Embracing the chaos of the journalism classroom

January 29, 2013

I used to feel guilty that my Journalism classes weren’t as smoothly run as my other English classes. A passerby could walk into my AP Comp or American Lit classes and have no doubt that my students were actively engaged and that I was properly doing my job.  And then I’d go to my Journalism class, close the door and hope that no one would see the chaos going on within.

On the productive side, my Journalism students might be writing questions, tracking down interviewees, hammering out a draft, polishing a story, or editing a video.  Or maybe they might be searching out a photo op for the staff’s Instagram feed, doing photo shoots down in the art department, building a bar graph to help tell their story, or using YouTube to find PhotoShop tutorials.

There are also a fair number of students who are working hard for other classes –– reading AP History texts and taking notes, filling out Spanish worksheets, making flashcards for tests, cutting and pasting magazines to make collages and projects, constructing Prezis in small groups, or helping each other through their Calculus problems on the board.

And then there are students who are not just off-Journalism-task, but completely off-task.  There have been no shortage of YouTube videos watched, sports scores checked, Twitter feeds scanned, and Facebook profiles stalked.  There are students checking makeup, taking selfies, playing ninja, having a dance-off, and there’s even been a Journalism student known to curl up on the floor to take a nap once in a while.

But none of this bothers me any more.

I know they’ll be working for Journalism later.  They’ll be taking notes at the hockey game and staying after to interview the coach.  They’ll be driving to restaurants or sitting through an hour-long table tennis practice just to get that one perfect photo. I know that they write and edit stories during their down time in other classes, and I know from the revision histories on their Google Docs that they’re often working until midnight.  When we’re deep into our print production cycle and putting pages together, I know some of them will spend up to 5 hours perfecting a page.  So a little off-task time during our 40-minute class period just doesn’t matter.

Some of the best times in journalism are when students just sit around and visit. They get caught up in talking about ideas that interest them and suddenly we’ve got a new feature spread.  A conversation about experiences learning other languages led to an editorial about the school’s decision to offer a Chinese elective.  A conversation about a weekend ski trip led to a story on the high cost of equipment needed for some of the winter sports teams.  A conversation with a student who wanted to write from the first person is evolving into a new first-person feature we’re going to run regularly.  It’s only in the freedom of the chaos that these ideas could emerge.

So now, as I head to school every day to teach my Journalism classes, I have only an inkling of what I’ll be doing; beyond a few quick staff announcements, I never have a lesson plan.  Class starts and we dive in, and there’s never a shortage of work or conversations or ideas that emerge from the chaos, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.