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Five steps for a great start to the school year

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The typical to-do list of journalism teachers during the back to school season often includes setting up the newsroom, prepping lessons, attending professional development days and coordinating with editors and staffers. Whether that list lives in a mobile app, Google Doc or pretty new notebook, it’s usually a long one.

But adding these five things to the teacher to-do list will make for a great experience all year long. A little extra planning and outreach in August builds a foundation for students and colleagues that truly sets the tone for student press freedom, positive working relationships and increased awareness on campus.

Consider these for a great start:

  1. Get on the school calendar now for Constitution Day. Administrators often develop a list of upcoming events to distribute at staff in-service, for the school website, for parent communications and for posting on social media. Make sure Sept. 17 is listed, and begin the conversation with key partners on your campus about what activities you’ll plan and implement. Check out JEA’s set of Constitution Day lessons and activities here.

  2. Meet with any new teachers and staff members on your campus. Ideally, you can carve out a few minutes to introduce yourself and share about the student media program you advise. Who knows what journalism was like that their previous schools? Drop off copies of the students’ publication so your new colleagues can see what a great job students do. With just a brief conversation you can create the beginning of a positive relationship and help them understand that your students make the content decisions and take their roles as reporters seriously with a focus on truth, accuracy and integrity. If possible, invite them to stop by your room to see the media staff in full swing. 

    If possible, guide your editors as they prepare a brief introduction to new staff members, too. It’s great for new teachers to see students taking the lead, especially so they learn to contact students with story ideas or questions rather than coming to you.

  3. Incorporate the First Amendment in your welcome back activities. Make these part of any icebreakers, bootcamp sessions, editors’ planning meetings and other gatherings you have lined up for the next month. Incoming editors will follow your example; if you use law and ethics discussions as part of your first meet-up or work session together, they’ll do the same when training their new staff members.

    Even simple warm-ups like singing, rapping or reciting the First Amendment or using related T-shirts (like this one or this one) as special prizes will set the tone for a new school year. One simple activity in teams is to distribute envelopes containing the 45 words of the First Amendment on little slips of paper and having a race for each team to put the words in order correctly.
Quick warm-up activities like this one can help students learn the First Amendment while getting to know each other in small groups.

4. Add the First Amendment Press Freedom Award application to your editors’ to-do list. They’re probably in the process of determining the publication/distribution dates and deadline nights for the semester, so the timing is perfect for them to add the Dec. 15 application deadline. As we all know, what gets scheduled gets done. And having the award on their radar may lead to positive, necessary conversations from editors and staffers to educate their classmates, teachers and administrators throughout the fall.

5. Commit to teaching law and ethics. Plan lessons both for the start of the school year and to incorporate periodically all year long. Don’t rush into production with all attention on deadlines only to have students miss the significance of what they’re doing. Don’t apply a “one and done” unit in the first month and consider students’ learning complete. As you map out a scope and sequence, plan to revisit and layer important topics related to student press freedom and their rights and responsibilities.

The Law and Ethics module in the JEA Curriculum Initiative is a great place to start. You also can print the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for classroom use, or contact them to request a class set of bookmarks. The Student Press Law Center has great resources for educators, too. The key is to plan now and make it a recurring topic for discussion, reading, analysis, debate and/or practice in your journalism curriculum.

With a strong foundation and continuous practice, students make better, more informed decisions.

An adviser’s First Amendment passion is contagious, and the time invested now to accomplish these five tasks will pave the way for students and colleagues to follow your lead.

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