When Chicago Public Schools students prove a teacher wrong

When Chicago Public Schools students prove a teacher wrong
My Chicago Public Schools students go through a news pitch analysis in journalism class.

The goal of every good teacher is to help students be independent thinkers who question ideas and authority figures.  And I’ve learned to accept when my students tell me that . . . well . . . I’m . . . uh . . . wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked my high-school journalism students through their first news story pitch session. “This is what professional journalists do,” I told them. “You go to an editor, explain the significance about an issue, highlight your ability or passion for writing about it, and get the editor's approval.”  They would be the editors; I would be the reporter.  A simple exercise, I thought. They would learn how to make a successful pitch from me.

We used a list of news drivers that my friend and colleague Carolina Gonzalez—another white rhino—passed along to me. This is a partial list:

  • Importance: Should we pay attention to this situation?
  • Relevance: Should we and our readers care?
  • Proximity: Is this issue affecting our community?
  • Conflict: Is there a significant struggle?

After watching the news story and going through some comprehension exercises, we would decide to write about the increase of teens smoking electronic cigarettes for our school paper—and I knew we would.

So we watched a news story about the increase in teens smoking eCigs, water vapor cigarettes that are tobacco-less but still provide hits of nicotine. We found out that nearly 1.8 million, about 10 percent, of middle school and high school students have tried them. We heard that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is concerned about long-term effects we are not aware of. We understood that fifteen states, including Illinois, banned the sale of these to teens under eighteen.

“This will make a great story for our first issue of the school paper—More Teens Smoking eCigs!” I said. “That will catch our students’ attention.” The class of about 25 students stared at me silently.

I knew we were set. I continued, “We’ll assign this story to a team. One person will write the lead. Someone else will interview a student who smokes. Someone else will interview a student who doesn’t. Together, you’ll write the ending.”

Still, they just looked at me or their paper. It’s the second week of school, I thought. They’re still shy.

So I moved on. “O.K. rate this story using our news drivers analysis sheet,” I said enthusiastically. They were pretty quiet. As I walked around, I saw many were circling “low” or “medium” but not “high” in many categories.

I gave them about two minutes and walked around observing. What are they thinking? I thought. But didn’t say anything to them.

“Time’s up!” I announced. “Janet, take it away,” I told a senior who I had in class last year. “Lead the class in this decision, please.”
Janet went up to the board; I stood in the back. She was to read each category on the projected image and have students raise their hand when she read: low . . . medium . . . high.

“Importance,” Janet said quietly. “Low?” and lots of hands went up. “Medium?” A few raised their hands. “High?” No one raised a hand.

In the back of the room, I thought, It’s the first category. Maybe they misunderstood.

Janet continued: “Conflict . . . Low?” A few hands went up.

Good, I thought. Here we go.

“Medium?” More hands went up.

I got this, I thought and crossed my arms in success.

“High?” A couple of hands went up.

That’s fine, I continued thinking. They’ll agree with me at the end.

As Janet went through the news drivers analysis, I realized, My pitch didn’t work! They’re not accepting this pitch!

Janet finished circling the ratings and tallied the results. Lots of low ratings. Some medium. And almost no high ratings.
The room remained silent. I heard the “click” when Janet snapped the cover on the marker. Then she looked at me.

“Uh . . . O.K.” I said as I walked back to the front. “Thanks, Janet. Please have a seat.”

I’m walking; I’m contemplating—deeply—in seconds, Now what?

Back at the board, I looked at the silent class. “So you just shot down my pitch . . . I don’t get it.”

Still, silence. Someone shuffled his papers.

I looked at the board and asked the only thing I could think of—“Why?”

Then I became silent and watched a couple of hands begin to rise.

“It’s really not important. There are bigger things we can write about,” one student said.

“Soooooooo . . . lots of kids here aren’t affected by smoking?” I asked.

Lots of students shook their heads. Another raised her hand: “The story said that 1 in 10 students tried eCigarettes. You said that would be about 100 students here. That’s not a lot.”

“Oh.” I said. “Yeah . . . So I guess we’re not writing about this,” I admitted.

And one more student shyly raised her hand.

“If they’re already banned so teens can’t buy them in Illinois, this really doesn’t matter,” she explained.

“Wow,” I responded. “You’re . . . um . . . right.”

And that was it. In the second week of our journalism class, a class of Southwest side juniors and seniors reminded me they knew more than I did. Then I reminded myself, This is good.

“Alright, alright . . . Fine!” I gave in, turned my back to them, and wiped the board to begin the next exercise. “You win this one" I said into the white board.  "Fine.”

They smiled.

When I pitched my next story idea about our school’s “Get to Class on Time” program—because our school has a serious tardy problem—my pitch passed.

“You got this one,” Janet whispered to me as I stood in the back by her desk while another student started the analysis at the board. I assigned this story to a student who didn’t know what to write about.

The other students pitched their own ideas after some research. The only one I hesitated approving was Jose’s cat story.

“Jose, you are not writing a story about someone putting a cat in the microwave,” I said.

“Why not?” he responded, convinced he would not give up. “She got caught!”

I used the classic adult response, “Because!”

Then I added, “It’s wrong to do that, Jose! That’s just inhumane--irresponsible!”

After some more exchanges, because Jose did not give up, I learned that Jose has a pet and it’s been harder than he thought. So Jose is writing a story about the challenges teens face caring for pets. I’m still hoping he does not mention the cat in the microwave. We’ll see. Drafts are due this week.

Even after all these years, I still get things wrong in the classroom. I must remember this.  Yes, my students will sometimes know more than me. And I need to admit to myself—and to them—when they prove me wrong.

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