I was the Journalism teacher/adviser at Singapore American School for two years, and I loved it. When I left, my students gave me a good-bye book they had made (under the direction of one of the editors – thank you Jamila). It still makes me cry every time I open it.
But I wondered why they made this parting gift for me. I certainly never received books of gratitude from my American Lit or Intro to Psych students. What was it about the journalism classes that had such an impact on my students?
Then I read “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era” by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, and I felt like they nailed it.
“For the last century, the classroom experience for most students has revolved around lectures, note-taking, recall-based tests, and grades. Clubs, sports, and social interaction were regarded as providing a welcome break from the intense learning process. We will see, however, that most lecture-based courses contribute almost nothing to real learning. Consequential and retained learning comes, to a very large extent, from applying knowledge to new situations or problems, research on questions and issues that students consider important, peer interaction, activities, and projects. Experiences, rather than short-term memorization, help students develop the skills and motivation that transforms lives.”
My journalism classes were full of experiences. Students had choice and voice to spare. They picked the topics they wanted to write about or film based on their own interests and the relevance to their audience. They found primary and secondary sources. They conducted interviews in person or via Skype, phone, Hangout, email or social media at all hours of the day and night, and wrote draft after draft (or edited videos ad nauseam) until they were ready for publication.
Once published online, it was out there for the world to see. Some months they had up to 20,000 unique visitors to their site from around the world. This was not just a student publication – it was a digital publication. Period.
And it was fun! There were celebrations for awards. Celebrations for birthdays. And some days we simply celebrated failures that would eventually lead to success.
Students were allowed to leave campus to conduct research and interviews. Sure, they might have stopped by Starbucks for a double caramel macchiato, but they also brought back amazing stories on women’s shelters in Singapore, quotes from police officers, and reviews of art installations at the MRT stations.
They became curious about the world around them and questioned everything. They also learned to listen – really listen – and value everyone’s story, whether it was the worker at a hawker center, the quiet student who published a novel, or the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.
What about rigor, standards, and mastery of content? Those were integrated into the daily culture of the class, and it paid off when the staff was awarded the Online Pacemaker Award from the National Scholastic Press Association, which is considered the Pulitzer Prize of student journalism.
As much as I’d like to think it was me, I know my students loved journalism because of the unique environment of that class and the experiences they had that encouraged them to stretch themselves, apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways, and enjoy the ups and downs of a real world work environment.
To prepare all students to succeed, it would be fantastic if we could pull some of the elements of a journalism class into every other class, allowing students to participate in their learning in a completely different way. As Wagner and Dintersmith write in “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Now, adults need to be able to ask great questions, critically analyze information, form independent opinions, collaborate, and communicate effectively.”
The same is true for our students.