Co-authored with Megan Fromm

Last week, after spending 30 hours observing a high school journalism classroom, freelance writer and editor  (and PBS MediaShift editorial assistant) Angela Washeck gave a first-person analysis of how today’s students are producing media.

Her observations, detailed in “The Journey to Teaching High School Journalism in Texas,” mischaracterize the purpose of high school journalism.

Washeck, like many professionals who have critiqued journalism education, begins with the assumption that scholastic journalism’s chief purpose is vocational training for future career journalists. Her analysis misses the bigger picture — about scholastic journalism, about secondary education, and about the best practices for preparing students to be engaged, critical and competent adults.

It’s about the process, not just the product

The product of high school media classes, in many cases a yearbook or newspaper, is no more the central purpose of a scholastic journalism program than winning a football game is to team sports. Instead, it’s about the process, how students engage and work together, and the level of responsibility teachers encourage throughout.

Exceptional parents and educators know this. We don’t encourage our children to play with blocks from a young age because we expect them all to be architects and builders. We do it because we know the seemingly simple task of stacking diverse, colored objects into myriad shapes encourages cognitive development and problem solving. So it is with scholastic journalism.

In the comments to Washeck’s piece, Betsy Pollard Rau, a former Michigan high school journalism teacher whose students have won many reporting awards, said that some students went on to careers in journalism, but many more used skills learned in high school journalism in other professions like science, medicine and business.

“Yearbook, digital and newspaper experiences are merely the vehicles,” Rau wrote in the comments. “It is the destination that matters. High school journalism classes teach students higher level thinking skills, prepare them to deal with stress, give them opportunities to work as a team, meet deadlines, problem solve, write, shoot and edit.”

In fact, conflating the purpose of scholastic journalism with any single tangible product is tantamount to the misapplication and misuse of standardized testing as benchmarks for student learning. It’s exactly this logic that has reduced our students to the sum of their test scores, excluded teachers from educational policy decisions and made our schools prisons for creative and energetic young minds.

High school students participate in the 2012 High School Journalism Workshop at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Photo by E.W. Scripps School of Journalism on Flickr  and used here with Creative Commons BY-NC license.

High school students participate in the 2012 High School Journalism Workshop at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Photo by E.W. Scripps School of Journalism on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons BY-NC license.

Using project-based learning to teach modern literacies

Indeed, scholastic journalism is the epitome of authentic project-based learning, using various platforms to help students develop important media, news, information and civic literacy skills that are so often forgotten in other parts of the school curriculum.

The goal of scholastic journalism is not to create journalists, but rather it is to develop capable employees and engaged citizens. Though high school journalism teachers are proud of those students who follow career journalism’s calling, those educators know their students will be more informed, more empathetic and more engaged as a result of their scholastic journalism experience.

“The ongoing process of questioning, experimentation, reflection and analysis combines autonomy with a supportive ‘OK-to-fail’ environment, boosting confidence in students as they struggle with real-world challenges and find solutions,” said Sarah Nichols, a high school publications adviser and vice president of the Journalism Education Association, the largest association of scholastic journalism educators and advisers.

Washeck’s chief critique — both in her original piece and in her responses to reader comments — is that high school journalism curricula is lagging behind. That’s a fair point, though her analysis does miss some digital journalism elements in the Texas educator manual she criticizes.

For example, the section on information gathering includes using databases and the Internet in the reporting process. Another section emphasizes writing across media, including broadcast, print and online. The same section includes a standard that focuses on understanding audiences, certainly related to the concept of audience engagement so central to digital journalism.

Additionally, state and national scholastic journalism organizations have been and are continuing to develop resources to help advisers offer comprehensive journalism education. The Journalism Education Association in April released a members-only 14-part curriculum including a focus on multimedia, web and entrepreneurial skills. The organization also maintains a website dedicated to the teaching of digital journalism .

High school teachers attending the Reynolds High School Journalism Institute at Arizona State. Photo by  Cronkite School., used here with Creative Commons BY-AC-NC license.

High school teachers attending the Reynolds High School Journalism Institute at Arizona State. Photo by Cronkite School. and used here with Creative Commons BY-AC-NC license.

Teaching digital media in high school journalism

To be fair, Washeck asks important questions about whether scholastic journalism is preparing students for the digital era, including an emphasis on social media. The simple answer is this: high school teachers would love to, but educational red tape often keeps their students from engaging with the very technology outsiders believe students must master.

Additionally, there are numerous programs in Texas and beyond that emphasis digital media skills, but Washeck did not observe these programs. Washeck treats the teacher standards she criticizes as an authoritative list of what is taught in schools. But, those standards — or any standards, for that matter — should be seen as a floor and not a ceiling. Many high school journalism programs around the country are exceptional at emphasizing digital media skills like social media, interactive graphics, and digital video.

The best media programs are finding ways around the bureaucracy, but not for the purpose of churning out career-ready journalists. Instead, these programs do so because they know that digital literacies, including concomitant literacies like news and media literacy, are necessary components of a 21st century education.

Any given year, a handful of high school journalism students will go on to practice the craft in college, and even fewer will graduate to become career journalists. But each and every one of the young adults who sits in those classrooms will be media consumers and producers in their own rights. In fact, they already are.

Today’s scholastic journalism — with an emphasis on the ethical and legal responsibilities of communicating in a digital world — will help students learn to rise above the noise and create meaningful dialogue. And that, not a yearbook, is the true product of journalism education. What other class can claim such a vital learning outcome? Quite simply, our end-goal is not journalists, but better people.

While some teachers commented on Washeck’s column and suggested she’d be unwelcome in the high school journalism classroom, we actually disagree. Given the right tools, training, and support from leading national organizations such as the Journalism Education Association, Washeck’s passion and professional experience could be channeled into tremendous leadership and educational potential. Members of such organizations fight to help teachers, administrators, and policymakers understand the true outcomes of scholastic journalism, and we’d happily do the same for those interested in joining our profession.

After all, it’s never too late to learn something new. And we promise, it wouldn’t be “just” the yearbook.

Adam Maksl, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Southeast, where he teaches journalism courses and advises student media. Maksl’s work focuses primarily on youth media and media literacy. He has worked as a high school journalism adviser and continues to be involved in outreach programs for high school teachers and students. Follow him on Twitter via @maksl.

Megan Fromm, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of communication at Boise State University and professional support director for the Journalism Education Association. She has worked as both a professional journalist and high school publications adviser. Follow her on Twitter via @megfromm.