What do teachers and reporters have in common?

Being a teacher and being a reporter share so much fundamentally in common.

  • Both take complicated information and break it down so it’s more easily understood.
  • Both ask questions and are pretty good at finding answers.
  • Both believe deeply in the power of stories, of finding them and sharing them.
  • Both see it was their job to provide the details that make people more curious and engaged.
  • Both believe that helping people know more about their world can change the world.

It bothers me to say this, but I also think teachers and reporters share too much in common in terms of how they’re attacked or undermined. I grew accustomed, as a reporter, to having to more or less apologize for my job, to feel awkward because I knew people distrusted me and my profession. At the time, I more or less understood it because many people have had experiences where they felt news reporters mistreated or misunderstood something they were involved with or believed in. Some personally felt misquoted or misrepresented. Others saw mistakes in news reports about them or their organizations. I’ve also been present at major news events where reporters seemed insensitive and pack-like. I understood the criticism or mistrust, and I worked to change it. But despite seeing the validity of some of the criticism, I believed (and still believe) deeply in my profession, its strengths and its importance.

It was a different story when I started teaching. Then I was frankly baffled, thrown off-guard when there were similar attacks on teachers. Seriously. I started teaching around the same time that the governor of my state of Wisconsin launched a successful assault on teachers’ unions. It was shocking to me how many people suddenly hated teachers. You’d hear people raging about the fact that teachers were overpaid and had too much job protection, that they were lazy and incompetent. You’d hear accusations that teachers were trying to brainwash students or had some sort of secret agenda. Suddenly, no one trusted teachers. Amid this, I gradually developed a theory that it actually was pretty easy to churn up a groundswell of mistrust and anger directed toward teachers because everyone has had teachers (so everyone is an expert). And everyone has had lousy ones. For parents, it really stinks to see your kid in a terrible classroom and to come home anxious or upset about school. And everyone has at least one year like that.

But what is gained from turning people against teachers? What is gained from making people mistrust and oppose the people educating their children?

I guess this is where I really see what teaching and reporting have in common. What’s to be gained by the mistrust? Who wins when no one believes in the importance of a free press or public education? What happens when no one has trust — trust in verifiable information, trust that facts exist and can be shared, trust that truth exists?

I’m planning on writing more this week about the role of the press in our society and how it parallels the role of teachers. I want us to think more about this, as we continue our work educating students.

As teachers, I’m hoping we can support journalism at this time it’s so under attack. Why? Because information is powerful. Details matter. Stories can change the world. As teachers, we know that. Our jobs are built on that.  We share a lot in common with journalists. And we can be among the people who step forward and stand with them.

Quick look, Sept. 20, 2017

Stories we will probably discuss at today’s news meeting, based upon quick look at today’s New York Times:

  • Earthquake in Mexico, front page with photos inside and map.
  • Hurricane Maria approaching Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
  • Great front page story for older students about professor investigating 1965 brutal death of civil rights activist who also negotiated Muhammad Ali’s first contract, but it’s a bit mature for my class and we haven’t started civil rights unit yet, so may save?
  • Inside Sports section, article on brain risks of playing tackle football before age 12, but it’s based on a limited study and part of a larger story, so probably will pass for now.
  • Maybe just for fun: about $120,000 cut up and flushed down toilets in Geneva, Switzerland, discovered after the bills began clogging pipes, Business section.
  • Aha, perfect! Inside front section: the Disney hit Moana is being shown in New Zealand, translated into indigenous language of New Zealand. Includes debate about whether the story of Polynesian princess was sensitive to the Maori, whose mythologies are included. (And we recently had a guest speaker about indigenous languages dying and efforts to save them in Mexico so this is a great story for us.) It has solid detail, further research opportunities and is highly-relatable. Also incorporates map skills and culture awareness, so I’d recommend for everyone.

Having difficult classroom conversations

This summer, I took part in a teacher training session for PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs. It was not at all about class news meetings and  it was about so many technical things involving lighting and frame rates and B-rolls that I felt almost illiterate. But it was also about how students understand reporting, and it helped me think more clearly about the things we need to teach.

The part that most changed how I approach my classroom, the thoughts I refer back to just about every time we hold a class news meeting, came during a presentation from a Georgetown University professor of history and African-American studies. Marcia Chatelain talked, quite simply, about having difficult classroom conversations.

And honestly, if you’re going to have a student reporting lab or, in our case, hold class news meetings, you’re going to have difficult conversations.  Students come with different experiences, different levels of understanding, different judgements and worries. How do you build a classroom environment where students can talk openly about difficult topics, share their own experiences, and ask questions?

Well, Chatelain says that first, you have to just let them talk. (For the record, most of the other teachers at this conference run high school reporting labs, so I’m sure they took different things away than I did.  This is more or less my elementary school translation of her topic.)

One of the things that’s always bothered me when having our class news meetings is that, when I’d ask: “Does anyone have a news story they’d like to share?” especially early on, inevitably someone would raise their hand to talk about a movie they saw that weekend, or a parent’s upcoming trip out of town, or a car accident they drove past on the way home.  And while I’d let them talk briefly about these experiences, part of me was always secretly plotting ways to develop a rule that would keep the conversation on a more productive track, conjuring some technical definition of “news” I could pull out that would prevent many of these stories from being shared in the first place.

But guess what?  One of the first steps toward building a classroom where you can have those deeper, more intense conversations is to have this small talk. I’m not advocating turning the whole meeting over to fender-benders and blockbusters.  But, Chatelain pointed out, listening to your students’ stories lets them know that you care about them.

“It shows them that I’m willing to engage in the things that matter to them,” she said.  And there’s another benefit: “The more we talk, the more the students become real people to each other.”

So having these small conversations allows you to share more deeply when it comes time for the big discussions. The students know and have some understanding of each other, and they’ve built some trust in you. Without that groundwork, she noted, the big conversations “will always be awkward and creepy.”

But even before starting with these simpler conversations, Chatelain suggested taking a bigger step backward and doing some self-examination.  You need, she said, to think about yourself at the age of the students you’re now teaching. You need to remember your own experiences and worries and difficulties at that age. You have to recognize your own issues and triggers.  You have to understand that those experiences impact you.

Why? Because the tone from the top (i.e. you) matters during these conversations. You can change the temperature of a discussion based on your response.  You might need to suggest pushing the pause button on a conversation, asking a student to come back with more information before continuing.  You might need to say: “I’m uncomfortable with this conversation.  We need to pause.” Or you might instead need to say: “This conversation is really difficult for me, but I think it’s important because …”

In other words, we need to be prepared.  And perhaps the best piece of advice she gave for doing that was also, for me, the most unexpected. Essentially, she said you  need to look around your school.  Can you think of five allies among your fellow teachers?  Identify your allies.  Think about what support you have, as a teacher. And then don’t be afraid to ask for that support, to use it.  In my case, I was easily able to think of five allies … and then quickly realized I would never go to them for support.  Why? I don’t know.  I do know that this year, I’m trying to change that.

Last point: be careful about making assumptions.  It might be easier to frame your discussions with the idea that every student has a parent, or has eaten a Thanskgiving turkey dinner, or has their own bed to sleep in each night. But, she said, every time you do that you’re sending the message: “This is the only way I see the world.” And the reality is: our students are living in all sorts of different worlds, some familiar to us and some not. We need to recognize that.

“The more you can telegraph that there are all sorts of ways to live in the world, the more successful your classroom will be,” she said.

And then, your classroom becomes the place where you can share ideas, where you can have those difficult conversations.





9/11, Irma and dog brains (Sept. 12 update)

You’ve hopefully seen my list from this afternoon of stories suggested by two of my sixth-grade students. I must say, I loved it.  And we had a terrific news meeting thanks to their input.

First off, of course we told the story of Ernest Hemingway’s 54 six-toed cats surviving Irma.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/11/us/hemingway-cats-irma.html

You can’t really go wrong in a story where someone suggests that a feline caretaker, in the face of a massive hurricane, “Get in the car with the cats and take off!”  I did mention that we’re talking about 54 cats? Great visual image there.

However, our discussion did then have to take a more serious turn. We didn’t have the opportunity yesterday to fully talk about 9/11.  I want to write a longer post about this soon, because just a few years ago, it seemed that I had to tread lightly around 9/11 discussions because it was so intense for the students.  But more recently, it’s almost been the opposite — these younger students know SO little about the terrorist attacks and their impact that it feels like it’s time to be more detailed, to bring it more to life.  That was a difficult discussion, and one I hope to share soon.  But for now, to keep this light, I want to tell you that I’d have hated to have left the students with those stories.  Enter dog brains!

I can’t say enough great things about this article  A beloved dog, a scientist wondering if the dearly-departed dog truly loved him or just the food, helicopters and Navy SEALS, a basement MRI simulator,  the famous marshmallow experiment, neuroscience, epileptic sea lions  — seriously, you have to just read it for yourself.  The other bit of great news: this eloquent and charming scientist has written a book, “What It’s Like to be a Dog.”  We are totally buying that!