Teaching High School Journalism: Challenges & Opportunities for Imparting Academic Skills (By Charles McKinney)

26 May 2020 9:00 PM | Anonymous

“If you could teach any elective course, what would it be?” the high school principal asked me on my first day at the American Baccalaureate School (ABS), formerly known as the American Bilingual School, in October 2019. Thinking for a few seconds, I replied “journalism.” Thus, the interesting yearlong journey began of teaching an introductory journalism course to Kuwaiti high school students in what would be my first experience teaching both a journalism class and all-female students. Nonetheless, it was a promising challenge I was ready to embrace.

ABS publishes a quarterly newsletter every academic year that showcases schoolwide events, student and staff honorable recognition, and direct quotes from the administrators befitting of the theme for that particular issue. School management takes pride in distributing this 20-page publication to parents, students and faculty of the ABS community.

Producing it is no easy feat as I have come to understand as the person who would assume responsibility for its creation as the new journalism teacher. The social media specialist/graphic artist and school photographer knew the ins and outs of creating this media product, and he became my closest ally in showing me the process used to bring the ABS Times periodical to life.

Thankfully, I had time to adapt to the school climate and students before launching out into the deep waters of educating teenage girls on the principles and practices of journalism, with an emphasis on teaching them graphic design skills that would enable them to design the newsletter, themselves, under my tutelage.

So, I shadowed my predecessor, Dr. Verica Savic, for a month to learn the ropes. She introduced me to the students, showed me her work pattern and became another ally with whom I could consult and confide in both during and after my “apprenticeship”. I still recall us working diligently with the graphic artist to put out the first issue of the newsletter, which was not easy in that neither of us was familiar with the graphic design software used to assemble it.

Hit the Ground Running

Now let’s flash forward to the second quarter when I embarked on the role of full-time journalism instructor for the second half of the semester-long course. I knew how I wanted to conduct the class and what I wanted to teach; ergo, I was excited to share my passion for this subject to a group of students who might appreciate all that the course content had to offer.

Infatuated with the textbook because of its user-friendly, practical exploration of scholastic journalism with real-world case studies and sidebars of best practices, I planned to capitalize on the value it would bring to the class. So, I took the students to the inventory shop to check out their student textbooks, Introduction to Journalism (A Nextext Coursebook), in our first week of class. They would be responsible for reading the assigned chapters and keeping pace with the lessons and assignments that I would post on their unique Google Classroom page.

While teaching the first semester group of journalism students proved challenging as most of them had no interest in the class and did not choose to be in it, the second semester group of young ladies blew me away with their humble respect, keen interest and diligent work ethic. Several of them already had graphic design and website building experience, which they could and did use to their creative advantage in the class.

It was a breath of fresh air to begin the new semester with a clean slate wherein I could “run the class as I saw fit,” according to the headmistress. The second semester group of young ladies demonstrated how much they wanted to learn about journalism.  I began this class by distributing a needs assessment via Google form (my school used Google Education Suite) to determine their learning needs/goals/interests. Thus, I’d be able to tailor my lesson planning and teaching techniques in a way to accommodate their objectives as students new to this field of study.

In fact, I later discovered that some of them had preconceived notions that the class would be boring as they wrote in the class evaluation toward the end of the class: “I would totally recommend this class to other students. At first I thought that it would be a boring class, but it was a really fun class. I am so glad that I have chosen journalism.” However, over time they have come to relish the class as they pointed out because it allowed them to tap into the creative hemisphere of their brains by working on versatile, practical assignments meant to strengthen their writing, editing, and research skills all while allowing them to be inventive in their work.

Project-Based Learning At Best

For instance, they had to complete an infographic project, and it enabled them to exploit their graphic design savvy by creating an informational graphic (i.e., infographic or infograph) about any current event or on an original story they previously wrote for the class. Indeed, I embraced other student-generated creative ideas as it’s my teaching philosophy to promote the 21st century global skills of creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, which are essential for both the personal and professional success of the next generation, in my classes.

As became the pattern with this ambitious and tenacious class, they managed to wow me with their creative genius by creating infographics representative of their individual tastes. Many of them used a website called Piktochart, a graphic designer’s paradise perfect for concocting all sorts of visually appealing projects, including posters, presentations and infographics. The free website has a myriad of templates from which to choose; this was a prime instance of how teachers can learn from their students because I never knew about this online resource until I began evaluating their colorful and aesthetically pleasing infographics.

Another project that they told me they treasured was the interview story assignment in which they had to interview someone about a unique story idea that they would later craft into an article related to one of the four types of interviews that we studied in class. Throughout the semester, I encouraged them to read and explore the textbook because it was very student-friendly and contained many student-written news stories useful for careful analysis.

Working in partners for this real-world journalistic task, they generated interesting story ideas, received helpful teacher tips on interviewing and proceeded to conduct their interviews. Then, they had a week, post-interview, to work on their stories before submission for evaluation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading their stories. One student pair interviewed their mothers about the Gulf War in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, leaving Kuwaiti citizens desolate and despondent.  The story contained original photographs from the historic event and was written in an in-depth Q&A format.

Another student interviewed her father about his experience living and studying in the United States as a working family man. Another student pair interviewed three random foreign expatriates about their lifestyles in Kuwait. This assignment pushed them out of their comfort zones into the realm of the genuine duty of a journalist: gathering and talking to sources for information needed to write a compelling and competent newsworthy story that resonates with readers.

The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly truncated the class curriculum and semester once we transitioned to virtual learning. Our hopeful plan of going on a field trip to a real media outlet dissipated, and I could not cover everything that I had hoped to teach prior to the abrupt school closure. Nonetheless, the class managed the e-learning situation well after overcoming initial, inevitable hurdles of adaptability to a brand new schedule and way of learning from/at home.

An advocate for presentations and public speaking, I assigned students the task of finding a professional journalist to research that they would then create a presentation about for the purpose of presenting it to our virtual class, which worked well pre-spring break in April. Once again they dazzled me with the diversity and depth of the journalists they chose to research, some of whom are as follows: Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, Walter Cronkite, Hu Shuli, Shereen Bhan and Louis Theroux.

The Joy of Teaching and Learning

All in all, it’s probably no understatement to say that the students found the class rigorous and overwhelming, at times, especially for an elective course that many view as an easy GPA booster; however, their overall positive feedback has shown that journalism is a vivacious and multifaceted subject crucial to the democratic ideals of a flourishing global society.

When asked about what she enjoyed most and/or least about the introductory journalism class, one student wrote the following survey response: “I've enjoyed the whole learning process in this class since it allowed me to improve and develop my writing skills. I also enjoyed how this class allowed me to live the life of a journalist. It gave me the chance to roam around the school to get that perfect story that could eventually make it into the ABS Times. However, all great things come with their bad sides. The thing that I enjoyed least about the class was the fact that it was the first period of our day. I believe that this class deserved to take place after most students are awake. I say this because, during class, most of us are tired and can't function that fast, which may reduce the value of the course.”

And for the grand finale! The students’ knowledge, awareness, skills and attitude of journalism culminated in a final project wherein they had to build a class website showcasing a reasonable dose of the spectacular work they did all semester both at school and online in what has been deemed an unprecedented era in global education in light of the health pandemic. Visit their novel website here, and peer into the window of this dynamic high school journalism class.


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