Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Organizing a Journalism Class

Well my students and I got our wish today. We have a snow day! I was super nervous about having to commute in this weather, so I was very relieved when I got the call just after 6 this morning. Right now there is a lull in the snow and sleet, but it's supposed to get worse again this afternoon. My day so far has consisted of drinking coffee, watching Netflix, and lounging on the couch with my dog.

Doesn't she have a rough life?

Today while I'm home and pittering around on our new school newspaper online, I thought I'd post about my experience building up our journalism program and give some of my tips for ensuring a smoothly-run paper that is still fun, but productive for kids.

A little background: I was pretty much thrown into being the newspaper adviser (which is a class at my school) 3 years ago with absolutely zero journalism and/or graphic design experience. I had to teach myself InDesign, teach myself about journalism out of our text, and be ready to run with it come August. If I can do it, anyone can!

Mrs. L's Tips for a Journalism Class:
1. Have students apply for the class (if your school allows it).
My first year taking this over, anyone (sophomores and up) could be in this course, and I ended up with a lot of seniors taking it for a "blow off" class and not taking it seriously. Honestly, my first year doing the paper was really, really rough because of it (and because of my lack of experience). So now I have a brief application the students must fill out that isn't so much work it turns them off to the class, but separates the ones who are serious from those who aren't.

It basically asks for their current teacher, grade in school, and then a few short answer questions:
  • Why do you want to take journalism?
  • What do you hope to get out of the class?
  • A short writing sample of a practice news article
I also talk to their teachers about grades, work ethic, teamwork, etc. Each year, there are usually a few who don't make the class because of failing regular classes, poor reviews from teachers, etc. I typically have a newspaper staff of 9-15 kids, which I think is a great size.
2.  Have a clear set of established rules and policies from the get-go, everything from camera usage and checking them out, computer usage (I have 4 Mac computers in my room for journalism), leaving the room procedures, etc.. My students get their own newspaper badge with name and picture that functions as their hall pass during my class. I have 3 different spread sheets to keep track of students and hold them accountable:
-One for computer usage: name, computer #, purpose, and time on and off
-One for checking out cameras (we have 2): name, date, purpose, date returned
-One for leaving the room or building (for interviews, pics, sponsors, etc): Name, destination, time in and out

I find this holds them accountable but is little to no work for me. Win-win.

3. Have a system of organization.

At our paper, we do have an editor or co-editors (typically seniors who have been on the staff before and/or strong writers/organizers) and each student is assigned a beat (A&E, Local News, Opinions, etc.). The process of writing an article from conception to publishing goes like this:

  1. Each student has a weekly deadline (they write one story per week, which I find manageable but enough to keep them busy all the time).
  2. A week ahead of time (or when they finish prior article), they brainstorm ideas for this week's article. I have them turn in 2-3 ideas to me, and I'll let them know which ones I think will work best.
  3. Once approved, they turn in an article plan to me, which is a basic outline of their article, work schedule, interviews, pics, etc.
  4.  Each day during that week, they are working on their article and turning in daily progress (I give grades weekly and have a spreadsheet for each day of the week where I record absences, what they worked on, etc).
  5. When they are at the point where they have a draft typed up, they give it to the editor. S/he looks at it, makes suggestions, and hands back to author (each student has a mailbox in my room for returning work).
  6. The author makes any corrections, turns back in to editor, and this continues until the editor thinks it is ready to publish.
  7. At this point, the editor gives me the "final" copy, and I do a once-over. I often times find small errors that need changing, and in that case, it goes back to author to fix. When I give it the stamp of approval (I use the stamp below for this and other assignments in my classes, and the kids LOVE it!), the copy goes to the editor to publish online.
    I only use the "Like" stamp at school. Purchased from ThinkGeek.com for $12.99

  8.  Right now, only my editors have an account on our paper's website to publish articles and pics. In the future, I may make contributor accounts for my other staff members so they, too, can upload just their own articles, but for now, I like to have limited access to it (I am an administrator and have more control than editors, who have more control than authors, etc).
  9. Students save articles and pics to our file on the computer, so editors can have access to everything when the time comes to publish.
  10. Doing it this way, we publish about 3 new articles each day to our website. I also have my sports writer in charge of uploading new sports scores daily and inputting events into our online calendar.
4. Sprinkle in content assignments
We do have a journalism book, and while 90% of our time is spent writing, reporting, and publishing, most of my students have zero journalism background when they get to me. We spend the first few weeks of the school year writing practice articles, working on headlines, interviewing (I have teachers who volunteer to come in on their prep and get "interviewed"), writing leads, taking good pictures, writing captions, discussing journalism ethics, etc. They must know the basics to be able to write halfway decent articles. I hold them to these expectations whenever they write content to be published.
Throughout the year, we will visit other chapters when necessary and revisit concepts they still struggle with (such as writing a good lead). If that means we get one day behind in publishing, so be it. Our quality has to be there.

5. Get the student body interested
When I inherited this paper, it was mostly for teachers and adults in the community to read (it was distributed in the local paper as well). Our students weren't that interested. So we brainstormed and found a couple ways to get our student body more interested in reading:
-We started an advice column. I put a box in the library where students can anonymously submit advice questions (of course, I have to weed through some inappropriate ones always!), and each month or week we run one question with an answer from our staff.
-We've started a "Guess the Teacher" competition. Each month we interview a different teacher and post their answers online. I collect answers in my room and draw for the winner. The winning student gets a $20 gift card to any local business. This drums up interest in reading and also benefits our community.
-We are in the beginning stages of setting up a FB page for our paper. I will be the one running it (which I would HIGHLY recommend-don't let a student do this), where we will link to new articles published online. If you can garner interest and get student "likes," you can even run contests through FB, and they will always know when new articles are published. I'll report back when this is up and running for a little while to evaluate how beneficial it is.

Running a student newspaper can be a LOT of work, but I think it's worth it. It is enjoyable for the kids, they get real-world writing skills for a true audience, and it is great practice for those students wanting to pursue journalism or communication. I also think it helps drum up school spirit to report on school events, highlight students doing awesome things, and it also may be the only current events our students get, since we do cover local, national, and international news as well.

It can be overwhelming, especially if you're a journalism novice like me, but if I can do it, so can you! Within three years, I would say I have built up the program, gotten students more interested in it, made it more current by taking it online and made it more selective by requiring an application.

Sorry this post got so long-I tried to keep it brief. If you've got other questions about journalism classes/programs, feel free to leave a comment. I also plan to do another post that focuses just on online journalism, how I decided to go online, how I decided which site to use to host us, and problems/solutions to online journalism in a HS classroom.

1 comment:

  1. Can you please provide any resources you have used, if you are comfortable with sharing!? I am a first year English teacher, and Journalism was thrown into the mix as well. We have no curriculum, guidelines, or any kind of paper, so I am starting over and learning as I go.