Saturday, January 19, 2019

An English teacher argument for authentic audiences

Photo credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Here is a post from a language arts teacher that never mentions journalism or student media, but which makes a compelling argument for strong media programs

Why Revise? Because You Have an Authentic Audience
Motivate students to revise their writing through self-publishing fiction, creating podcasts and YouTube videos, writing blogs, corresponding with others, and anything else for an authentic audience.

By Dylan Fenton / May 23, 2016

Whenever I start talking about the importance of revising our writing with my classes, I show them this photograph: an over-the-shoulder shot of Barack Obama holding a copy of his Inaugural Address from 2013. It's a printed page covered with his handwritten edits. Words are crossed out, arrows go every which way, and there are notes everywhere.

My point in showing this to students has always been: "Look how important revision is -- even the President of the United States takes the time to work on writing revision!" However, I used to overlook one key question when discussing the photograph with students: "Why did Mr. Obama care enough to revise his speech so much?"

Undoubtedly, the answer is that millions of people around the world would be listening to the speech, and thus he wanted his writing to be clear, precise, and flawless.

It should come as no surprise, then, that students care more about writing, revising, editing, proofreading, and perfecting their compositions when given a real-world audience. It's not just something that they've written for practice or a grade. It's a real piece of writing that will be read by real people in the real world.

Here are five successful writing strategies that I've used in my classroom to give students authentic audiences and motivate them to revise with gusto:

1. Self-Publishing Fiction
The world of self-publishing is more than just fan fiction and esoteric sci-fi. There are whole communities out there of budding writers sharing stories, giving each other feedback, and practicing the art of writing. Whatever kind of creative writing you do with your students, they can self-publish and connect with readers all over the world. Two of my favorite sites for students to self-publish are Wattpad and figment.

2. Recording Podcasts
This one comes with the added bonus that it forces students to read their writing aloud, which alerts them to all kinds of writing issues that would otherwise go unnoticed when reading silently. They can create podcasts about anything, but I've had students base them on National Public Radio's This I Believe series. Giving students the opportunity to literally voice their opinions is powerful stuff. Getting to share those opinions is even more powerful. PodBean is a great place for students to upload and share their podcasts with the world.

3. Blogging
As a blogger myself, I clearly value the power of writing short pieces concerning things that I'm passionate about. And guess what? So do students! They can create blogs about anything that interests them -- video games, sports, fashion, anything they choose. Not only will this passion-based writing energize them, but their words will also reach an audience that cares about the same things. I teach at a Google Apps for Education school, so having students create a public blog through Blogger is super easy, but edublogs, which is Wordpress' site targeted toward teachers and students, is also free.

4. Writing Correspondence
Learning to write letters, email, and other correspondence is an important skill in and of itself, but actually sending the correspondence to real people takes the lesson to a whole new level. I've had students write to prisoners of conscience around the world, with much success, as part of Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign. However, students can also write to any public persona, such as a letter to their state governor about an issue facing their community, or an email to the author of a book they're reading. You could also go the old tried-and-true route of getting your students pen pals. Whatever you choose, the real power of this practice comes when students receive return correspondence. You can almost see their faces light up when they realize that their writing is deserving of a real-world response.

5. Making Videos for YouTube
The beauty of YouTube is that anyone can upload anything they want and instantly have an audience of millions. I've had students produce short, creative films based on books they were reading, but they can also create scripted how-to videos, screencasts, or interviews. This one is also great for giving students a chance to become amateur video editors and filmmakers -- not a bad bonus!

The Bigger Audience
Let’s face it. Most of us middle- or high-school teachers are only one of about eight that our students will have during the course of a year. We might build great relationships with them and they might respect our opinion, but for most of them, they have a limit to how much they care about our assessment of their work. And can we blame them for this? Of course not. After countless assignments throughout the school year, the motivation for students to really care about impressing teachers with their writing must be pretty difficult to muster by the time, say, April rolls around.

For conventional writing assignments, students are usually trying to meet the expectations of one person -- the teacher who assigned it. However, with an authentic audience, students are driven by the knowledge that their writing will leave the school, go out into the world, and be judged not for their ability to respond to an assignment, but for their ability to reach other people through their writing.

Do you give your students authentic writing assignments? Does it motivate them? 

Monday, November 12, 2018

We are at our best when we give away what we know

​On the generosity of spirit that lies at the heart of teaching:

From ​today's ​Seth Godin blog post – Nov. 12, 2019
The magnetic generosity of the network effect
If you share a pizza with a large crowd, no one will be very satisfied.

But if you share an idea with a group, it creates cultural impact and becomes more valuable as it spreads, not less.

Most of the time, we adopt the scarcity model of pizza. “I don’t have that much, and if I share it with you, I won’t have any left…”

But in fact, the useful parts of our life are better characterized as, “If I share it with you, we’ll both have it.”

An idea shared is more powerful than one that’s hidden. A technology standard outperforms a proprietary one. A community is stronger than divided individuals ever could be.

When you give away your work by building the network, you’re not giving it away at all.

You’re building trust, authority and a positive cycle of better.

And then I remembered this wisdom from Annie Dillard, an incredible writer we may not quote from all that much these days...​

An excerpt from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, published in 1989
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentle​​ssly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacommetti*’s drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A twentieth-century master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, taught that “the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.” Who but an artist fierce to know – not fierce to seem to know – would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.

Admire the world for never ending on you – as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes from him, or walking away.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

* Alberto Giacommetti (1901-1966) was a Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor, known for his innovative perception and work.

​Thanks for your willingness to give away what you know to so many. Thanks for sharing your passion for the truth and for student voices.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Hopefully we can all move past this

Subject: Re: AP’s approval of ‘hopefully’ symbolizes larger debate over language - The Washington Post (from 2012)

I hate to disappoint anyone tenaciously holding fast to the "correct" use of hopefully, but please don't look to me for support. I'm all for acceptance. Language changes. Anything wrong with, "Happily, the test was canceled"? or, "Fortunately, the rain stopped"? If hopefully seems wrong, it's because we've been taught that it's grammatically illogical. But we accept thousands of illogical words and phrases and call them idioms, don't we?

We cannot condemn a word because it has taken on a new function. Jonathan Swift abhorred contractions — don't, can't, won't — said they'd be the death of good English. Not long ago, teachers went into paroxysms over split infinitives and prepositions at the ends of sentences, both based on artificial rules. (The New York Times has asked reporters to avoid split infinitives, not because they're wrong but because "teachers write us.")

For hundreds of years, English and American authors have used the singular "their," but most teachers still correct its use regardless of how logical it is in a particular context. In "Pride and Prejudice," Jane Bennet says: "But to expose the former faults of any person, without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable." That's one of about 100 uses of the singular "their" in Austin's works. Shakespeare invented verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs from other parts of speech and made up completely new words in every play. Who complains about that?

Basically, we don't like to find things different from the way we've known them, and we react against much that's new — music, fashion, art, architecture, language. But we usually get used to change, and it enriches and varies our lives.

Bob Greenman
Bob passed away in spring of 2018 and is constantly missed

From me (via the JEA listserv)
Friday late. Not really sleepy. Just received my fourth nasty email (evidently from some faithful FOX viewers) ripping me for allowing Dan Savage to speak in Seattle. No idea how to respond, other than DELETE. And then I see the latest entries in the "hopefully" strand...

It is dangerous to argue with Bob on matters of language, but I will continue to ask writers to use "I hope" as opposed to "hopefully." My reason to not bow gracefully to the guidance of the AP goes beyond correctness of expression and my distrust of adverbs generally.

I campaign against arguments beginning with "I believe," or "In my opinion," or "In my mind's eye" (I give Hamlet a pass here). Those are unnecessary phrases (after all, that's YOUR name on the essay, so there's no need to remind me that what you are about to say is not someone else's opinion), but they are also phrases which provide distance between the writer and the opinion. "Hey, this is just my opinion... Please don't blame me or attack me if you disagree. I did say 'In my opinion' after all, and there is no such thing as a false opinion. Right?"

Those meaningless preambles are intellectually wimpy.

To write a sentence such as "I hope the Rockies win the World Series because I put a $20 bet down on them at 50-1" makes everything clear. I stand to win a grand. Just me, and only in very specific circumstances.

"Hopefully the Rockies will win the World Series..." just confuses and generalizes (who is doing the hoping? the team? all of America? the guy who just wasted a twenty at Harrah's?) and provides the same sort of distance between writer and argument that the ubiquitous use of "I think" creates in so many persuasive essays.

I yearn to read (and write) more powerful arguments, full of voice and passion, not timid and muddled half-apologies.

I celebrate our constantly evolving language. But I worry about the ability of so many of our students to make clear, well-supported claims, with voices that demand readers pay attention.

If students can write with logic, grace and style, I will gladly accept their invented words, daring syntax and disdain for the "rules." But until then... those hind-bound rules can help them.

A modest proposal about yearbook group pictures

I would just like to suggest that group photos, generically, may be more trouble than they are worth. They are rarely accurate (some kids are missing and some sneak in, if you are not careful), they are static (and we already have static portraits of every individual elsewhere), and they often end up running so small that you can measure face size in pixels (rather than the once-hallowed rule that faces should run the size of a dime).

What's wrong with an accurate list of club members, accompanied by actual accomplishments and projects, fleshed out by excellent photography and some behind-the-scenes anecdotes?

Every veteran yearbook adviser I know has at least a few stories about group photo day weirdness. I do too. But after an editor of mine simply dropped group photos (in favor of expanded actual coverage)... no more disaster stories. Plenty of other disasters, of course, but they don't involve group photos.

Do we need to use focus groups to create better yearbooks?

We should listen to our customers, and even more closely to our non-customers.

But focus groups are unlikely to provide anything useful for you and your staffs. As Steve Jobs once said, "“It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”

What I love most about yearbooks are the SURPRISES I encounter as I turn the pages. Who wants a yearbook (or a newsmagazine, or a broadcast) that simply gives us what we expected (or asked for in a focus group)? I see books, spreads, writing, visuals all the time that I never saw coming. I didn't know I would be delighted until I was, well, delighted. I could say the same about numerous movies, TV shows, etc.

Focus groups can be great for the ones leading the group, receiving the feedback they wanted all along. Such groups certainly check a management box such as "reaches out to customers and seeks input from them," but I have never seen random comments from students produce an "aha!" insight that leads to a future book that sells like hotcakes.

If you ask most students, they will opt for MORE photos and fewer captions... more photos of THEM, and more pages in the book, all at a lower cost. Sounds like promises about health care.

Yearbooks are somewhat immune to normal market forces, of course, since most students (and parents) buy them as a matter of course (it's tradition... it's history... our family has always done this...). In fact, the very heart of the yearbook business model is to sell books long before they are printed, or even fully reported. In a sense, LAST year's volume sells this year's. Yes, we count on selling some books after delivery, but charge a hefty penalty since we have to guess at those numbers (and may get stuck with lots of extra books if we guess wrong).

Think of how rare it is that we buy stuff sight unseen, mostly on faith. But that's what we ask yearbook customers to do, year after year.

The reasons students DO NOT buy yearbooks are legion, but likely culprits include raw cost, the potential buyer not feeling part of the larger school community (why buy a history of something I didn't much like?), clunky ordering processes, and more. But the quality of the book is rarely the key to sales success.

After all, would some kid at a school with a mediocre book trade for an amazing book from a school down the road? I would argue that the culture of the school is the key predictor of yearbook sales and that culture has lots of moving parts.

Maybe it's the school administration that needs to develop focus groups!

There are amazing yearbooks being distributed this month to a small percentage of the student body, and there are some pedestrian yearbooks with market penetrations north of 90 percent. In other words, there is something other than quality at work in sales. I'm not arguing that quality doesn't matter (it certainly does to the adviser and staff), just that it doesn't guarantee popularity.

No one asked, but my advice is to build a yearbook staff that is more reflective of the wider school community. That diverse staff can act as a running focus group that produces what the market wants.

Short course on FERPA - perpetually misunderstood

From Frank Lomonte, former director of SPLC:
This is a complex subject that's vulnerable to oversimplification. Let me try to "de-mystify" it a bit here, and invite anyone with deeper questions to contact the Student Press Law Center for help.

FERPA is an exceedingly narrow statute. It applies to very little. As the Supreme Court told us in a 2002 case, Owasso v. Falvo, Congress was concerned only with protecting the security of confidential education records that are kept in a centralized school repository -- the proverbial "permanent record" of which students are always warned. It is not, the Supreme Court and subsequent courts have told us, a generalized "student invisibility law," nor could it be for schools to do their jobs effectively.

Many school lawyers and administrators have been poorly trained about FERPA, in part because there are a handful of charlatans who make the rounds selling "FERPA training" with the goal of terrorizing schools about the risks of handling student information so that they'll buy more FERPA training. Be skeptical of them. The reality is that no school or college has ever been penalized one dollar for violating FERPA in the 44-year history of the law, nor will that ever happen. The Department of Education has regulations that must be followed before anyone can be fined, and here is what those regulations say: If your school gives away the contents of confidential student education records, then the Department must (if it receives a complaint) investigate the complaint and decide whether a "policy" or "practice" of releasing these records exists. If and only if a "policy" or "practice" exists, then the school gets ... a warning letter. The warning letter will say "please discontinue this practice." The only way a school can be fined is by writing back to the Department and saying "we refuse, and we plan to continue this practice." Which will never happen.

FERPA is about the contents of confidential, centrally maintained student education records and that's all it is about. So whenever you are told "FERPA prevents you from doing..." your first question should be: "Did we obtain this information from a confidential student education record?" The answer in student media invariably is "no." You generally obtained the information because a student (1) did something publicly visible (playing football, acting in a play), or (2) consented to the disclosure (showing up at Picture Day and posing, giving an on-the-record interview). Remember that the Department of Education has said, repeatedly:

FERPA applies to the disclosure of tangible records and of information derived from tangible records. FERPA does not protect the confidentiality of information in general, and, therefore, does not apply to the disclosure of information derived from a source other than education records, even if education records exist which contain that information. As a general rule, information that is obtained through personal knowledge or observation, and not from an education record, is not protected from disclosure under FERPA.

Needless to say, no school in the 44-year history of FERPA has ever received so much as a warning letter over a student yearbook or newspaper or website. If it was a violation of FERPA to put student identities into journalistic publications, including online ones, we would certainly know it by now.

FERPA recognizes a category of harmless everyday "directory information" that can freely be given out without needing consent. This includes much or all of what would appear in a student journalistic publication, such as a student's name, year in school, participation in extracurriculars and so on. FERPA allows a parent to "opt out" of the disclosure of directory information by submitting a written opt-out notice. It is not at all clear that, even for "opt-out" students, the opt-out applies to student media, for the reasons explained above: A newspaper or yearbook is not a "confidential education record," because its entire purpose is to be publicly distributed, and FERPA applies only to information gleaned from confidential education records. The one point of uncertainty is the database of students who've posed for Picture Day. It's arguable that that database is a centrally maintained FERPA record (that's probably wrong, but it's at least arguable), so if the yearbook obtains student portrait photos and names through the school administration and a parent has signed the opt-out form, then there is at least some room to argue that the yearbook ought not to publish the portrait and name of that opt-out student. (Nevertheless, if the opt-out student has done something public like playing football, there can be no FERPA violation in using an identifiable photo of the player, opt-out or no opt-out -- again, because the information did not come from a centrally maintained school database.)

There are some schools and districts that have misinterpreted FERPA and that have given parents an "opt IN" form as opposed to an "opt OUT" form. As explained, the circumstances under which any opt-in or opt-out can be applied to student-produced media are quite narrow, but in any event, no school or district should choose this option, which is a needless invitation to liability. Most parents will not send back the form. Under FERPA, not returning the form equals consent to release directory information. In an "opt-in school," not returning the form is a refusal to release directory information. No school wants this. Once a parent refuses to release directory information, that literally means that the student must be kept out of the the honor roll, the graduation list sent to the local newspaper and so on. No school wants to publish half the honor roll, so no school should purposefully misapply FERPA by turning an "opt out" opportunity into an "opt in." If you are encountering troubles with FERPA and directory information, ask to see a copy of the form that is sent to parents, and if you need help making sense of it, the Student Press Law Center can assist.

There is no federal "online invisibility law," either. To our knowledge, two states (New Jersey and Maine) have state statutes requiring advance parental consent before students' full names with photos can be placed onto a school-hosted, school-maintained website. But FERPA does not require this. It's possible for a state to impose confidentiality requirements more stringent than FERPA, but it's not true that FERPA forbids publishing identifying information about students online. There is in fact no differentiation in FERPA between a print and an online publication, nor does such a distinction exist generally in privacy law. Publishing is publishing, and (with the exception of those Maine and New Jersey laws) what's legal to publish in print is equally legal to publish online. (And note that even in Maine and New Jersey the law applies only to school-hosted websites, one reason of many to consider offsite hosting.)

The bottom line is that claims of FERPA confidentiality should always be viewed with skepticism, and when confronted with a claim that FERPA requires doing something that your common sense tells you is irrational, consider (1) asking "can you show me where in the law it says that, or the Department of Education has issued an interpretation saying that," and (2) calling the Student Press Law Center to get clarification.

We should start media education early

My wife and I finished a 9-week fifth-grade newspaper after-school course after our fifth-grade granddaughter asked us (and after she marched into her principal's office and demanded such a course). We met once a week, for an hour, and produced three 8-page letter-sized issues, printed at Staples. 

What I learned from teaching fifth graders: 
  • they are a tough crowd, with all sorts of diversity in maturity, experience, and physical size
  • they are smart, engaged and funny (duh!)
  • they can understand and begin actually doing journalism, and I taught them basically the very same skills I would teach ninth graders, or college freshmen, for that matter. 

So here's the secret to ensuring the future of student media: start kids thinking like journalists at a young age.

BTW, our third-grade granddaughter joined the staff, offering to do a quick story when someone else dropped the ball. Her writing voice and observations were as good as or better than many of the fifth graders. She ended up doing all the same exercises and assignments.

What if every elementary school in America began teaching journalism (in all sorts of forms, with all sorts of media) in third grade? The old Newspaper In Education programs had it right. They just didn't go far enough.