Friday, October 26, 2007

How Do You Teach Writing?

My last session today was the latest seminar scheduled for Friday (not counting the midnight critiquing session / poker tournament that is technically on Saturday). I should have expected a packed room; after all, the blurb in the program hooked me with this opener:

"How do you teach your students to write like journalists when their favorite adjective is 'cool,' they don't read newspapers ... and/or they don't really know what news is anyway?"

So, it's not just me who wonders these things. (I counted approximately 125-150 in the audience.)

Chris Evans from the University of Vermont was the perfect tonic to a long day of sessions. He was visibly enthused when someone offered an insightful, correct answer, and he was refreshingly snarky about the mistakes and misconceptions that he can't abide. I saw in him the very things I want to do, be and see more in my own teaching technique. He gave us great tips on coaxing good reporting out of our students -- teaching them how to show and tell and how to recognize the real story that exists somewhere within the story that they thought they were supposed to write. I plan to use his suggestions in the JOUR 2520 class this spring.

Evans, UVM's assistant director of student media, told us about how he would get tired of seeing the same mistakes again and again, so he ordered customized rubber stamps that said things like "Where's the problem?" and "Who said this? ATTRIBUTE!" Then he would stamp, stamp, stamp all over a student's article whenever he'd see those errors of omission. (If I were to get stamps this semester, they would say, "Good!" and "Not quite... but close enough for partial credit.")

I originally picked this session because it specifically mentioned the frustration of having students who don't watch or read the news. So, it's not just me who refuses to give up on turning real-life, real-world journalism students into students of real-life, real-world journalism. Hearing that Evans has seen his love for the news become infectious for some of his students gave me hope. You read it here, folks: The mandatory news Qs that you all love to hate will live on in my classes until I've converted everyone. If I manage to develop a CNN/MSNBC/NYT habit in even one of my students, then I'll feel like I've accomplished something.

The popularity of this session meant that I had to sit on the floor dangerously near the iced-water station in the back, and I couldn't see much or get one of the handouts. When I craned my neck to get a glimpse of the presentation, I wished that my PR students were there to see the crooked image on screen. Every class they watch me struggle to line up the PowerPoint projector. So, it's not just me.

Dr. Lee

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