in California who taught the podcast series in his class. The piece points out that students can listen to stories "two to three grade levels" above their reading level.

A survey conducted at Waltham High last fall revealed that 10 percent of students listened to last year's summer reading through an audiobook, Perna said. Add to that the difficulty of finding a book that could engage students at all grade levels and the "Serial" assignment was born.

Keeping with the "One School, One Story" format, students will have lessons relating to "Serial" in many subjects, such as learning about forensics in science class or about the justice system in history class.


"Reading is a tool you can use in every discipline," Perna said.

Kendall Boninti, library teacher and co-chair of the summer reading committee, said the podcast is "a perfect complement" to the media that students consume in the library.

"I kind of love this is different," Boninti said. "I hope we reach new listeners."

The idea was presented to parents on the board of the Waltham Education and Beyond Foundation, who are also excited about it, Perna said.

To kick off the assignment, the school will host a movie night, a game day, and other activities in June. The Waltham Public Library will also host weekly listening parties throughout the summer.

Students who opt not to participate in the assignment because of the dramatic content or other reasons will be given an alternative text to read, according to Perna.

Even if the podcast is a first for the school, wary bookworms should not worry. Perna and Boninti said this year's selection doesn't mean a novel won't be assigned next year. The committee, composed of teachers and students, aims to select a different genre each year.

"We're pretty much open to anything," Perna said, "as long as it's something that fits into the curriculum ... something we can get excited about."


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Opinion: Why is 'Serial' so gripping?

Man in 'Serial' podcast wins chance to hear from alibi witness


Sarah Koenig talks 'Serial' at Boston University conference

Christopher Gavin can be reached at christopher.gavin@globe.com