September 21, 2016 / Fall 2016 / Idea File Magazine

Scholastic journalism matters

Written by Renee Burke

While being a journalism teacher is fun, it entails so much more than I ever thought it could. Teaching is a challenging profession already, and then throw in deadlines, budgets and high school hormones and it takes on an entirely new complexity level.

But through all of the trials and tribulations, I’ve learned that journalism teachers and journalism curriculum really matter. Yes, it matters for the product you are producing at that time, but even more importantly, it matters for these kids’ futures.

With elective programs being cut to make room for “more academic-based classes,” we need to show the educational experts who think yearbook is a fluff class that our classes epitomize higher order cognitive thinking and application. We fulfill Benjamin Bloom’s educational goals every day.

Common Core and P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning lead most state’s pedagogical practices and are exactly what we teach in our classrooms every day. But does your administration know this?

They probably don’t, which means it’s your job to educate them, your students and parents as to why your class is important and should be supported.

We are a perfect example of a workplace-readiness classroom.

Yearbook, newspaper and broadcast teachers should be recognized and valued for the rigor we provide our students. We are not just creating “memory books,” a newspaper or a daily/weekly news show. We are teaching students hard and soft skills that will empower them with real-world workplace-readiness. Journalism is 21st Century learning at its finest.

In February 2016, World Economic Forum published an article, “What skills do employers value most in graduates?” It reports that in 2020, the most-sought skills will be: Complex Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Creativity, People Management, Coordinating with Others, Emotional Intelligence, Judgment and Decision Making, Service Orientation, Negotiation and Cognitive Flexibility.

That pretty much sums up what we teach. Every day our students must solve complex problems and think critically in their writing, photography, designing or even getting software to do what they want it to do.

We teach them to be creative – not for the sake of being different, but to help them explore other ways to develop something instead of repeating what’s been done before.

Our students, especially our editors, are well versed in people management, coordinating with others and emotional intelligence. They have to learn how to get the best out of each staff member, especially those who function differently than they do. We teach our leaders, many of whom are often the “Gold” personality, that they are no more valuable than a student who is more “Orange” —the kid who flies by the seat of his pants — but rather how to help that student be successful and how to nurture his growth.

Our student journalists are constantly coordinating with others. It could be coordinating with parents for a ride home or to events they need to cover for the publication, or with a coach whose practice they might have to miss due to a work session, or with students, teachers, administrators, coaches and community persons to coordinate pictures and interviews for the stories they seek to include in their publications. The endless balancing of schedules teaches students how to prioritize their commitments and communicate their needs.

It takes a lot of coordinating to meet deadlines, which can too often be an undervalued skill. If a student misses a deadline, then the work falls to an editor or adviser. If a school misses a deadline that affects schedules at the printing plant, which could affect when your school gets the book. Meeting deadlines matters and our classes teach this.

We best teach emotional intelligence by modeling our concern for others. We get to know these students. Many of us are lucky enough to teach the same kids throughout their high school career. We know if they are upset or even excited about something, and when we pause from the daily grind to check on that person, they see and learn the value of empathy.

Participating in service-oriented projects bolsters emotional intelligence. Each year our staff participates in Green Up Boone, the school-wide beautification project, by weeding, pruning, mulching and picking up trash on campus. We also have a Relay for Life team.

These events are fun and have a meaningful purpose, but more importantly they teach students the value of helping your community and caring for others.

In a journalism classroom our students learn judgement and decision-making skills when we allow them to determine the stories to research and write in their publications. They need to decide: Is this a good story? Is this relevant to our audience? Why should we report this? If something goes wrong, we don’t harp on the mistake. Instead we teach them how to evaluate what went wrong and to think about what could have been done differently. By analyzing their failures and successes they strengthen these skills.

Journalism students are running a business and it’s pivotal that they master the skill of negotiation. From negotiating which fonts will be in this year’s yearbook and who gets to write certain stories to what pages can be color or what cool tip-in they can add — these decisions are determined from their mastery of negotiation. Our students have to take all of the evidence into account and then lobby for what they want. Being a good negotiator doesn’t mean you always win, but that you recognize the decision made is best for the parties involved.

Another desired skill is cognitive flexibility. This is the brain’s ability to transition from thinking about one concept to another. The more quickly one can shift his thinking from one dimension (like the color of an object) to another (like the shape of an object), the greater his level of cognitive flexibility. Isn’t this what we ask our students to do daily? Write this story, take photos, create a layout, edit photos, edit a story, and so on. We continually ask them to switch gears to be most productive during class.

No other class prepares a student for the real world like a student publication does. That is evident through my vast and varied success stories. While I may not have students who are winning Emmys or Pulitzer prizes — yet — those who work for professional media outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, Fox Sports and the Orlando Sentinel, as well as those who are doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs, repeatedly attest that the class that most prepared them for their job today is their high school publication class.

I’ve learned as a journalism adviser that it’s OK, and necessary, to lobby for your programs — because what we do matters to our school and the community we serve.

I have been blessed to work with some amazing principals as well as incredible assistant principals of instruction who have supported me over the years, but I have worked to foster good working relationships with them.

While I have not always seen eye-to-eye with all of them, no matter what our differences, ultimately we work together to do what’s best for kids. I help them see why it’s important to invest in the journalism program and encourage them to come see the magic that occurs in room 224.

Since most administrators do not have a yearbook background, they may not know what you really do, so allowing them to see the “organized chaos” can only help your cause. So yes, invite them to your classroom. Let them see the peer-to-peer instruction, cooperative learning, and writing, designing and editing to create pages for your publication. To do all of this requires students to use higher-order thinking skills.

To our critics who ask why bother — journalism is dying.

This simply isn’t true. Just because it’s not printed on paper and thrown in your driveway anymore doesn’t mean it’s dead. Journalism is evolving, changing with the modern times — as it should. Nothing can stay stagnant and remain viable.

Publications, even yearbooks, have to learn how to engage the reader. In addition to telling the stories in the book, we need to be creating web posts, videos, social media blasts, and live tweeting events to keep the reader hooked.

Not only does this provide a reader service, but all of these examples teach real-life employability skills: writing, web development, video/audio editing, marketing and social media management. So let’s keep challenging ourselves and our students to learn and grow in this profession.


Show your administration

A few tips to start earning respect from your administration, school and community

  1. Be an active member in journalism organizations. Start by attending regional and state workshops and conventions to stay abreast of industry trends. Then broaden this scope by joining national organizations, like JEA, NSPA and CSPA. Submit your publications for critiques to start winning awards. Administrators like things they can brag on to the community.
  1. Celebrate everything. When you win those awards from your state or national journalism organization, make a big deal out of it. Tweet it, send emails to invested parties and eat cake! According to educational researcher Dr. Robert Marzano, it’s important to celebrate student successes.
  1. Ask. Administrators, parents and students probably do not know what it costs to run a quality journalism program. Price necessary items and ask for the money. Let them know how this will benefit your students and your school. Every staff needs at least one good camera and a f2.8 70-200 lens. Of course more allows you to cover more events at one time, but invest in at least one. You also need a color printer that prints on 11×17 paper so you can print your pages full size and see what they are going to look like in print because on screen and printed often look very different.

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Renee Burke

Renee Burke, NBCT, MJE, is Media Promotions Manager for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida, and the former yearbook and newspaper adviser at William R. Boone High School. Renee was chosen JEA's 2015 Yearbook Adviser of the Year, the 2012 OCPS Teacher of the Year, 2011 FSPA Journalism Teacher of the Year and a 2011 CSPA Gold Key recipient.