By 10:15 a.m. on a typical Thursday, high school senior Ariella Appleby has conducted a brainstorming session with 16 of her peers, edited a news brief, conferenced with a classmate about style errors and editorializing on Instagram captions, and prepared interview questions for her upcoming in-depth package on school safety.
She also has addressed at least six Common Core State Standards in the process of these typical editor tasks at Whitney High School in Rocklin, California — but she can’t identify which ones, and she doesn’t want to interrupt the happy hum of students working to ask her fellow staff members.
“In other classes, teachers drill us almost every day now about which standard is which and what the lesson is meant to teach us. It’s on the board. It’s on every handout. The whole focus is about what a big change we’re making to Common Core. But in journalism [class], we don’t have to talk about it. These are the same things we’ve been doing since my freshman year in Journalism I. We can just focus on doing what we’re doing,” Appleby said.
Her attitude is not uncommon among scholastic journalism educators, many of whom maintain student media is not only “21st century English” but the very essence of the new Common Core: rigorous and relevant skill-based standards with emphasis on the 4Cs of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.
“When I forced myself to actually wade through all the skills contained in the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, I was amazed at how smoothly the skills journalism students work to develop each day connected,” said Jack Kennedy, executive director of the Colorado High School Press Association. “If I were a bit skeptical of the whole CCSS movement before, I quickly changed my mind after that. A lot of media advisers can proudly say that they were ‘Common Core before Common Core.’”
New name, same set up
The new standards connect naturally to student media as journalists have the opportunity to serve as objective, skilled interviewers and active listeners. In their roles as media producers, they implement the writing process to plan, produce, revise and edit work — all for an authentic audience, using a variety of platforms, operating within a budget and on deadline.
A key shift away from a standardized set of texts for required reading places the focus on skills rather than content. The Common Core State Standards offer flexibility as teachers can select their own nonfiction texts to use for close-reading exercises. Reading an article from The New York Times online, for example, offers an opportunity for text analysis while also connecting to journalistic news writing objectives such as evaluating sources, determining a writer’s purpose and studying tone and style.
The emphasis on technology to research, collaborate and innovate is not new to student media programs. At World Journalism Preparatory School in Queens, New York, The Blazer staff uses Google Docs to develop story ideas as well as Twitter for collaboration outside of the classroom. The staff recently added Voxer for voice comments on articles on its news website. According to adviser Starr Sackstein, embracing digital tools is all part of the experience.
“I think the mere teaching of 21st century skills like collaboration and technology use are naturally aligned with the expectations of the core standards,” Sackstein said.
Additionally, the new standards emphasize students’ ability to use supporting evidence. The standards connect naturally to the research and reporting students do as they analyze documents like public records and evaluate the credibility of sources to craft truthful, accurate stories in their roles as media producers.
Why it works in the journalism classroom and — for some — may feel like old news, is the element of ownership embedded in student media programs. Unlike many traditional classrooms in core subject areas, scholastic media offer a dynamic classroom setting in which students have an opportunity to help craft their learning plan.
In Great Falls, Montana, veteran language arts teacher and award-winning media adviser Linda Ballew knows from more than 30 years of experience how the student ownership piece makes all the difference.
“The learning environment allows for collaboration where teachers request students not just listen to their directives to pass an exam, but personally reflect about their knowledge and skills needed to develop concepts and to plan, organize, budget, write, design, photograph and interact as they communicate with each other as well as their audience,” she said.
Documenting the details
Media teachers may be confident their curriculum aligns but need help documenting how.
The Journalism Education Association can help. Its new and dynamic curriculum based on 11 skill areas to encompass everything from law and ethics to multimedia broadcast includes learner objectives, lesson plans, instructional materials, and both formative and summative assessments, including rubrics — all tied to CCSS.
The true “test” is students’ roles as citizens and productive members of the 21st century world. The reality, however, is that state- or district-level mandates may push teachers to take a closer look at the assessment piece to document how their curriculum aligns. Two national organizations, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are currently working to develop assessments. The samples and practice materials provided on their websites include exercises such as “use details from the text to support your answer.” Other questions require students to “revise” and “write an ending,” which are tasks journalism students complete daily with their work on newspapers, yearbooks, broadcast programs, websites and magazines.
The connections between student media and Common Core make a strong case for student participation at every level. If the experience in a journalism classroom produces critical thinkers and strong communicators with a focus on civic engagement and college and career readiness — goals of nearly every secondary school in America — administrators might consider making such classes more widely available, or even required, as a way to best prepare students for the future.
Similarly, journalism educators should not be afraid of the emphasis on CCSS but rather should take extra steps to spread the message as widely as possible to administrators, parents and policymakers, as well as to students within their schools, that participation in a media program meets the core standards in meaningful ways reaching far beyond the classroom.
Hillsborough High School media adviser Joe Humphrey cites a bulletin board in his Tampa, Florida, classroom with quotes from former students describing how the skills they learned in journalism helped them in life afterward. The contributors include professional journalists but also an athletic trainer, statistical analyst, pre-med student and social worker. Their comments talk about the importance of deadlines, the value of teamwork, the significance of not just content but presentation, and the leadership and listening skills embedded in student media.
Humphrey said, “It’s remarkable what students accomplish in our classes and have been accomplishing long before Common Core emerged. They turn nothing into something by applying skills that will benefit them for decades.”
From her classroom across the country, Appleby agrees.
“I know Common Core is important, and I’m glad I’m getting the practice I need,” she said. “But if you don’t mind, I need to get back to work. We just need to keep doing our thing. There’s deadlines to meet and people are counting on me.”
Sarah Nichols teaches journalism and advises Whitney High Student Media in Rocklin, California, which includes Details yearbook, The Roar news magazine and Whitney Update news website. Nichols serves as vice president of the Journalism Education Association and is certified as a Master Journalism Educator. She has been recognized as National Yearbook Adviser of the Year and California’s High School Journalism Teacher of the Year. Follow her @sarahjnichols.