Criminal in the Classroom

IMG_1782Steve Riccio (L) and his forensics students

Steve Riccio is a teacher at Oriskany Junior-Senior High School in Oriskany, New York, near Utica. This past school year, he used both individual episodes of Radiotopia’s Criminal and the first season of This American Life’s Serial in his forensics class for juniors and seniors. I talked with Steve about how he used the shows, and his advice for other teachers hoping to make use of podcasts in the classroom. Here are excerpts from a recorded interview:

Genevieve Sponsler: Let’s start with an overview of what you did.

Steve Riccio: We listened to an episode [of Serial in class] every Monday, and I had the students write up a little summary: what was new in the episode [compared with] the previous week, specifically trying to address forensic evidence. There was a heck of a lot of forensics discussed, and specific things the case missed. I tried to have the kids focus on the forensics side. Some weeks were better than others: when the show talked about phone calls, for example, there wasn’t a lot of forensic evidence, like physical evidence you would find at a crime scene. Every week we listened to another episode, which was cool because it kept the kids on their toes. They enjoyed it.

GS: Did some of them try to skip ahead and listen at home?

SR: There was one girl who, after the second week, had listened to the whole thing.

GS: That’s great they were so into it.

SR: Yeah! With Criminal, I would listen to [episodes], write up short summaries, and turn them into questions for exams. We also listened to an episode in class as part of an exam. I have two students who are looking to go into science, one definitely criminal justice and possibly forensics. Another student is thinking of biology, but possibly forensics as avenue. Both are female. To have two young ladies who have said hey, I want to do science, and possibly forensics, is pretty cool.

GS: I agree. Since Serial and Criminal both have excellent women hosts, I wonder if that inspired the students. It’s interesting for them to listen to, I imagine.

SR: Absolutely. I think it subliminally makes a huge impact. I think there are a lot of little tiny things that we don’t really recognize that have a on significant impact on our culture and the way students think. When you told me you wanted to chat about [podcasts in the classroom], I asked my students: what do you think? What did you like? What did you dislike? What should we do differently next year?

They said they really liked listening to the podcasts. One student said she didn’t like writing summaries every time [we listened to Serial]. She said she’d rather have a project on it. Which made me think: Is there some way I can design a project around this? I might be able to work with one of our history teachers, who does a government class, to perhaps host a debate examining the legal aspects of the show. A couple kids said that instead of listening to an episode of Serial every Monday, they would’ve rather listened every day for a couple of weeks. I’m wondering if I can do that as a real short unit. I could also have the students listen at home and come in the next day for an activity or a discussion. That way we’re not actually using class time to listen to it but they’re listening on their own.

GS: Having them listen at home sounds good, but it’s a tough choice because listening to audio together and watching people’s reactions is a unique and bonding experience.

SR: It’s funny that you mention that because I know exactly what you’re talking about. When we would listen to [Serial] together as a group, I knew what was coming since I’d listened ahead of time, but I’d watch the students’ reactions at the end and they would say, “No! What happened?!”

GS: If you knew another teacher in a different school who was interested in using podcasts in the classroom, what advice would you give?

SR: It’s a good way to engage students, and a different style of learning. A lot of times students will hear teachers talk, but they’ve never listened to just straight audio. It’s a really beautiful thing, because they’re bombarded by images all day, every day on their phones. [With podcasts] they’re taking a step back, listening and coming up with images in their own heads, and stimulating a creative part of their brains they don’t often use because they don’t have to. Take a chance — I did and I think it went pretty well. It wasn’t part of our curriculum, but it parallels the curriculum pretty well for forensics. It was a really good change of pace for the kids.

Ed. note from Genevieve: I’ll check back in with Steve in the fall to see how his new class is going. He has 20 kids signed up for fall, instead of the nine he had this past year! (Some were missing from the photo above.)