by Julie Dodd
JEA Mentoring Committee co-chair

Setting Students’ Minds on Fire, a commentary by Mark C. Carnes  in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has led to discussions on blogs and in person about how can we as teachers can get students more engaged in their own learning in a deep and powerful way — not just learning for a standardized test.

Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College, discusses the learning project that he and colleagues developed  — Reacting to the Past. Reacting to the Past are elaborately designed learning games that put students in the role of characters of a specific time in history with a situation to resolve. Time periods include Henry VIII and Reformation Parliament and Puritan-era Boston.

Carnes reports that college students are so engaged in the learning that they agree to meet early for class in order to complete the learning game before the semester ends. The students are changing the discussion and climate of residence halls, as they continue their discussion and roleplaying long after class is over.

Those of us involved in scholastic journalism know that same student fevor for learning. With almost every issue of the student newspaper (and with many other media-related assignments), students have that mind-on-fire outlook as they are Reacting to Their Own Present.

In reporting and writing about the student experience, students become almost consumed in their quest — to find sources, to understand an issue, to find the best way to present what may be a complex issue.

In a typical school year, stories can include the school board’s decision on school uniforms,  the impact of Race to the Top on school curriculum, cafeteria food, high school athletes and concussions, promoting diversity in the school community, book censorship, unkempt school restrooms, redistricting, sexually transmitted diseases, community service hours, the death of a classmate, etc.

The potential of Reacting to Their Own Present as a learning tool is powerful. With every deadline, the students can have new games, news players and new rules. And just like the teachers of Reacting to the Past, the advisers for media classes are always learning, too. Learning the game’s situation, the players and the rules. Learning when to inform, moderate, facilitate, challenge, support or stay quiet.

In our mentoring of new journalism teachers, we can draw from our experiences of helping our own students “play” Reacting to Their Own Present. We also must rethink our approach in order to assist each mentee develop his or her own strategies for helping students learn in that “minds on fire” approach — but without getting burned.