The Great Common Core Swindle: Denying students an audience

SwindleZYou may be tempted to take the title of this post the wrong way.

No, I’m not going to argue against the Common Core standards. I’d be happy to discuss their drawbacks elsewhere. In fact, if you care to dive deep enough down into my Twitter stream you’ll discover I’ve done just that on several occasions with colleagues and acquaintances.

Here and now I’d like to address what I see as one of the key strengths of the Common Core. A focus that’s been missing, from the California State Content Standards at least.

Audience.

It’s there, listed at the end of the writing standards at every grade beginning with third: “Write…for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.” The old California State Content Standards also covered audience, but never specifically addressed a range of audiences, a key difference.

In a 21st-century, networked world, an audience of one, the teacher, or even the thirty or so students in a classroom is no longer a sufficient audience. And frankly, it hasn’t been for some time. As my colleague David Theriault likes to say, referring to teachers, “You are not your students’ best audience.”

Students who write for their teacher write for a grade. Students who write for an audience write to connect, to argue, to entertain, to inform. And when they have other purposes for their writing other than a grade, they begin to care about the craft, choose carefully their words, shape thoughtfully their sentences. Isn’t this the goal of writing standards?

So the question is: Does your school provide or cheat your students out of an audience?

Or, to cut to the chase: Does your school actively support a newspaper or broadcast program?

If it doesn’t, please stop going on about how you’re meeting the Common Core standards. Because in spirit you’re not.

I can’t think of a better way to prepare students for a larger, even world-wide audience or provide them with a better writing laboratory than a campus newspaper or broadcast program.

Besides offering students an audience and being shaped by two of the main modes of writing called for by the Common Core, informational and argumentative, a robust student journalism programs offers many other benefits.

CHOICE

Students journalists choose what they want to write about. Sports, movies, books, games, and news. Well, students don’t necessarily choose to write news per se, but with a bit of training, mentoring, and modeling, they’ll learn to spot it, gather it, and report it.

What are they reporting? The goings-on at your school, on the field, in the classroom, after school. And hopefully there’s a lot happening. Who better to tell those stories than your students? No one.

Want your students to be writing across the curriculum? Then reporting on the learning taking place in science, history, math, and business classes will do the trick.

Then imagine the range of audience your student journalists will reach: the student body, faculty, staff, families, community, world.

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Photo ©2007 Flickr user Jessica_Hopper CC-BY-2.0

VOICE

This is where students like to begin: expressing their opinion. But before they can argue a point, they need to gather the facts—a good habit for any writer, thinker, or citizen. If they jump the gun, they may end up on the bench where CBS reporter Lara Logan found herself recently.

So once they’ve gathered the facts they’re ready to form an opinion which in journalism will take the shape of an editorial or opinion column. Inevitably, students expressing opinions, especially in public, make adults squirm. But guess what folks? The adults don’t have to like it.

And that’s OK. Remember, we teach students who are in the same stages of adolescent development year after year, decade after decade. We encounter the same impulses and opinions every four years at least: the dress code is stupid, supervision bugs us, we don’t like the new bell schedule, why do we have to sit through assemblies, the campaigns for student leadership positions are just popularity contests. The list goes on. And on. Can you really blame them? If so, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to spend thirteen years of your life micromanaged by bells, adults, rules, procedures and the last five or six years befuddled by hormones and growing pains.

CONVERSATION

Adults won’t be the only ones who can’t quite stomach the editorials, opinions, or story angles. Many students won’t like them either. Fantastic! Guess what they can do? Write a letter to the editor, submit their own opinion piece, join the newspaper staff, start their own newspaper or blog. It’s called civil discourse; it’s the exact thing we’re training our students to engage in. At least we think that’s what we’re doing, but without a healthy journalism program we’re denying our students a safe place to try out and feel their way around civil discourse. Instead they turn to all sorts of social media, much of it hidden and anonymous, to hash out their opinions. Maybe, just maybe, if students had an authentic audience to air their grievances to, and training to gather all the facts first (which often puts out the flames of frustration), maybe there’d be less rantings and more discussions.

PRECISION

Newspapers and broadcast programs also provide a variety of tasks and audiences, requiring them to be precise in their work. Gathering news encourages students to see a story from multiple perspectives, not just one or two. They’ll quickly learn to see the world around them is much more complex than the either/or mentality so many suffer from. Writing headlines and photo captions also require an exactness and one you can assess by analyzing online traffic data should your newspaper also be online, which it should.

Broadcast news programs really hone students’ precision. Writing for TV is a different, more exact beast entirely. Plus the visual elements brought to bear on a story add a complexity and grammar all their own.

Both print and broadcast train students in visual literacy, a skill that grows more critical day by day as they’re bombarded continually by images.

THE SWINDLE

So what’s stopping you from starting up a journalism program, or jump-starting one that’s lagging?

Perhaps your stomach and/or laws that protect student expression. Currently only eight states have laws that protect student journalists, enhancing their First Amendment rights. Even with those protections, student journalists and their advisers too often have to battle school and district officials for those rights. That’s good practice too though. Even professional journalists continue to vye for rights and access.

The California Student Free Expression Law offers students a pretty large field to learn on. Unless a story contains obscenities or libelous statements, or incites “the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school” (CA Ed Code 48907), students can write it, print it, and distribute it. Remember, they’re learning, and even the New York Times makes mistakes.

Only eight states. Two others include student speech rights in their education codes. I know someone who couldn’t even count up these states on both his hands (sorry, inside joke. Shake my hand when you meet me and you’ll get it). Until the forty other states offer these important protections, which also protect schools and their administrators, this country will continue to suffer from a lack of student journalism programs, programs which give students the opportunity to write for and interact with an authentic audience and prepare them to participate effectively in a democratic society, a society which depends on a free and functioning press.

So while states continue their transition to the Common Core standards, here’s hoping they don’t just talk the talk. Stop the swindle, walk the walk.

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