by Julie Dodd
JEA Mentor Committee co-chair

Here’s a question I received from a new journalism teacher:

I have a couple of students who have told me that because journalism is an elective, they think it should be more fun. They’re not fans of reading and writing activities, so I’m struggling a bit with trying to find more of a balance. How do you handle students who equate ‘elective’ with ‘fun and easy?’ I’m sure this comes up all the time, but I’d appreciate some advice. Thanks!”

[I checked with the new journalism teacher, and the course she is referring to is a non-publication course. My answer is a little different than what it would be if the course were a publication course, producing the newspaper or yearbook.]

Let’s start with the “fun” part of journalism as an elective.

A fun part of the course can be moving beyond being a textbook-based course.

In most English classes, the course is directed in large part by textbooks and the school’s class sets of novels. Everyone in class typically is reading the same book (i.e., The Red Badge of Courage) and often writing on the same essay topic.

A journalism textbook can be a foundation for learning media writing, history and ethics, but the fun is in connecting that knowledge with the actual doing of journalism.

Match the students with a partner in class and have each conduct an interview and write a profile on the classmate. Then match them with students outside of the class or have them identify their own subjects for the profiles. You can post the stories on the class bulletin board.

Have a school administrator come to class for a press conference. The students will prepare, ask questions, take notes and write stories. You’ll have several days of preparing, writing and debriefing. The students will be excited at having this opportunity to meet with the administrator and get to ask (in a diplomatic way) the questions that other students wish they could ask.

Assign everyone in class to cover a club or school event. Perhaps they will work with partners or in teams – doing interviews, taking photos and writing the story. They will peer edit the stories from other groups and discuss their experiences.

Finding out what’s going on in the school, getting to know other students, getting to work with a team on an assignment all can be fun.

A fun part of the course can be getting published.

Even though the class is not producing a publication, the students still could have the opportunity of getting published.

Create a competition. You could select some of the best stories from your reporting assignments – the profiles, the press conference, and the school event – to have considered by the editors of the student publication.

Often the editors could use additional content, and getting published can encourage students in the journalism elective class to take the production class next semester.

Students can write letters to the editor or guest columns for the student newspaper or the local newspaper.

Seeing a byline is very motivating (and fun) for most students. That byline is exciting for their parents, too.

A fun part of the course can be being on top of the news.

Spend a class period perhaps every other week with students reading the news and the discussing what they’ve read. The reading could be done online or with print copies. If you can afford to purchase some newspapers, you could divide the class into teams with three or four students sharing one newspaper. They can be reading the same newspaper or teams can have different newspapers.

You can ask each team to read and then share what they think would be the two or three stories that would be of most relevance to high school students. This can lead to some interesting (and sometimes challenging) discussions as the day’s news may include a range of provocative issues.

This approach to reading the news can be more fun (and just as productive) as having current events quizzes.

Most students do enjoy reading the news, especially if they have some choices – from sports to opinion to world news to lifestyle. This can be a good activity for learning how to identify possible story ideas for the school media.

Now to the “easy” part of elective classes.

Most media teachers have heard the comment: “This is an elective. Shouldn’t everyone be making an A?” Sometimes the comment is from students and sometimes from parents. They may think that a course that isn’t an AP English course should award A’s to all students and not require much work.

In promoting the course, you want to indicate what’s included in the course so that students (and their parents) realize that a journalism elective is going to include reading, writing and meeting deadlines. But you’ve probably done that.

The real issue is getting students to connect with assignments so that they will want to put forth the effort to earn the grade desired – and not just be given a grade. Isn’t that one of the big issues in all levels of education – student motivation.

Often the hard or easy part of the course hinges on several issues:

How do-able is the assignment?

If this is my first journalism course and I have to interview someone I don’t know, I may consider this assignment to be very hard. But if we’ve role-played interviewing in class, and my first interview is with a classmate or a relative, then interviewing isn’t so difficult.

How interesting is the assignment?

Almost every course (and every job) has some less interesting components. But you can offer choices for assignments so that students can at least for some assignments select something more personally interesting. Being able to report and write on a topic of interest. Being able to take photos rather than writing a story. Being able to work in teams versus solo. All of those can make an assignment more interesting and easier.

Can I take on an assignment to improve my grade?

Sometimes the issue isn’t about how “easy” the course is as much as how possible it is to earn an A in the course. You can build in some extra assignments so that the student who wants an A can do the additional work to earn the A. Again, provide choices. You can put a challenge to students to create their own projects to propose to you.

Mentors and other journalism teachers, I’d be interested in your suggestions of how to address the issue of students wanting the journalism elective to be fun and easy.