Here's How to Get High School Students Excited About Journalism

Have Them Take Ownership of the Student Newspaper

Washington State, Bellevue, Interlake High School
Jetta Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images

A high school journalism teacher e-mailed me the other day. Here's an abridged version of his message:

I'm in my second year of teaching high school journalism... and am having a hard time getting my kids into the spirit of the journalist pursuit. They are more concerned with how many words their article needs to be than whether or not they are getting the story. They would rather communicate with interviewees via text message or Facebook than interviewing face-to-face. I have not been able to get them to want to follow a story, to dig deeper, to investigate, to report.  

I ask them daily for stories they have heard from the news, but it is like pulling teeth to get them to pay attention to the news. I think we're doing well covering the basics of journalism, but so far it is as an academic exercise instead of a pursuit.

I sympathize. I've only taught journalism at the college level, and I don't envy high school teachers who must deal with hormonal students who lack the maturity that (hopefully) comes with starting college. Moreover, many high school instructors who are pressed into service to teach journalism classes or advise the the student newspaper have little experience in news. It's a tough situation.

Here's what I recommend. First, understand that journalism is a craft and perhaps a profession, but not an academic pursuit like an English class. So focus on teaching practical skills, not theory.

Have your class oversee the production of the student newspaper.

Make your students understand that the paper is a very real publication (and a business) for which they are responsible. They must write and edit the articles, do layout, distribute the final product and run the website. In other words, make them take ownership of the paper. Then and only then will they get excited about journalism.

Also, invite some local journalists to speak to your class. They can give students a sense of how exciting this job is.

As for reporting, there's nothing wrong per se with interviewing sources via social media. I've written about journalists who use Facebook and Twitter.

But students should understand that on some stories there's no substitute for being there. Indeed, that's where the thrill of being a reporter kicks in. Veteran journos will tell you there's nothing more exciting (and yes, challenging) than being on the scene of a major story, whether it's a homicide or a hurricane. You should require that they do at least some of their stories through in-person reporting.

As for a lack of interest in current events, I've written about that as well. I tell my students they have to get into a daily newsreading habit, then give them a weekly news quiz (typically a half-dozen questions about recent events). We go over the quiz in class and use it as a springboard to a broader discussion of what's going on in the world.

For instance, if the quiz includes a question on the stock market reaching record highs, we'll talk about what the stock market is (many don't know), why soaring corporate profits haven't necessarily translated into an improved economy, and why they should care.

In short, show them how current events relate to their own lives.

Finally, remember that high school students are at a stage in life when they are questioning authority. Talk to them about how journalism is founded on the idea of holding people in power accountable. From Upton Sinclair to Woodward and Bernstein and beyond, questioning authority is what journalism is all about.

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