Students learn journalism best if you teach them several different ways.
A colleague who’s starting her first journalism classes as an adjunct professor asked, “Any advice for the first-time professor?” I’ll answer here and in at least a couple more posts over the next week or so.
Update: I originally posted this before hearing back from the colleague about whether it was OK to use her name (since she asked the question in a private email). She quickly identified herself after I posted:
— Jenn Lord Paluzzi (@jpaluzziSun) January 14, 2014
I’m teaching my 10th college class now and have learned a few things about teaching in the classroom (and in hundreds of workshops and seminars for professional journalists). But I recognize that many friends in journalism schools have far more classroom experience than I do. So I invite them (you, if you’re teaching journalism) to weigh in with some advice, too. Much of this applies as well to training your professional colleagues. For my colleague and other new journalism professors (and perhaps for veterans, who should always be learning, too).
I’ll start by addressing the wide variety of ways that students learn and how I gear my lessons and assignments to teach students in a multitude of ways. I believe students learn in at least these ways (several of which overlap):
- Reading (textbook, assigned online readings, text on slides as you speak, things you write on the board)
- Listening (to you, guest speakers, videos)
- Visual content (videos, visuals on slides, photos, props, even costumes)
- Humor (a touch of humor can aid in memory)
- Examples (seeing and/or hearing good and bad ways of practicing a skill)
- Demonstration (showing students how to do something)
- Tips (easy-to-remember aids that help with execution of a technique)
- Writing (taking notes, assignments, quizzes and tests)
- Doing (in-class assignments, group projects, assignments)
- Feedback (grades, written and spoken comments from the instructor, comments from peers)
- Redoing (applying feedback by revising assignments and in subsequent assignments)
- Media (I sometimes use movie clips and songs to make teaching points)
In my experience, teaching is most successful when you make a point on multiple levels, maybe multiple times on some of these levels. Some students will “get” your point immediately and the repetition will help them move from understanding to mastery. Others will need multiple times and multiple ways of teaching to understand a point.
For instance, if I’m teaching a basic reporting or news writing course, one of the most important things I want to teach is how to write a strong lead. Whether you’re writing a news story, a broadcast script, a column, a social media update, a blog post or an editorial, you need to draw the reader or viewer in quickly. You need to tell the important news clearly and quickly and you need to grab and hold attention. That’s a tall order and one of writing’s most important challenges.
I might use all of the means I listed above to teach about writing leads (this isn’t something you master once in class after you “get” it; I’m still working on it some 40+ years after first learning it):
I’d choose a good textbook that explains lead-writing and assign that section to read either before or after we talk about leads. I haven’t read it yet, but I expect Chip Scanlan’s News Writing and Reporting will have a great section on leads. (Chip’s 1999 book, Reporting and Writing, was outstanding and I understand this is a pretty thorough update. He quotes me in the update.) I might also assign a few online readings, such as my blog post on writing strong leads or the late Dick Thien’s list of cliché leads.
I’d also use slides in my class on leads, reinforcing my lecture points as well as showing both good and bad leads (and some that are good but could be better).
I would certainly lecture on lead-writing as the topic of at least one class, and make points about leads in several other classes.
One thing I’ll do for sure in the class is read some leads aloud. A perfect lead sounds almost melodious. A suitcase lead that requires a pause for breath sounds ponderous.
With any guest writers visiting the class, leads might be a potential discussion point: What was your best lead ever? Why did you choose that approach for the lead on that story? Do you have any tips for coming up with a good lead?
I like short, snappy leads that get to the point clearly and quickly. When I show a “suitcase lead” on a slide, the volume of words on the screen is kind of overwhelming and helps make my point for me. But just to pile on, I count the words and show that word count on the screen, too.
I’ll leave leads here briefly to mention two other ways I use visual content. You might have raised an eyebrow above when I mentioned props and costumes as potential visual content for your teaching. So I’ll give an example of each:
Props. In my interviewing workshops, I tell a story about how a source had a bunch of documents in a Walmart sack that helped me tell her story. My point is that you need to watch and listen in an interview for your source’s “Walmart sack,” the things the source has that can help you tell the story (if you can gain her trust and get access). I open my workshop (or class) by bringing in a Walmart sack full of papers and dropping it on the table, saying that a successful interview ends with you getting access to the Walmart sack. At that point, the students don’t know what the sack represents (and I don’t tell the story until late in the workshop/class). But I pique the curiosity and after I explain, the prop helps them remember my point. I know it works because on several times, sometimes months or years after the workshop, reporters have told me about the “Walmart sack” (yes, they use the term) they got from a source. My point is more important than the prop, but the prop helps drive home the point.
Costume. As for costumes, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. I’m referring to the cap in the photo at right. Back in my writing-coach days, one of my most popular workshops was on making routine stories special (I need to post that handout on the blog someday). I started out by telling how unexcited I was about the assignment to cover the Do the Right Thing Youth Rally when I was a reporter in the Saturday rotation for the Omaha World-Herald. They handed out the hats — cheap white hats with black lettering saying “Do the right thing” — at the rally and I grabbed one to take back to the newsroom for laughs. As I tell the story in a workshop, I put the cap on my head and it looks pretty silly. Later in the workshop I tell that by listening to a speaker at the rally and making a few calls after the rally, I was able to get a story about police brutality (I may blog some updated lessons from this story someday). The cap doesn’t symbolize my point the way the Walmart sack does, but it adds some fun and self-deprecation to my discussion of the point and I often got good feedback from that workshop, too, reporters following up with anecdotes about how they made routine stories special.
A word of caution: Don’t overdo the props and costumes. An occasional item may help drive home a point. Overuse will trivialize. Make sure that you’re making a good point and that the prop or cap (or whatever) will help you get the students’ attention and/or make your point.
Well, the rally cap was an example of humor, but let’s get back to discussing how to teach writing leads: I don’t claim credit for the term suitcase lead (I used to credit Roy Peter Clark, but Roy told me it wasn’t original with him; if you know, fill me in and I’ll gladly credit). But I did coin a term to contrast with the suitcase lead. I said reporters should strive to write g-string leads: brief and enticing. Again, follow-up feedback confirmed that the humorous term helped make my point: Reporters would email me their g-string leads, using the term.
I might assign students to analyze leads written by professional journalists and discuss in class (or perhaps write on the class blog) what worked and what didn’t work in the leads.
In Monday’s class for the entrepreneurial journalism class Ken Dodelin and I co-teach at Georgetown, Ken had each of the students research a key term relating to entrepreneurial journalism and explain it to the class with a slide and citations. Though the students learned several terms in the class discussion, the research will ensure a deep understanding of one of the terms for each student.
Personal research sticks with us longer and deeper than what we hear from an instructor. I still recall some facts about Garfield County, Utah, from a report I had to write on it in the fifth grade.
Examples are especially helpful in teaching lead-writing. I show some suitcase leads and demonstrate how you can lighten the load by cutting a point or two or streamlining writing (I call those leads “carry-on bags”). I show g-string leads and some other examples of effective leads.
I mostly avoid using my own leads, though I always use one of mine that’s too long and show how I should have improved it. That bit of self-deprecation gives me license to use one of my best leads that shows a g-string lead can be serious: “Jennifer’s tiny heart gave up. But no one else would.”
I use great leads from other outstanding writers: I recall wonderful leads by Ken Fuson and Colleen Kenney that I’ve used in workshops. If a student has had a strong lead in a recent assignment, I might use that as an example.
I even use a couple examples of really effective long leads (making the point that you don’t write by arbitrary rules).
I don’t think I’d use this teaching technique for writing leads. No one needs to watch you write a lead. But you might demonstrate video techniques or data-analysis techniques before you have the students try it themselves.
When I was teaching Newspaper Next principles and techniques, in one workshop the host newsroom invited a person from the community to come in and I did a jobs-to-be-done interview with her in front of the room as a demonstration.
You need to teach principles and techniques in some detail, but sometimes a simple tip helps in the learning. Since I encourage writing short leads, I suggest cutting and pasting a draft of your lead into the tweet window (and not actually tweeting it). If your lead is longer than a tweet (often about 21-22 words), I suggest challenging whether it needs to be that long. The lead on this post isn’t great, but it fits:
Pasting draft leads into a tweet isn’t going to make a student’s leads better. But if a student is applying the principles and techniques I’ve taught about writing leads, it gives a simple measuring stick that may prompt some rewriting that will improve a lead.
Of course, lead-writing is all about writing. But in other topics, taking notes helps underscore points from the instructor. I wouldn’t require students to take notes. But I’d encourage it and might encourage strongly if a student who isn’t taking many notes is struggling.
And of course, written assignments — research or news stories — are important parts of learning, especially in a journalism class. Part of the benefit of a quiz or test is that, in addition to measuring what the students have learned, you reinforce it through the act of writing.
You can’t learn lead-writing without lots of writing.
In this topic (and no doubt others), writing and doing are pretty much the same teaching method. (Not so, of course, for interviewing, design, photography, etc.) We’d work together in class to rewrite a long lead or two together. Then I’d have the students rewrite one of their own leads (or a published lead from a professional journalist if this is early enough in class that they haven’t written anything yet). We’d read some of those rewrites aloud in class.
And, of course, the students will be writing stories throughout the semester, though I might have a specific assignment to rewrite some leads.
Grades are an important part of learning, affirming the excellence of the best students, measuring the progress of most students and alerting marginal students that they need to knuckle down.
But it’s also important to provide more detailed feedback: Tell a student why a lead worked (or didn’t), praise a g-string lead rather than just giving an A, show how to lighten the load of a suitcase lead, rather than just giving a B-.
Feedback from you and classmates is also an important part of in-class exercises.
I’m not sure you should allow students to redo every assignment or to redo an assignment just to get a better grade. I’ve turned down those requests before. But, especially in teaching writing, rewriting is an important part of your lesson. I want students to make rewriting part of their writing routine. So, in a writing class, I might nudge a grade up slightly — from a B to a B+, for instance — for a good rewrite.
I think one of the most common mistakes journalists make in writing is staring at the blank screen waiting for inspiration for the perfect lead or reworking the lead again and again trying to perfect it before you work on the second paragraph. I believe the best way to write a lead is to write the first draft without being very demanding and work on the lead in rewriting, after you have a better understanding of what the story will say.
I can explain all that in class, but I think the lesson is more memorable coming from Sean Connery. So early in the class, I would show this great clip from “Finding Forrester” (I’d advance it to about the 40-second mark to start).
I might end the class (and I’ve ended many workshops) with a quick game of “Name that Tune.” I play the audio of Patsy Cline‘s version of “Crazy” (video is below, but I wouldn’t project it, of course), asking students to name the tune as soon as they recognize it. Even with groups mostly born 30 years or more after Cline made the tune famous, I’ve had only a couple times (once with an audio problem on my computer) that people didn’t recognize the tune immediately, before she sings the first word.
I turn down the volume and talk over the song as I make my point. I ask them if they know what Willie Nelson‘s original lead/title was when he first wrote the song. It was “Stupid.” as the song plays, I note how much difference that single word made and that he found the perfect word, the theme, in the rewriting. I wrap up as the song wraps up (I’ve rehearsed how long the spiel needs to be to time it right), making my final point: Don’t settle for a stupid lead when some rewriting will help you write a crazy lead.
Roy Peter Clark, who used to play in a rock band and sometimes teaches writing at the piano, is the master of using music in his teaching. I remember great writing lessons from Roy using “Respect” and “Pilgrim: Chapter 33.”
The only musical instrument I can play is the iPod, but I’ve used “Johnny B. Goode” (with a great piece about voice by Roy Wenzl) to teach storytelling, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “Harper Valley PTA” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” to teach narrative techniques and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “Not Ready to Make Nice” to teach column-writing and “Semi-True Story” to teach accuracy.
You may have only one class during a semester focusing specifically on leads, but in grading and comments (in class and on assignments), you reinforce those points again and again and again.
The repetition and variety work together. Some students will learn more from listening, others from reading. All will probably learn best by doing, but you need to teach them some basic points before you turn them loose on assignments. With a variety of teaching methods, you will reach more students with your basic lessons and underscore those lessons with the students.
What’s your advice?
As noted above, lots of journalism professors, especially those teaching full-time have far more classroom experience than I do. When it comes to developing syllabi, grading and other issues specific to teaching at the college level, I know my colleague will benefit more from your advice than mine.
If you have written (or read) some advice for journalism profs, please share the links in the comments or by email. Or let me know if you’d be willing to write a blog post, either with general advice or on a specific topic. Or you can post to your own blog and send me a link. I’ll link to it here and make it part of this series.
Next up for me in this series: The different levels of content you want to teach.
Disclosure: I haven’t taught college students to write leads since the 1980s. Though I’ve adapted my advice to the classroom setting, this reflects my workshops on lead-writing for professional journalists. I chose this topic because it fits the basic journalism classes my colleague will be teaching, rather than the graduate classes I’ve taught the last few years.
Final note: Yes, I know many journalists, especially those of my generation, spell the term for the first sentence or paragraph of a story “lede.” I explained in my post on lead-writing why I’ve stopped spelling it that way. Howard Owens has a good explanation, too. King Kaufman favors “lede.” I don’t care much, but I have to choose a way to spell it and I choose “lead.”
Update: Here are some responses on Twitter:
@stevebuttry Great stuff! But only 1 class for ledes? In my intro news writing class, I do 4 “lede-only” classes & discuss examples weekly.
— Lori Shontz (@lshontz) January 14, 2014
@stevebuttry Oh, and the best thing I do: Get out of the classroom, starting Week One. Classroom lessons more real once they’ve done it.
— Lori Shontz (@lshontz) January 14, 2014
@stevebuttry the way I learned — as with most journalists from UCLA — was by doing. That, and attending your seminar before RNA, of course
— Brad Greenberg (@bradagreenberg) January 14, 2014
@stevebuttry indeed, the redoing always seemed crucial for me. When you learn how to improve what worked and not to repeat what didn’t.
— Brad Greenberg (@bradagreenberg) January 14, 2014
— Lori Shontz (@lshontz) January 14, 2014
@stevebuttry Hi Steve. I take my students on field trips: City Hall, courthouse and show them hands on how to get docs, talk to clerks
— Lisa Fernandez (@ljfernandez) January 14, 2014
— Elliot Kort (@ElliotKort) January 14, 2014
— Trevor Hughes (@TrevorHughes) January 14, 2014
— Lori Shontz (@lshontz) January 14, 2014