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Teaching grit for citizenship —
why we must empower, not shield students

Posted by on May 23, 2017 in Blog, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

by Kristin Taylor. The Archer School, Los Angeles, CA
Teachers, advisers and administrators want to help our students. We want to give them the tools to succeed, but we also sometimes want to protect them — to shield them from harsh truths and difficult situations.

If we want students to value citizenship, however, we must let them be citizens in school. Citizenship isn’t easy, and it isn’t “safe.” Citizenship means taking an active role, speaking truth to power, and taking risks. If we want them to learn to be citizens, we must resist that urge to shield and protect and instead empower them to make their own decisions and take responsibility for the outcomes.

By now you’ve likely heard a lot about the remarkable team of high school journalists who uncovered fraud in their incoming new principal Amy Robertson’s resume, which eventually led to her resignation. These students clearly understand citizenship and their role as watchdogs after making the hard choice to write a story directly targeting an administrator.

Equally inspiring is the Wichita Eagle’s article about Emily Smith, the adviser who gave her students the strength to take this risk. The article outlines how a student uncovered some discrepancies and asked Smith for help looking into them. A little research and a meeting with the superintendent led to disturbing information and raised troubling questions about the validity of Robertson’s educational credentials and experience.

Smith could have protected her students. She could have withheld information or told them —accurately — that pursuing this story was going to rock the boat in a serious way and could result in an adversarial relationship with their new principal. She also could have sat down with them and told them what to do — pursue it, or let it be. Instead, Smith gave them the information and left the room, leaving them to discuss and decide if they wanted to report this story. She empowered them to make a hard choice.

She told this team of six student journalists that she would support them no matter what they decided, but she also made sure they considered their societal responsibilities.

Smith could have protected her students. She could have withheld information or told them —accurately — that pursuing this story was going to rock the boat in a serious way and could result in an adversarial relationship with their new principal. She also could have sat down with them and told them what to do — pursue it, or let it be. Instead, Smith gave them the information and left the room, leaving them to discuss and decide if they wanted to report this story. She empowered them to make a hard choice.

“If you guys decide this is not your place or it’s over our head, I would completely respect that,” Smith said in a video interview about the conversation she had with them. “However, you need to think about your responsibility to the community and the situation you’re in,” she said. “It’s not always easy to do the right thing, and I think what you’re doing is right.”

Despite skepticism from superintendent Destry Brown and a Skype interview with Robertson (supervised by Brown) where students had to interrupt Robertson to ask their questions, they pursued the story. Despite being scolded by Brown for being too hard on Robertson in that interview and being told he hoped they would write “a nice piece welcoming Robertson to the community” to make up for it, they pushed on.

Despite losing Smith’s advice after Spring Break when she recused herself on the advice of the director of Kansas Scholastic Press Association due to a potential conflict of interest — she’d been on an early hiring committee panel — they kept going. Smith brought in local reporters to act as adult advice but stepped back from the process and didn’t see the final story until it was printed. Despite how hard these professional journalists pushed the students to corroborate and fact-check and sometimes re-interview, they wrote the story and met the deadline.

This is a story about grit and trust. It’s a story about teaching students to push forward despite obstacles. It’s a story about teaching teenagers that they are strong enough and smart enough and trustworthy enough to be citizens. It’s also a story about that terrifying moment when we advisers decide to step back and trust that we have given our students the tools and ethical foundation to be journalists.

As Smith notes in the video, had her students been wrong, this would have been a very different story. They would not have been invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner, nor would they be flooded with congratulatory messages from national publications or an invitation from Duke to apply to its journalism program. Smith would have been in a very awkward position with the new principal, who would likely have placed some of the blame for the students’ decisions on Smith herself — however unfairly, since students have all final say on content as per Kansas’ free speech laws.

But making mistakes is also part of being a citizen, and accountability is another crucial lesson about adult life. Part of being a good adviser is knowing you, too, are taking a risk, but the risk is worth it.

But making mistakes is also part of being a citizen, and accountability is another crucial lesson about adult life. Part of being a good adviser is knowing you, too, are taking a risk, but the risk is worth it.

The Eagle’s article ends with Connor Balthazor, one of the team of six students who reported the story, reflecting on the difference between Superintendent Brown’s and adviser Smith’s approaches to the situation:

“Although they will be recognized for their perseverance, Balthazor says he will always remember how, even as Brown tried to shield them from the dangers of the adult world, Smith pushed them to take responsibility for it.

“’She’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever had,’” Balthazor said. “’Simply from a human being perspective. She has incredible moral integrity.’”

“’You are fighting the good fight; you’re doing the right thing by doing this,’” she told them 20 times a day, he said. “’This is some of the most important work you’ll ever do.’”

“’And she was right.’”

Students need guidance, advice and foundational skills. They need an ethical framework and adult feedback from a qualified adviser to provide perspective along the way. Ultimately, though, we adults must have the courage to let our students be citizens. If they can be this brave, so can we.

 

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Op/Ed Writing With An Ethics Twist: An In-Class Lesson

Posted by on Apr 11, 2012 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

By Megan Fromm

This lesson was inspired by the recent Twitterfest regarding Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan’s tweet about the governor during a trip to the capital. The lesson will take 30+ minutes, and students will need their own paper and pencil. Here are some links for background information on the incident, which will come in handy toward the end of the lesson.

Intro:

Ask students to discuss openly what things they may not like about their school (of course, remind them that they should be as respectful as possible in this discussion). It could be anything, but the point is to stimulate a 5-minute or so discussion (that will likely get a bit heated, that’s OK!).

Write some of their statements on the board (ie: the school food sucks, the principal is mean, the school doesn’t let us have any say, lunch periods are too short, teachers give too much homework, etc). Leave blank space under the statements, and after you have a range of claims, have students go back to the ideas on the board and write supporting facts underneath each claim.  These must be provable facts, researchable items of support that lead them to believe those claims.

Exercise:

Choose the claim that has the LEAST number of supporting facts underneath. Students will then take 5-10 minutes to write the beginnings of an opinion piece on this topic (some might write 500 words, but encourage students to get at least a couple paragraphs down—you’re not editing for spelling or grammar, but how they express their opinion using ONLY the facts on the board to support their opinion).

Once the time is up, discuss with the class how easy/hard this was. What kind of information do they wish they had to support their opinions? What questions would they ask to get more information? How seriously do they think the administration/teachers/other students would take their opinion, considering the lack of facts to support it? What other facts would it take to convince people of their claim? How easy/hard would it be to argue with the opinion you’ve established?

Now, after the time is up, pick the claim with the MOST number of supporting facts, and repeat the exercise. They are allowed to support their opinion ONLY with the facts on the board. (Note: if you don’t have any claim with at least 5-7 facts, provide a few more “facts” of your own for the student to incorporate in their writing.)

Again, once the time is up, discuss how writing about this claim was different. Was it easier (it should have been)? Why? How did having more facts add to their argument?  How do they think the administration or student body would respond to these opinion pieces versus the first? How easy/hard would it be to argue with the opinion you’ve established in this piece?

Takeaway:

Follow up their responses with a discussion on informed opinions, and the value of opinion writing when it is supported by facts and research.  This process is similar to how they should start writing opinion pieces in the school paper: it all starts with a complaint, a grievance, an idea, a perspective, but the professionals know how to support their perspectives with research, facts, and explanations that sound intelligent and insightful instead of whiny.  Their research builds them up, making it harder for critics to attack what they are saying.

Follow-up

Now, use the story links at the beginning as background information to discuss what happened in Kansas with your students/staff. Once they know what has happened with Emma Sullivan, have them make a list on the board of questions or facts that would need to be addressed in order to support Sullivan’s twitter claim that the governor “sucks.”  Imagine she were writing a full opinion/editorial piece—how much information would she need to know?

“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

Finally, (depending on your time, this could be a whole different discussion) discuss with students why it is so important that as journalists, we support even our opinion/editorial perspectives with facts and research.  Why do we need to be responsible and accurate with opinion writing? Why must facts be involved? Who are we responsible to? Emma was not a journalist, no one was counting on her to be accurate, fair, and clear—what if someone on your newspaper staff wrote a tweet like hers? How can journalists have opinions but still be respected, respectful, and responsible? What kind of issues should we consider in regards to our school journalists using social media to express their opinions?  The school decided not to mandate a punishment, but what if her tweet was a line in an article in the school newspaper? 

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Op/Ed Writing With An Ethics Twist: An In-Class Lesson

Posted by on Nov 30, 2011 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

By Megan Fromm

This lesson was inspired by the recent Twitterfest regarding Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan’s tweet about the governor during a trip to the capital. The lesson will take 30+ minutes, and students will need their own paper and pencil. Here are some links for background information on the incident, which will come in handy toward the end of the lesson.

Intro:

Ask students to discuss openly what things they may not like about their school (of course, remind them that they should be as respectful as possible in this discussion). It could be anything, but the point is to stimulate a 5-minute or so discussion (that will likely get a bit heated, that’s OK!).

Write some of their statements on the board (ie: the school food sucks, the principal is mean, the school doesn’t let us have any say, lunch periods are too short, teachers give too much homework, etc). Leave blank space under the statements, and after you have a range of claims, have students go back to the ideas on the board and write supporting facts underneath each claim.  These must be provable facts, researchable items of support that lead them to believe those claims.

Exercise:

Choose the claim that has the LEAST number of supporting facts underneath. Students will then take 5-10 minutes to write the beginnings of an opinion piece on this topic (some might write 500 words, but encourage students to get at least a couple paragraphs down—you’re not editing for spelling or grammar, but how they express their opinion using ONLY the facts on the board to support their opinion).

Once the time is up, discuss with the class how easy/hard this was. What kind of information do they wish they had to support their opinions? What questions would they ask to get more information? How seriously do they think the administration/teachers/other students would take their opinion, considering the lack of facts to support it? What other facts would it take to convince people of their claim? How easy/hard would it be to argue with the opinion you’ve established?

Now, after the time is up, pick the claim with the MOST number of supporting facts, and repeat the exercise. They are allowed to support their opinion ONLY with the facts on the board. (Note: if you don’t have any claim with at least 5-7 facts, provide a few more “facts” of your own for the student to incorporate in their writing.)

Again, once the time is up, discuss how writing about this claim was different. Was it easier (it should have been)? Why? How did having more facts add to their argument?  How do they think the administration or student body would respond to these opinion pieces versus the first? How easy/hard would it be to argue with the opinion you’ve established in this piece?

Takeaway:

Follow up their responses with a discussion on informed opinions, and the value of opinion writing when it is supported by facts and research.  This process is similar to how they should start writing opinion pieces in the school paper: it all starts with a complaint, a grievance, an idea, a perspective, but the professionals know how to support their perspectives with research, facts, and explanations that sound intelligent and insightful instead of whiny.  Their research builds them up, making it harder for critics to attack what they are saying.

Follow-up

Now, use the story links at the beginning as background information to discuss what happened in Kansas with your students/staff. Once they know what has happened with Emma Sullivan, have them make a list on the board of questions or facts that would need to be addressed in order to support Sullivan’s twitter claim that the governor “sucks.”  Imagine she were writing a full opinion/editorial piece—how much information would she need to know?

“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

Finally, (depending on your time, this could be a whole different discussion) discuss with students why it is so important that as journalists, we support even our opinion/editorial perspectives with facts and research.  Why do we need to be responsible and accurate with opinion writing? Why must facts be involved? Who are we responsible to? Emma was not a journalist, no one was counting on her to be accurate, fair, and clear—what if someone on your newspaper staff wrote a tweet like hers? How can journalists have opinions but still be respected, respectful, and responsible? What kind of issues should we consider in regards to our school journalists using social media to express their opinions?  The school decided not to mandate a punishment, but what if her tweet was a line in an article in the school newspaper? 

Read More