Teaching my old beat — covering schools

JOUR395 F17 Specialty Reporting (Education)
Douglas O. Cumming, associate professor

Notes toward a SYLLABUS – 8/27/16

This course fulfills the requirement for a 3-credit specialty reporting class required for majors in the Journalism sequence. Journalism and Strategic Communications majors must have taken J201 as a prerequisite. Juniors and seniors with other majors are welcome, especially those minoring in education or education policy.

In Jour 395, students will learn about:

  • key institutions that shape and influence this field

Local public and private schools and universities, school districts (their administration and school boards), state Department of Education, U.S. Department of Education, state and national laws and policies pertaining to education (and legislative and funding bodies responsible for these); organizations of teachers/professors, principals, administrators, school boards, parents, and students; colleges for teacher training and research on teaching and learning.

  •  specific terms essential to understand to report and write about the topic with authority

Education insiders and experts use a lot of jargon. Sometimes their obscure terms need to be understood and translated. Educationese can be shorthand for a significant set of meanings, or they contain a history that needs to be told in a nutshell. Other times, the jargon is smoke an education reporter should learn to fan away: it can be merely the empty code that members of a sect use to distinguish insiders from outsiders, or the trick bureaucrats and politicians employ to avoid accountability.

  •  credible resources and sources to which a reporter can turn for stories on this topic

Ed Beat: Education Writers Association (join it, consider attending an EWA workshop or following the listserv, and bookmark the website for backgrounders), The Hechinger Report, Journalism Center on Children & Families (University of Maryland J school), Education Week, Chronical of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Pew Research Center (Education).

K-12 student achievement: NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress), IPEDS (DOE data on higher ed), Institute for Education Statistics (IES), state and local assessment offices, and for a dissenting view, FairTest.

Professional education organizations: e.g. National School Boards Association;  National Association of Secondary School Principals , etc.

  •  specific journalistic associations for writers in this field

For Ed Beat writers: EWA (see above), SPJ, Spencer Foundation, Poynter Institute.

  •  specific ethical issues that reporters encounter in this field

Ethics: Sarah Carr’s standards & ethics for education reporting.

Students will read exemplary examples of the particular type of specialty reporting and practice the craft themselves through the reporting and writing of numerous stories.  When possible, the class will meet with veterans in the field through class visits or Skype sessions.

 Some award-winning examples:  of Boston Globe columnist Farah Stockman’s Pulitzer-winning columns on busing crisis 40 years after;  other EWA award winters; Tampa Bay Times’ “Failure Factories” , Baltimore Sun’s “Unsettled Journeys,” blogs from Valerie Strauss’ “Answer Sheet” blog in Washington Post, Sara Gregory’s series on Rethinking Discipline, and Columbia Dispatch project she helped, won the Pulliam First Amendment Award; a Washington Post story on a bereaved father’s promise to help other Asian-American parents understand their children’s urge to assimilate. A Center for Public Integrity article on Virginia’s high rate of suspensions. Articles by the professor from when he was senior education writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

 Also: Students must cover (and find news from) school board meeting, do a profile of a student and a profile of teacher (ideally, around an issue or narrative), and complete a final in-depth multi-media project. This is the minimal requirement for news stories that a student will produce.

And: A unit on the history of American education, its philosophical and political battles, and how it has been constructed in popular culture and covered in mass communication, from Joseph Rice’s series in Forum (1890s) to coverage of A Nation at Risk (1983) and  test scores under NCLB. (Lawrence A. Cremin volumes on American education; literary nonfiction from the classroom perspective such as by Kozol, Kidder, etc, and portrayal in film).

And: Students will establish contact with an education reporter early in the term and follow that reporter’s work and social-media presence. By the end of the term, the student will write a report on that education-beat reporter that must be shared with the reporter before being submitted for a grade.

Possible guests in class or by Skype: Sara Gregory of Roanoke Times, Aaron Richardson of web-only Charlottesville Tomorrow, Maureen Downy of Atlanta Journal Constitution, Emily Richmond of EWA, Sarah Carr of The Teacher Project at Columbia University School of Journalism.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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