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Bringing help to news deserts: Lesson Plan

Posted by on Sep 16, 2023 in Blog | Comments Off on Bringing help to news deserts: Lesson Plan



The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at University of North Carolina first reported on the “news desert” phenomenon in 2016. And the picture only became more dire. Today, the Center’s definition is “a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.”

Think about it: If voters don’t know what’s going on in government, how can they make informed decisions in the voting booth? How can they choose the right leaders if all they hear is hype from one side or even conflicting information from several sides? As far as schools go, how can they decide who should be on the school board, the group that makes important decisions about curriculum, administrators and policies that impact everyone?

In a news desert that doesn’t have trained journalists seeking truth and expert opinions about education in its community, students can help fill that void. What can students do to ensure factual and useful information gets to voters before they go to the polls? How can they help their families and neighbors and still learn a lot as they do so?

That’s where this lesson plan can get the process started.


  • Students will acknowledge that local news media are missing important stories about education in their community. 
  • Students will recognize how information about certain topics make a difference in how voters will react.
  • Students will be practice news coverage that is well-sourced and fairly balanced.
  • Students will set up a plan to start filling the holes in educational news coverage in their communities.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid, and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account. 
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper). 
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose. 


Two or more class periods – to introduce and set up the possibilities. (Four days between to give students time to use the graphic organizers for their “research.”

Materials / resources

Day 1 step-by-step

  1. Bell-ringer: Ask students to write on a slip of paper where they and their family get their news. Tell them to be specific – which websites, newspapers, magazines, television, social media, friends, etc.
  2. Then zero in by asking them where they get their information about what’s going on in their school district? What kinds of stories do they see or hear about local schools and education? (NOTE: If students consume little media, give them time to hunt for local stories online and see what they can find. You might start by listing some possible categories: school board decisions, school board meetings, school district hiring/firing, curriculum content/books, topics, etc., activities in classes, sports scores and game coverage, sports coaching, sports equipment, building conditions/maintenance, extra-curricular activities — clubs, debate, student government etc.) Is that information important to voters? Is it available to them?
  3. If they are in an educational news desert, this may be difficult, so stop the process when students start complaining they are finding nothing. You’ve made your point.
  4. Share with them the definition of a news desert. (See pulled quote halfway down this page) 
  5. Discuss if students think they are in a news desert, specifically about their local schools. Why or why not? List on the board the stories of things going on in their school district that community members should know about. Help students separate rumor from reportable information.
  6. On their own computers or one the teacher uses to project, look at the “Do you live in a news desert?” map and explanation. Also use the pull-down below it to look at your state. What are you learning?
  7. Distribute the two graphic organizers and discuss keeping track over the next four days what they find in local media about their schools and what they believe from being in the schools SHOULD be reported.

Five days later step by step

  1. First discuss the findings of education coverage in your community. How extensive is it? What stories are being told? Who is telling them? Do they seem accurate and thorough?
  2. Then discuss what is missing. Make a list on the board of the stories students think the community should know and why they should know this.
  3. When most stories are listed, then go back and fill in who could/should be sources for reporters trying to tell these stories.
  4. Finally – and this might take several days to work through – what ways could this class/staff get the important information out to the community? Things go consider:
    1. Who would do the reporting? Whom would they interview?
    1. What media outlets could they use?
      1. Student news website?
      1. Student print media?
      1. Instagram?
      1. Twitter?
      1. Facebook?
      1. Any other potential outlets?
    1. How would be promote this and let the community know it is for them?
    1. What are the pros and cons of trying to do this?

Teacher notes: 

Clearly, this is an ongoing commitment. Students would have to see the value and what would be gained by doing this. And they can’t turn into local community reporters overnight. But even if just two or three important stories get out that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, it’s a way to help the community, the students, the faculty, and, in essence, democracy.

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Turn that mic back on!

Posted by on Feb 13, 2022 in Blog | Comments Off on Turn that mic back on!


by Candace Bowen, MJE

Having a principal censor a student media article is bad, but there’s something worse.

It may start with an administrator’s polite suggestions to reporters not to “make the school look bad.” It may involve only slightly veiled threats about not being about to write an editor’s college recommendation letters.

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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?


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


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


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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