Fighting for our children's future
In my last post, I wrote about project-based learning at the middle-school level. I know many people have had bad experiences with group projects, myself included. My vision for project-based learning does not come from the projects that use poster board and glitter. My vision comes from a class I actually teach now.
My experiences as a high school English teacher are not that unique, but I’ve worked with an interesting blend of students in a middle-class area. I teach Honors Literature and Composition (9th grade), American Literature (11th grade), and Journalism (10-12th grade). In my honors freshmen class, I have a wide range of students. I have students who are off the charts in intelligence, motivation, and work ethic; they make everything look easy. In the same class, I’ll have students who are bright and motivated, but have to work hard to keep up with the work. I will also have students who struggle to maintain a C. For most honors students, getting A’s (not the love of learning) is the motivation. For most regular students, passing with as little effort as possible is the motivation.
The one class that is different from the rest is Journalism. This class was the class no one wanted to teach when I started teaching ten years ago. Even though I had no experience with Journalism, I took it because I thought it would be fun. I quickly found out why no one wanted it; allowing students to create a newspaper was difficult, challenging, and almost cost me my job a few times. Over the years I have learned how to walk the fine line between student-run newspaper and professional responsibility; although the challenges are still there, Journalism is now a beautiful experience for me as well as the students. As a matter of fact, it is the only class in high school that is pure experiential learning for the students. Journalism is the model I use for my vision of project-based learning.
Currently, Journalism is a completely student-run paper. I taught some introductory lessons at the beginning of the year, but the majority of my teaching of actual information, techniques, and purpose happened years ago. Now, the student leadership teaches the class; they organize, edit, and encourage the other staff members. It is a real-life job experience for students still in high school. I have seven seniors in leadership this year, the most I’ve ever had. Because of the dedication, skills, motivation, and desire for leadership of these current students, I had to create new positions for them. I have two co-executive editors for the hard copy paper, an executive editor for our new online paper, a copy editor, a layout editor, a content editor, and a general manager.
My job is to be the adult in the room. I answer questions and help direct my students if they are unsure where to go to get answers. Everything else is up to the students. They decide what goes into the paper, and what jobs each student will have for the month. Once they write the articles, the content editor reads every article and looks at every picture to make sure it is written as directed and that no unethical material got into the article/picture; if there is a problem, the content editor gives suggestions to the student as to how to get the piece back on track. The next step is for section editors and fact checkers (usually students who are not in leadership) to read for grammar errors, quotation errors, the spellings of names, and the reliability of sources. The section editors and fact checkers return the articles with suggestions; keep in mind that these students are also writing their own articles and taking their own pictures. We also have artists on staff that will draw pictures for movie reviews or that impossible-to-take picture, since we do not use clip art or internet pictures in our newspaper.
After they revise their articles, students submit their pieces to the copy editor. He reads and edits all of the articles the students wrote. The writers then revise their articles one more time and place their articles on layout. Once on layout, the executive editors read all the articles one more time to make sure all flows well, while the layout editor makes adjustments, if necessary, to the visual appeal of every article. The general manager keeps track of all stages of the paper, communicating any issues with the leadership. She also makes sure students are looking for advertisers and signs students up for class fundraisers.
After everything is complete, I read the entire paper for any ethical issues and submit it to the printer. After the paper is distributed, we circle up and discuss each article. Students share comments/feedback they’ve received from those outside of our class, and I share any grammar errors they missed. Then, the process starts again, this time with a new, improved perspective.
Journalism is experiential learning at its best; I’ve also discovered that this type of learning is the key to student buy-in. The students take ownership of the paper because it is theirs, not mine. Students are proud of their work. The school and its staff read their accomplishments every issue. If any grammar errors or content errors are found after publication, all staff members want to know the rules so they won’t make the same mistakes twice; they don’t want to be embarrassed by shoddy work.
If a journalist misses a deadline, one of the executive editors talks to him or her. If that journalist continues to show lack of care or improvement, the editors come to me to discuss the next step. My job then is to talk to that student about either improving or finding another class for the next semester. I have had to remove a few students from the staff over the years for continually missing deadlines or for lack of dedication. More often than not though, students turn around and work hard so as not to let their classmates down.
All my Journalism students are collaborative leaders; if they don’t have an actual title, most students are vying for a position in the future because they know it looks good on a college application. Student leaders in this class, a position that can only be obtained with hard work, dedication, and problem solving skills, have had 100% acceptance into their school of choice (Baylor University, University of Denver, Kings College, to name a few), as well as an appointment to the Air Force Academy, a Pepsi scholarship, and a Boettcher scholarship winner.
Why? Obviously these students have to be top-notch students to be considered for these prestigious appointments. But what makes them stand out? I believe it’s their leadership in Journalism. Journalism teaches students skills no other class can teach them: leadership, problem solving, collaboration, communication, acceptance, humility, work ethic, team work, ethics, and citizenship. Students can, and do, make a difference in their community by writing about situations that need to be changed or recognized. Every year the class becomes more aware of social issues and takes pride in making the school community more aware of them as well. They write with a specific audience in mind, which connects them to their thoughts and to the world. What college wouldn’t want a student who has received this type of education?
Journalism is a year-long, project-based class. This is where my vision comes from. This is how we can change education. The question is how do we create this type of experiential learning for all students? I have a few ideas. Look for my next post on how high-school education needs to change.
What are your thoughts?