Lesson for a journalism teacher: Meeting them where they are

Please overlook what this visual metaphor of "meeting students where they are" says about what role I play.

Please overlook what this visual metaphor of “meeting students where they are” says about what role I play.

The assignment for the students — in their first college journalism writing class — was the kind I remembered from my own student days. I gave them facts about a fire: who saw it first, where it happened, when, damages, etc. They had to write a first paragraph, a summary “lede.”

The summary lede is the classic start to an inverted pyramid story. It’s often described as containing the 5 W’s — the who, what, when, where and why (or how) of the story. Alternatively, I suggest students think about it as what happened most recently, what is most important or interesting, and what else readers would need to know to understand the first two.

What I got back from the assignment were assortments of facts. I could have gotten the same results by putting the details on a wheel of fortune and assembling the results of each four or five spins into a sentence.

As we moved on to writing whole stories — a robbery, say — the results were as random. And yet when I assigned the same class to report and write about gun violence in schools, most of what I got back showed a better understanding of the relative importance of facts and the details of structure. Something was getting through. But why hadn’t I seen that in the previous assignments?

I have a theory, and a lesson I think I’ve learned.

The theory is simple. The students I’ve been teaching these last few years? They are not consuming traditional news in traditional ways. Eons ago, when I went to journalism school, it was a safe bet every student had read dozens of stories about fires and robberies, which had been featured prominently on the front pages of newspapers.

My students haven’t grown up reading newspapers. For most of them, the stories they see are determined not by traditional print news editors making traditional news judgments, but by the headlines chosen for the trending stories on Facebook and by what flits across their Twitter feeds. Yes, there are those who push beyond that — but from what they tell me, those students tend to bypass local papers and go to national and international sites — the New York Times, the BBC.

The main thing holding them back from creating the expected kinds of ledes and stories out of prepackaged facts was not that they didn’t understand the concept of selecting the essential facts for the lede and arranging the rest in order from most to least important (the “inverted pyramid” structure). The problem was that when they looked at the facts about a fire or a robbery, none seemed all that important.

The lesson I think I’ve learned: I have to meet my students where they are. I’m revising my assignments to focus on news more relevant and familiar to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean fluff. I have a presentation that uses stories about police going undercover as high school students to set up drug busts; it’s been one of my most effective. But what if some of my assignments are about entertainment or other topics considered fluffy by traditional standards? Is it more important that students leave my class ready to write a fire story by formula, or that they come out with a clear understanding of news values in general?

I’ve realized I was already applying the lesson of meeting them where they are in another way. I have a section on live-tweeting news, which I’ve been moving closer and closer to the start of each semester. By now, it comes just after the first few classes about news values in general, and before anything about ledes or stories. The logic is the same. My students are generally familiar with Twitter — far more familiar than with summary ledes or inverted pyramids. The live-tweeting assignment becomes a pure exercise in applying what they’ve been taught about news values. That doesn’t get lost in their struggle to unlearn the kind of writing they’ve done in classes about the five-paragraph essay.

These last few years, reinventing myself as a teacher, increasingly seem a natural extension of my last several years in a newsroom: unlearning old habits; questioning old beliefs, many of which turned out to be built on sand; opening up to new approaches. Some habits I had to break, and persuade reluctant colleagues to overcome, involved blaming the audience for our declining readership. Sure, we in the newsroom were comfortable with 24-hour news cycles, stories told almost entirely in text and other accoutrements of daily print journalism. But our audience wasn’t there any more. Thus going online, learning about links and slideshows, practicing iterative journalism. All of that wasn’t about destroying journalism.

It was about meeting them where they are.

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