Today was one of the best days I’ve had at work in a long time. The yearbook still has a bajillion pages due, and most of those pages have no pictures because of deadline issues, our ad sales are down by $7k and book sales are down around 140 (around $10.5K), I ate THREE cookies–not the diet nasty things that taste like paper but the yummy frosting topped sugary scrumptious melt-in-your-mouth buttery delights–AND still it was one of the best days ever.
One of my kids fell in love with journalism today. She fell in love with the power of writing stories that matter, stories that can change the world. She was in J-1, and she kind of sort of liked what we did and LOVED the first amendment discussions and debates we had, but STORY was an extra add on she had to muddle through to get on staff.
Today I talked to beginning staff about the difference between an assignment and writing stories: Assignments are what you turn in to English teachers. Stories need to say something powerful in a way that resonates with the student body. You search for stories, you talk to people, you feel the words when you’re writing them, and when you’re done, you look at everyone in room and say This IS AWESOME, and you know it is because you did the quality reporting to make it awesome, and then you wrote and revised and wrote some more until the story was there and it made you feel something, something more than the blankness of looking at words on paper that mean nothing even though they follow the news or feature format. Last semester two of our papers were filled with stories. The last one was filled with assignments. We never want a paper of assignments again. Ever.
Back to today:
We’d finished looking at samples of assignments vs. stories, and I told the kids I wanted to see their questions for their first stories by the end of class, and the girl said, “But, Mrs. Lee, I don’t know what to ask. I don’t get it.”
That confusion is normal for cub reporters, but she was really frustrated by it. I gave her some people she needed to talk to and started to give her some question ideas, but I could see her frustration was growing worse than ever, and in that moment, I realized she hadn’t completed step one of writing. She didn’t know WHY she was doing the dating violence story.
So I asked her why.
And she said because it was the story she’d signed up for.
And I said, nah, that’s not why you’re doing the story. I have a paper filled with stories and you picked this one. WHY?
And she said because it’s important.
And I said what does that even mean? Be real here. WHY are you doing this story? It certainly doesn’t have to be done. WHY does it matter. WHY?
And her eyes filled with tears and she said BECAUSE IT DOES. IT MATTERS. And I said “That’s right. It matters. It matters so much. You did the research yesterday. You saw the numbers, and they’re huge. You saw the outcomes, and they’re horrible. You see that there are girls on this campus in violent relationships who feel alone and isolated and desolate and they don’t know where to turn or how to cope or what to do. And you’re going to show them by telling others’ stories that they’re not alone, that there is help out there and that they don’t have to stay in the relationships. You’re going to talk to the people who can help. You’re going to give them HOPE.
Then we talked about how to write the questions. I always start with what I want to know, what interests me, and I build from there.
She left my room on fire to find those stories. She’s bringing her questions tomorrow.
I have no idea if she’ll finish the story. I hope she will. It’s a tough first story to do. But I do know I remembered the power of the high school journalist, the importance of the high school reporter, and the absolute necessity to do something more than fill our pages with assignments.
What we do matters. We just need to remember WHY we do it.