Real skills include troubleshooting

I’ve joked all year long that I’m going before a judge to have my middle name changed to Troubleshooter.

I’ve always introduced myself in chats saying I teach journalism and English, but I’ve added some classes I’ve invented and I’ve come to look at teaching a bit differently. Now I like to think that I teach kids, and they teach me. My classes consist of intro to journalism, newspaper, which now includes online, yearbook, English and digital communications.

I have a Mac lab that looks pretty impressive when students first walk into my room, but truthfully, when I have two publications staffs and three other classes of students who aren’t sure how to use a Mac using them, let alone the other software on it, little problems creep up. This one won’t load GoogleDocs, those four no longer recognize the color printer and that one over there can’t seem to find the Internet. InDesign constantly crashes on the one closest to the server. All year long, if it wasn’t one thing, it was 12 others. We worked our way through most of the problems, some of which were simply that our school doesn’t have enough bandwidth this year. But that’s coming soon.

The real test came last week – production week for our print issue. The newspaper staff had stayed until 10 p.m. the night before laying out pages. This is known as Late Night. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, and this was the last one of the year – the last one for my two senior co-managing editors, my dynamic duo. The following day, Wednesday afternoon, the staff was to tie up loose ends, do final edits and meet a publisher’s press deadline of 5 p.m.

Five minutes before school was over, the power went out briefly – several times – then everything went dark. We stayed in this dark limbo, wondering how  we were going to get our baby to press, for about a half hour, when the power came back on and things looked good. However, there was no Internet. We were told it would be back up in about five minutes, which stretched to a half hour and more before we finally decided to call the publisher and push our deadline back a day. Instead of delivering that Friday, we wouldn’t be able to deliver until the following Tuesday. The advantage was that the awards assembly was the next day, and we could include our school’s biggest award, the Crossman, on the front page, which was good. This would take the place of a story that had never materialized (that was bad). That was one of the loose ends that needed tying. Everyone went home with intentions of finishing up Thursday.

No Internet Thursday. It was clear midway through morning newspaper class that we needed a plan B. By this time, co-ME Foster had already begun experimenting with the hotspot on his phone, so they continued working that angle. Co-ME Skyler finally succeeded in downloading final story drafts from GoogleDocs and images needed for reviews onto a laptop. Other items simply had to be retyped from another source. At last the paper was complete, the pages were PDF’d and saved onto a flashdrive. The editors drove to the local paper who said we could use their facilities for anything we needed. From there the kids FTP’d their pages onto the publisher’s server.

We received our final issue on time Tuesday, and it’s probably been the most read issue all year.

In all, the district went three days with no Internet, and the entire debacle has been blamed on a squirrel, may he rest in peace. But few grownups were at peace those three days. We are entirely too dependent on the Internet. I spoke with one frustrated school employee who was having to work around her usual way to accomplish her tasks, and I know attendance and many other tasks we take for granted had to have been very difficult to implement another way. However, once again, students have proven their resilience to me. We think they are all so very addicted to their devices and wonder what in the world they’d do without their connectivity. From what I have seen, they’ll find a way to do what needs to be done. When they are the ones in charge, and they know that they are, they get the work done.

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What I wish non-journalists understood about student journalism

When I interviewed for the job of teaching and advising the high school newspaper and yearbook, the assistant principal in the meeting, who had been the news adviser for 19 years, shared with me that it was the best job in the world. She was right, and we repeated that phrase to each other a few times over the next few years.

Teaching students their First Amendment rights and that they have power through their content to influence the thinking of others is powerful stuff. What is a little disempowering is the reading public, which includes the student body, teachers, administrators and the community, not understanding how student media works, and that students should enjoy First Amendment freedoms just like anyone else.

STUDENT MEDIA IS RUN BY STUDENTS

I advise. They decide.

Lessons in First Amendment rights, media law and ethics, interviewing, accuracy, balance, and much more give students a foundation for producing journalistic content. Learning even more on the job, they make decisions about content based on what they have been taught, what they have learned by experience and by the advice I give them. I often tell them to put on their principal hat and read it again. Put on the superintendent hat and read it again. Put on a parent hat and read it again. I play Devil’s advocate.  I pose scenarios I feel they need to consider, but in the end, I tell them, “It’s your paper.”

Because they own their paper, they automatically assume responsibility even when tough situations arise. That includes having hard conversations with other adults. I never had to tell an editor to take care of something like this. It’s their paper.

Though the situation varies from school to school, at our school, the students sell advertising to fund their publication, run the program and provide incentive for the staff. This is a good thing because it gives them a more real-world experience. They learn how the financing relates to what they wish to pursue regarding the publication. This setup also promotes that feeling of ownership and validates their making the decisions regarding the content. If they don’t learn to make those decisions now, how will they be able to make those calls later?

A chief complaint of college journalism advisers and even newspaper editors who hire new journalists is that these new hires do not act as independently as they might. They seem hesitant, as if waiting for permission, for an OK. Journalists need to learn to seek out stories, know the legal and ethical boundaries and make those decisions themselves. The high school lab should be training ground for that.

IT’S A LOT OF WORK

When I went to work at this school, we were on block scheduling, which meant news and yearbook met for 80 minutes daily, usually for both semesters because students were dedicated to the program and chose to take the class both semesters. The scheduling changed a couple years ago, and now we meet for 48 minutes daily. If 80 minutes daily wasn’t enough to accomplish what we are trying to do, reducing it to 48 didn’t do us any favors. The fact is that if you enroll in one of these classes, you are signing up for more than a class. Time outside of class isn’t just suggested, it’s necessary.

It’s not just about the time needed to do the writing or designing. It’s about trying to chase down sources for interviews and photos. It’s sitting in the office for 30 minutes because you have an appointment to meet with the principal, but he suddenly had to take care of a disciplinary issue. It’s covering evening ballgames and concerts. It’s asking the cross-country coach if you can travel with the team because there is only one local meet and you need more photos, and, hey, you can interview on the bus. It’s having a story fall through at the last minute and needing to come up with something else to fill the white space on the page.

When a student doesn’t have an essay ready to turn in on the due date, the problem is pretty much between that student and the teacher. When it happens on newspaper, the person laying out the page can’t finish his job.  If the paper doesn’t make it to press on time, the guy working the night shift at the newspaper that prints our school paper has to juggle other publications on his schedule and might even be late getting jobs out and getting home to his own dinner.

I TEACH JOURNALISM, NOT PUBLIC RELATIONS.

The news staff gets as excited as anyone else when great things happen on our campus or with our students and faculty. When we know about them, we cover them, time and staff permitting. But everything isn’t rainbows and butterflies. Bad things happen, too, from losing games to adults making unpopular decisions. There is no valid reason to cover the good things and sweep the ugly under the rug.

We try to maintain a balance of positive and negative. Balance is a hard thing to achieve because it’s required in all aspects. We need balance in stories, from variety of sources to point of view of the topic. We need balance of coverage as well, which pertains to covering as many students as possible, multiple interests, and differences in readership. Though they strive for it continually, balance is hard to achieve, especially when they must examine it from so many different angles.

So sometimes, when the complaints are about the staff covering topics some readers do not like and the argument is that we should cover more positive things, what they are really saying is, “this isn’t good for our image as a school, as a district.” I get that, but making the school or district look good isn’t the job of the newspaper staff. Nor is helping administrators avoid negative feedback from the community. If the student journalists have done their jobs right and the stories are valid and have a reason for being published, then they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

THIS IS A LEARNING LAB

Student journalists need room to make mistakes so they can grow. If someone takes issue with something they have done, rather than denounce the publication or the writer to others, why not address the students themselves? Why do so few think of this? I’ve known of teachers to rant to their classes, the principal, and anyone who will listen, but rarely does anyone actually bring their issues to the student journalists themselves. Yes, sometimes they talk or write to me, and that’s closer to home, but I wish people knew that they could contact the staff.

These students are not delicate flowers. They are some of the toughest people I know. They’ve been turned down over and over by potential ad clients and had their copy shredded by student editors and then re-edited by me. Then judges critique their work. They can take it. And complainers just might be surprised with the reasonable discussion and a fresh point of view they provide. Both parties could walk away with some fresh insight.

JOURNALISM IS THE MOST VALUABLE EXPERIENCE ON CAMPUS

I believe with all my heart that a good journalism program does more for students than any other program on campus – and that’s saying a lot. I know the value of team sports; I see how disciplined the band students are at our school; and I know the work choir students put into their arrangements, choreography, practices and performances. But journalism does more to prepare students for college and real life than any of it. I am sure of that.

I have had students tell me this from the other side. Learning to meet deadlines under pressure, to take constructive criticism to the nth degree and continue to improve on your work, learning how to speak to people you don’t know, how to present in front of a group, how to collaborate with others – it’s all valuable and can be used anywhere. Add to that learning programs like Adobe’s PhotoShop and InDesign, learning how to edit photos and the rules associated with design and composition, how to sell a product, how to troubleshoot technology – it’s all in there.

Editors also teach. There is nothing so rewarding as hearing students using your words to teach others the lessons you taught them and know they find value in it. I love eavesdropping when an editor is explaining how to construct a lead, or why a caption cannot be trapped, or what is meant by headline hierarchy.

I have had former students come back from college journalism programs, from New York film school, from Carnegie Mellon, and they tell me that being on newspaper or yearbook taught them more than anything else to prepare them for what they are doing.  So I have it on excellent authority.

I wish others understood the value of student journalism programs run the way they should be.

Been a long day, but it’s worth it

Yaaaaawwwwwnnn….

It’s 11:25 p.m. and I’ve just gotten home from work. I’m a teacher – a journalism teacher. Tonight was what we call “late night,” and I know not every high school journalism staff has this tradition, but it works, mostly, for us.

Even on my college staff, we had late night, and while it was also fun, it lacked the shenanigans and surprises that the high-school level late night encompasses. For the most part, I work on my own stuff, grading, lesson planning, cleaning piles on my desk…

I do have to stop every once in a while when I’m asked to read over someone’s final draft or look over a layout – I do read over everything before it goes in the paper, offer my editorial advice and my adviser advice, but really the editors and staff run the show. I love to eavesdrop on conversations. I get to hear them teach each other photoshop tricks or how subjects in photos “can’t face off the page, but if you just switch these two…”

I hear conversations about headline hierarchy and hamburger layouts (three horizontally designed stories on a page that resemble bun, patty, bun). Tonight I watched as the editorial staff got together because they no longer felt “passion” about their chosen staff editorial topic. They sat atop or leaned against tables, brainstormed about what they felt passion about (yes, I heard them use that word). One thought led to another and another, hands clapped together and their voices raised as they hit on an idea and each added to it, and they got excited. A young, new staff member who is full of motivation and ambition really, really wanted to write it, so he was given the reigns. After settling down, he produced an editorial piece they were all impressed with. There was more input and a little revising, a little cutting (cut your darlings!) for space, and the thing was done – with no bloodshed.

As pages were finished, one editor pinned them above my whiteboard, visual proof of work completed, as well as a reminder of close editing for tomorrow before press deadline at 5 p.m. They trickled out the back door as understanding parents came to pick up the non-drivers, and the drivers left too, one taking someone else home. I’ve been criticized a few times for keeping these kids out so late, but it’s important for them to understand meeting deadlines and that the work they do leading up to the deadlines makes all the difference.

These days are long, but full of production, silliness, learning and teaching. I’m tired, yes, but I wouldn’t trade this part of my job.

Secret to success? Giving ownership

Had a great day at Fall Media Monday, a media conference hosted by Oklahoma Scholastic Media, housed at the University Of Oklahoma. I take my two staffs – newspaper and yearbook – twice a year, once in the fall, where the focus is on yearbook, and once in the spring, where the focus is on newspaper. Each time I’m so proud of my students I could bust, and it truly seems to get better every year, if that’s even possible.

Several of the breakout sessions today focused on student leadership, and my students, anxious to be good leaders, either this year or planning ahead for next year, attended one. One of my news co-managing editors told that he was surprised at the problems shared by some of the editors from other schools. They talked of lack of communication between eds and staff, between eds and advisers. He look at his partner-in-crime, the other co-managing editor, and I can imagine them shrugging shoulders and smirk-grinning, glad they have things as good as they do. But what they have is of their own making.

As I sat with advisers in a dish and dine luncheon session, we old-timers (at 7 years? really?) shared advice with the newer advisers. The first one to speak up, good friend of mine who has been advising 33 years, hit the nail on the head, “you need good editors.” But what makes a good editor and where can we get one?

That was pretty much the next question. Good editors are built by teaching them the ways and then giving them ownership of their publication. When a staffer comes to me to ask about doing a story on so-and-so, my immediate response is, “that’s an editor question. I’m in charge of your grade; you guys are in charge of the paper/book.” At first they are dumbfounded. No one’s given them this sort of freedom or power before. But they rise to the occasion. Once they realize the have this power, but also the responsibility to handle the power in a balanced, fair, accurate way, the best sorts of things happen.

Is it perfect? No. Failure happens. But failure is a beautiful thing; failure is the best teacher of all. Got some quotes wrong in a couple stories one month? We instituted having interview notes initialed by the interviewee. Hard time adhering to deadlines when staffers have more than one project and lose track? Add some mini-deadlines, like the new interview deadline those co-managing editors introduced this fall. Had some trouble connecting with some staff members last year? Yearbook editor started a monthly yearbook brownbag lunch in the newsroom. We turn on music, munch on lunch, visit about whatever (not necessarily work, but it sneaks in).

We have meetings, we brainstorm, we come up with ideas. But if the ideas are coming from those editors, and even sometimes from the other staffers, there is a pride element involved that doesn’t happen when they are simply told what to do. When they are treated as responsible editors, they are responsible editors, and that has been successful for my staffs.

How successful? We returned from Media Monday with an assortment of plaques and certificates awarding the yearbook staff with, among other things, sweepstakes for our division and the editor of the year for Oklahoma. Not too shabby.