Teaching Opinion

Why We Write: Scholastic Journalism Educators on the Importance of Modeling

By Starr Sackstein — October 20, 2017 5 min read
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Guest post by Evelyn Lauer

Today (October 20) marks the National Day on Writing (#WhyIWrite), which was founded by the National Council of Teachers of English to celebrate the writing that takes place in our classrooms and the writing we do ourselves.

Yes, writing takes a center stage in most English classes; however, sometimes that writing (journal entries, poems, essays) doesn’t go beyond the eyes of the student who writes it and the teacher who grades it.

In scholastic journalism classes, particularly those that produce student-run publications, writing comes alive in the form of yearbooks, news magazines, newspapers, literary magazines, news websites, and broadcasts.

Students write for real audiences, edit their peers’ work, and create actual products. And, as their teachers, we, too, write and edit and create on our own to model these skills.

To join NCTE in its #WhyIWrite event, the Journalism Education Association asked three media advisers to reflect on why it’s important to model writing for our journalism students:

Rebekah L. Goode, CJE, Woodward Academy, College Park, Ga.

I write to find out what I think, to take clouds of unformed thoughts and create order. In college, my Dante professor gave the best final—one question and three hours to write. Halfway through a stack of Blue Books, I realized getting all those words on paper had pushed me further than any conventional assessment. I knew more walking out of the exam than I did walking in.

Twitter and other social media may be useful for firing off hot takes or commiserating with like minds, but communicating in 140 (or 280) characters doesn’t give space to develop thoughts and reach carefully reasoned conclusions.

With the media’s attention-seeking chaos swirling around in my head, writing helps me clean house and take out the garbage. While finished pieces are great—and sometimes grace—daily personal writing, like Anne Lamott recommends, fine-tunes my perspective and gets me emotionally ready to nurture and challenge teenagers in the classroom.

Writing, especially for freelance assignments, also keeps me real. As a journalism teacher, I engage in doing the work I expect of my students. The blank page they face, I face too. The bazillion editor comments they get, I get too. Showing them the edits I receive on my own work not only helps them not feel dumb, it makes us feel part of the same team, focused on working towards the quality of writing we want to achieve without shutting down or taking things personally.

By writing my own pieces—be it news, poetry, or that memoir the kids keep asking for—I can empathize with my students who are stuck, who struggle with organization and deadlines, and who really don’t want to kill their darlings.

Practically, writing keeps me plugged in. Knowing what editors are looking for, what the workflow looks like, and how folks prefer to communicate helps me pass on real-world best practices. When students venture out and get internships, they are ready to get busy telling the important stories. My graduates keep writing and, in turn, inspire me to look at another blank document and wonder what could be.

Patrick Johnson, MJE, Antioch High School, Antioch, Ill.

We all know it: writing is deeply personal.

For me, #WhyIWrite involves me thinking critically about my past, honestly reflecting about my present and incessantly attempting to thoughtfully predict my future. However, the traditional model of time isn’t always why I write. In fact, I oftentimes write to model for my future journalists.

In the scholastic journalism world, sometimes the professionals are not enough. Other schools’ work is not enough. And the work of their peers is not enough. And when all of those efforts are exhausted, there is usually only one option left and that is to sit down and write myself.

Whether it be to model the structure of a traditional news piece or share in the process of narrative and long-form feature writing, one of the most rewarding experiences in writing I’ve ever been afforded is to model for my budding journalists.

I model because my scholastic journalists need to know I, too, can do it. I model to keep myself current and relevant in the profession and in the lives of the teenagers I’m so fortunate to work with each day. I model because it provides me with an opportunity to engage with my student journalists in a highly impactful and unique way.

When I’ve given myself the chance to be vulnerable for my students, they’ve responded with tremendous support, grit and thoughtfulness. They delicately dissected my word choice, evaluated my tone and purpose, broke down the tiny nuances of structure, and celebrated (oftentimes critically) the outcome—the meat and potatoes of the piece they would also end up writing.

Not only has #WhyIWrite become #WhyIModel, but it also became a renewed investment in the craft of journalism and the power of storytelling.

Modeling writing to inspire storytelling is #WhyIWrite. And writing is a privilege I will not be relinquishing anytime soon—no matter who attempts to censor me.

John Walter, CJE, Junction City High School, Junction City, Kan.

As an educator and student media adviser, I write because I ask my students to do so. It provides me an opportunity to model the same expectations that I have for students in the classroom.

Writing allows me to contribute my thoughts and ideas to a global conversation and reflect on my successes and failures in the classroom.

The process forces me to revise, analyze and critically think about important issues in ways that I might not have done otherwise. It has also pushed my practice and helped me create a network of colleagues who inspire me learn more and do better on a daily basis.

In a world that has more methods of communication than ever before it is important that we develop the necessary skills to effectively teach and model multiple forms of writing. By dedicating time to practice writing, we get better in the process.

And so I write, because I believe that there is value in all voices. Mine included.

Why do you write? Model writing? Please share and don’t forget to use the hashtag #WhyIWrite

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