The student stared blankly at our guest presenter, struggling to answer her question about a story that appeared in a recent issue of our school newspaper.
“Should have read the article, Mike,” jabbed Dan, a rising senior.
“He tried, but the lede was buried,” said Natalie, without missing a beat.
The students laughed, because they could laugh now. In the last few hours, these fledgling journalists had learned what a lede is and how to write one. They were beginning to grasp the concept of grafs, and how writing news to a fifth grade level might be a little tougher than it sounds. A group of ten students now felt like they might be hovering on the edge of being insiders to a professional field. They were pleased with themselves for getting Natalie’s joke, and for the surprising feeling of wanting to learn more.
On break, a half-hour or so later, I asked a junior how he thought it was going. “This is way better than I thought it would be,” he said, grinning. I thought that this just might be the highest praise a teenage boy could offer for a school program on one of the last waning days of summer.
Last year, I started advising a student newspaper.
I have absolutely no experience in journalism, short of writing a couple of novice articles for my college’s newspaper because I had a crush on an editor. But when I raised my hand in the air for this task, I naively thought that a little bit of my mileage in Adobe programs would go a long way towards cleaning up the paper’s dated design. There was a co-advisor with plenty of experience in media writing, and who had similar ideas and standards to my own. Just before the end of the year, the self-appointed student editor-in-chief introduced himself to the two of us as “the guy who wanted to do it.”
We were ready, I thought.
I have no idea what I’m doing, I thought, in the next breath.
Shortly afterwards, my co-advisor quit his job to move on to another opportunity.
This is where the story gets interesting.
Feeling very overwhelmed, I took a risk and contacted a former student and friend whose career in journalism had been interesting to follow on social media. Miraculously, he agreed to meet me and answer a few questions that I couldn’t even articulate yet. From our initial handshake, I could tell that he was a young professional, very serious about his work and about the gravity of journalism. I was embarrassed by how little I knew, but he was gracious and generous, sharing insights and possibilities that I hadn’t considered. I walked away from that first meeting with a lot to consider, a little breathless from the responsibility I’d taken on.
The next day, when students asked me questions about how our first issue might come together, I basically parroted his answers. I admitted that I did not really know much about how to do this, but that we could learn together – and that I could use the “call a friend” strategy whenever I needed to do so. My students were patient and had a sense of humor. Gradually, and with many mistakes, the paper started to come together, and then – with a bunch of fumbles and false starts – to build momentum.
Early on, whenever I had a question or thought the paper needed critique, I contacted the friend who helped us get started. His career was busy and building its own momentum, but he always offered patient answers and support.
Then my network started to expand – mostly other former students who had learned something about media and journalism on their travels since high school, a few friends, colleagues. Everyone who offered help had a little bit – or a lot – of real-world experience to share. Late in the school year, we went to a workshop at another school that brought in a slew of journalism professionals for blocks of practice and learning sessions. We compared papers with our peer schools, and talked with other area students and teachers. We were humbled by everything we still needed to learn.
At the end of the year, I still knew nothing – but had fallen head-over-heels in love with journalism. And when I look back at how this happened, it isn’t so hard to analyze the reasons why.
- I had an excuse to learn something brand-new.
- When I admitted that I wasn’t an expert – and that answer was okay with my students, and with my colleagues, I had another excuse: to take some risks and have some fun.
- I was able to learn from people I had once taught – and in the exchange of ideas and friendship, we boosted each other up. This was energizing, and such a gift.
- Journalism was a platform from which to ask questions – and to encourage my students to do the same. In fact, questions are the roots of the whole field.
- Journalism has rules. Daily-practice, industry-standard, follow-these-or-you-will-look-like-an-idiot rules. We had our idiot moments last year, and now we know why. These are not arbitrary or artificial classroom rules, but ones that have their answers in real-world practice. The more we learn about the field, the more my students and I respect these rules. Refreshing.
- Student journalism needs student leaders. In regular classes, students sit in rows and teachers try to treat them equally. But the real world doesn’t work that way. In their lives beyond high school, my students are going to have to compete for opportunities, learn to lead and follow, and find ways to stand out. Supporting interested students and bolstering their confidence as editors and leaders reminded me of my roots in student affairs work, when I worked with college students who were figuring out these life lessons. I spent years in this field, and practicing some of its skills was a welcome cross-over into my teaching life.
- What I was learning had real-world connections – and thousands of constantly-refreshing examples of practice from which to draw. Around mid-year, I started curating “5 Links” daily to send out to the editorial staff – well-written articles from other schools, stories from local news, must-reads sent to me by supporters. I knew the strategy was working when the students started sending me articles they found to be included in the daily digest. They began to curate their own interests and learning.
- And we had a demonstrable product each month – something that was shared with the world, for reaction, criticism, and sometimes even for change. It wasn’t tucked away in a folder like a research paper, or one-and-done like a quiz, or put on a pedestal briefly like a sculpture. The paper was an active, living document – one that provoked questions, sometimes ruffled feathers, and demanded reaction.
Natalie is a former student, now in her early twenties, passionate and articulate about her career as a breaking news reporter at a major national newspaper. Last week, she led two days of back-to-school training with this year’s student journalism team – triple in size to last year’s, with student leaders who had competitively interviewed for their roles. I loved seeing her run circles around my current students – jostling them with everything they didn’t know, and putting them in place when they acted overconfident.
Near the end of day two, she ran through some rules and practice for interviews. She told my students to always close with: “Thank you. Is there anything else that we should know, or that your readers should know?” My students nodded, and wrote the phrase in their notebooks.
When she said this, it struck me that this line is where I’m starting my new school year.
“Thank you.” Grateful for the generosity of everyone who has helped to teach me something new and get me fired-up about it. Grateful for the opportunity to keep learning.
“Is there anything else that we should know?” Yes – in fact, so much that we don’t know. Volumes that we don’t know. Real-world tools and resources to help us keep learning.
“…or that your readers should know?” Know that I’m trying to analyze and generalize what I’ve learned from the journalism experience over the last year, to apply these lessons to better practice in my life as an arts teacher.
You can call a student newspaper ‘extracurricular,’ but there really is nothing ‘extra’ about this stuff. Connections, real-world links, lifelong learning, co-learning, project-based learning with demonstrable outcomes. Cut the buzzwords, and this might just be substance of what teaching and learning in today’s world is all about.
But then again, remember – I have no idea what I’m doing. Just a lot of questions.
And when all else fails, one answer that I do know: A box of donuts at the morning staff meeting works wonders.