Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Case for Journalism

Michele Dunaway, who teaches English and journalism at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, argues that journalism is more important than ever for students. "While newspapers may be evolving and some folding," Michele writes, "the skill set journalism teaches students and the thought processes required of students should be embraced and infused into every English classroom."

Journalism saved my life. Also, unlike kindergarten, it really did teach me everything I needed to know.

I guess I should back up. I had parents who insisted I do something. Academics weren't enough — during high they required I be involved some form of school activities. My freshman year they picked out track, envisioning me as a future Olympian, but after two seasons of sweat and little to show for it, I knew sprinting over hurdles was far from my thing. First semester sophomore year I took a journalism class that spring applied for the newspaper staff. I made it, and for my remaining two years, newspaper and Girls Pep Club kept my parents satisfied. I was involved. Yet, even better, I'd found my niche. Years later, here I am, teaching what I love.

Jostens Yearbooks has a flier that says "30 real world skills" and lists things like writing, photography, leadership and marketing. Really, though, journalism is more than that. It's real world thinking. In this day of Common Core and 21st Century Skills, thinking is a good thing. To quote former Journalism Education Association president Jack Kennedy, "Students who learn skills with no context seem doomed to a sort of cookbook, cobbled-together writing style (and thinking style)."

While newspapers may be evolving and some folding, the skill set journalism teaches students and the thought processes required of students should be embraced and infused into every English classroom. I'm not saying throw out literature or traditional English; in fact, the common core standards specify literature that should be taught. But journalism and 21st Century Skills and Common Core are good bedfellows.

For proof, the Colorado High School Press Association (CHSPA) uploaded a three-page document, which you can find here (PDF). In it, the organization claims journalism is the new English. The organization states ". . .journalism, and all the skills surrounding this broad area, is the ideal curricular vehicle to help our students gain 21st century skills and demonstrate them to a variety of audiences."

I encourage you to read through the document, that shows in detail how journalism meets the skills prepared graduates should exhibit. For example, in response to the skill that "prepared graduates should demonstrate skill in inferential and evaluation listening," the document states "Journalism courses stress careful, objective and skilled interviewing and note taking, to gather information and to insure the accuracy of the information." 

So while the document is partially designed to convince states, school boards and schools from cutting and eliminating journalism classes (which almost happened in Kansas), the document also makes a regular English teacher think. Is there a way to infuse journalism or media literacy into your classes? The answer is a clear yes.

One of the first ways by having students read newspaper articles. Find relevant nonfiction pieces that relate to the curriculum. During my teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird this year, my students read several nonfiction articles, including one about the Kentucky church that banned interracial couples. My students, who were born long after the Civil Rights movement, were astounded such things existed. We also tied the book into the political wrangling on immigration and the affirmative action case the Supreme Court will hear this fall.

Nonfiction articles are also a great way to teach bias and point of view. You can have students compare and contrast two articles on the same subject from two different sources. Look at how the New York Times covers something, and then see how Gawker changes things up. Have them discuss tone, sensationalism, trustworthiness, etc.

Another simple way to infuse journalism is to have students write short and concise "who, what, where, when, why and how" paragraphs. Give the students a situation and have them write a 50-word-maximum, third person paragraph that contains all of these things, and all without including any opinion statements. Then have them go in and extend that paragraph to 100-words-maximum by using imagery, but still no opinion statements. It's hard, but when kids master this type of writing, they've learned how to start telling stories without using I or without using opinion. In fact, they learn quickly that words like quickly (those pesky adverb/-ly words) are opinion statements. They also learn to be concise. The New York Times is a fabulous resource of concise writing that contains the 5Ws and 1H (as we journalism teachers call it).

The art of persuasion in the journalism world is found in the personal column or an editorial. Most newspaper staff editorials are written in third person while bylined editorials can be in first person. Have your students read columns and both types of editorials. Have them discuss and outline the persuasive techniques. Then have them try to write an editorial and a column on a topic of their choice. By writing two different ways they learn to change the format for different purposes. In addition, you've given them another name and format for what is essentially a five-paragraph essay. But saying column or editorial has a much better connotation and feels much more real world.

Dr. Jack Dvorak of Indiana University showed in his "High School Journalism Matters" that journalism students had higher ACT scores and higher GPAs than non-journalism students. (For information on the study, click here.)  I've seen this happen with my own student journalists. My daughter received a 34 in English, up from the 28 she'd had prior to copyediting every page of the 320-page yearbook. Other students have shown similar results.

The bottom line is that I agree wholeheartedly with CHSPA. Journalism is the new English. In this day and age everyone can be a citizen journalist. News often hits Facebook even before being online at a traditional source. Anyone can tweet at anytime. Videos hit the web instantly.

Journalism is not just for J-school graduates. It's for everyone. So do things journalism-related. Start a class blog. A pdf newsletter. A Twitter feed. Have students become real reporters. Have them do interviews and collect data. Have them analyzing information and then report on it by using their own words and citing correctly (not just plagiarizing). You can do this real world having your English report on how many slices of pizza are sold in the cafeteria or you can have one person act like Romeo and the rest become reporters at a press conference.

Our students have the power to be publishers of media content. Let's give them the skills to master the creation of their content, and by doing so, hitting those common core standards will occur naturally.

PS — a great place to find journalism lessons is hsj.org (click on lesson plans).

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 9th 2012, 5:31 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
How can a student learn to journal without a biased slant using the New York Times as a model?
Monday April 9th 2012, 2:18 PM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Spot on,Roger Dee. Yet, are there any models without a biased slant? Also, what is difference between a journalist and a reporter?

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