What Mr. Meyer Did and Why, in His Words
As an education journalist, it didn’t take me long to recognize how important a role journalism could play in the recent movement to bring more content-based curriculums into public schools. This was part of what prompted me to launch School Life Media (SLM) in 2012, and journalism education soon became a major focus of what we were trying to do.
From the beginning I knew we would use journalism to improve student literacy and from the beginning I knew that New York Times stories would be at the heart of the program. I have since compiled a list of dozens of Times stories that I believe not only beautifully illustrate journalism’s broad content reach but also the quality of its reporting and writing in communicating that content. You can find some of them at the end of this post. In the summer of 2016, we introduced some 50 children — third through sixth grades — to the practice of journalism in various summer programs sponsored by the Hudson City School District in Hudson, N.Y.
At the invitation of our district’s middle school, the M.C. Smith Intermediate School, the following winter and spring we brought the program to one third-grade class and one fourth-grade class during the school’s regular school day as part of those classes’ state-mandated literacy unit. This fit perfectly with our mission to deliver a journalism program to all students. There were approximately 25 students in each class, representing a demographic and academic mix, including special education students and students both below and above grade level.
The pilot was successful, and the school principal invited us to present the program to the school’s entire fifth grade, some 150 students in seven different classes, including one special education classroom. We began the year with a 12-lesson program and have since expanded it to 20 lessons. Each lesson is a 35-minute period at the end of the school day, in which we provide an instructor, an aide and a complete curriculum with lesson plans. The regular classroom teacher is in the classroom and assists us. He or she remains responsible for the classroom order, as well as ensuring that we are following all education rules and regulations. One of our goals is for teachers to continue to teach the program themselves after working with us.
We introduced a two-track curriculum — a New York Times track and a Local Stories track — with detailed lesson plans and a “Module at a Glance” format developed by the third-grade teacher Marlene Parmentier. We emphasize three essential elements — the five senses, the five W’s and the five activities; four units — what is a journalist? taking notes, what’s a story? and publish; and one golden rule — finish the assignment as best you can. Our students learn by doing.
Reporter’s Notebooks, Press Conferences and Writing News Stories
At the beginning of each course, students are given reporter’s notebooks and encouraged to write in them at every opportunity. They make their own press passes, take notes on every aspect of the class, and then read from those notes in front of the class (by standing and “projecting”). They learn to stand and ask questions of guests (in “press conferences”) and, of course, write stories, and design and create pages that include the name of their paper, the date of publication, the price of the paper (though not yet implemented, it is one of the kids’ favorite tasks!), a headline, a byline, an illustration and caption, and the story – the result, we hope, of their research and note taking.
On the New York Times track, our lesson plans include New York Times stories such as “Stick Insect Helps Scientist Study How Animals Move” by James Gorman; “Should You Let Your Dog Lick Your Face?” by Christopher Mele, “Why Doesn’t the United States (Finally) Get Rid of the Penny?” by Binyamin Appelbaum. Given the age of the students – third-to-fifth-grade – we introduced these stories gradually.
All of the stories included a video; students were encouraged to take notes as they watched. We passed out a printed handout. A teacher then read the story out loud with students listening, circling words they didn’t know as they listened. Students shared with the class the words they had circled. They filled out a Critical Reading form which asks students to identify such story characteristics as headline, byline and the five W’s. We played a story game: rearranging phrases and sentences from the story and asking the students to put them together.
Though I was well aware that these Times stories were above reading level for many, if not most, of the students, I had also been in enough classrooms to know that students are sponges, and they absorb. Thus, our mantra: Students will learn journalism by doing journalism and, in the process, learn a lot of content and skills. It is a cliché, but one worth remembering: Students rise to the challenge. We don’t mandate mastery, only effort.
With our “local story” track, we encourage students to focus on familiar subjects, including local guests brought to class to discuss the subject of the New York Times story. For instance, as part of the “Stick Insect” story we invited the local high school’s robotics teacher to visit. For the penny story, we invited a local banker. We introduce the students to the “press conference” format: Students, wearing press passes that they have made, stand, identify themselves, the paper they’re with, and ask questions.
Journalism Activities and Routines
Our five activities include:
• Going to work. This means beginning each class with students writing in their reporter’s notebooks their names, the date, the time, the location, the class name and the weather (basically, a who, what, when, where and why).
• Quickwrites. On a subject chosen by the SLM instructor, write for two minutes in their reporter’s notebooks.
• Quick Review: What did we do last class (use your reporter’s notebook for reference).
• Press Conferences. An interview with a guest.
• Assignments. Write on a subject chosen by the SLM instructor that does not have tight time constraints. A perennial favorite is, “Interview with my shoe.”
• Oh yes, we also have a “pub party” at the last class, which includes passing out certificates of completion and awards (e.g., the Speed Demon Writing Award for filling the most pages in their reporter’s notebooks), as well as healthy foods like fruit and vegetable platters and water.
As the final step, the students’ pages are then copied, “bound” and distributed.
A note on computers: We have adopted a decidedly manual approach to our task. We use Smartboards for showing illustrations, stories and videos from the internet, but otherwise the students use paper and pencil, especially in their reporter’s notebooks. We print the copies of the Times stories. (We adults use Google Docs to share information.)
We also encourage the use of all the senses, most especially hearing. Thus, we discourage the adults from writing words and sentences on the “board” for the kids to copy and instead encourage kids to raise their hands and ask for clarification, or ask their neighbors to help. Teachers reinforce this informational dynamic by asking various students to answer the questions, thus also reinforcing one of journalism’s golden rules: two sources.
10 Times Articles Recommended by Peter Meyer for Using With Students
An Insect That Masters Water and Air
An Obsessive Collector Who’s Drawn Royalty to Brooklyn
At 100, Still Running for Her Life
Capturing the Life of a Flower That Blooms for Less Than a Day
Hajj Prep: Search Soul, Buy Sturdy Shoes, Pay the Dentist
In More Backyards, the Chicken Comes First
It’s a Bird! No, It’s a Crocodile! Synchronized Swimming Themes Can Be Mystifying
Marine Life Thrives in Unlikely Place: Offshore Oil Rigs
Nut? What Nut? The Squirrel Outwits to Survive
The Curse of a Phoenix Weatherman: Finding New Ways to Say ‘It’s Hot’
Related Learning Network Resources
Reader Idea | For High School Online Newspapers, The Times Offers Inspiration
Improving Your ‘News Diet’: A Three-Step Lesson Plan for Teenagers and Teachers
Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News
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