Free speech, free speech, free speech …

 

I feel like I’m in permanent PMS. But rather than this state of exaggerated frustration being brought on by hormones, it’s brought on by others practicing their right to free speech – no matter how mean, uneducated or bigoted.

I teach First Amendment, and I feel I understand it enough to do so, but with all the different opinions and misinformation floating about, it’s easy to forget that we ALL have this right, even the people many of us wish didn’t have the right:

The people who are cheering the Planned Parenthood shooting because babies lives will be saved – though three adult lives were taken and others were injured – have the right to do that, disgusting as it may be.

Wyatt Tilton, a former Newcastle police officer can, indeed, make a joke about Adacia Chambers doing Oklahoma State fans a favor. Of course, he is referencing her driving into their homecoming parade and killing people, so they didn’t have to experience the Bedlam loss. But he’s a real loser for doing so. I have a First Amendment right to call him a loser.

People who believe every Facebook meme they see and use them to judge and insult others have a right to do that, even though most of the time, those memes represent half-truths or even non-truths.

All I ask is this:

  1. Be nice to each other. Recognize that everyone has the right to free speech, and if you don’t want to hear what someone else is “speeching” about, unfollow them, leave the room, put in your earbuds. If your disagreement is REALLY strong, do some research and formulate a rebuttal that is free of insults and grammar and spelling errors (you want to be credible, right?). Then post that thing in your own space. Continue to recognize, though, that they had the right to say what they said.
  2. Educate yourself. Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Understand how to tell the  difference between biased and unbiased sources, and how to identify those that are not remotely credible. Know who “they” is. I don’t know how many times I hear, “They said …” Well, who the heck is “they”? Know who and what you are talking about.
    When you hear that Trump wants Muslims to wear ID badges or that young, male, muscled Syrian refugees are arriving on U.S. beaches, go check it out, because both seem improbable. Try snopes.com or factcheck.org.
    Turns out Trump answered some reporters’ questions in a rather ambiguous way and his responses were taken out of context and plunked into a more specific context in the article. Yes, he’s in favor of a database, but he never said anything about or agreed to anything about ID badges.
    And those muscled refugees? That pic was taken in Australia in 2013. Syrian refugees would not come to the U.S. by sea. Took me less than 10 minutes to find this information.
    But still, what if some refugees DO have muscles? If a man is in pretty good shape, but his home is bombed or his life and the life of his family is threatened and he finds himself suddenly in refugee status, do those muscles melt away? Does he look like he’s starving the next day? Week? Even month or longer? You could just as easily suddenly find yourself in a bad way here and you can’t make your muscles go away so you’re a credible homeless person.
  3. Have some empathy. Understand that no one has control over what family they are born into or what nation they are born in. We fear what we do not understand (see No. 2). Most Christians do not understand Islam; and most Muslims do not understand Christianity, but both are quick to condemn the other, and quite often based on extremist behavior. Muslims judge the Christian west based on what they see on American TV. Think about that for a minute. What would YOU think of us?
    We do the same. Christians judge Muslims on what they see ISIS doing. ISIS is a small (but horribly violent) segment of Islam, not the general population of Muslims. Philip Yancy wrote a post that I found interesting, and it helped me understand some of the differences, even among Muslim countries.

    It’s not so different between various cultures that thrive here in the U.S. The average individual doesn’t really understand that someone else’s experience in the same country, in the same city, in the same school, can be vastly different from their own. Open your eyes and try to understand others. Not everyone has electronic devices, a nice car, plenty of clothing for all the seasons, or shoes that fit, the opportunity to go to the doctor when needed. Not everyone has a home with furniture, with heat and water, with food in the cabinets. Not everyone has a mom and a dad in the same house. Some live with one or the other. Some live with a grandparent or two. Some live with other relatives or even foster parents. There are those who live with two moms or two dads or with friends because they have no one else. There are lonely kids out there who don’t live anywhere. Not everyone’s experience is the same, but each experience is valid and real. Accept other people’s reality. Help if they need help, but don’t condemn someone for not having the same experience as you, whether because of an economic, racial, religious or other artificial divide.

Freedom of speech is powerful, but it is wielded much too carelessly, especially here in the digital age.

I wish I could give everyone who posts or speaks thoughtlessly that long, uncomfortable teacher/mom stare that makes you (quickly) reflect on what you’ve done, what was right or wrong about it, how it will affect others, how you can make it up to someone you’ve hurt and how you’ll consider all of that before you post/speak next time. Honest.

But that’s not the way it is, and the problem is much too vast. All I can ask is that you, who are reading this, join me in trying to use the power of the freedom of speech responsibly and set a good example for others to follow.

Be nice.

Educate yourself.

Have some empathy.

Giving away freedoms

After a few days of getting-to-know-ya activities (that actually helped us get to know each other a bit in non-threatening, kind of fun ways), I decided it was time to learn stuff, and employed one of my favorite lessons ever, especially the way I did it this year.

We learned about the First Amendment. Like a dress-up chest of mom’s and dad’s old favorite clothes and accessories, we tried it on so many different ways, they may actually not forget.

When they entered the class that day, I handed them a piece of paper and told them their Bell Ringer was to write down all of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment that they could recall. These are mostly freshmen and sophomores with a few juniors and a senior or two sprinkled in. I saw dread, I saw surprise, I saw total confusion. I heard, “the what?” I explained I only need to know what they, themselves, knew, that there was no reason to borrow info from a neighbor. They weren’t turning anything in; there was no grade. I just wanted to know how much they knew. I promised they’d know more by the end of class.

After a few minutes, I challenged them to tell me the ones they knew. When the most well-known was called out, Freedom of Speech, it rang bells for a few others. We got the next two on the board, Freedom of the Press and of Religion, before the well ran dry. This happened in both sections of this class. But in one class, one young man was onto something as he struggled with a concept – protest – but it took several others to toss words about before we came up with “gather,” and I helped them on to “assemble”. They didn’t get “petition” until I projected the 45 words on the screen for them to see.

The next step was to define the freedoms. As I’ve done in the past, I asked them to think about how they would explain each of the freedoms to a class of fifth graders. This took a little while, too, as they struggled to interpret what the freedoms really meant, too. I helped a little and we got them defined with a little purpose tossed in.

A new slide on my presentation asked which freedom they thought they could live without, which took us to the most interesting part of the lesson and the part that made it all stick.

Which one would you give up? This created discussion. If you give up speech, what would happen to your free press? If you give up the right to assemble, what happens to your practice of religion? That did it, and they began a lively discussion with each other that didn’t necessarily involve me. I had them vote. Which would they give up? The first class voted to toss press first. I exaggerated my offendedness (is that a word?). I am a journalism teacher! How will you get by without freedom of the press? What about being a watchdog for the government? The other class tossed the right to assemble first. We wondered at how that would affect their lives.

But we weren’t finished. When they realized they were going to have to toss another right, they began to worry a little. I knew some people had abstained from the first vote, but I couldn’t let that happen from here on out. With four freedoms remaining, and, as it happens, four corners of the room existing, the remedy to that was easy. I took four of the pieces of paper they’d used for scribbling down the rights they knew and I wrote big, the remaining rights, and had students tape them to the walls (or door or cabinets) in the four corners of the room. Now we’d vote with our feet.

What would you toss next? The students considered, and they moved to the area of the freedom they thought they could live without. I counted heads and the freedom with the bigger number was scratched from the board. But then I’d ask a few students why they voted the way they did. Sometimes that generated a brief discussion. Sometimes we realized a misunderstanding and a vote changed.

We did this until only one freedom remained. In one class it was Freedom of Religion. In the other it was Freedom of Speech. We had a minute or two to discuss our results and wonder about a world where we only had that one freedom and how not having the others would make things different.

I asked them if they thought they’d remember their five freedoms the following day, the following week. They were pretty sure they would.

For homework – and I told them I rarely assign homework – they were to survey 5-10 people to see how many of the freedoms they knew. Just jot down names and how many of the freedoms that person knew. We’d tally the next day. Almost all of them did this – or faked it pretty well. They were very interested in the results. They discovered lots of people knew none, several people knew one or knew those top three. One young man was alarmed when no one in his family knew any of them.

Did I grade anything? Nah. Was it fun and engaging? Yep. Did we learn stuff? You betcha.

The ugly side of Facebook and why I’m taking a break

Keep Calm FB

Why do we stay in abusive relationships? Like the one(s) I have with Facebook?

The relationship I have with Facebook itself is unhealthy. The tab sits there at the top of my screen, taunting me as I try to do work, begging me to click over to see what’s happened in the last 27 minutes since I was there. Whether I’m writing lesson plans, assessing student work, paying bills, trying to build up desire to work on one of my creative writing projects (I was supposed to be a self-supporting novelist by this time in my life), Pinteresting, participating in an educator Tweetchat, or, erm, writing a blog post, my self-diagnosed ADD kicks in and I GOTTA CLICK ON THAT FACEBOOK TAB. Something might be happening in the world of my closer friends. I MIGHT MISS SOMETHING. I’m like your basic 3-year-old.

That’s a problem in itself. However, a bigger problem has grown out of my obsession. I don’t know what it is about the past few months, but people have become nastier. And it makes me sad to say that because, while I’ve met people far and wide on Twitter, and I appreciate that I can connect with them on a friendly and professional level, my friends on Facebook are mostly people I actually know, people I see in town, people I’m related to, people I’ve taught or taught with. I know that we live in a democracy – heck, I teach the First Amendment, and I know that whether friends or relatives, we often believe differently. But in these past few months something has changed. People are mean. People I like are being hateful and rude and intolerant and judging other people without knowing their stories.

We all think we’re right when we’re on one side of a controversy, but I can respect someone whose belief is different from mine if they back it up with sound argument, with some facts. What I find hard to handle is the loud folks who bluster in ignorance.

In cases where, for instance, an article is shared on Facebook – say, did you hear the one about President Obama coming to Oklahoma? And how he was greeted by Confederate Flag waving idiots? I was lured into the comments section on more than one article. I don’t know why I go there. I know it’s going to upset me, but I go anyway. The ignorance that abounds – the hate that drips. Why do Oklahomans hate our President so much? These commenters are mostly folks I don’t know (except one comrade I often find already hit those comment streams with a dose of fact – shout out, Melvin!), so I sometimes reply to some ignorance there. If the article was presented from folks on my side of the political divide and the comments are positive, I can add to it, like I did on the article about the President visiting a federal prison while he was here and comments he made about needed reform. A comment I made there scooped up about 30 likes. I must have touched on something people were thinking but no one had brought it up yet.

But when my peers post hate messages directed at my President or people with whom I am in agreement on issues, I usually feel I must remain quiet (even though they did not) so as to keep the peace. I don’t want my co-workers disliking me. If they follow my posts, they are bound to know where I stand on issues, so I have to remind myself that it really does no good to go off the handle on their posts on their timelines. They have the same First Amendment rights that I do – even if much of what they mention seems extremely uninformed to me.

I spend way too much time on Facebook, anyway, but lately, much of that time has been in fuming and trying to decide how to respond to something that has angered me (No one is actually trying to take your guns), and whether to respond at all. That time is wasted. That energy is wasted. That emotional stress could really be put to better use somewhere else.

So tonight I decided something that was a big something for me. I signed off. I know. I can just pull up a tab and it will open right up, but I’m going to try not to for a week or two. And I took it a bit further. I uninstalled the app on my phone. That’s a biggie. No more notifications. I’ve heard from others that it’s freeing. We’ll see.

What would it take for you to go, at least partially, off the grid?

For the record, since I didn’t post it over there:

  • I like President Obama, and I think he has bravely made some changes for the better in our nation, particularly lately. That meme about Bush loving America more than Obama is STUPID.
  • I would like to see tighter gun control, and although I know it is and should be defined by states, I wish every state would see the need and create laws that more closely reflect those of other states and freaking enforce them. Watch out for potential loopholes. No, I don’t think anyone should try to take everyone’s guns. Good grief.
  • I believe in separation of church and state. That means government owned properties are not spaces for displaying religious pieces of art. Moving the Ten Commandments statue from the Capitol lawn does not remove religion from anyone’s heart. Our money and time should be spent on more important matters. Politicians should stop pandering to the ignorant voters and educate people instead.
  • I think the right decision was made on marriage equality, and those who do not like gay marriage shouldn’t have one. As far as court clerks who are supposed to issue marriage licenses believing it’s a conflict with their religion and they just can’t issue a license to a same sex couple, go get another job. I doubt it bothered you one iota to issue a license to someone who was on their second or subsequent marriage or even young first-timers who’d been living together for a couple years.
  • My congressmen need to stop wasting time and tax dollars on nonsense and work on issues that will keep my state from embarrassing me time and time again.
  • This country was not founded on Christian values or “In God we Trust.” It was founded on religious freedom. I’m so tired of seeing that one. If you want Christian values for your country, then start doing as Christ would. Spread love, peace and positivity. Love your neighbor.

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.