For most of us, high school was so long ago that we can hardly remember what we were taught and couldn’t even guess what high school students are learning today.
Recently, I decided to pursue a teaching certificate in high school journalism and saw quickly what secondary students are learning in their journalism classes, mainly including a hodgepodge of writing and photography skills designed to help produce a yearbook. Today’s high school journalism curriculum, at least in the Lone Star State, indicates a vast digital deficit and a lack of focus that I believe sets young journalists back. Through my own journey to become a high school journalism educator, I learned what to do — but more importantly, what I would do differently.
The first thing I needed to do was seek out alternative certification programs. In Texas, educators either pursue a teaching certificate while in college, alongside majoring in the content area they intend to teach, or they get “alternatively” certified. This option is for those who have been working in the real world and later decide teaching is direction they want to go. My program, Texas Teachers, laid out clear expectations (and collects a hefty fee) for admission to and completion of the curriculum. Quickly, I learned the process would be time-consuming and expensive. The entire program costs a little over $4,000, although Texas Teachers students aren’t required to pay that back until they have been hired at a Texas school. But, the criteria for completing alternative certification consist of three main objectives: finish several hours worth of online training (there’s an in-person option, but my career as a full-time freelance writer wasn’t conducive to that kind of constraint), pass at least one certification exam (I opted to take the Journalism and English Language Arts exams to make myself more marketable) and complete 30 hours of in-class observations.
THE CERTIFICATION EXAM
I had been practicing journalism full-time since college graduation. Surely, I would be able to ace this exam without much study or practice. But with respect to my usual tendencies to over prepare and obsess over minute details, I studied anyway – both state-issued, public test manuals and independently produced test prep documents.
What I found was that I felt grossly unprepared because the journalism (for grades 8-12) exam has very little to do with what a primarily digital journalist does on a daily basis. To some degree, the competency expectations make a lot of sense. Like most other certification exams in the state, questions skew heavily toward behavioral, “what would you do?” questions, with content knowledge taking somewhat of a backseat. Still, situational questions require actual subject area knowledge. In general, high school journalism educators in Texas are expected to know the following, according to the TExES Preparation Manual:
- The historical development of journalism in the United States
- Legal and ethical principles relevant to journalistic media
- How to gather information using journalistic research, interviews and news judgment
- How to produce various forms of journalism and develop that skill in students
- Principles, procedures and techniques of photojournalism
- Principles, elements, tools and techniques of publication design and how to develop that skill in students
- Principles, procedures and techniques of broadcast journalism and how to develop that skill in students
- The economics of student publications and how to teach business management
- How to advise and mentor students, encourage collaborative skills and work with others in the school and community
Now, I am not at all claiming that the above skills aren’t valuable and legitimate. Certainly, it is vital for budding journalists to know the significance of the John Peter Zenger case, how to recognize modern-day yellow journalism, copyright information in the digital age and basic elements of design. Students as young as high school freshmen should also have experience figuring out the costs associated with producing a small newspaper and how to account for fluctuating advertising revenues, as those simple economic lessons translate to a promising but nonetheless unpredictable digital news business model.
The test, though, whose competencies reflect the content journalism teachers are expected to teach, is not current or especially relevant, and it’s a far cry from the state of current university-level journalism education. The test’s biggest strength is probably its photojournalism and design section, which requires that teachers know the uses of digital imagery and principles of basic composition.
Not all students who enter college journalism programs are coming from high school newspaper classes or staffs (myself included), but high school journalism class serves as a foundation for many young writers and photographers. I am not saying either that high school journalism teachers aren’t knowledgeable or capable of developing a more digital-first curriculum at the school or classroom level. In many schools, they have complete freedom, and in some high schools, journalism instructors are choosing to forgo the print newspaper and go all online.
My observation is simply that we live in a digital world, where journalists are expected to excel technologically regardless of print success. Texas high school journalism educator standards outline old-school tenets that don’t paint an accurate picture of what defines today’s media industry. In a journalism space where social media, mobile journalism and video content prevail, state curriculum isn’t doing students favors by ignoring new technologies. Yes, large state bureaucracies tend to move slowly in updating curriculum, but teachers who go above and beyond the assigned standards would find ways to integrate these technologies into classroom instruction.
THE CLASSROOM OBSERVATIONS
Thirty hours of classroom observations found me both encouraged and taken aback by the role of a high school journalism instructor. The Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area is a collection of some fantastic and some abysmal school districts, but my goal was to find the best district and the best journalism teacher in the area to observe. After asking around and securing credentials, I arrived for my first day of classroom observations.
This instructor spent time teaching the difference between good and bad typography and design in her journalism classes, and assigned a photo essay to each student in her photojournalism sections. What surprised me was that the end goal for the photo essay was for students to be able to design a solid yearbook layout. Similarly, the teacher’s examples for good and bad typography were drawn from bad yearbook layouts, and the students take Journalism I or Photojournalism in order to sign up for yearbook class the next year. The problem is, there’s no yearbook in the journalism world. Sure, some skills transfer. Writing cutlines, editing photos, penning headlines and of course, writing stories for the yearbook offer students good practice for a potential journalism career. This district is high-income, and they use nice equipment, including Adobe Photoshop.
Still, I observed a general absence of comprehensive teaching. Students, no matter their age, want to know, “Why am I learning this?” Part of being a great teacher is communicating at every stage of the learning process: what you’re going to learn, how you’re going to learn it, and then how that learning will be assessed. The instructor is terrific with her students and indeed taught them how to create a solid photo essay.
However, I wish the goal was becoming great journalists – not designing a yearbook layout. I was most discouraged by the emphasis journalism instructors must give the yearbook. It is, by far, the biggest project the students and the teachers face annually – more than producing the newspaper and in this high school’s case, their online news product. She told me that they quit posting stories to the website in March because they were behind on finishing the yearbook though school let out in June. To me, the yearbook is an important, tangible legacy but shouldn’t be supreme. The answer, I suppose, is to ensure your lessons for yearbook class paint a larger picture of journalistic ethics, design, writing and photography. Then, I wonder: what will happen when students quit buying high school yearbooks altogether? How will high school journalism education change?
FINDING A JOB AS A HIGH SCHOOL JOURNALISM TEACHER
I’ll say it as simply as I can: nailing down a job as a full-time journalism teacher is hard. Even in a state the size of Texas and in an area of the state where many school districts have ample funding, most high schools have only one journalism adviser position available. If it’s a larger school, there may be two advisers – one who is focused on the newspaper, whether print or online or both, and one who handles the yearbook. People jump on jobs as soon as they are posted, if they aren’t filled via personal connections before then.
My dream job would be to develop my own curriculum at the district level for a high school digital journalism class. I imagine it would be a softball version of what a freshman J-school student might see in a Digital Reporting 101 course, combining traditional reporting skills with digital video, social media, graphics and maybe even some data. My suspicion is that if students get a high school journalism education that paints a clear picture of what they can expect career wise, they will be more passionate about the possibilities. Right now, many see “journalism” through a narrow lens, not realizing that it comprises much more than creating a book of memories.
Much like the “real world” of journalism, the future of high school journalism ed is unclear. But as increasingly more high schools move to career and technology education-oriented programs, my hope is that the curriculum for the journalism and communications industries would be broadened. In the meantime, I’m now a certified Texas journalism educator, but until I have an opportunity to change what’s being taught, I may be better off as an outsider.
Angela Washeck is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas. She is a proud graduate of Texas A&M University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a journalism minor. Angela also writes for MediaBistro’s 10,000 Words blog and TexasMonthly.com, and she once interned with the TV newsmagazine “Dan Rather Reports.” Her work has been republished on Editor & Publisher, the American Press Institute and more. When Angela is not busy with PBS MediaShift work, you can find her watching “How I Met Your Mother” reruns, watching Aggie football and attending indie/folk concerts in Dallas. Follow her @angelawasheck.