It was March 2014, and I had just changed a student’s quote in a news story.
In 2016, I would lose sleep over making a change like this. But a little over two years ago, I did not see the harm in adjusting a forceful statement to make it just a little less likely to ruffle feathers. Today, this would be the sole call of a student editor, and one I would discourage with remarks about ethics and integrity. If I did not acknowledge the mistake here, I could not stand behind the rest of this post, which says something about the journey I’ve taken as a journalism adviser.
The quote came from a student I didn’t know well, but I could draw some conclusions from the strength of his words. His language was punchy, and seemed to have been chosen deliberately. I had a feeling he would notice a sneaky change.
So I emailed him – the old quote, the new quote, and an overly-detailed description of why I was making the change. And a postscript: “When are you going to start writing for us?”
Subject: Re: Quote in Scheduling Story
Yes I understand the change it’s probably for the better.
Honestly I don’t think you want me writing for the paper. My voice generally only causes trouble and disgruntled faculty, which does not exactly seem like the right thing for the paper.
Re-reading this response in Los Angeles airport in April 2016, waiting for my flight home to Philadelphia, I remembered the heartsick feeling of reading it for the first time. It was a 15-year-old boy who gave the quote and wrote this response. What he was learning about the world through the blurry lens of high school was that his voice was disruptive and destructive. He still felt compelled to use his voice. He just was not sure how.
Two years and one month later, the student who doubted whether his impact could ever be positive walked across a convention stage in LA to accept a national award. He was acknowledged for his reporting on suicide – a feature story that was a wake-up call for our school community. He linked advocacy, education, and a wider audience to his story with empathy and professionalism beyond his age. The news peg was an alumnus whose trust he had earned to share his experience surviving suicide, a story that few faculty knew. The alum’s anonymity in the story had the effect of generalizing the narrative, which was gut-wrenching. “It could have been anyone,” we thought. “Any one of our kids.”
It also could be any one of our kids who feels the way this student did as a sophomore – like his voice didn’t matter. Or – worse – that his perspectives or experiences do not matter, even as he is still learning how to use his voice.
One of the most meaningful aspects of working with student journalists over the last several years has been an implicit challenge to me, as a teacher and an adviser, to prioritize student voice. If I was going to help my student journalists to figure out how to use their voices constructively, I owed that same attention to every student I teach, in every class.
Who do I silence? Who do I overlook? What do I miss?
I doubt that any teacher ever intends to make a student feel like his contributions to learning are not valued. Yet value does not equal conformity. When you are leading a class of fifteen, twenty, or more teenagers, sometimes the balance of maintaining order feels precarious. It can be very challenging to deal with an argumentative student, or one who refuses to comply to majority action or opinion.
I have failed at this. I have shut down or re-directed conversation. I have raised my voice at a student who refuses to comply.
But if discussion shuts down – if a teacher’s or a majority’s perspective is offered up as absolute and authoritative – we have all missed a tremendous opportunity to learn.
Here’s another thing I have learned from our student editors and from the experience of advising a publication: Those challenging moments so often are centered around the most meaningful aspects of learning. “Pick your battles” might sound cliche, but we do choose our battles, in learning and in life. Some students start off choosing every battle; others are quieter and more compliant by nature. But every student has a voice, a unique story, and questions that are meaningful to him or her.
Classrooms can be so complacent. When students push back, often they are indicating they have found something worth caring about. If I see that spark of meaning, I need to kindle and not extinguish it – even when that means my own sense of classroom order or correct answers might go a little awry. I need to connect the spark to other sparks – peers, resources, community – that will help to grow the flame of pursuing a deeper idea. If I am teaching with my whole heart and mind, the balance comes back, and my students and I are stronger for the dissonance.
What else have I learned?
I have learned how vital it is to help students begin to recognize those issues that matter enough to them to take a stand.
I have learned how rewarding it is to coach and support students in learning how to take those stands with empathy, articulation, and strength.
I have learned that a student’s truth and a teacher’s truth can be very different – but to be cautious about valuing one over the other. If a student’s experience leads him to believe that a situation is unfair or unjust, an educator’s role is not to talk him out of this perception, or insist on absolutes. Instead, dissent can (and should) be a doorway through which we learn from each other.
Each of my students has experienced double-digits of life, just like me, but with distinct experiences that have shaped his reality. I may have a few more digits and degrees, and I might have areas of content expertise that are deep. But when it comes to applying that content, or evaluating its relevance in a world that is changing exponentially from the one my parents remember, my students have me beat at least half of the time, usually more. Even if I (think I) know I’m right, I still need to listen, because it is likely that my student is also right, at least based on his experience and frame of reference. What happens when students and teachers learn from each other’s experiences as co-learners can be transformative.
I have learned that journalism means a constant search for intersection points. Good reporting – good storytelling – helps us to find what we have in common with each other, through asking questions, listening, and pushing when necessary. It also helps us to recognize and respect our differences.
I have learned that I will not get this all right every time – but that when my students believe that their voices matter, I don’t have to get it right every time, and neither do they. It matters that we learn from the experience when we miss the mark. It matters even more that missing the mark does not mean that voices, perspectives, or experiences are silenced.
As educators, we are charged to take extra steps to make sure that every one of our students feels valued, respected, and connected to learning. You can attach any buzzwords you want to the gig – differentiated, student-centered, project-based, inquiry-based, what-have-you – but it all comes down to authenticity, respect, and trust.
What I’m learning from my growing professional network in journalism education is that the field has been doing this work masterfully since before buzzwords were a thing. Inspired by my co-learners, I’m starting to learn what my own voice might sound like in a dynamic and intimidating field where I’m starting at square one.
If the 15-year-old who felt like his voice represented only trouble and frustration was donning his cap and gown still feeling this way at 18, I would be disappointed in myself as an educator and a mentor. Fortunately, I think that there have been more hits than misses along the way. He and his peers have learned that their voices matter as journalists, students, leaders, and teammates. He’s no longer afraid to use his own voice, and he’s inspired others to do the same.
And somewhere along this journey, working with student journalists has reminded me why I wanted to teach in the first place. It’s the profession in which learning is most central to every single day.
This post is dedicated to my senior journalists. I will always have a donut to trade for your stories about a bigger world, as you embark on making it a better one.