South of Denver (with apologies to Tom French) By Jack Kennedy Rock Canyon High School, Highlands Ranch CO 80124 email@example.com YEAR 1 Chapter 1 – August 31, 2004 Chelsea is 14, but wise beyond her years – a classic “uber student.” Jackie is a counter-culture wanna-be, dressing the part but unable to summon enough energy, even at 15, to do much more some days than keep her head upright. Mike is a class clown, whose big moment was volunteering to eat an incredibly hot pepper during a Spanish class fiesta last Friday. In his words, “I have to admit. Later I felt a little sick.” These three students joined 19 others, all freshmen and sophomores, just two weeks ago in Rock Canyon’s first-ever journalism class. Oh, and there’s me, of course, their instructor. After advising newspapers for over 25 years, you’d think I’d seen it all. That I would have all the answers. You couldn’t be more wrong. “You have a great opportunity,” I announced on the very first day of class – on Friday, Aug. 13. “Little did you know when you signed up for this class, but you will be producing the very first newspaper in this school’s history! Circle October 27 on your calendars. That’s our day!” They are excited. They are smiling. They are absolutely clueless. They have a gleaming new facility – the building literally opened today. They have 20 computers (with no software just yet). They have an adviser who occasionally teaches other teachers about the intricacies of advising. But this creating a paper out of nothing is not going to be easy. “You know what would be cool?” Megan, a bubbly freshman, asked last Monday. “You know kids our age are kind of shy? We could run a list of ‘who likes who.’ My friends would love it!” Hmmmmm… “Well,” I mumble, searching for rhetorical cover. “We can talk about our actual coverage later. Right now, let’s concentrate on summary leads. For instance (I’m squinting at her computer screen), do you think beginning with the date of the first pep assembly is the best way to get readers’ attention?” Crisis temporarily averted. But I know the “dating list” issue will arise again. Did I mention that there are 20 girls in this class of 22? And that no one is 16 yet? And that I never had room for sophomores on the staff in my prior advising life? Oy vey! But two days later, during a discussion of the importance of deadlines, I point out gently that several students seem to have not turned in their homework on the elements of news. “Ladies and (two) gentlemen: what do you think will happen if somebody fails to get the football team story in on time, and our first issue appears with nothing on football?” Chelsea, of course, has her hand up instantly. “The team would be mad!” She has an indignant look on her face. She clearly has never missed a deadline in her life, and is appalled that anyone would even contemplate such a thing.
I decide to press my advantage. “Look,” I say, “it just won’t go over with the team to tell them it’s not personal. That somebody just dropped the ball, so to speak. ‘Hey guys, it was an accident.’ Let’s take a vow that we will not piss people off accidentally in the paper. A good paper often makes people think, makes people mad. When we piss people off, let’s do it on purpose!” Chelsea looks startled. Everyone else laughs. Two girls in the back pump their fists. Mike shouts, “Yes!” And I suddenly am feeling a lot better about this group. Note: This is the first of a series of columns on working with a completely untrained staff. It is cryptotherapy for me. It may occasionally provide something positive for you. It’s all uncharted territory, that’s for sure. South of Denver Chapter 2 – September 6, 2004 Never has the importance of seniors to a school been clearer. The 22 young journalism students are a mixed bag, with a couple freshmen who score at the top of state assessments, and a couple sophomores who find school to be incredibly boring, if not frustrating. Most of the kids are bright and engaged and moderately skilled as writers. In other words, they are students. But there are no seniors in the school. No traditions at all. We are brand new. Abigail and Taylor have never read a news story in their school newspaper. They’ve never had one. But this week is “Nose for News” week, where the assignment is to turn in three news stories in three class periods. We have studied the elements of news (proximity, prominence, etc.) and we have rewritten some published leads. We have gone over grammatical options. But now the students need to come up with angles for news coverage, do the reporting and do the writing, all with very little time available. It’s an assignment that will separate the women from the girls, so to speak. On Wednesday morning, the gym is filled (well, one side of the bleachers is filled—there are only 442 students thus far) for the first pep assembly in this building. Covering this event is almost irresistible. Abigail began her story that was due Friday: “The gym of Rock Canyon High School was filled with school spirit today.” Taylor went with: “The first pep rally of the school year happened today and it was a huge success.” We have been practicing a variety of leads, but clearly we have a lot of work still to do. Abigail’s lead is in passive voice and positively revels in cliché. Taylor’s features a boring verb (happened?) along with editorializing. They are both bright young women. Their leads will have to do as models tomorrow in class. There really aren’t any better. Next year’s journalism students will have read a variety of stories, with a variety of well-developed leads, because Abigail and Taylor and the rest of the staff will have struggled through the process of researching, writing, editing, more research, writing and editing, and more editing. But this is our first month in our first year and, to their instructor’s chagrin, this assignment did little to separate the women from the girls.
Time for the big guns. Friday I handed out The Radical Write to the students and asked them to read chapter one over the Labor Day weekend. The guts of the chapter describe what good writing is. Upon receiving her copy, Abigail said, “This looks like a textbook.” “Yes,” I replied, “but it’s the best textbook of its kind. You’ll love it. Trust me.” “Sure,” she said, “but it’s a textbook.” The text itself is good writing, full of passion and an abundance of information. But will the students see it? Can Abigail be won over? I’ll find out Tuesday. It wasn’t all struggling through the basics of news writing this week. When we had some spare moments we brainstormed possible names for the paper. Everyone brought three ideas and we filled the white board with them. Everyone has an opinion. “No using Jaguar in the name. It’s so overdone.” “And no Canyons either.” “But I like our name.” You get the idea. Eventually the semi-finalists emerge: The Pride, The Rock, Canyon News, The Spot, Canyon Echoes, Canyon View and RCHS Press. “What adjectives would you like people to use when describing your paper this year?” I ask. I’m groping for some mechanism to help pare down the list. They come up with: expressive, original, fun, trustworthy, honest, exciting, and outstanding. A good list. “Can we match up the adjectives with the possible names?” By 1:45 Friday they had narrowed the list to three: Echoes, The Rock, and The Spot (something with jaguar spots that I am still trying to process, but that seems to appeal to several staff members). Naming the paper is exciting and frustrating and, ultimately, getting in the way of discussing becoming better reporters and writers. A decision must be made, and soon. After all, a cool name in the flag won’t cover up lousy writing. South of Denver Chapter 3 – September 13, 2004 It was a week of small breakthroughs. All 22 students took turns shooting portraits of one another for our staff ID cards. “Yes,” I said over and over, “the strap DOES need to go around your neck. Left hand under the camera to take the weight. Exhale. Shoot.” Abigail took me up on my offer to shoot at the softball game Thursday. We were allowed to stand at one open dugout door with the new Nikon D70 and the very cool (and expensive) 80-400 VT zoom on a monopod. She said she used to play softball, and she proved it by anticipating shots.
She took 120 frames in four innings. Most were, well, not so great. But a couple dozen are certainly publishable, and one, of a play at the plate, complete with dust flying, girls grimacing and the umpire glowering, is fabulous. “I love this camera,” she said more than once. “I’m used to having 24 shots and being so picky about what to shoot. Digital is great!” On our potentially touchiest issue, we decided to “mull over” the whole naming of the paper thing. This Tuesday is our target for final discussion. Megan asked on Monday, after getting her “Nose for News” stories back, “Can we do this again?” “Oh, yes,” I said. “But first tell me what you will do differently.” “I’ll take out the editorializing,” she said, “and go back to some kids at the events for quotes.” Megan was not alone in inserting her opinions about the success of the cheers at a local contest, and about how great the sophomore football team was after thrashing it first opponent 34-6. We had had a good time trash talking about that first opponent, which is a math-science magnet school from another district which regularly scores the highest on state tests. “Hey, they may be tops on CSAPs, but we’re gonna kick their butts in football!” Several others overheard Megan’s question, and by Friday ten students had given me rewrites of one or more of their news stories. All were somewhat better, but I was most impressed that they did the rewrites without me pushing them. Looking for a better grade? Looking for better journalism? Does it matter? Last week we discussed interviewing technique, and the class read chapter 7 of The Radical Write. I told them a quick story about WWII reporter Ernie Pyle and his classic statement: “If you want to tell the story of a war, tell the story of one soldier.” Then I tossed in my version: “If you want to tell the story of a high school, tell the story of one student.” And then, on Friday, near the end of class, I asked Meagan (please note different spelling, different girl) how her volleyball match had gone the night before. “I didn’t get to play,” she said, and she was clearly not happy. “Some of us got in trouble with the coach for leaving Wednesday’s game with our parents.” “Did you tell the coach you were going?” “My parents needed to go,” she said, “but I couldn’t find the coach. One of the other parents told us to just go. But I guess the coach just went nuts, and last night before the game he went ballistic. ‘If you won’t teach your kids, I will!’ He was yelling at our parents! And he started swearing! My mom is writing letters and another mom is meeting with the athletic director about the coach.” I noticed another girl, seated nearby, taking all this in. “What do you think, Taylor? Does this sound like news?” “Oh, yeah,” she answered. “I know it’s too bad, and I know it’s not positive news,” I said, “but do you see why we might be rubbing our hands together in delight over having a story like this to report?”
I’m pretty sure Taylor was ready to get after this story right away. But the first paper is seven weeks away (we have moved the date to Nov. 3 due to some conflicts with fall break). This little fracas will be old news long before then. But some of us are starting to think like journalists. It was a good week.
South of Denver Chapter 4 – September 20, 2004 Taylor had spent about 15 minutes interviewing Hannah in class on Monday, and was excited about her story, a brief, focused profile on a Journalism classmate. This was designed as practice for the “real” profile assignment, due Sept. 20, for which they can choose any Rock Canyon student (beyond our class). The best of these profiles will likely appear in some form in our first issue. But our class alone has plenty of stories, that is clear. Here’s how Taylor’s profile began: “Hannah is a fun-loving girl who loves running track, writing poetry and playing tennis, but one of her strongest interests is politics. “ ‘I can’t stand George Bush,’ Hannah said, as her fist pounded the table. “Hannah’s cousin William is a Marine and has been stationed in Afghanistan for almost seven months. He will be returning home at the end of September.” My first (selfish) thought was, “Yes! Hannah seems like a passionate young woman, and I might just have a Democrat on staff in this enclave of suburban Republicanism (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Imagine my surprise when I got to the end of the story, only to discover that Hannah will still be supporting President Bush, saying we shouldn’t have a rookie as president while we’re in the middle of a war. Sigh… Well, at least Hannah is passionate about her beliefs, and passion is perhaps the most important attribute I look for in staff members, along with curiosity and attention to detail. I look forward to some political discussions while working after school on that looming first issue. And I’d love to have Hannah find some way to tell her cousin’s story in our pages. All politics aside, it appears that we have plenty of connections to current military operations, and that will help us localize our coverage. We spent quite a bit of class time this week discussing how we can include the “voice” of our profile subjects in our stories, and I was happy to see that about half of the class seemed to have a good handle on the concept of letting a source “speak” on the page, particularly through interesting, focused anecdotes. The other half of the class will require some additional attention. I shared one of my favorite interviewing “tools,” which I borrowed from journalist Clarence Page: “Why do you say that?” Most interview subjects don’t just yak away without being prodded, and asking, “Why do you say that?” or “Can you give me an example?” are great ways to indicate that the interviewer really is interested in what is being said.
What I assumed would be the big discussion topic of the week—the naming of the paper—turned out to be anticlimactic. After just a few minutes of further discussion on Tuesday, the consensus was clearly in favor of The Rock. A good name. Not one I’ve seen elsewhere. Sounds strong. Sounds trustworthy. I can hear Bob Seeger and see huge Chevy trucks… “One thing,” says Natasha. “There’s that wrestler The Rock. Won’t we get possible confusion there?” My answer: “Well, it’s possible, but I think it’s up to us to avoid the cheesy references to him. Unless you’d like to start our editorials with, ‘Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?!’ “ Natasha didn’t seem to get my Rock imitation, but she laughed, perhaps out of pity. Most of the staff seemed relieved to have the decision made. After all, issue number one hits the halls six weeks from Wednesday, and we just got our Adobe Creative Suite software installed in the lab. We need to kick things into high gear. South of Denver Chapter 5 – September 27, 2004 As I flashed Power Point slides of newspaper front pages before them, the students made quick notes, yawned or exclaimed, but we were getting just a little closer to finding our personality. Gathered from the Newseum website’s “front pages from around the world” feature, all the pages were from the same day (which interested me far more than the students), and represented a wide range of approaches. The students aren’t design experts, but they quickly sensed that the coolest designs tended to be from Mexico and Brazil. Lots of color, lots of “in your face” art, and front pages that functioned more as a menu than the traditional news page that characterizes the U.S. press. “But those colors are just too much,” Eliza said. “The reds and golds are just overwhelming. I don’t think that is our look.” “So what colors are us?” I asked. No immediate answers. The Journalism class will be out looking for the answers in the coming week. Hannah was adamant about the front page being reader-friendly, with “maybe two stories on the page.” Dani was in favor of a one-story front. Many in the class looked baffled by all the options, and spent most of their time commenting on individual topics or art that they saw up on the screen. Cassie said, “Have you noticed all the cool illustrations we have seen? They are more powerful than the photos, I think.” Cassie, along with Meagan, sitting right next to her, has been doodling anime art during the show, glancing up for a quick peak as the slides popped up. Cassie is already lobbying for a cartooning slot on The Rock. Perhaps I can use that desire as a motivation to get her to turn her writing in on time, or at all. Cassie is one of the best writers in the class, with a smooth narrative style and a love of language. But there are issues at home, issues at school, issues in her head, and despite all her talent, she is flat out failing the course. What she turns in is promising, but there’s so little of it. On the other hand, journalism is her best hope to make use of all that creativity, all that frustration, all
that pent up talent. Perhaps the group pressure to make deadline for the first issue will be enough to get her to break through all the issues. After nearly an hour of the torrent of slides, with brief commentaries by myself and anyone who wants to chime in, we’re all in a daze. Now the final slides turn into sort of an eye test. “Do you like the front page this way?” A slide of the Virginia Pilot is up, with a cool illustration anchoring a “poster” that dominates the broadsheet page, surrounded by four news story starts. “Notice that all the stories jump to the inside,” I said. “Research shows that about 80 percent of readers never make the jump.” Many heads nod in agreement. “Do we want to jump stories?” Chelsea said, “I’d like them to read my whole story, so, no.” She clearly speaks for nearly everyone here. Next slide. A Mexican daily whose front page is basically a graphically-enhanced menu of what readers will find inside. “Or do you like the front page this way?” Susie points out that we only have eight pages for the first issue. “That would be a lot of space to give up for a menu,” she said. She, like many in the class, has already figured out the math of dividing 8 pages by 22 staff members. She’s smart, passionate and has the beginnings of being a great writer. She wants the chance to show what she can do. I want her to have that chance as well. And what about Chelsea, who is already in love with the idea of creating a great newspaper? Or what about Devin and Mike, the two boys in the class? They want their chance. And then there’s Jackie, whose interest in the class seems to go in and out of focus. She desperately needs to do something well, to break out of her self-imposed isolation. Third slide: a tabloid front page from Brazil that is basically one story, with big art and a few skyboxes to tease inside pieces. “How about this way?” It occurred to me that we were trying to match our personalities to our story-telling concepts, but that our own personalities were still a bit amorphous, a bit fuzzy. I am asking 14 and 15-year-olds to make some pretty sophisticated decisions. Will they be up to the challenge? South of Denver Chapter 6 – October 4, 2004 I must admit to just a bit of frustration when the brainstorming sheets for the premiere issue of The Rock (which goes to the press on Nov. 1 and hits the halls on Nov. 3) included, under the profiles section: “profiles of students.” Not once or twice, but on 20 sheets. Thanks goodness for Louisa, who managed to list Tim Anguiano, who she thinks is the smallest football player, and Nate Cook, who is a volunteer firefighter, and Logan somebody, who lived in Spain the last three years. Do the rest of us just not know students with interesting stories to share, I wondered, or do we just not quite understand the concept of brainstorming for coverage ideas? “So, Dani,” I began on Friday, “how would you feel if your editor gave you an assignment to cover, say, cheerleaders? Would you be all fired up and know where to start and what sort of coverage you should produce?” “Well, no,” she answered, looking a bit unsure of herself. “I guess I would like some more information.”
Good answer, and we continued to discuss just how we might get more specific in our coverage ideas, and thus make life easier for reporters, editors and photographers. Megan, our one cheer on staff, was sick, so we could only speculate, but we came up with things like a cheer has sprained her ankle but continues to perform. About what it’s like to be a “flyer” – the girl who gets tossed and must trust in her “bases” to catch her. About the differences in cheering at a football game and a volleyball match. No earth-shattering ideas, but much better than an assignment to cover “cheerleading.” I noticed that Susie and Brielle and Chelsea, at least, were now hurriedly amending their brainstorming sheets, adding detail and filling in noticeable blanks. Most of the other Journalism students were not quite comprehending that what they write down on these sheets will soon translate into assignments, and then into coverage in an actual printed newspaper. They continued to simply stare at me. This segment of the publication cycle – actually focusing on what we will cover – is so important that I couldn’t let this moment go. “We need to educate our readers. Does that help you get stories in focus?” I asked. “What will help make our readers smarter?” I was off on a rant. “What will make them feel better about school? About their lives? What don’t we know about? What do you want to know more about? What bugs you? What makes you happy?” I took a breath, and turned to Louisa, who is a star member of the cross country team. “Louisa, what do we need to teach our readers about cross country?” Her eyes got wide. She was clearly not too sure anyone wanted to know much of anything about cross country. She’s okay with the solitude. Lack of fan support doesn’t bother her. So I asked, “Does anyone here know how a cross country meet is scored? Other than Louisa?” Blank faces. “If you come in first, you get one point. Come in second and you get two points. Five runners count,” I said. “So what is a perfect score? What happens if your team’s runners finish one through five in a meet?” Meagan looked up from her anime drawing to say, “You get fifteen points.” “Exactly!” I shouted. “Now, do you think our student body has a clue as to what a cross country score means? Do you think they know it’s like golf – low score wins? We need to educate our readers! And not just with facts, but with what it’s like to be out there running, farther than most of our readers have ever run at one time.” The second try at a brainstorming sheet was due at the end of the period. These really needed to be fleshed out. Page teams will be meeting Monday to produce our first set of assignments. The eight page managers will be announced then, as well. Is that excitement I feel, or paralyzing fear? South of Denver Chapter 7 – October 11, 2004
It was Homecoming last week, with all the requisite spirit days (western day, wild hair day, etc.) and most of Rock Canyon was excited. Some kids were positively giddy. Even teachers and staff were energized. Let’s put it this way: there wasn’t much focus to be found last week in terms of class work. So it was a good week for the 18 students who chose to go to be heading off to Fort Collins for the state journalism convention. After their initial intimidation – after all, there were nearly 1,500 kids there, and dozens of sessions to choose from – they seemed to get into it. The next day, Wednesday, we had a debriefing in which we went around the class getting favorite bits of information from the conference. Abigail was eager to share the idea that we need to change angles when taking photos. “You know,” she said, “like getting above a person’s head to make him look smaller or thinner.” “Changing perspective, yes!” I commented. “Isn’t that similar to what we’re talking about in terms of writing? Aren’t we looking for something different to tell readers, just like wanting to give readers different angles in photos?” I was not sure everyone was getting the analogy, so I pressed on. “Look, imagine a camera with a zoom lens. You can take a wide angle photo (the establishing shot), then get a bit closer to capture a relationship, and go even closer for close-ups or even “parts of the whole.” I hurriedly scrawled those terms on the board, and, to my astonishment, several in the class actually wrote them down in their reporters notebooks. It can be like that with good writing, too, I said. “And don’t you like a variety of story-telling approaches? You don’t want to always get the same view, do you?” Devon said, “And we should turn our cameras vertical sometimes. The photojournalism guy showed us that.” I caught myself before saying something dismissive, like, “You mean the way I’ve been showing you for several weeks?” I was reminded that one of the great things about attending a conference is that kids hear some of the same things their instructors have been discussing, but they now hear them in a different way, and in a different environment. I thought about how quickly issue one would be here, and about how much I still hadn’t taught, and I was momentarily quite thankful to “the photojournalism guy.” We were team teaching, and I wasn’t sure what his name was. The next day I was off to Fort Lauderdale, of all places, to work with 13 students at a NAA meeting that was focused on teen pages in local papers. About half of them worked on both their school papers and on “teen pages.” Great kids in a great place. And it occurred to me as I flew home that for some of those students, I was their equivalent of “the photojournalism guy.” It’s a weird mix of knowledge, intuition, spunk and advice that produces high school journalism. It was time for me to get back to that. Three weeks left, and one is fall break. South of Denver Chapter 8 – October 18, 2004 We had our first “five minute slice of life” coverage of Rock Canyon HS on Wednesday, from 2 to 2:05 p.m., but it wasn’t without incident.
The concept was to shake up traditional academic news coverage by simply sending reporters to every corner of the building and having them observe what was going on for a period of time, paying special attention to what students and teachers were saying and doing. We had practiced the whole thing back in August, but now the coverage would end up on page 2 of our first newspaper. We chose to do this first “5-minute coverage” during Journalism class, and everyone seemed ready to go. Adrienne, the page manager, had a list of where everyone would be going at 1:55. Staff members all had their reporter’s notebooks and staff IDs. But they didn’t have cameras. “What am I not understanding here?” I asked, somewhat sarcastically. “Yesterday when Adrienne asked how many of you were bringing digital cameras, there were at least ten of you who raised your hands. But only Natasha actually brought one?” We only have one staff camera, a darn fine one (Nikon D70), but even the best camera can only be used one place at a time. “Dropping the ball on this assignment is not a good sign for us,” I said. There comes a time nearly every publication cycle when a certain amount of drama and urgency needs to be created by the adviser (or editor, if you have one). This was that time for me. “Let’s get this straight: if you say you will take on a certain assignment, you must come through. You have to rise above the common expectations for freshman and sophomores in high school. We have four class meetings after fall break before issue one, and no margin for error!” The basic reaction from the class was “Gulp.” And silence, of course. “Here’s the question: are you going to do your absolute best, or are you going to settle? Do you want to have a newspaper that is ‘pretty good for high school freshmen and sophomores,’ or do you want a ‘good newspaper’? What do you really want? You must get it through your heads that this class is not like your other classes. If you drop the ball in other classes, it’s just your mark that suffers. Here, the whole staff will suffer, and all our readers! My expectations are that you will perform as journalists. High school is where we are, not what we do.” A bit hyperbolic? Sure. Effective? Who knows? But the material the students brought back at 2:10 was pretty interesting, with rich quotes and detail. Adrienne cleverly worked out a plan to get to at least four classrooms in the five minutes with the Nikon, and Natasha shot two other locations, so we ended up with some visuals that can work. By the end of the day Wednesday, Adrienne had given out assignments to the entire staff to come up with three Top 5 lists for the page, and three questions to ask the principal (who is coming in for a press conference on Oct. 27). Those are part of a “5 questions for _____” that will appear on the five minutes page each issue. It was interesting how Adrienne stayed focused on problem solving and planning, while I provided the rah-rah. We didn’t plan it, of course, but the combination seemed to work today. But how many times can I get away with the Knute Rockne speeches with this group? p.s. This week is fall break for Douglas County Schools, so, dear reader, the next chapter will not appear until Nov. 1. That is the day issue 1 goes to press.
South of Denver Chapter 9 – Nov. 1, 2004 Have I mentioned that we are young? And that hardly anyone on the staff reads a daily newspaper with any regularity? And that our work day last Saturday was almost entirely dependent on whether parents could drop off or pick up at school at a particular time? Issue one, volume one has not been smooth. The defining moment was Saturday, about 3:30 p.m. Louisa, who had run at state cross country that morning, and who had hustled back to work on her profiles page, looked up from her computer and asked, “Where is my page?” I was working with Adrienne in another corner of the room, talking her through how to place text on her page, but that question caught my attention. It turned out, after several frantic minutes of searching and clicking and silently cursing, that Louisa’s entire page 6 folder had disappeared. The page 7 folder was gone as well. Since we store everything by folder – text, sidebars, photos – this was clearly not good. The crushing reality is that someone on the staff, probably not more than two hours earlier, had accidentally deleted those folders. They had been there on Friday. We know so little that the offending staff member doesn’t even know he or she did it, or how it happened. There’s nothing really to be done in these cases, beyond re-gathering the stories and photos, and rebuilding the basic page templates (oh, yes, and trying to device some sort of backup system within the system for the future). Louisa began to do that right away, phoning several reporters and asking them to e-mail their stories again, and plotting how to reshoot several photos on Monday. To her credit, Louisa refused to panic. As for page 7, however, that page manager did not even show up on Saturday, but not much was lost on the actual page, since little had been done last week. My first inclination was to call her and rip her, but she was hardly alone. Cassie, who was to produce the front page “day after the election” art, was nowhere to be found. I ended up calling her at home. She seemed genuinely surprised that I would be calling about a school assignment. She did make a solemn vow to deliver the art first thing Monday morning. The girl who was so eager to write the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” rehearsal story – we are teasing the play this issue – appears blissfully unaware that we actually need her copy. She was out of town. Dani, the news page manager, had a hard time believing that the lead story on her page was simply blown off, but Abigail, who is in the play, volunteered to put something together quickly. Of course, twenty minutes later, Abigail’s ride arrived, so she had to bail. Dani sighed, and left soon after. Her ride was here, after all. We have Monday to recover from these disasters, and others, but I despair of the possibility of having the kids do any serious editing or proofreading. I have told the staff that we will go to press Monday night, whether we are ready or not. There are basketball teams that are not really ready to play the first game, but the game gets played. And we should never forget that one team loses that first game – sometimes by a lopsided score. Right now, I’d rate us distinct underdogs.
South of Denver Chapter 10 – November 8, 2004 “Oh my gosh! I’m reading the paper!” squealed Kelly. “I never read!” Most of the Rock Canyon journalism class was positively giddy when the very first issue of The Rock was delivered late last Wednesday morning. We happened to have class when they arrived. I held everyone together long enough to organize a make-shift delivery of the papers throughout the building, and everyone was eager to get them out there. As far as getting anything done that resembled journalism education, well… that would have to wait for another day. Despite the soon-discovered typos that mysteriously slipped through our proofing, despite the placeholder subhead that read “This is a deck, which provides more information for scanners,” that never was replaced with a live deck, despite the fact that we misidentified the football players on page 4, everyone was feeling pretty darn good about themselves. On Friday, when we had settled down a bit, we talked about how our readers would never, and should never, know just how hard it had been to put together our 8-page paper. “Seeing a high school newspaper put together,” I said, “is a lot like watching sausage being made. It’s better just to enjoy the sausage, and not worry about how it tastes they way it does.” Most of the class looked puzzled. After all, how many of them have ever actually seen sausage being made? But they got the gist of the reference. Then Adrienne said, “The poms yelled at me last night through the whole game.” Since she is a pom, she found this somewhat distressing. In our rather brief coverage of the dance team, the reporter had mentioned some stereotypes often associated with the poms, noting that some students at the school had characterized them as “snotty, mean and dumb.” The rest of the piece seemed to refute that stereotype. Evidently, the refutation had not done the trick, at least for the poms. In fact, the self-appointed leader of the group had already been by to discuss the coverage with me, letting me know just how upset and hurt the group was. I told her that I was sorry she was upset, and that we would try to do better in our next issue. She was a well-spoken and polite young woman, who I thought was at least satisfied that she had been heard. Apparently that wasn’t enough for her, because a few hours later she blasted poor Adrienne, who had nothing to do with the story, and wouldn’t let up. Adrienne added, “Eventually she said, ‘I know I’m acting just like the story says we act, but I’m just so angry.’ “ Adrienne is rapidly becoming a connoisseur of irony, and seemed to enjoy relating this bit of information. I actually was delighted that we had only offended one group in the first issue. I subscribe to the notion that a newspaper that isn’t making people a bit angry really isn’t doing its job, but I had hoped to establish some good will, especially with such a young staff, before things get rougher. Our front page coverage was headlined “Morning After,” and included a variety of student quotes on why kids should care about the election. We also got to break some actual “news,” thanks to the social studies department, which held off on sharing the results of the school’s mock election until the paper could do it. Seventy percent of Douglas County’s voters are registered Republicans, and our students mirrored their parents’ choices. The best writing in the paper was our very first commentary, by Susie, in which she detailed how her political views had evolved from strongly Republican (her parents’ views) by really studying how she feels about the main issues. She wrote about being surprised to find that she agreed
with the Kerry positions two-thirds of the time, and how she had recently stayed up until 2 a.m. discussing gay marriage with her mother. But the cool thing was watching this young woman go from someone who two weeks ago was without a clear idea on what she wanted to write about, to someone with a strong, readable, passionate voice whose commentary rivals any personal opinion piece I’ve read in a high school paper in years. Helping a young woman find her voice… that’s the point of it all. As pessimistic as I was about our efforts a week before, I was suddenly looking forward to issue 2. South of Denver Chapter 11 – December 1, 2004 Just before I left for the Atlanta convention, I asked the staff members of The Rock to let me know what sections they wanted to work on for issue two, and whether they were interested in being a page manager. Issue one was eight pages, and we had a page manager for each page. I assumed that those eight would want to continue, and that other students might want to try a leadership position. That’s not how it turned out. Two sophomores, Hannah and Taylor, opted out of their positions, and I accepted that. In a weird twist, they seem more involved and excited about their story ideas and upcoming interviews than they were last issue, so maybe their decision will be for the best. No new names emerged. I was mildly disappointed. And then I got the e-mail from Adrienne’s mom. We had talked six weeks ago about how Adrienne could balance her life of all honors courses and poms, etc. and be part of the newspaper. I thought I had reassured her. I was wrong. Monday’s e-mail boiled down to Adrienne is spending too much time on journalism – in fact, more time than she is spending on her “core” courses. The e-mail concluded with “Please let someone else on the staff have a turn at managing a page. It’s not fair to put so much pressure on the hard-working, dedicated students on the staff. After all, they are just 14.” Have I mentioned that we are very young? During a quick meeting Monday afternoon, Adrienne’s two pages (she was going to edit the profiles section) were picked up by two of our finest, Chelsea and Susie, though I’m not sure those two understand how much more work they will be doing. The good news is that they seem to feel that journalism is at least as important as their “core” classes. Yesterday I sent out 35 letters of invitation to students who had been recommended to me for Newspaper production class, which begins next semester. Many of them will have irreconcilable scheduling conflicts, preventing them from enrolling in the class. Some will simply toss the letter – after all, they have full schedules right now. A few will hold a ritual burning once they see who is doing the inviting. But there may be a handful (or two) who find the idea of working on the paper intriguing. I’m going to be bothered by Adrienne bailing on her leadership position – in nearly 30 years of advising I’ve never had a kid opt out of an editor job; the pressure has always been to become an editor – and I need to remember that what happens in a kid’s freshman year may have little to do with what happens down the road. Adrienne will always be welcome as part of our program.
I suppose the perfect staff member combines academic excellence with dedication to informing and entertaining and persuading the community, and also manages to possess whatever sort of “edgy” world view that we all know makes for great writers. But this week reminds me that if I have to drop one of the above attributes from a student’s background, it is being an honors student. Dedication and an “edge” count for more than anything else. In other words, the key ingredient is passion for the work. Give me that and I can do a lot of effective teaching about the skills needed to produce a great publication. I should feel lucky that out of this raw group of 23 students in an introductory journalism class, we have five kids who combine all three attributes. If I can find and develop five students from each introductory class I teach, that adds up to quite a few great kids. Issue 2, our first 12-page effort, rolls out in two weeks. Now that all this leadership drama is settled, we’re excited to get back to the work. South of Denver Chapter 12 – December 12, 2004 I honestly don’t know whether to hug the kid, or fail her. Courtenay was so excited to take photos of the play last week during final dress rehearsal, but she hadn’t really used the D70 yet. I was going to be working after school until 5 or later anyway, so I agreed to meet her and give her a little on-the-job training regarding play photos. As it turned out, she really didn’t need me for much. She worked the event, just as we had discussed in class, moving around the apron area of the stage, looking for good angles. And her photos turned out great. For a few minutes, I sat in the dark of the theatre watching her, and felt pretty good about her work ethic and talents. Actually, I felt proud of her. That was Wednesday. When Friday came around – the day all last minute copy for the Dec. 15 paper was due – I hear Dani, her page manager for a story she was doing on RCTV, our in-house TV station, asking where Courtenay’s file was saved. Courtenay wouldn’t look up. Wouldn’t answer. Clearly, there was no file, and no story on the horizon either. You have to wonder about a young woman who will work intelligently and diligently for nearly an hour, producing a solid photo essay on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but who couldn’t find the time to spend 30 minutes reporting on the TV production team. Exasperating to Dani. Disappointing to me. Embarrassing (a little, anyway) for Courtenay. And the bottom line is that we had about a quarter page sitting empty, awaiting that coverage. But when you get to the last week before publication – production week – it’s all about problem solving, and there’s always a solution. Dani’s first suggestion was to leave the space blank and print a small explanation of Courtenay’s missing the deadline, so please heap scorn upon her (Dani actually talks like that). I reminded her that our readers could care less about our internal problems, our deadlines, or our personnel issues. Our readers want a newspaper. Dani came up with a perfectly fine alternative, expanding our coverage of last week’s music concerts (we had plenty of photos), and allowing Ashley to expand her coverage of “Fellowship of Christian Students,” a club that meets Tuesdays before school. It will all turn out well. Perhaps we will find space and time to cover the TV crew in a future issue.
For Courtenay, this was a week of one step forward and two back. This is likely the last issue of the newspaper she will ever work on – Journalism is a one-semester course and she is struggling to maintain a C, and that was before blowing a reporting assignment – and that likely would have been the case even had she completed her RCTV piece. But it still saddens me. She had a chance to make a contribution, however small, to our community, to our paper, and she ducked the chance. But Susie shared her second column with me on Friday, about how this Christmas will be different following her Minnesota grandmother’s death last year, and Cassie actually finished her commentary, her first finished assignment in two issues. All five page managers have freed up their schedules to work from 11-6 on Saturday to finish the desktop publishing for the paper. And a French teacher is allowing two great kids to take French independent study next semester so those two can join the Newspaper class. In other words, things aren’t so bad. The Rock is moving in the right direction. So why do I keep thinking about Courtenay and the missing story? South of Denver Chapter 13 – January 10, 2005 It’s second semester and the staff of the rock has had quite a shake up, and I mean that in a good way. Of the 23 souls who pioneered the paper last semester, 9 have returned. The good news is that they all WANT to be part of the paper. This is no longer just an elective for them. The bad news is that we lost three fine reporters, all of whom had been page managers for at least one of our two issues. More good news is that we lost a number of students who were “just visiting.” The great news is that nine new students have joined the “veterans,” and all have talent. What they don’t have is experience, so we are in the midst of a crash course on how to do a newspaper. Here’s how last week went: Monday: After a quick round of introductions and the ritual passing out of the Reporters Notebooks, we had a press conference with me as the source. The goal was two-fold: gather enough information to write a short first article about someone, and also to allow students to get to know me (a little) at their own pace. The first question was, predictably, “What’s your birthday?” Early on came, “What’s your favorite candy?” Despite the slow start, I hung in there, and so did they. The questions got progressively better, and some reporters even took a shot at a follow up question or two. Tuesday: Students brought their first drafts of the press conference story to class, but first we did a quick “debrief.” We talked about the sorts of questions that didn’t work so well (and agreed that simple “yes or no” questions, and questions that just didn’t go anywhere, didn’t work), and about those that did work (questions that invited anecdotes, like “Tell us about what made you want to teach,” received high marks), and about the scattered feel of press conferences. Lindsey, one of the new staff members, thought the “favorite candy” question was quite silly. I said that while the question didn’t seem to go anywhere, you never know where an answer might lead you. What if I had said, in addition to my answer, which was Heath Bars, that English toffee reminded me of living in England for two years while in the Air Force? Might that lead to a line of questioning that could produce some interesting anecdotes and reveal personality?
We agreed that there are no “silly questions;” there are only silly, or nonexistent, follow up questions. We also discussed the difference between editing and proofreading. My advice was that in editing (or coaching) you were really just asking questions of the writer. You were inviting more information, more depth, different angles. Why proofread a story before it really is a story? We practiced by using editing groups, in which everyone in a group of four read the others’ work, and wrote down at least one question on the story. No other marks were allowed. To combat the “scattered feel” of the press conference, I then paired up the class and told them that our second practice would be the one-on-one interview. No long lecture on types of questions. Just sit down and talk with one another. One piece of advice: try to find one area of your partner’s life to focus on. It will give your story (due Friday) an anchor. Wednesday: This was block day (classes meet for 90 minutes one day per week), so the first half hour of the period students finished interviewing. They seemed much more comfortable with this concept after a day to think over questions and possible angles. Then we went to the computers to get acquainted with InDesign. All students had a computer, and I gave them all a letter-sized layout, complete with a sample of one of the interview stories, some sidebar quotes from yours truly taken from their press conference stories, and a couple visuals, including a nice shot of Brad Pitt (with my name under the photo). Their task was to replicate my layout. I talked them through the entire exercise, from starting a new file to setting up a 7-column grid, to placing art and text. Several staff members had a passing knowledge of InDesign (from first semester), though they appreciated the review. Everyone kept up and produced something that at least resembled my sample page. One new staff member, David, who was labeled “scary smart” by the colleague who recommended him to me, did everything so fast that he could fool around with Photoshop while I was helping the less gifted. It turns out that he has a pirated version of Photoshop at home, and he thinks of it as a sort of video game. I look forward to learning a few tricks from him. Friday: Drafts of partner interviews were due today, but the majority of the time we discussed news leads. I shared a handout that contained a variety of leads taken from one day of one newspaper, and we went over highlighting answers to the “5 Ws” in your leads, as well as the concept of objectivity. We hadn’t been very objective in our first stories. The new folks, bright as they are, just couldn’t resist inserting their opinions about me, about their partners, about life in general. Friday was Susie’s birthday. We sang to her. Susie is one of our “stars,” our first columnist. She was 15 on Friday. Have I mentioned that we are very young? But they will get it. I can tell. My subjective assessment: this will be a fun, challenging semester. Happy New Year! South of Denver Chapter 14 – February 17, 2005 Not for the first time, I wished I owned some Apple stock. Christmas brought a shower of iPod gifts for Rock Canyon students, and suddenly what used to be just the occasional student bopping into class enjoying some secret music became a torrent of kids enjoying their private music libraries at school.
But there is still the urge to share a favorite tune, and that’s where I first noticed ear-bud sharing. Two students each stick one “bud” in an ear and start boppin’. I started thinking of them as iPod People, with their personalities being slowly sucked into a machine. When we were talking about this phenomenon during story brainstorming, I had the temerity to suggest that we were sure to see a variety of ear infections soon, what with all the indiscriminate ear-bud sharing. Someone added that perhaps we should advocate for some sort of ear-bud prophylactic. Eventually the staff decided that “iPod Culture” was worth the front page of the February issue. Susie, the page manager, vetoed the whole ear infection thing. “That’s just gross!” Probably just as well, though it had the virtue of being provocative, at least. I have developed the view that being intellectually provocative is beyond most freshmen and sophomores. Here is a paraphrase of our discussion of possible editorials: Adviser: “So, what are kids upset about out there?” Class: “Ummm… Well, I know some girls who are really ticked at some boys.” Adviser: “What would be our point of view on that issue?” Class: “Well… No one really cares, I guess.” Adviser: “What are our students happy about, then?” Class: “There’s a dance Friday.” Sigh. Eventually I hauled out what I thought might be a hot topic: the district transportation director had recently told the principal that we will be starting school at 7:15 next year to accommodate bus schedules. (We currently start at 7:45). There was no discussion. Most of the class just stared. I was surprised. Even if the time change is a fait accompli, shouldn’t there be voices raised in righteous indignation? Can there be anyone who is unaware of the legion of studies showing that high school students need to start school later, not earlier? Aren’t we tired of our educations being damaged for reasons having nothing to do with education? A couple days later, Chelsea had settled on the new school start time for the lead editorial, and had assigned David to write the piece. There may be hope, if only David can summon up some anger. Maybe it’s just that time of the year, but I’d give about anything for a passionate outburst right now. If I have to wait much longer, I may need to provide my own outburst
South of Denver Chapter 15 – March 6, 2005 The good news was that issue three of the paper “looked pretty.” Lindsey, a new staff member, said that this newspaper thing was more exciting than she planned on. David, who had produced three excellent graphics at the last minute to save the day for three different page managers, said, “It looks great and people are loving it. Now we need to work on what’s inside.” It was also his first time seeing his work in the paper.
Everyone on the staff was enjoying the glow that comes from actually seeing all that hard work in print. Many remarked on how many students they had seen actually reading the paper! But working on “what’s inside.” Yes. That is the challenge, isn’t it? During our debriefing two days after the paper hit the halls, we talked about the front page. Everyone loved the color, the huge honkin’ art, and the sidebar with the results of our survey on iPods. But then I reminded everyone of one of the very first things I had taught them. It’s based on the Ernie Pyle saying, “If you want to tell the story of a war, tell the story of one soldier.” My version is “If you want to tell the story of a high school, tell the story of one student.” “And if you want to tell the story of iPods at Rock Canyon?” I asked. “Tell the story of one kid with an iPod?” “Tell the story of one iPod?” “Forget the story and just plug into an iPod?” Funny kids. The ugly truth about our page one story is that Susie and Chelsea, who had combined on the concept, the surveying and the writing of the lead story, had agreed weeks ago that there was no actual “story” here. This coverage would best be presented in smaller bits of information. They had talked about quote collections, of course. But they had also brainstormed a timeline of portable music players, and discussed cool ways to present the survey results. But when the deadline crunch arrived, these two talented young women ended up with a huge piece of art, surrounded by a 20-inch piece of text and a simple sidebar listing some results of the survey. “The truth of the matter,” I said, “is that writing a long piece of text is much easier than presenting information in more creative, accessible ways. Coming up with cool alternatives to text is hard work.” Even talented journalists faced with a looming deadline revert to habit, and to the easy solution. The challenge, I noted, was for us all to learn some new habits, some new ways to visualize a newspaper. When we dug into the text itself, we discovered something else. It wasn’t very good. The lead sentence was general, and grammatically suspect. “iPods have become the new trend at RCHS…” we began. You know you are in trouble when your lead sentence ends up being what was written on the white board during story brainstorming. In the second sentence, we wrote that iPods came as gifts for many of our students, in 6’ by 6’ boxes! We had been in such a rush that we failed to follow our own style guide, and had typed 6’ instead of six inches, and no one had caught it. We had a good laugh as someone visualized a kid staggering around on Christmas morning with a 6x6 box of “portable music.”
I pointed out that only four people had been quoted in the piece, and the quotes were all of the “hit and run” variety. Each source got a graf, and two sentences total, if that. One source said, “[the iPod] helps me relax and take tests.” What do we want to know? “How does it help her relax and take tests?” said Gillian. Precisely. We never got into that. We just moved on to the next quote, from a teacher who said she thought iPods may damage the hearing of teenagers. Did the teacher have any evidence at all that this might be the case? Should we have followed up on that? Everyone agreed that we should have. “So why didn’t we?” I asked. How we answer that question will determine whether our last two issues of this first year will be provocative, fun and educational, or if they will end up the equivalent of a freshman PowerPoint presentation on Greek mythology: pretty but empty. South of Denver Chapter 16 – March 15, 2005 It was Sports Illustrated day for the staff of The Rock, and everyone seemed a bit skeptical as we began. All 17 students had taken a copy of the magazine home the day before, with the assignment to browse the “Scorecard” material near the beginning of the publication, and to read carefully the Rick Reilly column on the final page. It was pretty clear that no one in the class was a regular reader of SI, though nearly half of them are athletes. But sports really had nothing to do with my choice of this magazine for our lesson. We need a boost in our variety, first of all. We don’t change up speeds enough. Too many 10inch “stories,” that really aren’t stories. Not enough short form material for scanners. Not enough… well, fun. “Scoreboard” provides an incredible array of short form options. On the other hand, we need more “heart,” more emotion, more depth in some of our reporting. Rick Reilly brings those elements week after week. I went around the room, asking each student to describe something in “Scorecard.” We filled the white board with “Go Figure,” which is a regular feature involving statistics, with “For the Record,” featuring short grafs led by one word like “Expecting,” or “Retired,” or “Hired.” We found a sports humor column called “The Show” (the humor of which seemed to mystify most of the students). Each issue had a Q&A with a famous sports personality. They loved “Faces in the Crowd,” which spotlights athletes from all over the country, who would otherwise never achieve national prominence. We found book reviews. We found first person accounts written by professional athletes. Whew! These ideas filled the board, and I hoped filled everyone’s heads with possibilities for local adaptation. I didn’t have to do much selling about the allure of alternatives to traditional text. Then we moved to Rick Reilly. “In my column,” said Jenna, “he seemed sarcastic.” Hannah said, “He was real emotional in mine.”
Megan added, “Mine was funny.” And everyone wanted to chime in on the various stories they had read, sharing bits of plots. Reilly’s talent had won over the skeptics. They were ready for a common reading, and I had one of my favorites ready to share. I passed out copies of “The Play of the Year,” which was a November, 2002 column. I had downloaded it from the SI Web site (a great source for Reilly material). The column starts like this: “Jake Porter is 17, but he can't read, can barely scrawl his first name and often mixes up the letters at that. So how come we're all learning something from him? In three years on the Northwest High football team, in McDermott, Ohio, Jake had never run with the ball. Or made a tackle. He'd barely ever stepped on the field. That's about right for a kid with chromosomal fragile X syndrome, a disorder that is a common cause of mental retardation. But every day after school Jake, who attends special-ed classes, races to Northwest team practices: football, basketball, track. Never plays, but seldom misses one. That's why it seemed crazy when, with five seconds left in a recent game that Northwest was losing 42-0, Jake trotted out to the huddle. The plan was for him to get the handoff and take a knee.” You may know the story. Not only does Jake get to carry the ball, but the opposing coach insists that he be allowed to score a touchdown. The conclusion is pure Reilly: “Since it happened, people in the two towns just seem to be treating one another better. Kids in the two schools walk around beaming. "I have this bully in one of my [phys-ed] classes," says (opposing coach) Dewitt. "He's a rough, out-for-himself type kid. The other day I saw him helping a couple of special-needs kids play basketball. I about fell over." Jake is no different, though. Still happy as a frog in a bog. Still signs the teachers' register in the principal's office every morning, ready to "work." Still gets sent on errands, forgets where he's going and ends up in (Coach) Frantz's office. Still talks all the time, only now it's to NBC, ESPN and affiliates from CBS and Fox about his touchdown that won the game. Yeah, Jake Porter thinks his 49-yard run made for a comeback victory. He thinks he was the hero. He thinks that's why there were so many grins and streaks down people's faces. Smart kid.” After the requisite moment of reflection that a piece like this demands, Gillian said, “I know of a guy at Douglas County who is blind, but who runs cross country. Someone always runs with him.” The room buzzed with ideas. “Look, it’s not just about disabled kids who overcome the odds,” I said. “We just need to keep our eyes and ears open in the halls and classrooms and practice fields. Folks, once we really start feeling these stories in our guts, that’s when we will become journalists.” The bell rang just then, and it was just as well. We all need some time to mull this over, to consider just how to go about finding and writing stories that stick with readers.
Spring is right around the corner, and, perhaps, some great story telling, as well.
South of Denver Chapter 17 – March 20, 2005 Friday was “maestro” day, our chance to practice packaging a larger topic on a single page. We had briefly discussed the “maestro” coverage approach, building on our earlier survey of alternatives to traditional text and our exploration of giving readers more variety. “Maestro” is not a term most high school students immediately identify with, but many of them have been in choir or in a band, and understand that it takes a good director to get all the parts to mix harmoniously. Once they get the idea that a director is a maestro, they are willing to go with it. All staff members had been given our Page Planner form the day before, with the assignment to brainstorm a coverage idea that demands expansion, fill in the basic information and bring the form to class. Even before the bell rang, Megan said, “I’ve got a great topic here: obesity. Did you know that we will be the first generation to die before our parents?” It turned out that she had read a magazine article on this the night before. “You mean to die at a younger age than your parents?” I asked. Once we got that straightened out, I mentioned that obesity had been the topic that day on NPR’s “Science Friday.” Now the entire class was listening. “I heard on the radio today that the epidemic of obesity may take care of our Social Security problems,” I said. “They actually were discussing the theory that so many of you will die before age 65 that the country won’t have to pay much for your retirement.” That caused a stir, and quite a few disbelieving comments. The first thing to fill in on our page planner is the story idea for the page, in 25 words or less. Believe it or not, this is not easy. It’s not enough to jot down “obesity.” That’s a rather broad category, with no coverage angle. Eventually Jenna suggested, “Childhood obesity is growing as a problem, and our readers need to know if they are being affected.” It was not entirely satisfying, but since this was basically our chance to model the process, we went with it. Next on our planner comes the number one question that readers will ask: “Why should I care?” Now the discussion really bogged down. “We won’t live as long,” Chelsea said, “if we don’t change our eating habits.” “Seriously?” I asked. “Are there any students in our halls who honestly are worried about losing a couple years off their life span? What is the average life span anyway?” David, of course, had this bit of trivia at his fingertips, seeming very confident that it was 76 years for men and 79 for women. He had no idea why he knew this. David just knows stuff. The class agreed that none of our readers would care about a vague death some six or seven decades hence. So if fear of death doesn’t make readers care, what will it be? “Look, if we can’t come up with an answer to ‘why should I care?’ there really is no reason to cover this topic,” I said. “This is the key to success in journalism. Why should anyone care about obesity?”
Jumbled comments and questions filled the room at this point, with mention of Fast Food Nation and “Super Size Me,” and kids they know who work at McDonald’s and somebody’s great aunt who developed cancer after going on some radical diet (but she’s okay now, you’ll be glad to know). At some point someone suggested that Jenna actually eat nothing but McDonald’s for a week, sort of our own version of the “Super Size Me” experiment. I said, “At least we would have some sort of actual story to anchor the page.” Perhaps to save herself from this idea, Jenna proposed her own answer to “Why should readers care?” She said, “Eating better will make you happier.” You have to admit, there is a beauty to its simplicity. And who doesn’t want to be happier? As we moved through the form, the class came up with all sorts of short form ideas, from a quiz to ratings of various fast food items by nutritional value, to a Q&A with the head of food service for the school. Class was coming to an end, and I picked up all the “maestro” ideas the staff had developed. Topics ranged from tanning booths to dysfunctional families to the new SAT. And, of course, several wanted to explore various aspects of sexuality. We’ll discuss them some more on Monday, and try to choose two or three for the April 20 issue. I’m curious about how we will approach these rather sophisticated topics, but I’m glad Megan came up with the obesity topic. It was a good topic to use as a model of the “maestro” approach to coverage. It may even end up making the cut, when all it said and done. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but we seem to be raising the bar at bit, getting a little closer to the heart of journalism, and that’s encouraging. South of Denver Chapter 18 – March 30, 2005 We were brainstorming sports coverage ideas last week, when someone noted that the boys swim team only had one guy on it. We combine forces with three other high schools, evidently, to have a team. That’s when Gillian or Susie (or perhaps they spoke as a chorus) said, “Hey, if you want to tell the story of our swim team… tell the story of our swim team.” (This “joke” is a classic example of how staffs develop their own shorthand humor. It’s a good sign when you find this happening on a staff, and this was the first such case with this group. A neutral observer would have found this exchange mystifying, and our unrestrained laughter a sign that something was very wrong with us.) Anyway, that moment of sheer fun was balanced by the seriousness with which the four teams working on maestro coverage approached their topics. One group worked on covering the rising minority of our students using marijuana on a frequent basis. They are struggling with how to gather any sort of evidence, beyond anecdotal, and how to find some sort of central story to tell. We have the page on the ladder right now, but we may need a Plan B if things fall apart. The only true news peg for this coverage is that the paper comes out April 20 (4-20). A second group is working on dieting, with four team members going on four different diets for a week, and then reporting. Their news peg is Terry Shiavo, in a round about way, since her heart
attack and brain damage were likely caused by her bulimia. This group is bubbling over with angles to pursue, and my main job is to keep reminding them that they need to stay focused, and that they have one page. A third group, consisting of Chelsea and Mike, is interested in coverage of the 35 th anniversary of the Kent State massacre. It is the second in our series on the First Amendment, focusing on assembly, but they mostly seem fascinated by the story itself, and the marked contrast between war protests then and now. The overall staff does not think this coverage deserves an entire page, feeling that our freedom of the press page last issue was likely the least read part of the paper. (Sigh.) I privately told Chelsea, however, that she should be ready to become Plan B, if the marijuana page implodes. And finally we have the Columbine plus six years team. The peg is April 20, again, but we have plenty of angles to pursue. Susie has a distant cousin who dated one of the killers (and has now moved away). Susie’s mother is acting as our ambassador to try to get an interview. Megan has a connection to a woman who was in the library but was not shot—she still cannot sleep without nightmares. One of our two physical education teachers was then teaching at Columbine. And a teacher at our feeder middle school’s daughter, then at Columbine, was saved when a bullet buried itself into her backpack. The best thing, though, was listening to the team plan a trip this Sunday (when everyone is back from spring break) to Clement Park and the Columbine memorial. They will go as a group, and after soaking up the atmosphere and taking photos, they will all go to one house to eat and talk and plan. I don’t know if the group will produce great journalism, and who knows if our potential sources will feel comfortable sharing their stories. But this is journalism education at its best, with the emphasis on education. South of Denver Chapter 19 – April 23, 2005 It was a big week for The Rock, in almost every way. Big awards. Well, big for us. We got a letter from the Colorado Press Association (our state professional group) on Monday that the paper had won all five categories we entered (best breadth of coverage, best photography, best page design…) in the state 3A classification. It’s my favorite kind of competition, since it required three complete issues of work for each category. No “one shot” excellence there. On the other hand, 3A is made up of the smallest schools in the state. It’s not that we don’t belong there (we have 440 kids in two grades), but I’d like to think we are playing “up a level” or two. Anyway, the staff was very pleased, and the three freshmen who have been the leaders all year – Chelsea, Susie and Brielle – will go with me to the awards luncheon at the Denver Press Club in May. I share their excitement. On Tuesday, a representative from the Colorado Press Women stopped in during class to present three state awards in their annual contest. Chelsea got second in editorial writing and David got a second in graphics. Susie won first in the state in column writing, and goes on to nationals. And a reporter from the local paper came by to talk with the kids, and that was exciting for them. In this competition, there are no classes, so I went on and on about how proud I was and about how proud they should be, holding their own against schools five and six times our size. Being me, I couldn’t resist asking Susie, “So what will you do for an encore?”
No reply, but I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Big paper. We published our first 16-page edition on Wednesday, with a double truck on Columbine’s sixth anniversary, an entire page remembering Kent State in 1970, and, of course, a page on marijuana (it was 4-20, for goodness sake). The front page was a giant full-color menu, with art by David. When the principal saw the cover (a day earlier than our readers), his first response was, “Is that a marijuana leaf on the cover?” It was. Big yawn. The marijuana page turned out to be the single most boring drug page ever published. Despite all my sermons about journalism being about people, there were very few people to be found on the page. The principal and our security officer were the only humans to appear. There was an interesting piece on the history of the 4-20 phenomenon, and a cool timeline of the history of cannabis, but the rest of the page seemed like an encyclopedia entry. You will also be glad to know that the number one song about pot is “Smoke Two Joints,” by Sublime, and the top movie about pot is “Grass” (a documentary), according to the intrepid maestro team. As it turned out, the marijuana page played on page 11, just opposite a page on eating healthy on page 10. I thought we should have played the marijuana first, and THEN the eating. Well, that’s the way I remember it, anyway. Big drop. One of the school’s two most popular spring sports is boys lacrosse, and we were somewhat shocked on Monday, as final touches were completed before sending the PDFs to the printer, that the reporter had simply blown off the assignment of taking readers to a lacrosse practice and trying to help us understand why so many kids are so fired up about this game. When we tried Plan B (let’s go out to practice after school and save the day), it turned out that the entire lacrosse team was out of town, playing a make-up game at Fort Collins. Lindsey, the distraught page editor (who really should have seen this coming), tried to call the players on the team bus via cellphone to do some quick interviews, but even that technologically cool solution failed. We found some mediocre photos and threw them on the page and, essentially, punted. Big dream. We have 17 staff members. We published 16 pages. For the first time in my advising career, I threw caution to the wind and everyone on the staff was a page manager (Chelsea shared the Kent State page with Mike). Perhaps I was giddy from the marijuana page. Perhaps I was flashing back to my youth and memories of Neil Young songs. Whatever it was, my idealism got stomped on. Two kids seemed simply overwhelmed. Some seemed genuinely paralyzed at times. Most handled the pressure, especially first-time page managers Sarah and Jenna and Aaron, who spent hours and hours last Saturday struggling through how to create a readable page and learn the nuances of InDesign at the same time. Of course, Chelsea and Brielle and Susie were amazing, but they were so wrapped up in their own pages that they had little time to help others. Let’s just say this: we will not be trying the 17 page manager experiment again for the May issue. Big coloring. After an exhausting week, we colored on Friday. Specially, we added personalized color to our posters advertising our literary-art supplement, which will be a pull out in our final issue. Kelsey was delighted, as was most of the staff. “Mr. Kennedy,” she said, “you saved my life with this!”
Everyone is feeling a bit frazzled. I postponed the critique until Monday. South of Denver Chapter 20 – May 24, 2005 The future was on display during the week leading up to the fifth and final issue of the rock this school year. We moved our publication date from Wednesday, May 18, to Friday after finding out about four weeks ago that the yearbook would be distributed on Wednesday. There’s no reason to compete with the excitement of those new books and the autographs written in gel pen glitter. For our future file: work more closely with the yearbook staff and adviser (who will be brand new) on scheduling and joint projects. There is a natural rivalry between newspaper and yearbook, but it can be fun and healthy, can’t it? The freshmen stepped up even more than in prior issues. Part of that was the end of spring sports. Our publication week came just after the regular season for soccer ended, for instance, thus freeing up three girls to spend more time in the news lab. Chelsea and Sarah, moved up to the sophomore team – a team playing a varsity schedule that made it to state – were the only key staff members in a schedule bind. For the future file: Everyone plays sports in 9 th grade (or so it seems), but as things sort out and choices are made, a few more kids each year will find their way to the journalism suite. We all know how “gym rats” spend inordinate amounts of time shooting hoops, soaking up tips, working with weights. Is it too much to hope for some “journalism rats”? David’s mother thought we needed some carbs for the final push on Wednesday after school, so she raided McDonald’s for large bags of nuggets, fries, Sprite and more dipping sauce than I’ve ever seen in one place before. The seven freshmen who inhaled most of this food gathered around one table and told stories and teased each other and wasted time, before finally pushing back from the table and going back to the computers. For the future file: “wasting time” is the hallmark of a great newsroom. One of the beauties of high school journalism is the bonding, the hanging out, the silliness (and the sudden bursts of seriousness, when people feel comfortable enough). We’ll be working the used furniture stores this summer, looking for a few comfy chairs, maybe a love seat and a lamp. The gym is a great place to hang, but we need to create our own compelling space. Chelsea and Sarah’s soccer team kicked off in the state 3A quarterfinals at a team down in Colorado Springs at 4 p.m. Wednesday. So Jenna, just finishing her first semester on the staff – a hard worker and perfectionist – had planned all along to stick around to include the results of the match in her soccer maestro page. She even had two headlines on the page, one for winning and one for losing. She had an intricate network of cell phone correspondents set to call her with results, quotes, stats, etc. She got the story and worked excitedly to get it on the page. The fact that our freshmen and sophomores lost to a team of seniors 2-1 didn’t dampen Jenna’s enthusiasm. Future file note: doing “real journalism” brings an adrenaline rush that can’t be matched. We need to build that energy into all our papers next year (perhaps a “breaking news” page?). Sarah didn’t really know what she was getting into when she was told she would be writing the lead editorial for our final issue, but she smiled and accepted the assignment. Sarah is as positive a person as you could ever find. We teased her last issue about her excitement. In one eight graf piece she included five exclamation points! And let me add a few more !!!!!!! for emphasis. But as the deadline for this issue approached, she came to me and said she wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with this editorial that tried to balance the good things achieved in our young school with the looming challenges of next year.
“It’s a persuasive essay,” I said. “Just use the same techniques you use in writing a persuasive essay in English Honors.” It turned out that they hadn’t written much like that this year in other classes. For the future file: Don’t assume that all the writing techniques are being taught anywhere else. If they are, great. If not, no whining. Just teach them. So she hammered out a first draft and shared it with me. “Sarah,” I began, “you are writing on behalf of the staff here. No first person singular. You need to use your left brain more. Let’s talk about your thesis again.” I remembered that Sarah had not taken the introductory class. I’m pretty sure she had no actual knowledge of the nuts and bolts of an editorial. But she was ready to learn. The second draft was not much better, though the first person had disappeared. It was draft four or five that finally ran. It was solid. It got read. Sarah was, of course, very excited. Final note for the future: helping a young student stretch and find a voice she didn’t know she had is why coaching journalists is a great gig. I saw it happen for Susie, back in October. I saw it happen in Chelsea when she wrote her Kent State anniversary story. I saw it this issue, when Aaron wrote a commentary that detailed the harrowing seventh year of his life, when he went through a bout of mental illness. In our first year, many times we had to be satisfied with simply surviving, knocking out the coverage, the stories, the pages, settling for okay. Next year, at the ripe old age of 16, these students need to test the range of their voices. I can’t wait. Jack Kennedy Rock Canyon High School Highlands Ranch CO 80124 firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Note: This is the final part in this year’s series of columns on working with a completely untrained staff in the first year of a school newspaper. It is cryptotherapy for me. It may occasionally provide something positive for you. The saga will continue in August. YEAR 2 South of Denver - Chapter 21 August 30, 2005 "So who wants to take a shot at defining 'journalism'?" I asked the shiny-faced group of beginning Journalism students during the first week of the new school year. "After all, it's the name of this class." A lonely hand tentatively rose from the back row. "Uh... telling people the news." "I think we'll write stuff," came a tangential response. "Journalism is what journalists do," said a sophomore boy.
That's when I quickly wrote the following on the white board: "Journalism is the best attainable version of the truth." -- Carl Bernstein "And who is Carl Bernstein?" I asked. No response. "Does the name Bob Woodward ring any bells?" Total silence. "How about Richard Nixon? Anyone? Okay, what about the Watergate Hotel? Deep Throat?" Perhaps the start of a new school year had fried their neurons, but it took the final question to even get two hands up in recognition. And then I found out that not a single one of the 27 kids in the class had noticed all the brouhaha over the revelation of who "Deep Throat" was. I made a mental note to add a short history of journalism to the semester-long curriculum. At least such an addition is possible this year -- year two of our newspaper program at Rock Canyon. We will have an introductory journalism class each semester, running a total of nearly 60 kids through the prerequisite to working on either the paper or the yearbook. Such numbers should eventually produce solid sizes for both production classes, but this semester, at least, they are each at 10 students. Despite the school growing to nearly 800 kids in three grades from last year's 440 in two, the schedule remains just too tight for everyone to find a way into Newspaper. Too many singletons, as the counselors like to say. I noted a hint of stress yesterday even in Susie, who suddenly realized she has taken on six different assignments for our Sept. 14 issue. We are in negotiations to pare our projected 16-page first issue to 12, mostly to preserve staff sanity (I am actually the most vocal person in favor of 12, having seen eyes bigger than journalistic stomachs before). Everybody’s stressed, and we are only in week three of the new year. Oh, and last night I got a call from someone checking on a reference for Susie, who has applied for a life guard job at a local pool. I gave her a sterling report, of course, but later thought about her seven classes, volleyball, church group… and now a job? Summer must seem like a momentary dream to kids like her. It certainly seems like one to me. But this is high school in a new century, and it’s our job to chronicle the story. South of Denver – Chapter 22 August 31, 2005 The Newspaper class at Rock Canyon doesn’t have a textbook – in the introductory course we used The Radical Write, Law of the Student Press, and The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, and we can certainly refer to them – but we still have required reading. Most staffs have some sort of newspaper reading built in the schedule somewhere, I suppose. Someone once said in a JEA/NSPA convention session long ago: “You should read a good newspaper and bad newspaper every day.” I’ve never figured out exactly why we need the bad examples. When I taught British lit, I didn’t hunt for mediocre to poor Elizabethan poets to contrast with Shakespeare, after all. But I get the idea of reading a good newspaper. So our reading is the Sunday New York Times.
Why the Times? Just check out some of what the Newspaper kids and my AP Language & Comp kids found in this past Sunday’s paper (August 28):
Style (Section 9) – page 1: “Do you MySpace?” Students were gratified that the Times has discovered what they have been obsessed with for the past year, but they were blown away when they read that MySpace passed Google in hits in April. My favorite comment came from the junior who said, “Well, if 27 million young people are doing this, I need to find some new alternative.” Now there’s a kid who gets the essence of being a rebellious teen. Style – page 11: “Riding Shotgun and Living Life” Even my most newspaper-averse APtypes make a regular stop to see what’s up with “Modern Love.” This one is a classic. Written by a woman who has been hitchhiking for decades, with no horrible incidents (the ones we warn our daughters about), this rivals Kerouac in some ways in expressing an American longing for movement, the open road, adventure. When I mentioned On the Road to my AP classes, of course, I didn’t get a shred of recognition. Is there time during the year to teach that book? Or are there certain books that belong to just a generation or two, and then are lost to history? That led to an interesting discussion about just what books the current generation DOES consider its own. Students at Rock Canyon are remarkably sanguine about the whole evolution vs. intelligent design debate, but they got the reference when we found the review of Desmond Morris’s latest: The Naked Woman, A Study of the Female Body. The head was “Highly Intelligent Design,” and several students were clearly intrigued by the concept of a zoologist examining gender differences closely as well as the evolution of the human body in general. I was gratified to find some pre-feminists in my classes who were particularly interested in Morris’s contention that women were gradually returning to what had been true for millions of years: a basic equality with men. The Times hooked a few jocks in class with the lead story in “Week in Review,” Section 4, page 1 – “To Play Is The Thing.” I was delighted to find a large number of students who got the “Hamlet” allusion. But what stayed with some readers was the comparisoncontrast essay on baseball philosophies. It sort of boils down to using statistics to make decisions on strategy and player selection, vs. a more traditional, almost gut-level “feel for the game” philosophy. This got a few AP kids talking about whether this had anything to do with two of the required summer reading choices they had: Blink and Freakonomics. They thought the Freakonomics writers would favor the statistical analysis approach, while Gladwell’s latest might favor the feel for the game. Wow! Actually seeing connections between reading assignments and the “real world”? What a concept! Students always get riled up by Frank Rich’s nearly weekly polemic on the Iraq War and this week’s column headlined “The Vietnamization of Bush’s Vacation,” was no exception. (You can find it on page 10 of the Op/Ed section.) Love him or hate him, Mr. Rich knows his persuasive techniques. I’m not sure he would agree with my kids, but they thought he actually managed to use all three classic rhetorical approaches -- logos, pathos and ethos – in this one essay. But it really doesn’t matter if the students are correct. What matters is that they have a great model to work with. Turn to page 11, and we find David Brooks’ column “Winning in Iraq,” in which he discusses a classic strategy that has proven successful in the past in similar situations. In other words, as one kid said, “Rich thinks we are in Vietnam. Brooks thinks we can avoid Vietnam.” Well, actually Andy Krepinevich, the author of the essay in Foreign Affairs magazine that Brooks quotes from, thinks we can avoid another Vietnam. Is there anywhere else in American journalism where you can find two essentially opposing views on an issue argued so eloquently? I can’t leave out the New York Times Magazine. The cover story is by Jeffrey Rosen, and he proposes that we are about to argue over the wrong issues when John Roberts has his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. The issues will be wrong because the new justice is likely to be making decisions for the next 30 years, and the author sees a
number of looming controversies, mostly involving technology, which no senator will ask about. It’s a closely argued piece of expository writing, educational yet fanciful, since it is predicting the future. Also in the magazine is William Safire’s column “On Language.” If you missed it, he took a look at metaphors in the fashion industry. For instance, I didn’t know that belly flesh that hangs over the waistband is referred to as “muffin-top.” Gosh! And Safire examines the etymology of “klutz” and “doormat” as a bonus. Finally, the magazine features a longish feature on James Blake, a one-time tennis star who suffered a horrible brain injury, and has battled back to live his life. It’s classic story telling, with our main character having to overcome incredible odds, keeping his integrity, exhibiting courage… he’s still a pro tennis player, though not in the top 20, but he’s already won the contest that matters. Isn’t this exactly the sort of story we all hope our reporters will someday cover?
Okay, Okay. Your eyes are glazing over at this point. Is the list of cool stories that kids can use as models, as foils, as inspiration simply unending? The number is finite, but the above examples are not exhaustive. Bottom line: is there a better $2.90 to be spent on education than a home delivery Sunday New York Times? South of Denver – Chapter 23 September 17, 2005 It’s 9:45 p.m. last Monday night. The paper is due, in fact, past due. We’ve been struggling with finalizing the first issue of the year since school ended at 2:32, and everyone’s feeling a little strung out. I casually look at a printout of page 2, and notice that the cutline doesn’t seem finished. “Hey, Megan! Who is this girl in the ‘Miracle Worker’ cutline? She isn’t identified.” “I don’t know her name,” she replies, eyes characteristically wide and mouth perpetually smiling. “Seriously. No one knows her name.” Megan is an understudy in the play, and she doesn’t know the name of one of the two leads? She knows she is a freshman, but that’s it. Six phone calls to other staff members result in no additional information. By this point I’m just shaking my head. “I think her name is Kaitlin,” Megan finally says. And that is what we ended up running in the cutline – identifying the girl playing Annie Sullivan correctly and the freshman playing Helen Keller as “Kaitlin ’09.” What were we supposed to do, delay the paper an entire day for this name? I considered it for a moment, and then just decided to apologize to the (evidently) obscure freshman. Her actual first name turned out to be Kathryn. I had asked Megan if anyone in the play ever talked to one another. Chelsea overheard and said, “Hey, she’s Helen Keller. She’s not supposed to talk!” Unfortunately, that was not nearly the only error in issue one. One of my favorites was when Susie, editing the news pages, somehow cut and pasted incorrectly and included a quote on the newly formed Equestrian Club in the Culinary Club brief. Since she was running so far behind, no one on staff had a chance to even glance over the page before it was whisked away through the miracle of PDFs and FTP.
The mix-up was crystal clear, of course, when we began actually reading the paper Wednesday morning, just after distribution. But once the paper is out, really the only thing to do is just laugh. I mentioned that I would be reluctant to taste any Culinary Club cuisine since they were apparently using Grade A horseflesh. And there were more: About a sophomore girl who had just moved here over the summer from New Orleans, we wrote: “Perkins has grown up in New Orleans her entire life…” In our hallway fashion diagram, we noted that a girl was wearing a $5 “neckless.” The style and grammar errors were so numerous that my marked up copy of the paper looked like it had been drenched in red ink. On Wednesday, during fourth hour, as I was ranting to my introductory journalism class about all the errors, and the importance of at least being accurate, even if we aren’t exactly inspired, Melissa, a bright junior, said, “You should lighten up. No one except you even notices all those mistakes.” If that’s true, I thought to myself later, then that’s even sadder than our lack of editing. When the staff met on Thursday, I asked all of them to answer honestly this question: “Were the errors in style and grammar due to us having no idea they were errors, or were they due to us not being organized enough to actually proof the pages?” To a person, they said they simply ran out of time, and they needed to work on organization and meeting all deadlines. Issue one was exciting and scary and sloppy and chaotic and fun and embarrassing. Most importantly, it’s over. By Friday we were filling the white board with great ideas for coverage -- for story-telling -- in the October issue. The wackiness of September can be a distant memory, if we get it together. Somebody even suggested we might do some sort of wrap up on the fall play, which closes the weekend before issue two. “Despite being so obscure that even the school newspaper didn’t know her name, Kathryn Sislow ’09, proved a freshman actress with no lines could make an audience laugh and cry…” South of Denver – Chapter 24 October 8, 2005 Natasha came back into the journalism classroom after her interview with the school psychologist looking confused. “What should I do?” she asked me. “He says he wants to edit my story after I get it finished.” The man had grown up in New Orleans, and had driven to Lafayette, where many members of his family still live, to make sure they were safe as soon as he realized the extent of the disaster. After some harrowing days, he found they were okay. But then he ended up staying for nearly a week, helping counsel young people uprooted by the hurricane and its aftermath. He had requested that people back off when he first returned to school. It was just too overwhelming. His emotions were just too raw. Natasha had, of course, agreed, but now we were bumping into the deadline for the Oct. 12 issue, and she had been anxious to do this story for
weeks. The man is only at school two days per week, but he finally found time to answer some questions. Natasha was excited to finally get to do the interview. We were all excited, since this had the promise to be an actual “story,” complete with characters and setting and conflict and resolution, of a sort. Here was the human story of someone students at Rock Canyon might actually know, which could still resonate even a month after the storm. “Our policy is very clear,” I answered. “We don’t just hand over stories to be edited by sources.” “But what am I supposed to say to him?” Natasha looked stricken. A bright junior with a semester’s worth of experience on the paper, she was a little put off by having to actually use in real life what we had discussed at some length in class about press rights. We talked for a while. I suggested that she set up another appointment with him, and that she offer to read back her quotes and double check for factual accuracy. I suggested tools: “I heard you say… Is that correct?” I also suggested, after she shared her rough draft with me, that she ask for expansion on several points. It’s amazing how even our brightest young writers often have to be encouraged to simply ask for more. More information. More detail. More insight. Natasha went back to his office armed with lots of questions and ideas (and a clear answer to his request to edit her work). She worried about what would happen if he simply refused to go along with our policy. “I guess the story won’t run then,” I said. “But let’s worry about that later.” It turned out that the school psychologist was worried that he would come off as “too emotional” in the story. He sees himself as the guy in the school who keeps it together when others are having emotional meltdowns. As Natasha noted, of course, that’s exactly the sort of story people respond to: a man under pressure, showing his humanity while doing the job. I don’t know what went on in that second interview, but Natasha was smiling yesterday. It was all going to be okay. The man even stopped into class and talked with her again for 15 minutes. He wanted to tell his story after all. She is bringing her final draft Saturday afternoon, during our workday before the paper goes to press Monday evening. Then it will be up to Chelsea, her page manager, to help her get it on the page. Why the change? My best guess is that Natasha – who had never met the man prior to showing up to interview him about what might have been one of the most stressful periods of his life – had finally earned his trust. After enough conversation, enough checking the facts, he realized she wasn’t out to embarrass him, or exaggerate the drama. She just wanted to tell a story. This was, I realized later, a classic example of something so fundamental to reporting that we often don’t discuss it with our students. Sources need to trust us with their stories, and we need to earn that trust. It doesn’t come automatically with simply identifying yourself as a reporter for the school newspaper. And that trust is not established in five minute “hit and run” interviews. Great reporters are “out there,” part of their world. They show their investment in a person, a team, a club by being there. The next time we need to talk with the school psychologist, we will have a better foundation of trust. More importantly, Natasha is a more self-assured young woman than she was before she began this two-week saga. She spoke as an equal – a respectful equal – with an adult, had stood her ground on principal, and found a way to tell an important story.
South of Denver – Chapter 25 October 17, 2005 Issue 2 had hit the halls just two hours before, and for most of the newspaper staff our class on Wednesday afternoon was the first time they had a chance to really sit down and just read the paper. By and large, that’s just what they did – quietly. But the staff of The Rock is hardly a typical group. The next day, most of the juniors in my English III class, made up of kids who haven’t done well in a traditional English classroom, wanted time to read the school paper rather than their own books during our silent reading time. They actually read the paper in class. They hadn’t had time the day before, they said. We were on the bus to the state journalism conference a little later, sharing the lovely yellow vehicle with several yearbook staff members. I happened to be behind them, and watched them share one copy of the paper. They may not be typical readers, either, but they pored over the paper, pointing out favorite bits to one another. One girl even seemed to wipe away a tear after reading Kelsey’s commentary. Sure, issue 2 was a clear step up from number 1 in terms of content and in terms of writing quality, but what I noticed was that kids with enough time were more than eager to read the school newspaper. Some of them seemed genuinely surprised to find that reading the paper could be interesting, challenging, maybe even fun. Holy smokes! My first thought, sitting on the bouncing school bus on the nearly two-hour drive home from Fort Collins, was that we need to find ways to encourage our fellow teachers to give kids some time to read the paper when it comes out. Wouldn’t it be great if our colleagues supported us in that way? Wouldn’t it be great if they would use the paper to supplement their own curriculum? After all, couldn’t math use the paper to discuss the methodologies of opinion polls? Couldn’t social studies take the news quiz that we have started including each month? Maybe foreign language classes could have taken a few minutes to discuss our column from Colleen, who is spending six months studying in France? And even physical education might take a few moments to discuss our coverage of sports injuries and how to prevent them. And then I thought of the reality of education, and realized that the concept of teachers using material created by students, as opposed to all the materials carefully developed by educational experts and purchased at great cost… well, that is clearly just me being overly idealistic and naïve. But back to my bus ride reverie... I had just led a session during the state conference about the importance of finding new ways to tell stories, about how to rethink coverage, about the need for quicker reads, packed with more information. About how we are in competition with everything from HD radio to the Internet to the brand new iVideo, and about how we need to change our approaches to providing news to keep up. I honestly believe all that to be true, but I also honestly believe that the true glory of journalism, the real reason I continue to teach it after 30 years, is the well-told story, the skillful artistry of language. It’s a paradox, but one I can live with. There is one scene from helping the staff put together issue 2 that sticks in my head. It was spending over 40 minutes after school going over Kelsey’s article with her, probing for more
detail, discussing precise use of language, suggesting new approaches, laughing with her, and nearly crying with her. Her commentary, which started out as a speech she had given in public speaking class, was an essay that moved seamlessly between two scenes in churches. The first was the funeral of her mother, who had died of cancer when she was 8, and about how cold it was that morning and how sad and embarrassed she had been. The second was the wedding day, four years later on a warm April day, of her father and her new mother, whose spouse had also died of cancer, and of the new family that had been formed by this union. Her speech teacher had tipped me to this story, and since Kelsey is in my AP Language class, she trusted me when I offered her the possibility of having her essay published. Actually, she was delighted. Oh, I know I was overstepping my bounds, strictly speaking. Isn’t The Rock a student paper? Shouldn’t a student have been deciding to include Kelsey’s piece? Isn’t my job to sit back and react to student ideas, to then help them shape them, to be careful not to advise a student newspaper that primarily appeals to 55-year-old readers who look remarkably like me? It turns out that I just can’t be that passive, that judicious. I’m just as passionate about great journalism as anyone I’ve ever taught. And great writing is great writing – the ages of the writer or reader just don’t enter in. And without me getting involved, the paper misses a great story. Susie was the page manager, and she is quite a writer herself. She recognized the quality of the piece immediately, and spent quite a bit of time doing some final proofing and polishing. She and I talked about how long the commentary was (in terms of standard newspaper content), and we talked about how some readers just wouldn’t attempt to read something of that length. We both agreed that it would be their loss, and that we owed it to those who would read it -- even only when stuck in an English III class or on a school bus -- a chance to share this story, written this way. Kelsey is not on the staff this semester. She is, as are so many top students, overscheduled. But she stopped in after school last Monday to hang with the staff for a while before going up to the theatre for one-act auditions. She helped proof some pages. She enjoyed the energy of a newspaper staff struggling to complete an issue. She asked me if she might join the staff, if she could rearrange her schedule to be part of all this. Hmmm… now that was a classic no-brainer! Kelsey doesn’t know much about desktop publishing or design or cool sidebars or even legal and ethical issues. She likes to write, to tell stories. It turns out that it is about the writing, after all. South of Denver – Chapter 26 October 26, 2005 It probably says it all about our school that we have 14 families still stuck in Mexico following Hurricane Wilma’s visit to Cancun and surrounding areas. While brainstorming yesterday for the Nov. 9 issue, we eventually figured out that 12 students, a teacher and a hall monitor might have an interesting variety of stories to tell about their ordeal. Some stories, like eating nothing but potato chips for days, like not showering for a week, etc., are already making their way to us, but we decided that everyone on the staff would take one of the “victims” and interview him or her, whenever people can return to school. These people were on vacation, so we assume they will have photos to go with their stories. Who knows? But that looks like page one.
Of course, Rock Canyon families are not your typical hurricane survivors. They had flown to Mexico for fall break, which was last week. As one parent was overhead saying in the main office yesterday, “I don’t feel sorry for those people. That’s what they get.” You could feel the love. The staff was unanimous in wanting the Wilma thing to start off the next issue, but we also will be including three pages of student profiles, written by members of the introductory journalism class, in the next issue. Yesterday in class, the staff had the chance to read their second drafts. “Are you sure I can’t edit this?” asked Susie. “I can’t stand it!” “No,” I said. “Your job is to simply write down any questions you still want answered, and perhaps you can steer them toward a better angle or encourage them to dig a little deeper for some sort of anecdote. There is no reason to proofread until you get the final drafts on Friday.” David said, “Can I mention that this writer should stay in one tense? And that she shouldn’t put her own opinion in the story?” Brielle said, “This girl quoted herself!” I was about to mention something about people living in glass houses not throwing stones, when Megan said, “Come on, guys! They’re just beginning. We did all that stuff too.” That calmed things down. The encouraging thing was that at least half of the 26 stories seemed to get at least a tentative thumbs up from the readers, and that most of the staff spent over 10 minutes writing questions and making comments on the drafts. In a perfect world, each writer would get a conference with a more experienced editor, but this would have to do. I give back these drafts to the journalism students today in class. For many of them, it may be the first time someone other than a teacher has commented seriously on their writing. It should be interesting.
South of Denver – Chapter 27 October 29, 2005 The results were mixed from Friday’s current events quiz (many thanks to Candace Bowen and the JEA Listserv). Good: all but a handful of kids in the Journalism class knew that Rosa Parks had died. Bad: only 40 percent knew about Harriet Miers and her withdrawn nomination. Silly: three kids answered the question: “Supreme Court lady.” Really bad: one kid wrote “Sandra Day O’Connor.” Good: All but 3 of 27 knew the White Sox had broken their 88-year curse (though only one kid had ever heard of the “Black Sox” scandal). Bad: Only six kids knew that Iraq had approved a new constitution. Good: All but two kids knew that daylight savings time ends this weekend. Hardly anyone knew that the newest hurricane was named “Alpha,” but I chalked that up to hurricane news overload. In some ways, their ignorance was “cute,” with a faint reminder of the blissful lack of caring that makes childhood, well… blissful.
On a related note: I gave back “This I Believe” essays to my AP Language students on Friday. Perhaps you’ve heard of this project, which NPR has revived after 50 years. There is a wealth of great curriculum on this, by the way, on www.npr.org, and even an opportunity for students to submit their three-minute essays for possible national airplay on the radio. It’s a tough assignment, trying to write something in 350-500 words that you can stand behind in terms of your beliefs. One thing the assignment requires is courage. You have to tell some sort of truth, or you get stuff like “You should live each day as if it were your last,” or “I believe I can achieve anything if I persevere.” There were plenty of those. Fine sentiments, of course, but the world is full of fine sentiments. We need some concrete examples. We need writers who show us, not just tell us. “At the risk of offending you,” I said during first period, “some of these essays are the equivalent of empty calories.” Ouch! “It’s time to move away from safe generalities and show some passion, some fire. What are we afraid of?” Okay, I got a bit dramatic, but these are, in my two sections, 50 great kids, who by all accepted “standards” are our best and brightest. But not only were many of their latest essays marred by generality after generality – ignoring all our discussions and all my examples of starting from the specific and moving to the general – but many of the papers were marred by the misuse of “their” and “they’re,” by number disagreement, by unintended sentence fragments… Perhaps the litany of errors is familiar. After going over some of these foul ups, I finally said, “Remember when you were in first grade, and everything you wrote got posted on the classroom wall, misspellings and backwards letters and all?” All nodded, suddenly looking happy for the first time that morning. “It was cute then, wasn’t it? Now those errors aren’t cute anymore.” I paused. “Remember what Friar Lawrence said about honey eventually becoming loathsome in its own deliciousness?” Many didn’t, of course, but I was on a roll. “Cute can soon become cloying and then can become something that makes you vomit!” The class laughed on cue. Nothing is funnier than a teacher right on the edge of losing it, over something so silly as correctness of expression or writing an essay that does more than meet the minimum standards. But the best of those “This I Believe” essays will be featured on a page of the Nov. 9 issue of The Rock. Chelsea, the page manager, has been poring over the essays for several days, and she told me yesterday that she’s having a hard time choosing the three or four for which we have space. It’s the shotgun approach to journalism, I guess. If we have enough kids write enough stories, essays, and briefs, we will find some quality somewhere. If we have kids shoot enough digital photos at the game, we will find one eventually that is in focus and even tells a story. All 27 Journalism students wrote student profiles for this next issue. Only six or seven will run. Some kids will get their feelings hurt, I am sure, because their stories didn’t get chosen. These are kids who have been told they were “cute” so many times that they have started believing that cuteness is enough. These are kids who have been convinced that simply meeting the “standards” is enough. Ignorance of the world around us is not cute in beginning journalism students. Inattention to detail in their writing is not cute in AP Language students. We need to set the bar higher than that.
South of Denver – Chapter 28 December 12, 2005 Now that’s what I call fun! The paper hits the halls and there is an immediate buzz, a buzz that really hasn’t died down days later. People are carrying their latest copy of The Rock from class to class. Some classes actually take time to discuss several pieces of opinion writing. An English teacher creates an impromptu lesson on how to write a letter to the editor without resorting to ad hominem attacks. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We had a girl-ask-guy semi-formal dance on Dec. 3, organized by some girls in Student Council who obviously like to dress very well (it being our second semi-formal dance of the school year). A guy in one of my AP Lang classes stopped by before school one morning in November asking if it would be okay if he were to try his hand at a humor piece for the paper. He wanted to write about the unfairness of dating rituals. A sample: “Yes, we must break free of the chivalric notions of our nation, and stand on equal footing with women, who have fought free of oppression themselves.” Yeah, it was over the top. Ryan’s a bright guy, but I warned him about how tough being funny is on paper. He shared a rough draft that went on way too long (over 1,000 words). Eventually, after a long coaching session, he cut to an essential, and funnier, 450 words. About the same time, Nate, who is a junior on the staff, proposed during a brainstorming session that he write a column on how opposed he was to semi-formal dances. He is also a bright guy, and he’s very secure with himself, which can lead him to say and write some outlandish things. In some ways, he’s born to be a columnist. Susie was page manager for the commentary page, and she deftly packaged the two commentaries together with some art and a “student in the hall” quote collection based on the question, “What act of chivalry have you seen or experienced lately?” You will not be surprised to know that some of her respondents had to have the word chivalry defined. Mix well, add readers (especially some readers who don’t necessarily recognize satire when they see it) and you have heated discussions all over the school about dating and semi-formals and Nate not being asked to the Sadie Hawkins style dance. Most importantly, The Rock was able to set the agenda for discussion in the school for perhaps the first time in its 9-issue history. It was not an important discussion in the big scheme of things, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Based on several sessions students attended in Chicago, we introduced a “fun page” this issue, as well. It included jokes from late night talk shows, a holiday crossword (kids today don’t know what a yule log is), and sodoku puzzle (all these were created or gathered by Chelsea), along with a fake horoscope (that wasn’t nearly wacky enough for my taste). It was a huge hit. The page has nothing to do with journalism, but it has everything to do with students actually hanging onto their papers, talking about the paper, interacting with the paper. The hope was that we would grab readers with the “fun page” and the satirical girl-bashing of the commentary page, and they might stick around for more “meaty” pieces like our profile of a Syrian Muslim exchange student celebrating his first Christmas, or our feature on students suffering from
depression, or our editorial expressing our dismay at falling gas prices and the need for higher prices to encourage alternative energy sources. So we ended the first semester on a high. Can we maintain the magic balance of light and heavy, thoughtful and fun in the second semester? South of Denver – Chapter 29 February 18, 2006 Issue #5 had been out for a day, and the newspaper class of 22 gathered during seventh hour to critique. I only mention 22 because last semester we struggled along with 11 total staff members. Registration numbers for next year indicate that the staff of The Rock will grow to 40 each semester. It all sounds like great news. But with rapid growth in numbers comes the problem of training so many new kids on desktop publishing and basic production mechanics, along with educating kids about law and ethics, narrative story telling and various types of persuasion. A good problem to have, but it makes these critiques critical in our development as a newspaper. We spend at least 90 minutes going over what worked, what didn’t, style errors, grammar errors, design bloopers, great leads, wacky leads. There’s little time to waste. So, our first area of discussion? “Student council is mad at us again,” Megan said. One of our new staff members, Chris, had written a rather scathing commentary about the student council’s new “semi-parliamentary” system for elections. The whole scheme is quite Byzantine, but the bottom line is that 74 students will meet in early March to choose the candidates for various student council offices. They are all volunteers and include the 36 students currently on student council. The gist of the piece was that this was undemocratic. Chris had a source within student council who is adamantly opposed to this set up, but he referred to him/her only as “Pat” in the commentary. Evidently, during student council class that morning, the sponsor and students had unearthed the “mole” in their midst. It turned out to be the student body president. According to Sarah, the only newspaper staff member also in student council, it had gotten a bit ugly, with calls for impeachment or resignation. None of this was to surprising to me, as I had received an e-mail from the student council sponsor earlier that day indicating that the kids on student council felt they “were always being attacked by the newspaper.” I thought about firing back with loads of facts about all the positive press student government has received in the past two years, but decided that seemed defensive and wimpy. Here is my e-mail reply: “Honestly, the student council kids need to develop thicker skins. Leaders take crap sometimes, and often it's unfair, but it goes with the job. They also get tons of credit and applause, and deservedly so. ”The staff of the student newspaper often takes heat from people, and the kids often point out how unfair those criticisms can be at times. My job is to get them to a) get over it; and b) make absolutely sure the criticisms are not valid before simply ignoring them. I like to remind journalism students that they will make their mistakes in front of hundreds of readers. Student Council members face the same challenge. But that's what makes both activities exciting and rewarding. ”The student press is modeled on the professional press, and one of the prime responsibilities of
the professional press is to be our watchdog on government. It would be an insult to student council if the student newspaper ignored our school government, or simply ran mindless ‘happy news.’ ”Anyway, I will continue to encourage the newspaper staff to be fair in our coverage of all activities at RCHS.” And here is what I said to the newspaper staff: “I know they are not happy, but here is the more important point for us: what do we really know about how student council operates, how decisions are made? I mean beyond anonymous sources? Let’s make it our job to become experts in how our student government works so that when it is time to criticize a decision, we are working from an abundance of information. I don’t think we understand student government, and how can we possibly educate our readers about it, or provide leadership? I don’t really mind if kids in student government are unhappy with something in the paper. I do mind when we have poorly covered one of our prime responsibilities.” As I finished my latest rant, it occurred to me that this new staff was not yet convinced that student government really was an important beat. But Susie and Kathleen (a new staff member) volunteered to attend the March election meeting as reporters. Maybe in our March 15 issue, we will be just a little better educated and provide a little better coverage. Getting better. That’s a goal we can all agree upon. South of Denver – Chapter 30 February 21, 2006 It had to happen eventually. Despite having two months between issues, despite having a pretty good run of interesting, provocative topics over the last year, and despite having plenty of writing talent, our two regular columnists came up empty in Issue #5. Oh, they ran columns, all right, but they were lackluster and felt forced. I have no idea where I once read this, but I repeat it often to students wanting to write a regular column: “Writing a (readable) column is like standing naked on stage.” I always hasten to mention that this is a simile, but they get the difficulty level in letting hundreds of strangers know things about you that can leave you vulnerable, embarrassed, open to second guessing. We’re not talking about the occasional commentary here. We’re talking about the hard slog of cranking out 400 plus words every issue, issue after issue. It sort of came apart last week. As Susie said three days before we went to press, “I just can’t find the trigger this time.” I tried to help, doing all those things writing coaches do. I had her sum up her thesis in 25 words. I told her to tell me about her column like she would tell her mom at the kitchen table. I asked dozens of questions. I pointed out all sorts of possibilities in her drafts that might lead her to something anecdotal, personal, meaningful. Nothing seemed to really click. Susie ended up writing three different columns and discarding them all when she found she was not comfortable with being as open as she needed to be to make her points. She wrote about what she sees as a chasm between love and commitment, for instance, but since she just
couldn’t bring herself to “stand naked on stage” and tell any of her own anecdotes about love and commitment, she ended up tossing that idea about 24 hours before we went to press. She was at a loss, and so was I, but I remembered her telling me how much she loved two movies last year: “Rent,” and “Brokeback Mountain.” “Why don’t you write about those movies and their themes, since you care passionately about them?” I asked. “You rarely go wrong when you write with passion. And the Oscar nominees were just announced.” “But I don’t want to be a movie reviewer,” Susie responded. “I want to write about bigger issues, about life beyond high school.” “Movie reviews can do that,” I said. “And it’s not like you have to write reviews every issue.” She gave me the look. “Susie, you have 24 hours,” I said. “We can pull the column if you want. But you have to go with something.” She went with her personal reactions to the movies. Solid work. But not her voice. Not her issues. She was not a happy 16-year-old. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Natasha was slogging through a column about registering for her senior year classes, and how she felt paralyzed by all the pressure. In a sense, that paralysis pervades her column. If Susie wasn’t interested in taking that disrobed walk on stage, Natasha was feeling even more modest about truly opening up. Both columns were fine. There were no comments. No one felt uncomfortable. No one was challenged. Susie anxiously asked me what I thought of her piece just before we went to press. “It’s fine,” I said. “Ugh! Not that. I don’t want to be ‘fine.’ “ “Susie,” I said, “sometimes ‘fine’ is all you’re going to get from me.” “But I don’t want to be satisfied with that,” she said, with another look, the one she gets when she expects something from me that will save the day. It was too late to do anything at that point but just go with what we had. But this week we have talked about writing from an “abundance of information,” as writing coach Donald Murray would say. I gave both girls two long pieces of narrative by Tom French – “South of Heaven” and “Angels & Demons” – to get them thinking about language and story telling and inspiration. Today in class we talked about the amazing amount of research French did to produce such riveting stories. Our columnists had been living on borrowed time, with, in Susie’s case, exactly eight good columns that came from her life, from her travels, from her dreams. My job in the next two weeks will be to challenge Susie and Natasha to dig into interesting topics, report the heck out of them, and only then bring their unique voices and perspectives to the writing.
The pressure is on the writers and their coach. But the girls don’t want to repeat those blah February columns in March, and that motivation should get them back on track. Note: Happy Scholastic Journalism Week! This is the latest chapter in a series of columns on working with a young staff in a young school (this semester we are up to 22 staff members and we have no senior class). It is cryptotherapy for me. It may occasionally provide something positive for you. Please go to the JEAHELP archives to read the previous chapters if you missed them and have absolutely nothing else to do. South of Denver – Chapter 31 March 13, 2006 Boy, am I glad no one was taping my Newspaper class a few days ago. I didn’t compare President Bush to Hitler, as a geography teacher from Overland High School did back in January – at least I don’t think I did. Jay Bennish was accused of not providing enough balance in his teaching. But that teacher will be back in the classroom today, and he said he will continue to push students to become better critical thinkers and he will continue to promote social justice. He may also self-censor just a bit. Wouldn’t you? The sophomore who taped him on his iPod and then shared 21 minutes of an incendiary lecture is pretty sure he will be transferring to another school. Even Bush weighed in on the issue last Friday (on the side of free expression, to his credit). Twenty miles away, in the Rock Canyon pub lab, I made no attempt to provide any sort of balance. After listening to several class periods of mushy thinking about non-issues, with many in the class of 22 not contributing much of anything to our coverage brainstorming for the March 15 issue, I had had enough. “You have this amazing opportunity here,” I said, “but you don’t seem to want to do anything with it! Where is our passion? Where is our outrage? Where is our joy?” Seeing no immediate reaction, I escalated. “I’m starting to suspect that we have no interest in anything beyond ourselves. To be a journalist you have to care more about others’ stories than your own. Oh, we all have ideas about our columns, but interest in getting out there and telling other students’ stories? Forget it! Honestly, is there going to be any actual journalism in this paper?” Still nothing. “I’m beginning to think we don’t have any serious ideas.” Now I was really going over the top, but there are some days when a teacher simply wants ANY reaction. “Maybe you just don’t have a thing to say in a serious way.” And then I assigned everyone to write no more than 150 words in an editorial voice. “No first person,” I warned. “Just about ideas. I don’t think you can do it. You are going to have to prove me wrong.” I eventually ran out of steam. I had called out 22 staff members intellectually, but they didn’t defend themselves. Didn’t fight back. Sigh. Susie stuck around for two minutes after the bell.
I asked her why my challenges seemed to have no effect. “Those of us who have been on staff for awhile know what you’re doing,” she quickly replied. She also had that half smile that signifies amusement at the old guy’s motivational flailings. “We know you don’t really mean it when you jump all over us.” Crap. Game over. Where would I be without those rousing, indignant and increasingly passionate locker room sermons? But the next day every kid in the class handed in 150 words, and some of the mini-editorials were quite good. None of them will see print, at least in those versions, but it’s thinking that’s important. And Susie spent five nights with the musical cast and crews last week, observing, interviewing, analyzing. She brought in ten pages of densely typed notes last Thursday, covering just the last two nights of dress rehearsal, and she brought in a feeling of excitement about getting out there and being part of something outside herself. She spent so many hours with the cast that they invited her into their pre-performance circle of warm-ups. They invited her to the cast party. Her enthusiasm about the behind-the-scenes narrative that she wanted to write carried the day with the editorial board, and they swapped out a hazy pre-Prom package on the double truck in favor of a spread on the musical, which had previously been jammed onto a news page. Actual journalism may break out in “The Rock”! Imagine that. YEAR 3 South of Denver – Chapter 32 November 19, 2006 So where was I? Oh, yes… Sixteen members of the staff of The Rock, my wife and I were strolling through some gargantuan wing of the Opryland Hotel last Sunday after having a last light breakfast together before flying home to Denver. Seven of the kids had earned some sort of JEA Write-Off recognition just an hour before, and the latest issue of the paper snagged a 4th place in Best of Show Saturday, so everyone was feeling pretty darn good. And then Mike, as usual whirling around in a complex dance of talking, flirting and “styling,” bashed into a restaurant sign on a stand, knocking the entire thing over, sending us all into convulsions. A taste of triumph, a spirit of fun, the occasional klutziness… high school journalism at its finest. Everyone made it back safely – even Mike – and we were greeted by parents and siblings at baggage claim. It turns out that, though all of my students had traveled previously, some quite a bit, most had done their traveling with parents, on family trips. The direct flight on Frontier to Nashville, and four nights in the Airport Radisson, and for the first time seeing 5,000 student journalists and teachers gathered together, and getting to actually see and hear Roy Peter Clark, whom they previously knew only from my printing out the 50 Writing Tools chapters for them, and having their eyes opened to a wider world through Fred Clarke’s moving Friday keynote (they were still talking about it last Friday), and filling up notebooks with ideas and tips (which they shared all week with the kids who stayed home), and getting pumped as never before (and telling me Friday during class that 28 pages just wouldn’t be enough for the
Dec. 8 issue – and why does Louisa get to design the doubletruck?)… well, it was quite an adventure for students and parents, alike. It’s the age of helicopter parents who sometimes get over-involved in the minutia of their kids’ lives, but I was struck by how excited the parents of my students were to see their kids stretch their wings a bit, away from mom and dad. They worry, of course, and cell phones kept everyone connected across the miles – I’m not sure how we managed this convention business back in the dark ages of the 1980s – but mostly they just wanted to hear that their kids would have made them proud, by their actions, their participation and their successes. I coerced Jennifer into competing in the Feature Writing Write-Off, and she whined about it right up to the end. “I specialize in briefs,” she said, over and over. “I don’t even know what a feature is.” I said, “Heck, neither do I. Just take a shot, and write something you would find interesting. The worst that can happen is that you don’t hear your name called Sunday morning. The majority of students don’t.” Listen to this: Jennifer pored over the sessions offered Friday, and attended two on feature writing. She crammed for Write-Offs! Then she sent me a text message from her Write-off room just before 4 p.m. “Everyone here looks like they know how to write a feature. What am I doing here?” With a set up like that, the story has only one outcome. When she got an honorable mention, she couldn’t suppress her grin, and she immediately got on the phone with mom and dad to share her joy. I now call her “Queen of Features,” and she is secretly pleased. Her mom has thanked me repeatedly for making Jennifer do something she didn’t want to do. Teachers can do that, you know, when parents can’t find their way. My favorite journalism cliché is: “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” I extend that well-worn goal into my teaching. I try to find something every day in class that makes students uncomfortable. After all, if school is always comfortable, what can we be learning? Quite a few of the parents of those 16 kids were a bit uncomfortable thinking about their children going off to a strange place, despite their trusting my wife and I to get them back safely. After all, bad things happen all the time. They read about them in the paper. But most of the time the news is good. And those parents may be just a bit more comfortable with the idea that their kids are growing up, are thinking more and more for themselves, are becoming citizens of a larger world. It’s nice to be some small part of that. South of Denver – Chapter 33 February 16, 2007 I remember a time when I could count on having several writers on staff who had internalized the rhythms and rhetoric of sports writing. They were reporters who lived and breathed sports and who daily devoured the sports section. Those days, alas, are gone.
To describe our sports reporting as a bit dull through the first semester would be kind. “How can something as inherently dramatic as sports be dull?” I asked repeatedly. “Someone wins. Someone loses. Kids overcome adversity. There’s laughter, tears, pain, joy…” And did this inspiring pep talk work? Two words: dead eyes. Do you ever see those from a class when you are waxing poetic on a topic that touches your very soul, but finally notice that your entire class is awake but off mentally doing something else entirely? The eyes give it away. “Dead eyes” are a clarion call to do something, and in typical male fashion, I knew I needed to “solve” this sports writing problem. We needed a fix. That’s my best explanation for why I required every one of our 48 staff members to cover a varsity winter sports contest within a week of our January issue. What a vision! We would have up to 15 reporters at each contest. We would shoot hundreds of photographs. We would take readers behind the scenes. Perhaps by taking readers to a particular game we could recreate for them some of the magic that makes athletes give so much of themselves to their sports. The Greeks had a name for this sort of thing: hubris. The sports editors were enthused, and thankful that I had thrown the motivation of a grade into the mix. The rest of the staff seemed okay with the assignment. After all, it’s fun to go to a game, and even if it weren’t fun, they would have company (other staff) to lighten their misery. In a nod to not being a dictator, I allowed them to choose whichever contest fit their schedules. Girls swimming is rated #2 in the state, so lots of people wanted to cover that, plus Chelsea and Jenna are on the team (though they couldn’t cover their own sport – part of our “anti-incest” policy). Girls basketball, on the other hand, attracted fewer volunteers. The team is playing a 5A schedule, with 3A talent, and will likely end the year with one lonely win. The only wrestling meet available was away from home, so only six kids signed up. But boys basketball garnered nearly 20 reporters, which should not have surprised me. Though the guys also were usually overmatched playing bigger schools, they have won half a dozen games, upset a couple teams, and played exciting ball. I still thought the whole deal would be okay, even with the uneven numbers. My goal was mostly to get students at the games as reporters. The two pages of coverage for each contest that we had planned would be a bonus. I’m sure you are not surprised to know that several students simply “forgot” to go to their assigned game. Others arrived late, left early, or failed to do much. I made it to all but the wrestling match, just to observe, but the girls basketball game sticks in my mind. Of the ten students who were signed up, I saw just three during the first quarter. Thank goodness for Jenna and Kristen, sisters who can be counted on to get the job done no matter what. They were there with the two lab Nikons. Kyle was also there, interviewing the seven choir members who sang the National Anthem. They had come out to cheer on the JV team, found out no one had been assigned to sing the anthem before the varsity game, and filled in as best they could. A cool anecdote. But where was Chelsea, a dependable editor and reporter, and the person assigned to write the game story? Jenna called her cell. It turned out that even Chelsea had become confused, and was about 30 minutes away at the boys game being played that night. “But Chelsea,” Jenna said patiently, “you’re supposed to be here, in our gym. We only have three people here!”
I later found that the others assigned to the game were missing due to a combination of illness, forgetfulness and family crises. Jenna, Kristen and Kyle would have to make do. I sat in the stands doing a slow burn and imagining just how nasty I was going to make the lives of the missing souls. I shudder to think of the traffic laws broken, but a chagrined Chelsea arrived at the end of the third quarter and swung into action immediately, doing all the interviewing that had been planned for others, as well as her own. Her post-game locker room reporting became the basis of a solid story. As I watched her in action, I deleted all those critical comments I had been composing in my head. After the game, I think I may have hugged her. I may have hugged Jenna and Kristen, as well. “Henry V” came to mind: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” Advising is a mild form of insanity, I believe. Only other advisers could have a clue about how I was feeling. Normal people would have just written off the near disaster at the girls game as “high school.” I actually thought of the students who showed as heroic. A few days later, after the paper was distributed, we did a debrief on the whole “game night” experience. Some students were glad they had been pushed to do something they had never done before. Others thought it an imposition. Most just didn’t seem excited one way or the other. The coverage was tremendous, by the way, with great photography, insightful writing, and engaging, fun sidebars. We probably won’t be doing it again. Not that I won’t invent some grandiose schemes in the future for my students, but the whole adventure reminded me that the coverage ideas that seem cool to a 56-year-old just don’t seem so great to a 16-year-old. You can’t make students spirited simply by pleading with them to yell. You can’t get students excited about literature simply by preaching. You can’t get an entire staff to act like journalists just because you put them in the vicinity of news. But some great sports journalism was produced during those games and meets. Some kids got better. There were heroes. Jack Kennedy Rock Canyon High School Highlands Ranch CO 80124 firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Note: This is the latest chapter in a sporadic series of columns on working with a young staff in a young school (this semester we are up to 48 staff members and we finally have a senior class). It is cryptotherapy for me. It may occasionally provide something positive for you. Please go to the JEAHELP archives to read the previous chapters if you missed them and have absolutely nothing else to do.
Published on Jul 5, 2010
A blog originally published on the JEAHELP listserv, taking readers through the formative years of a high school newspaper from the very beg...