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Creating inquiring minds or censoring them?

Posted by on Jan 13, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Creating inquiring minds or censoring them?

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A divided nation faces book and curriculum censorship, plus moves to prohibit discussion of anti-racist ideas in schools

by Candace Bowen, MJE

Can you teach controversial books in your class?

I always warn my students how dangerous question leads are and how a wrong answer can scare a reader away. But the question you just read is now my abiding concern – and should be yours, too, if you think students need to be challenged to think and to expand their minds.

A New York Times article announcing readers’ choices of the best 25 books in the last 125 years sparked a discussion on my Facebook page recently that should be a warning to everyone. The books ranged from “Charlotte’s Web” to “1984,” and “The Grapes of Wrath” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Not many comments into the strand, an English and journalism teacher, Sandy Cato, from the Northwest, wrote, “This list is interesting to me because of how few of these we would ever be able to get approved for use in school classrooms.”

“They are problematic,” she explained further, “and so many districts have become subtle censors by simply not approving or refusing to purchase important texts. Districts seem to choose to placate rather than educate if it risks conflict.”

Others added concerns related to similar issues – especially books that cover anything about race, sex/gender or politics. Some teachers had even been threatened or told flat out not to teach certain books. Now that more and more parents and community members are attending school board meetings, the battles about what to teach – and what NOT to teach – have even made headlines. The Intellectual Freedom Blog of the American Library Association covered more than 20 like these in its Jan. 7, 2022, posting:

  • The Atlanta Journalism-Constitution reported a member of the Georgia General Assembly is writing legislation to “shield children from age-inappropriate materials,” such as transgender issues, even though a national survey showed 20 percent of transgender and nonbinary youths reported attempting suicide in the previous year.
  • The Mississippi Free Press wrote about its state auditor supporting possible legislation to “ban educators from teaching ‘anti-racist’ ideas in schools.” This he posted on Facebook. 
  • NBC News focused its online article about a Texas school district that had pulled two award-winning graphic novels by Black author and illustrator Jerry Craft, one of many Black authors whose books are being banned, parents claiming they teach critical race theory.

The current “This American Life” podcast for Jan. 7, 2022, is “Talking While Black,” with Act Two devoted to an interview with Jerry Craft, who is really amazed that his “New Kid” graphic novel was so controversial. From a transcript, Chana Joffe-Walt, who interviewed him said, “What’s so interesting to me about this book in particular being kind of drawn into this CRT battle that’s supposedly about history. But your book is not a history book. This is literally just you writing down the story of your life.

Jerry Craft replies, “Right, yeah. It literally is based on what I actually see. There’s nothing that I haven’t lived myself.”

Now that more and more parents and community members are attending school board meetings, the battles about what to teach – and what NOT to teach – have even made headlines. The Intellectual Freedom Blog of the American Library Association covered more than 20 like these in its Jan. 7, 2022, posting.

The American Library Association’s Banned Books Week annually points out the harm of limiting student access to books and supports students’ right to explore and learn. About last year’s theme – “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us” —  the ALA website pointed out, “Sharing stories important to us means sharing a part of ourselves. Books reach across boundaries and build connections between readers. Censorship, on the other hand, creates barriers.”

For 2022, Banned Books Week is Sept. 18-24.

There is hope, though. Further down in my Facebook post, Jenna Bates, journalism and English teacher at Bio-Med Science Academy in northeast Ohio, said, “It may help a bit to know that it’s not all districts. Where I teach, I — and I alone — decide the curriculum for my ELA course. I’m starting ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ next week (only one student requested an alternate book), and we’ll do ‘The Hate U Give’ later this year. I’m lucky, but I do share your concerns about the profession and what it means to the future.”

When I taught high school English in Illinois, I must admit feeling a certain personal satisfaction when teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book the librarian removed from my high school library in Des Moines, Iowa, but one that has such important messages to deliver.

Today, I think one step further and wonder if some of our leaders would have been better off if they had read and taken to heart Atticus’s advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Books can teach us a lot about each other we might now learn any other way.

For information about teaching controversial books

Want to teach a controversial book but aren’t sure where to start? The Harvard Graduate School of Education has a website called “Usable Knowledge: Relevant research for today’s educators.” A Jan. 9, 2019 post by Jill Anderson, “Bringing Controversial Books into the Classroom,” has a list of six tips and explanations to help.

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Riding out the storm:

Posted by on Aug 15, 2020 in Blog | 0 comments

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Find your way past roadblocks to save stories only YOU can do best

by Candace Bowen, MJE

Unfortunately, the pandemic is the perfect storm for high school media. Students have important stories only they can tell, but administrators really don’t want all these stories out there. On top of that, some admins are already finding ways to hamper reporting – or stop it altogether.

Being aware of these tactics and knowing how to combat them is vital as student journalists and their advisers start back to school this fall. Whether remote, face-to-face or some hybrid, the basic plan is to be sure student media coverage is thorough and professional, able to stand the scrutiny it might have to face.

So far, we’ve seen the usual – students threatened with suspension and punishment, even in states with New Voices legislation. But we’ve also seen more than usual budget-cutting and financial excuses for eliminating student publications. Then, too, FERPA – NOT an act that applies to student media – may again be an excuse to try to limit coverage, and HIPAA, also not applied properly, may become another excuse. 

Read on to see how to react and what you may be able to do to stay safe and counter some of these strategies.

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When is free speech not so free?

Posted by on Mar 25, 2019 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

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Just because legislation or mandates say they protect and promote student voices and student thought, doesn’t necessarily mean they do.


by Candace Bowen, MJE
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

That may be a cliché, but it’s often spot on. And no more so than news lately of various orders and state legislation and school policies seeming to promote free speech. That’s a great idea, right?

Well, maybe not.

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The next Woodward and Bernstein
may be in your journalism class now

Posted by on Nov 4, 2017 in Blog, News, Scholastic Journalism | 0 comments

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by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

Some say the next wave of great investigative journalists may be getting inspired now. Do you have a Pulitzer winner on YOUR staff? Are you teaching someone who could investigate the next Watergate break-in? What can you do to encourage him or her?

Sure, plenty of problems face today’s reporters: financial challenges for traditional newspapers, less-than-impressive wages, an attitude at the highest level of government that says media are the enemy, sometimes even threats of jail.

But Margaret Sullivan in the Fall 2017 Columbia Journalism Review had some good insight in her “Trump and the Watergate effect: Will young journalists still be inspired by today’s watchdog reporting?”

She remembers watching the Watergate hearings on tv as a child and realizing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made this all happen. “What these journalists did offered not only an important mission, but a gritty, roll-up-your-sleeves glamour. So, thanks to Watergate, Woodstein and Deep Throat, I was launched. And so were a generation of baby-boomer journalists—thousands of us. Some were in college in the mid ’70s. Others, like me, were in high school, or even younger.”

Will the reporters who are covering the Trump era — which, in some ways, is like the Nixon era with a special prosecutor, investigations into corruption and talk of possible impeachment — inspire today’s high school and college students to go into this career that can have a huge impact?

In today’s world of fake news, of chants to lock up journalists and of an attorney general who appears willing to prosecute those involved in leaks, is there still a calling?

Will the reporters who are covering the Trump era — which, in some ways, is like the Nixon era with a special prosecutor, investigations into corruption and talk of possible impeachment — inspire today’s high school and college students to go into this career that can have a huge impact?

How do we help recruit the best and the brightest to make a difference for us all?

First, we need to refute some of the arguments against a journalism career. Sure, some newspapers are struggling and cutting staff, but some are not, and, more important, newspapers are not the only venue even for investigative journalists.

The Pew Research Center reports, “In the U.S., roughly nine-in-ten adults (93 percent) get news online (either via mobile or desktop), and the online space has become a host for the digital homes of both legacy news outlets and new, ‘born on the web’ news outlets.”

Exposés don’t have to appear only in the New York Times. According to The Guardian, blogs have revealed everything from contaminated dog food to a reduced number of U.S. attorneys. Good journalists can be there, too.

Then we have to convince students what those following the Watergate era knew: They CAN make a difference. The watchdog role of the media is still vital in a democracy, and, without it, we’ve lost the foundation of our government.

What do today’s college students think?

Ben Orner, senior journalism major at Kent State University, said his high school interest in covering sports grew when he reached college. “I was able to make the connections between my news consumption, what I was learning in classes and how this could have an impact.”

He said he can see how journalism makes a difference. “Whether it’s big like Watergate or like corruption in the local city council,” he said he sees how journalists have make a difference.

“The ‘Trump Era’ inspires young journalists to hold their leaders accountable,” he said.

Kent State sophomore broadcast major Gretchen Lasso said she thinks the recent political climate has made her a more vocal journalist. She acknowledges when she arrived on campus she was not a very critical media consumer. “Now I’m better able to analyze news and decide if it’s credible.”

She said criticism of the media has made her “work harder to verify my own sources” and be a better journalist in the future.

Who knows if Ben and Gretchen will be future Woodwards and Bernsteins, but today’s media climate has served to challenge and inspire them. Could that happen to students in high school now?

Our democracy needs watchdogs who are willing to consider low pay and taunts from some crowds as the price to pay for a better democracy.

 

 

 

 

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Tips for training ethical reporters

Posted by on Aug 26, 2017 in Blog, Ethical Issues, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

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by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

What’s the best advice you can give your beginning reporters? What’s going to help them enjoy what they are doing because they’re doing it well?

Columbia Journalism Review had an outstanding article in mid-August by Adeshina Emmanuel and Justin Ray. “Top journalists reveal the best reporting advice they have received,”  which covers a wide range of suggestions from keeping lists for future story ideas to starting at a small news outlet so you can make your mistakes there. (Maybe that applies to student media, too?)

But to me the best suggestions are those that warn young reporters not to have preconceived notions when they start to write an article. It’s hard to get at the truth that way.

An exchange with student reporters that always raises my hackles:

Me: How’s your story coming?

Cub reporter: I just need one more quote.

No! She may need a quote to show an expert view or make the article more lively, but the thing she really needs is more information – and not necessarily when she thinks she should go out and get.

In the CJR article, The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan says she’s not sure where she learned this – maybe “Reporting 101,” but she still finds it helpful. “Report against your own biases. That is, include the reporting that has a chance of proving you wrong, not just confirming what you already think or think that you know. At the very least, this will allow you to know in advance what the objections to a story might be. It tends to make reporting more fair—and more bulletproof.”

The underlining is mine because this may be the most important lesson to learn about ethical journalism. Any reporter who approaches a story convinced about what he or she will find is going to miss the real story out there. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can be so sure what’s right and wrong, real and false, they make assumptions that destroy their reporting.

So, the most important thing they need to learn is probably not AP Style or where to put the commas – it’s starting out with an open mind that will allow them to find and write the truth.

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Note: Another CJR article full of good suggestions and a link in this same CJR piece is “Eight simple rules for accurate journalism,” by Craig Silverman, written in 2011 but very true still today.

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