Experiential Learning Is the Key

Education Reformation Illustration by Kwang Choi

Education Reformation Blog

In my last post, I wrote about project-based learning at the middle-school level. I know many people have had bad experiences with group projects, myself included. My vision for project-based learning does not come from the projects that use poster board and glitter. My vision comes from a class I actually teach now.

My experiences as a high school English teacher are not that unique, but I’ve worked with an interesting blend of students in a middle-class area. I teach Honors Literature and Composition (9th grade), American Literature (11th grade), and Journalism (10-12th grade). In my honors freshmen class, I have a wide range of students. I have students who are off the charts in intelligence, motivation, and work ethic; they make everything look easy. In the same class, I’ll have students who are bright and motivated, but have to work hard to keep up with the work. I will also have students who struggle to maintain a C. For most honors students, getting A’s (not the love of learning) is the motivation. For most regular students, passing with as little effort as possible is the motivation.

The one class that is different from the rest is Journalism. This class was the class no one wanted to teach when I started teaching ten years ago. Even though I had no experience with Journalism, I took it because I thought it would be fun. I quickly found out why no one wanted it; allowing students to create a newspaper was difficult, challenging, and almost cost me my job a few times. Over the years I have learned how to walk the fine line between student-run newspaper and professional responsibility; although the challenges are still there, Journalism is now a beautiful experience for me as well as the students. As a matter of fact, it is the only class in high school that is pure experiential learning for the students. Journalism is the model I use for my vision of project-based learning.

Currently, Journalism is a completely student-run paper. I taught some introductory lessons at the beginning of the year, but the majority of my teaching of actual information, techniques, and purpose happened years ago. Now, the student leadership teaches the class; they organize, edit, and encourage the other staff members. It is a real-life job experience for students still in high school. I have seven seniors in leadership this year, the most I’ve ever had. Because of the dedication, skills, motivation, and desire for leadership of these current students, I had to create new positions for them. I have two co-executive editors for the hard copy paper, an executive editor for our new online paper, a copy editor, a layout editor, a content editor, and a general manager.

My job is to be the adult in the room. I answer questions and help direct my students if they are unsure where to go to get answers. Everything else is up to the students. They decide what goes into the paper, and what jobs each student will have for the month. Once they write the articles, the content editor reads every article and looks at every picture to make sure it is written as directed and that no unethical material got into the article/picture; if there is a problem, the content editor gives suggestions to the student as to how to get the piece back on track. The next step is for section editors and fact checkers (usually students who are not in leadership) to read for grammar errors, quotation errors, the spellings of names, and the reliability of sources. The section editors and fact checkers return the articles with suggestions; keep in mind that these students are also writing their own articles and taking their own pictures. We also have artists on staff that will draw pictures for movie reviews or that impossible-to-take picture, since we do not use clip art or internet pictures in our newspaper.

After they revise their articles, students submit their pieces to the copy editor. He reads and edits all of the articles the students wrote. The writers then revise their articles one more time and place their articles on layout. Once on layout, the executive editors read all the articles one more time to make sure all flows well, while the layout editor makes adjustments, if necessary, to the visual appeal of every article. The general manager keeps track of all stages of the paper, communicating any issues with the leadership. She also makes sure students are looking for advertisers and signs students up for class fundraisers.

After everything is complete, I read the entire paper for any ethical issues and submit it to the printer. After the paper is distributed, we circle up and discuss each article. Students share comments/feedback they’ve received from those outside of our class, and I share any grammar errors they missed. Then, the process starts again, this time with a new, improved perspective.

Journalism is experiential learning at its best; I’ve also discovered that this type of learning is the key to student buy-in. The students take ownership of the paper because it is theirs, not mine. Students are proud of their work. The school and its staff read their accomplishments every issue. If any grammar errors or content errors are found after publication, all staff members want to know the rules so they won’t make the same mistakes twice; they don’t want to be embarrassed by shoddy work.

If a journalist misses a deadline, one of the executive editors talks to him or her. If that journalist continues to show lack of care or improvement, the editors come to me to discuss the next step. My job then is to talk to that student about either improving or finding another class for the next semester. I have had to remove a few students from the staff over the years for continually missing deadlines or for lack of dedication. More often than not though, students turn around and work hard so as not to let their classmates down.

All my Journalism students are collaborative leaders; if they don’t have an actual title, most students are vying for a position in the future because they know it looks good on a college application. Student leaders in this class, a position that can only be obtained with hard work, dedication, and problem solving skills, have had 100% acceptance into their school of choice (Baylor University, University of Denver, Kings College, to name a few), as well as an appointment to the Air Force Academy and a Pepsi scholarship winner.

Why? I believe it’s because Journalism teaches students skills no other class can teach them: leadership, problem solving, collaboration, communication, acceptance, humility, work ethic, team work, ethics, and citizenship. Students can make a difference in their community by writing about situations that need to be changed or recognized. Every year the class becomes more aware of social issues and takes pride in making the school community more aware of them as well. They write with a specific audience in mind, which connects them to their thoughts and to the world. What college wouldn’t want a student who has received this type of education?

Journalism is a year-long, project-based class. This is where my vision comes from. This is how we can change education. The question is how do we create this type of experiential learning for all students? 

What are your thoughts?

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8 Responses to Experiential Learning Is the Key

  1. Wow! I love the approach that you are the Teacher-Mentor and not just taking the “stand and deliver” approach. Empowering the students to take leadership roles is an education that will last long after they get into the colleges of their choice, but in their lifetimes.

    My question for you is… How are you helping them to experience the “new journalism” that is evolving due to technology. Newspapers are definitely feeling the effects of New Media and the journalists have a different role. For example, Twitter is known for providing the Breaking news and journalists are expected to be “in on” and reporting the news in real-time. YouTube and images from our smartphones are also factors in the reporting of news.

    And then there is the importance of “fact checking” the information that you are getting online and making sure that you are crediting the image sources or other forms of information.

    It makes me wonder if some of the students could be parlayed into a Social Media News team? They are definitely doing this on the network tv news, as well as print news. You might be able to print fewer copies of the actual news paper and direct everyone to a Blog/Newspaper? (See the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/ ) The same information that they are gathering could be driven into a WordPress site as an online news source & then distributed via the Social Media Networks.

    It sure sounds exciting, what you are doing with these students. And with all of the New Media technologies, the future is bright for those who are great Content Creators.

    • Pauline says:

      Thank you, Cynthia, for your feedback and ideas! We just started an online newspaper this year, so we are already printing less and directing people to our site (thelhsrevolution.com). We are using online for current events and sports, since they are the most timely news items; however, I didn’t think about the social media aspect. I love that idea and will approach the staff with a Social Media News team. We can create a twitter account for the paper and tweet to our followers, as well as follow the current events/breaking news that hit twitter before anywhere else. Love it! Thank you for your expertise!

  2. Awesome! What a great idea for a class. The closest thing I can think of having in school was being on the yearbook staff. I agree, that type of learning experience would be valuable to almost every student if it were available. If some type of experiential learning could be started during middle school – even better. Science and science projects come to mind as another place to integrate that type of learning experience. Maybe creative writing as well. Perhaps incorporating that approach to required community service hours (working as a team etc) would make those hours more meaningful.

    The kids in your class surely have an advantage when it comes to being prepared for college and ultimately their professional lives.

    • Pauline says:

      Thank you, Michele, for your feedback and insights! I love your ideas about science projects, creative writing (possibly a literary magazine), and community service hours. I wish we could get more people in on this conversation! This is how we can bring about change–collaboration at its finest!

  3. Roxana Jones says:

    You are changing the world Pauline! Your vision of a better place for the new generations is already manifesting in the most amazing ways. I admire your courage and I just hope that those you are now teaching may continue to replicate your creativity and wisdom at national and global levels. Change is here to stay!
    All my love & gratitude ♥

  4. Jessie says:

    So I’ve been observing at a high school that kinda works like LHS in that it is a smaller school ,has the block shedule and is mostly middle class, white. I was observing the journalism class and they do it differently. They have a normal journalism class and then they have the school paper club. Some Students from the class are in the club. I was talking to the teacher who runs it and he doesn’t have to worry about advertising, it is completely funded by the school. Do you guys still have to get advertising to fund it? What I like about the journalism class is that he teaches aspects of journalism that coincide more with the state common core standards. He focused on current events and the way these events are presented. I think that stuff is important too and I was very impressed with how he used journalism to make his students into better writers and to make them more alert about the world and how to use journalistic styles of writing to make an impact. He showed how even the pictures and the angles they were taken at tells a story. Now it has been what… 6 years since I was in your journalism class? Haha. That’s a loooong time. Feedback as a student who is now studying to be a teacher, I’d say I was very confused about how to write journalistically. I didn’t know how it was different from other types of writing and to be honest my writing itself needed help. I feel like my entire education I just got pushed along as a “good writer” and I never knew what made me a good writer, I never knew what I needed to improve upon other than grammar, I didn’t know how to improve the way I got my thoughts across. I think the whole having students do it on their own is great but I also would have liked more prompts. I remember one incident when an editor didn’t like my response on her group question for the opinion page we all had to answer the question and she felt insulted. I guess she talked to you first and so you had her speak to me because its students doing it on their own but I didn’t really know what was going on. I felt that you were probably on her side and so when she said she didn’t like what I wrote and she ripped it up and threw it in the trash you told me that I need to stick up for my writing more. I didn’t know I was supposed to do that. I thought I was going to get into trouble. Going through that, I see that as a teacher I would probably provide prompts for students to disagree respectfully. Its not really fights breaking out that I’m concerned about, rather it is the quite students, who don’t let their voices be heard because they feel intimidated that would concern me. I mean students can do it on their own but young people need to be structured and I’d like more information about how you handle that structuring because I’m interested in that. I’m interested in learning more about your role as a teacher and what techniques you use to help your students improve from the time they come in from the time they leave. What things have worked and not worked for you. Right now this kind of sounds like you kind of let them have free range and you tie up the loose ends but really I can’t see that working, to be honest. I would see the students that are ALREADY ambitious taking over everything and the people who are already good at certain skills like editing and writing just taking over and nobody really growing or attaining new skills. How do you keep that from happening? Do you teach them how to peer edit? Are they just editing grammar or do they ask questions about content and get each other to elaborate and clarify and become better writers? I mean are the Student Leaders already good students and that gets them into their college of choice or are average students coming in and leaving as leaders? As a reader these are just some things I’m asking myself so I can try to figure out how someone like myself, an aspiring teacher would hope to make this work.

    • Pauline says:

      Thanks for your comments and questions, Jessie. Most of your questions, I’ve already answered in the post, I believe. My Journalism class is not an introductory class to journalistic writing–like the one you are observing; it is a class where we create a newspaper, just like Yearbook is a class where they create a yearbook. Students join the class and learn from the students who are leaders, because those leaders have acquired the skills over the years and have shown strong work ethic and dedication–that’s why they are leaders. The leadership has earned the right to tell other students that they need to change the content of their writing. It is real-life work experience in the classroom. That’s the point of this post–no other class in school gives that type of experience in high school. It is a sink or swim situation; unfortunately, some people do sink, but that is an invaluable lesson, if they are willing to look at it as such. If a student truly wants to succeed in journalism, he or she will have to become a self-advocate, an innovator, a communicator, or he or she will have to find another class. The reality is your bosses will not teach you how to write or how to ask questions or how to make a class work; I had to do that as an educator all on my own. I researched; I asked questions; I joined seminars–all so I could be a better journalism adviser. I had to do that in my workplace; I am now creating a classroom experience where my students have to learn to do that as well.

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