Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Wetting Feet at a High School Journalism Workshop
Aubri, a 16-year-old girl from Oyster Bay, N.Y. who had just completed her sophomore year in high school, stepped onto the Columbia University campus. She was terrified. Her summer journalism workshop instructor — that would be me — had sent her out there with her classmate Lindsey, from Floresville, Texas, each gripping her reporter's notebook and instructed to interview anyone willing to stop and talk to them for five minutes. They would then return to class, each write her own brief profile from her individual notes, and turn it in to me a half hour later.
It was the second day of my class at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association's summer journalism workshop, and I get my journalism students' feet wet right away.
Aubri and Lindsey had company out there. (In this article we're using only the workshop students' first names.) Seventeen classmates, paired except for one trio, were also snaring interviewees, prepared to ask them for four basic pieces of information — name, age, hometown and connection with Columbia, if any; find out at least one interesting fact about them; and note their appearance, a profile essential. (From the very first moments in class the evening before, I had stressed the necessity for details in journalistic writing.)
"It was the first time I was ever given a journalistic assignment with a time restraint and immediately I was terrified," Aubri told me. But, she said, "I found it exhilarating to work under pressure and was gratified to discover how easy it was to complete the assignment."
In Aubri's 200-word profile, 27-year-old Jun Huang, a Columbia graduate student, contrasted his native Beijing with New York, and Columbia with college in Wisconsin. Informative, yes, but Aubri brought Jun Huang to life when she wrote that he "sported a friendly and relaxed demeanor along with American-style jeans and a button-up. His glasses were perched slightly askew and his hair spiked to great heights."
Isn't that wonderful! One of my instructions to the class had been, "Make the reader see the person you interviewed," and look what Aubri had done. Yes, a more experienced reporter (Aubri the next day) might have described the jeans and button-up shirt more graphically, and perhaps the color of Jun's glasses and just how high "great heights" is, but I think her description, in a reporting assignment begun and completed in 45 minutes, was just great. And I was so pleased to see "demeanor" and "askew" in there, too! Weren't you?
Aubri's partner, Lindsey, got a cheer from me when she brought Jun Huang to life — and put the reader on campus — by opening her profile with: "On a partly cloudy and mildly warm Monday afternoon in New York, Jun Huang paced back and forth slowly and calmly."
Sarah, a ninth grader, and Rebecca, a tenth grader, struggled with a high school senior named Zara. Zara agreed to speak with them but had little to say, texting on her Blackberry during the interview.
"Once Rebecca and I realized that Zara was not going be cooperative," Sarah told me, "we decided to try to ask a variety of questions, such as what her favorite color was, and what her favorite hobbies were. If we asked too many personal questions, she might not have wanted to continue the interview. We also tried to conduct the interview as quickly as possible, so we would not lose her attention." What better strategy could one ask for, even from a professional? Talk about getting your feet wet.
Still, each did turn out a short profile. When Zara said reading was one of her favorite activities, Sarah and Rebecca jumped at the opportunity, fishing for even a minnow of information. Rebecca ended her profile this way:
What are Zara's favorite newspapers? She paused at this question and twirled her light brown hair.
"I don't really read any newspapers or magazines," she said.
Do you see the sophisticated humor here? By not using quotation marks, Rebecca implied a greater sense of her own exasperation than had quotation marks appeared.
Claire, a current 11th grader from New York City, described a Columbia employee (who shall remain nameless and you'll see why in a second), this way: "Wrapped in a rainbow flower-print shawl, plump, middle-aged [Jane Doe] sat on a stone bench enjoying the sun, mild heat, and the feeling of being outdoors." Note to all teenagers: What is middle age? 50? 30? Anybody over 21? But still, Claire drew a nice picture.
Jay, just entering 10th grade in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Sara, now a 12th grader in New York City, encountered a campus celebrity whose uniqueness at Columbia inspired from each of them a professional- quality opening. Gac Filipaj, a janitor at the school since 1993, graduated with Columbia's class of 2012 this past May with a bachelor's degree in classics, the Greek and Roman kind, gathering his credits with Columbia employee tuition credits.
Jay's lead read:
If one were to draw a Venn diagram of janitors and classics students, thousands of names would be on each side. But a name that lands right in the middle is Gac Filipaj, a janitor, student, and a friend to many at Columbia university.
Here's Sara's lead:
For a janitor at Columbia University, a blue polyester suit is a prerequisite. A thirst for knowledge is not.
Sara headlined her profile, "The Man Who Cleaned While Rome Burned."
For three decades, I have spent the end of June at the CSPA high school journalism workshop in the company of young people like these, helping them to develop their skills in interviewing and reporting, news and feature writing, rewriting and copyediting. And each year is as fresh as the first.
The goal of my fellow instructors and I is to send these young people back to their school's newspaper and yearbook staffs more skilled, more professional minded, more filled with enthusiasm. It's a grueling week for all of us as we ply them with as much work as we think they can handle — in class, in their dorm room, in the computer lab, or, in the case of students who commute to Columbia each day, at home.
When you consider that up until their time on the school paper, students have been writing almost entirely for the eyes of their English or social studies teachers — book reports, term papers and mundane compositions that begin with thesis statements and topic sentences — you realize what a different world, what a truly authentic world of writing, students enter when they're on the staff of their school newspaper.
Early in the workshop week I handed out this assignment:
The Observant Eye and the Observant Me
Between Monday and Thursday, perhaps during lunches or dinnertimes, walk down Broadway to 110th Street and back up to 116th Street and observe the people, places and rhythm of the Morningside Heights neighborhood. You may enter stores.
Absorb the scene. Then convey to your readers back home, as closely as possible, what you have personally witnessed and experienced.
Write this in the third person.
The hard part of this assignment? No personal opinions, no editorializing.
Another hard part? 300 words maximum. So much to say and convey in so few words.
Therefore you must write as concisely yet as effectively as you can.
Hint: If you begin by writing many more than 300 words, you can then work on cutting them down to 300.
Hand this in on Friday morning, please, and I will mail it to you with comments.
Because Jinwoo lived just across the river in Weehawken, New Jersey, and commuted from home each day by train instead of dorming on campus as most of the class did that week, he asked if he could go beyond the limited stretch of Broadway that I had asked the class to stick to. And this is what he wrote:
The Observant Eye and the Observant Me
The subway station at 42nd and 8th. The palpable, entrapping humidity in the air hangs like a curtain over every inch of the ground. Amidst sounds of commuter footsteps and the screeching rumble of the #1 train approaching the station rings the chatter of preoccupation and indifference. Men and women pass each other without so much as a glance, preferring to speak to their friends or into their phones. Hardly anyone notices the hunched old woman crouched in a corner of the station.
She is most likely in her seventies, Asian, with a slight frame. She couldn't weigh more than 90 pounds. Her face is lined with years of exhaustion, beaten and weathered by time and hardship. Her hands are in worse shape, cracked and wrinkled, covered in scars and callouses. One of her toes pokes out from a hole in her black ballet flats, turned nearly grey with use.
Yet there is something different about her. The anger, the sorrow, the pleading eyes are absent. She carries no cardboard sign, nor does she shake a styrofoam cup of change at passersby. There is no pile of possessions at her side. She is perched on a stack of old newspapers, nearly motionless, and though some hand her a small bill or a handful of change she receives it graciously, but never asks for it. She is as dignified and proud as a homeless woman could possibly be.
She may have been a mother or grandmother in a different life. She may have had a small apartment in the city, or a husband with whom she would have shared her life. She might have lost her job, or been turned away from the family by a cruel son or daughter-in-law. Whatever life she led before is gone, crouched in a sweaty, dimly lit corner of the station under Times Square.
I never saw her again. She passed into memory as quickly as a fleeting glimpse of a country home from a train, but I can still see her face. Waiting, watching, or perhaps just resting. A quiet end to the long journey of life.
This is what you get when you send students out to observe and write. It's one of the glories of teaching. And one of the privileges.
Every teacher has students whom he or she hates to say goodbye to at the end of the year, or, worse, at graduation. At the CSPA workshop I'm reluctant to say goodbye after only six days to people like Aubri, Lindsey, Sara, Rebecca, Claire, Jay, Sara, Jinwoo and their classmates, the rest of whom you'll meet next time. You'd find it hard to do, too.