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Jul 22

A letter to Angela

A recent post on PBS’s “EdShift” blog by Angela Washeck has caused a certain amount of buzz in the journalism education world. In her column, Washeck, a professional journalist, talks about her experience earning a teaching certificate in the State of Texas, with an eye on becoming a high school journalism teacher.

She writes that her experience showed her “today’s high school journalism curriculum, at least in the Lone Star State, indicates a vast digital deficit and a lack of focus that I believe sets young journalists back.” And further:

My observation is simply that we live in a digital world, where journalists are expected to excel technologically regardless of print success. Texas high school journalism educator standards outline old-school tenets that don’t paint an accurate picture of what defines today’s media industry. In a journalism space where social media, mobile journalism and video content prevail, state curriculum isn’t doing students favors by ignoring new technologies. Yes, large state bureaucracies tend to move slowly in updating curriculum, but teachers who go above and beyond the assigned standards would find ways to integrate these technologies into classroom instruction.

Scrolling to the end of the column, we see the teachers respond. Many educators took offense at Washeck’s tone and her sweeping judgments based on 30 hours of classroom observation. Some offered constructive criticism, others were far more biting. My own response ran a bit long, so I post it here:

Dear Angela,

You’ve taken a bit of a beating on EdShift, but as a professional journalist who has specialized in digital media, you’ve probably seen this kind of comment activity before. Me, I don’t want to pile on, but perhaps explain what I perceive as the mindset behind some of these comments.

I hope by now you’ve seen the error in the statement: “This option [referencing the teaching certificate program] is for those who have been working in the real world and later decide teaching is direction they want to go.” Teaching is the “real world.” It is a challenging career that demands dedication, professionalism, skill and creativity.

Disagree? Some time over a beer let me tell you about the year my daughter had a teacher who left the “real world” for a job teaching K-8 math. It was a disaster of nearly epic proportions.

But I digress.

You’ve made what I think is the classic error when it comes to high school journalism education. You’re expecting that every single one of the students in that classroom is there with a pre-existing zest for journalism, an understanding of why it’s important in a democratic society and a true love for writing. I’m willing to bet you made that error for the most generous of reasons – because you had the zest for journalism when you were in high school. You loved to write, and in the hands of a great teacher, that love was transformed into an interest in journalism. I understand it, but I also know that you were an exception, not the rule.

Don’t believe me? Check out the First Amendment Center’s research on public perceptions of free speech and press. Stunning numbers of adults and young adults think the constitutional right to free speech goes too far, and that there are situations that justify government interference with the press.

Still don’t believe me? Check out plentiful research on high schoolers’ engagement with media and where they get their news. Look at the studies that discuss who they are willing to believe, and how much critical thinking they bring to unconfirmed facts raised on Facebook or Twitter.

Before we put the range of online tools in student hands, before they engage with the “digital first” approach to media that you enthusiastically endorse, we need them to understand why this is important. We need to nurture the flame that may already burn in some of them, but needs to light in all of them. Not all of them will work in journalism, but they all will live in this society of media messages in which we currently exist.

That’s the herculean task that today’s high school teachers take on, and that’s why they focus on the foundational elements of journalism that have withstood the test of time. They’re not looking to train tomorrow’s journalists, but rather support a national desire for good journalism. Some of those students will read it, others will create it. But we need all of them to WANT it.

Using that lens, that yearbook assignment you cite as less than ideal in your column makes perfect sense. Not only does it require solid writing, close attention to detail and excellent design skills, but it also connects students to an audience with which they are familiar and engaged. It introduces ideas of accountability and professionalism, and forces them to work to a publishability standard.

I understand your emotion – I really do. I would love for teens to start seeing the amazing information potential in their phones – you can use them for more than Facebook, Snapchat and Netflix. I would love for them to understand how digital media tools can create powerful, moving stories.

But before we can do that, we need them to understand the “why” of journalism, rather than the “what.” As you note in your column, students, no matter their age, want to know, “Why am I learning this?” Before you can have them tweet their first WordPress site, they need to understand why journalism is important. And that’s what high school journalism teachers do.

Best wishes with your future goals,

-erica

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