One of the biggest challenges I face as a journalism adviser is convincing my students that email interviews need to be a last resort rather than their go-to.
I get it — emails are quick and easy. Write a few questions, get responses in complete sentences back. No need to transcribe or deal with awkward verbal phrasings. Seems like a no-brainer. In a 2003 Poynter article, Jonathan Dube outlined some of the benefits of email interviews, then a relatively new journalistic tool: saving time, being efficient, creating a written record, providing time for the source to think and prepare, and working with people in different time zones or who write English better than they speak it.
But he also pointed out potential pitfalls: not knowing who is replying (is this actually the superintendent, or did she just hand it off to an assistant?), not being able to follow up with more questions based on the direction of the interview, losing control of the interview transcript, missing out on body language and verbal cues that might provide more insight, and — ultimately — ending up with an interview that is unlikely to provide revealing or new information.
Pop quiz: can you name the five freedoms of the First Amendment? According to the Newseum’s 2016 State of the First Amendment Survey, 39 percent of Americans can’t name a single one.
I couldn’t name more than a few when I left high school, but my current high school student journalists know all five. (For the record: speech, religion, petition, assembly and press.)
Knowing these rights is especially important for high school students on the cusp of adulthood, ready to leave the school bubble and embark on lives as citizens.
How can we inculcate a love of citizenship in teenagers who are already cynical about the mess left behind by adults? I believe a place to start is allowing them to BE citizens within the school walls.
I’m not going to give an entire overview of the First Amendment in public schools here, but I will say it’s a lot more complicated than you might think. Heading over to the Student Press Law Center’s Top 10 High School FAQ’s is a place to start, but it’s not a stopping point.
A student’s free speech rights depends not only on the First Amendment and the major Supreme Court rulings (Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, to name the two most impactful), but also on individual state laws, which may expand those rights beyond the Hazelwood standard. The first of these was the California Student Free Expression Law, enacted before the Hazelwood ruling, but many states have added statutes like this in years since. To find out whether an instance of censorship of the school press is legal, I recommend using this helpful SPLC First Amendment Rights of High School Journalists chart.
But for students in private schools — unless they attend a non-religious school in California, in which case Leonard Law offers unique protection for their speech— the First Amendment is irrelevant. Faculty and staff at independent schools are not representatives of the government, so they are not governed by the First Amendment.
And honestly, though the law is a compelling reason, it is in some ways a much less compelling reason than the pedagogical and national benefits of freeing our scholastic presses. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in the 2002 film Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and therein lies the heart of this lesson: if student journalists don’t have real power, they will not learn the real responsibilities of citizenship.
"Without journalism, democratic life dies from lack of oxygen,” Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Pointer Institute, writes. "Without democracy, journalism loses its heartbeat. Without a serious study of journalism there can be no understanding of citizenship, democracy or community."
I am fortunate to work in a school that honors student journalism and gives our student editorial board the final say in all content decisions for their publications, and I’ve seen the lasting benefits of this firsthand.
Student journalists need guidance, no doubt, but that is why it is so crucial to hire a knowledgable journalism adviser who can teach not only core journalistic skills — interviewing, reporting, research, writing and editing — but also values and ethics. My role as an adviser is not to tell students what they can and cannot write, but rather to provide context and conversation to help them to see the tremendous responsibilities they take on and opportunities they have as journalists.
If students are subject to prior review, where someone other than the staff and adviser reads their work before they are allowed to publish it, they lack a sense of ownership. Why should they worry about making sure a story is ethical or thorough if an adult is going to do it for them? But when students know that they are fully responsible — ethically and legally — for everything they publish, editorial conversations become much richer.
I see this in action all the time with my own staff. Recently, one of my students wrote a column about her personal experience at the Los Angeles Women’s March. In this piece, she referenced putting on her “pussyhat” before leaving for the Metro. As the editors and I gave her feedback, a thoughtful conversation about the term and our student audience emerged. Was the p-word too controversial to print? Would following their own staff manual guidelines and using "p----hat” diminish the historical relevance of the movement? Should they just allude to the hat (“my pink knitted hat”) rather than naming it? Did the fact we are a grades 6-12 school (though the staff is entirely upper school) matter in this conversation? Did censoring themselves in this way set a bad precedent?
This is their paper, and this was their decision. Those facts meant that this conversation had real weight. It wasn’t just a hypothetical situation — their decision would have real impact and consequences. In the end, they decided to keep the reference and follow their staff manual guidelines (“p----hat.”) but hyperlink to a source explaining the Pussyhat Project. No adult in the community needed to censor them; they reached an ethical decision on their own, and, more importantly, they will remember this conversation far longer than an adult’s lecture.
The authors of the McCormick Foundation’s Protocol for a Free and Responsible Student Media argue that “good journalism energizes school culture. It integrates every dimension of school into its function and engages the entire school community in democratic participation.”
These benefits go beyond the student participants, they say: “Its peripheral effects on the school community strengthen partnership, participation, accountability, transparency, trust and all other essential components of a democratic school system. Student news media can be a bridge that connects administrators, students and the community in ways that profoundly benefit school culture.”
Again, I have seen this in practice. My student journalists, especially the editors, have built trusting relationships with our administration. We have invited them into our classroom to see our staff at work. We have sponsored group discussions about how to cover controversial issues and explained the ethical processes editors use to make difficult decisions. We have put systems in place to ensure accuracy, yet also shared our corrections policy when, inevitably, mistakes happen.
This doesn’t mean that the adults in our community always like the students’ coverage. For example, they have published editorials critical of various policies and changes at the school, and criticism is never easy to read.
But that, too, is a crucial democratic understanding.
One of the most cherished roles of the United States' free press is as a watchdog of the powerful. In the ruling for Dean v. Utica, the judge wrote that a key role of journalism, whether professional or scholastic, is to provide independent information so citizens can reach their own conclusions.
"It is often the case that this core value of journalistic independence requires a journalist to question authority rather than side with authority,” the ruling states. "Thus, if the role of the press in a democratic society is to have any value, all journalists — including student journalists — must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by the authorities themselves. Without protection, the freedoms of speech and press are meaningless and the press becomes a mere channel for official thought."
Do we want our students to learn to accept authority without question, or do we want them to learn to think critically and dig deep to find answers? If we want critical thought and decision-making as citizens, we must model this in high school.
The core values that lie behind this watchdog role are, according to journalist and professor Lou Ureneck, idealism and skepticism.
"I try to teach students to challenge authority by asking hard questions," he writes. "I want them to develop a strong sense of skepticism. In a sense, I’m trying to acculturate them into the profession of journalism. [Idealism and skepticism] may seem oppositional, but in our craft their pairing can offer us a potent way to engage the world. For young journalists, these two values inspire as well as energize them to do useful, even penetrating, work."
In the Protocol, Frank LoMonte argues that a free student press brings grievances to the surface and promotes civility: "Students seek out the uncensored venue of social networking sites to criticize school policies and personnel because schools offer no meaningful alternative forum for them to be heard. Online ‘drive-by’ grievances can and should constructively be channeled into peer-moderated student media where discussion can occur civilly but without undue restraint."
And what happens if the students mess up? What if they misreport something or fail to seek the other side or make a choice to report on something that perhaps is a bit much for a high school readership? A good adviser will raise red flags throughout and offer suggestions, but ultimately the students make a choice and must live wth the consequences. Not in terms of punishment, but in terms of having to be accountable and make amends. Mistakes are powerful. We learn the most when we fail, and we owe it to our students to let this happen.
A free student press is a powerful tool. Whether uncovering difficult truths in the community that adults may not want to hear but probably need to or reporting on the latest softball triumph, journalism students are learning how to be citizens and modeling citizenship to their peers.
And as far as I’m concerned, informed and active citizens are the only superheroes we need.
I’m a huge fan of TED talks. If you aren’t familiar with this organization, here is their mission statement:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
I love TED because we can access these ideas wherever we are and whenever we have time. Here are three talks I think everyone--but especially educators and parents--should watch.
Angela Lee Duckworth: The key to success? Grit
Angela Duckworth has her own lab at the University of Pennsylvania dedicated to "two traits that predict achievement: grit and self-control.” This talk summarizes key findings from the 2007 study she co-authored: "Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Many people assume that IQ will predict achievement. What the research found, however, is a far more crucial factor: grit. How resilient we are. How well we can bounce back from failure. Duckworth’s research solidified for me the importance of letting students struggle. Well-intentioned parents are doing their kids no favors when they try to “smooth the way” for them. It’s a great talk.
Side note: If you’re curious about your own “grittiness,” why not take this quiz to see how you do? Or maybe have students take it in a class before a discussion?
Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve
I believe Carol Dweck is one of the most important researchers in the country. When I first read about her research about growth vs. fixed mindset, it profoundly shifted my understanding of intelligence and ability. More importantly, it had a tangible and concrete impact on the way I praise my students. This TED talk is a mere overview (parents, I urge you all to read “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” in tandem with this talk), but it’s a great place to start the conversation.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story
Chimamanda Adichie is a gifted Nigerian writer who has won many awards for her novels and short fiction. Her recent novel Americanah won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. What I love about this talk, however, is how it speaks to the importance of a rich and diverse literary curriculum. Adichie explores the dangers of a “single story” about any culture. She uses her own experiences as a college student in the U.S. as one example of this:
"My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.... My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals."
We all have single stories due to a lack of exposure to other cultures, she argues, and she uses a trip to Mexico to show how she, too, fell prey to this trap. It’s a beautiful, powerful, and funny talk.
Homework. The most venerable educational tradition. The test of a rigorous classroom and curriculum. An important part of students’ education.
Or is it?
Homework proponents claim homework reinforces academic concepts, teaches students time management and leads to higher grades and test scores.
One study conducted by Duke professor Harris Cooper suggests homework can lead to positive outcomes in high school, but — and here’s the catch — those benefits fade after two hours of work. A more recent study by Stanford researcher Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, agrees.
The problem with homework today isn’t that it exists — it’s that there is just too much of it. If teachers are going to continue to assign homework, we need to carefully consider its form, purpose and assessment.
Offering opportunities to practice is important, but it’s equally important to allow students to decide if that review has value. Forcing students to practice skills they have already mastered teaches only that education is tedious. If students’ assessments demonstrate mastery of the skills and content even when they never turn an assignment in, how necessary was that homework to their learning?
Cathy Vatterott, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of three books about homework, wonders how many low grades each semester stem from incomplete homework rather than imperfect mastery. In her article “What Is Effective Homework?” Vatterott writes, “Do those D’s and F’s represent a lack of learning or a lack of compliance?”
Even for students who complete their work, grading homework undermines its purpose — to practice — and encourages cheating. If students know that their practice will be graded, will they take the risk of getting it wrong? How many will copy answers from a friend or have a parent give them the right answers?
Homework without a clear purpose decreases students’ enjoyment of learning. If we want to create “lifelong learners,” we must make learning a pleasurable experience. This doesn’t mean learning should be easy, but rather it should be a challenge worth pursuing.
Without outside reading time, for example, humanities curricula would be extremely limited. Students deserve the challenge of a great novel or play, and they deserve time in class to puzzle through these longer works as a group. Students need time outside of class to rise to the challenge of longer texts, but this time is well spent — they learn that choosing to read means choosing a more enjoyable classroom experience.
Higher-level classes may require a more substantial homework commitment in order to expose students to more material and give them time in class to process and discuss. Clearly a senior taking five honors or AP courses is going to have more homework than a ninth grader.
But even in these advanced classes, we must consider the value of depth over breadth. Students in my AP Literature might be capable of reading two more books in the semester, but if I can accomplish the same goals exploring fewer texts, why rush them? I’d rather spend that extra time reading historical context and literary criticism and assessing them through more than just the single lens of an in-class essay.
Even when we assign purposeful homework, we must be flexible. This can be accomplished as easily as giving students a schedule ahead of time so they can plan around other commitments.
If we want students to be well rounded and less stressed, we must empower them to manage their time wisely. The solution is not to abolish homework, but rather to take a critical look at what we are assigning.
As we think about whether to assign homework each night, we must ask ourselves four questions:
If we say no to any of these questions, we should also say no to homework.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream