Building skills while connecting to real life

Bullying.

School lunches.

Relationships.

Sexting.

Taking responsibility.

LGBT issues.

One of my favorite units in my introduction to journalism class is opinion writing. There are so many lessons within that unit. We begin with the dull parts about the different kinds of editorials: argumentative, explanatory, persuasive, commendatory, and even humorous, if you can pull it off. At that point, they almost seem the same to half the class.

We read some examples I’ve culled from texts, the Internet and friends. I slip in one or two of my own from when I was managing editor at my college paper and the short time I worked at the local paper.

Then we brainstorm potential topics. I try to blow them away with my own list, not just to blow them away, but to show them how limitless ideas really are.

They narrow their own down to favorites, and then, staff meeting style, we go around the room and each of them pitches their best idea. I love this day. I love to hear what they are passionate about, and I love to hear what their classmates, their “staff,” have to say, the suggestions they make to help them with fine-tuning angles. I love it when they offer up opposition even, because in that place, in that newsroom, there is tolerance. They realize they can express themselves safely there in that room. They have a voice. Students so seldom have a voice in anything.

At first some of them bring up their ideas tentatively because, though they sense that I’m going to be OK with most things, they are also accustomed to knowing that certain topics are just off limits at school. I haven’t run across anything yet that I won’t allow a student to explore. After all, it’s going to mean research and backing up your position.

Then the research and backing up your position begins. Everyone’s is different, so there’s no “how did you answer number three?” They are pursuing their own topics, and they are interested in what they are doing.

They draft in Google Docs. Good heavens – what did we do before Google Docs? By nearly the middle of the year and the third thing they’ve written, they know the drill. Draft in Gdocs in the folder shared with Snider (so I can peek in at progress whenever I want), but when they’ve finished, they share with a classmate for comments. And oh, my goodness. I peeked at some of the commenting today, and they have really stepped it up there. We’ve gone from their first attempts early in the semester when they hesitated to say anything but “I like it!” to real, real editing. And I don’t mean correcting spelling. I saw good constructive comments, and that really makes me feel like progress has been made. To be able to give and receive comments like “That’s a little harsh. Could you say it a different way?” when earlier they were just afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings – that’s real growth. And in reverse, I think they really desire feedback to help them make their own pieces better.

I can’t wait to read more drafts and to see all the finished products. Chances are several will be of publishing quality, so in addition to choosing their own topics, participating in the peer editing process, reading good pieces by peers, they may get published, too.

It’s all win-win.

I love my job.

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Get to know your non-conformists

illustration by Aligory Isotope

illustration by Aligory Isotope

Conformity.

Not my favorite word. But working in a public school, I often feel surrounded by folks who think it’s very important to impress upon kids the importance of conforming to schedules, to rules, to dress codes, to methods of learning, to desks all in a row, to staying seated bell-to-bell. It puts me in mind of dozens of kids of varying size, stature, gait, hair color, complexion, vision, manual dexterity, vocabulary, experiences, musical tastes and cramming them into a one-size-fits-all school uniform.

I’m not the first to notice that education the way we do it these days was structured to produce workers in the industrial age. Robots, they were creating, to operate assembly lines. That’s not what we need today. We need innovative thinkers, creative thinkers, but we rub it out of them by second or third grade, making them color inside the lines with the “correct” colors, then prepping them for standardized tests.

What I like the most about my journalism classes is that they draw the unique, the creative, the purposeful. Some students are drawn to the journalism room not really knowing why, and we nurture their ideas, their unique perspectives. Kids who might never have spoken to each other in any other situation find themselves gathered around the staff meeting table or leaning back in their mismatched rolling chairs around their iMacs in debates about any number of topics. Bottom line is that they respect each other.

The work ethic and the creativity and the tolerance for others are what they are built of. What do I care if their shoulders are showing or their hair is green? And I have learned to hate desks all in a row. Desks shouldn’t conform any more than students should.

I have the brightest kids, and they brighten even further by being allowed to explore. Students can debate with me about dress codes, bringing fast-food beverages on campus after lunch or showing up late because she had to take a box of found kittens to the humane society and then had four flat tires and had to hobble in her car to the nearby Shop ‘n Go to air them up one more time. OK, that last wasn’t hypothetical.

Yeah, she probably should have been in school instead or had a parent call in for her or at least let someone know.

But it seems as soon as a student breaks a law, being overly tardy, missing class entirely for an invalid reason (according to law), displaying piercings or showing too much shoulder, which goes against dress code, they conform to the rule-breaker mold according to those who keep such records. Those who keep such records rarely have the opportunity (or the desire?) to see beyond what they are in charge of seeing.

But these students are complex human beings made up of brilliance, ideas, desires, opinions that should never be made to conform. The office may see a girl with attendance problems. I see a brilliant artist who draws things you only see in your dreams and can write an argument on almost anything. Her favorite topics may be anti-religions and space travel, but she’s also our go-to person for engineering and nuclear questions, too.

Sure, there are rules that we must have to incorporate some structure. What I ask is that we reduce those to what we really need, interact with students on a level so that we can appreciate their originality, give them some room to explore and have choices in their learning and stop trying to mold them into what we think society expects them to be.