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Journalism Class and the Value of Project-Based Learning

Jim Streisel's high school journalism students used this photo illustration in the Carmel High School newspaper. The photo ran alongside the revised version of a story on sensitive moral issues in schools.
Jim Streisel's high school journalism students used this photo illustration in the Carmel High School newspaper. The photo ran alongside the revised version of a story on sensitive moral issues in schools.
—Nivedha Meyyappan
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The newspaper’s cover featured a beautifully composed photo of a girl with tape covering her mouth. The title underneath the photo read, “Freedom of Choice,” but the words were crossed out with angry red lines. Inside the paper, the story to which the cover alluded featured more wonderfully composed and well-lit images—a close-up of just the tape-covered mouth with the words “Do Not Speak” written over it and a mid-range shot of a girl wearing a midriff-revealing shirt with the words “My body equals my choice” written in marker over her stomach.

All told, it was beautiful imagery. Unfortunately, the images didn’t represent the angle of the actual story very well. In fact, the story was not about abortion or the school’s ability to squash student expression, as the photos might have suggested. Rather, it was about how our school, and public schools in general, have to tread carefully when they deal with sensitive moral issues. The “face” of the story happened to be that of a group of students who had started a pro-choice club, which the school eventually permitted, but it could have been about any number of other clubs that dealt with similar issues.

All of this led to a fantastic discussion with the newspaper’s editors, reporters, and photographers about our readers and how the media can often skew a story even with non-verbal imagery. The students had worked hard to produce both the story and the design, but because they didn’t work together, the staff had to make some tough decisions about how to change the pages to more closely represent the angle before we sent them to be published.

Welcome to my classroom, a place where conversations like this happen on a regular basis.

"I teach 'transferable' skills—meeting deadlines, managing time, learning to speak and write clearly and fluently—that happen to center around the common language of journalism."

Let me back up a bit. I’m a journalism teacher at a large, suburban school district in central Indiana. The journalism program here often attracts the brightest of the bright even though, until recently, the students took a hit on their report cards because the course wasn't weighted, unlike their other “academic” classes. So why do they still come? After all, my class is extremely rigorous. Students write a lot. They have to work very hard. They stay up late to meet deadlines, and they often get very little positive feedback from their readers; such is the nature of journalism.

I would like to think they come because I’m just so darn charismatic, but I’m sure the answer lies deeper than that. I’ve often told students that what I teach is not journalism; instead, I teach “transferable” skills—meeting deadlines, managing time, learning to speak and write clearly and fluently—that happen to center around the common language of journalism. At our annual fall open house, I explain to my students’ parents that we already know exactly what we need to accomplish from Day One. We journalism teachers have been doing this for decades. We call it common sense.

The Project of Learning

Apparently, it’s also called project-based learning, an instructional movement that has gained some traction in recent years with research spearheaded by groups like the Buck Institute for Education.

According to the research from the Buck Institute, project-based learning is a class activity in which students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Students in a project-based learning classroom practice so-caled 21st-century skills (such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking) and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations.

Sound familiar? It sure did to me, and I’m sure that none of this information sounds earth shattering. To my journalism-teacher colleagues around the country, it’s just what we do. We give kids ownership in a messy problem. We tell them to solve the problem using the skills they have learned in our classes (rooted in specific content standards). We produce products for a real audience, and we critique those products to learn how to continue to improve them. Then we repeat the cycle, day in, day out, year after year after year.

So why teach a class using this project-based learning method? Aren’t there other ways to help students understand the curriculum without going through such elaborate processes?

For students in our program, it’s all about the performance and the sense of ownership in a real-world product. The students in my program care about what they’re doing. They know thousands of their peers will see their words and images. They know what they do is important. They immerse and invest themselves in doing a good job.

For me as a teacher, the performance—the newspaper itself—is just a byproduct of the learning process. The product helps me formatively to assess where students are working well and where they can still improve. I am less concerned with the actual product than I am with what my students did to get there. I want them to ask big questions. I want them to know what they don’t know and then figure out whom they need to talk to in order to get answers. I want them to learn lifelong skills that will serve them well beyond these walls.

Making Room for Electives

I’m sure teachers of other electives can relate to these sentiments. Performing arts, industrial technology, art—all have obvious components of project-based learning in their classrooms.

And research supports such methods. Again, falling back on the Bucks Institute, students in a PBL classroom gain a deeper understanding of the concepts and standards at the heart of a project, build lifelong habits of learning, and can motivate students who might otherwise find school boring or meaningless.

I see evidence of those attributes every day. I just wish students had more opportunities for these types of experiences. Unfortunately, as we push more and more students toward AP courses and STEM education, we sacrifice the opportunities for students to truly gain the transferable skills that project-based electives, like journalism classes, work so hard to develop. Even in our school, despite our growing enrollment, I have watched as the numbers in my program have stagnated; students have too many other requirements to complete, leaving less time for elective classes, and less time for opportunities to really set them apart from their peers.

And that means fewer opportunities for experiences like the scenario I outlined in the beginning of this article. After our conversations, the students were able to rethink their coverage. With a better understanding of the angle of the story, the editors were able to plan and reshoot imagery that was much more in keeping with the spirit of the article. Instead of the girl with tape over her mouth, the cover photo became a shot of a girl holding a megaphone with caution tape draped over it. The title itself was changed from “Do Not Speak” to “Speak with Caution.” When the piece was finally published in December 2013, it received positive feedback, and despite the amount of hard work and regrouping the students had to do, I think they were far more satisfied with the results.

It wasn’t perfect, though. At the end of the process, the designer in charge of the pages came to me and said that, while she really appreciated our discussions, she wished we had had “more time to implement those changes instead of trying to do everything in a week.” I smiled and said that had more to do with time management than design.

And I told her that that was discussion we can save for later. After all, there’s always a next issue to provide more lessons.

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