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My Defense of

Scholastic Journalism

The Cost of 'Quiet Dissatisfaction' 


Susan Enfield 

At Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif., where I began my career as a teacher of journalism, English and English as a second language, we often surveyed our new graduates on how prepared they believed they were for life beyond high school.

My former journalism students consistently cited their beginning and advanced journalism classes as providing them with some of the best preparation for college and career. Specifically, they described how they learned to:

•  Write clearly and concisely;

•  Analyze issues critically and objectively;

•  Manage multiple projects concurrently;

•  Meet deadlines while producing carefully researched, high-quality work; and

•  Work as part of a team — and overcome differences in opinion — to get the job done.

As their teacher, I was heartened to know my students had found value in their journalism experience. My goal, however, was to ensure they gained an understanding of and respect for the First Amendment and learned that with this right comes great responsibility. This meant giving them opportunities to find their own voice and use it effectively and responsibly.

It was not until years later, though, that I fully appreciated the broader impact of scholastic journalism. As part of an assignment for a graduate school course, I surveyed my former students on how, if at all, their journalism classes affected them. One of the most powerful responses I received said: “Though few high school students would admit it, schools play a large role in nurturing or stifling personal development among their customers, their kids. In high school, teenagers either learn to think creatively and pro-actively or they learn to hide in the shadows and keep their mouths shut. I fear that most high schools promote a quiet dissatisfaction among their students.”

Reading this, I realized that encouraging students to find their voice through journalism was perhaps the best way to prevent “quiet dissatisfaction” from becoming the norm.

Critical Thinking
Outside of the journalism classroom, few opportunities are available for high school students to have their work regularly read and evaluated by a broad, authentic audience. From this they learn their words, ideas and opinions not only matter, but also affect the world around them.

Unfortunately, for the past several years, school districts have had to make painful, often devastating budget cuts in the wake of our national economic crisis. This has taken a toll on our high school journalism programs nationwide, a toll far greater than the elimination of a rich academic elective and valuable extracurricular activity. It has taken a toll on how we are preparing our young people to participate meaningfully in our democratic society.

We live in a rapidly changing, fast-paced world where we are inundated daily, if not hourly, by news and news-like media outlets conveying information of all kinds. When it does exist, the line separating objective, factual news from opinion-laden commentary often is blurry. Given the sheer volume of information our students must sift through on a daily basis, it is more important than ever they learn how to critically discern fact from opinion, which is the core of scholastic journalism. By eliminating journalism programs across the country, we are preparing them less and less to do just that.

While I have firsthand experience of how journalism education benefits students, in recent years a growing body of research and practice has come to support this as well.

In February 2011, the Colorado High School Press Association issued a special report titled “Journalism Is the New English.” The introduction says it all: “Use whatever terms you wish — Media Literacy, Writing for Audience, Technical Communications, Mass Communications — but the evidence from the latest English language arts standards from Colorado and from the Common Core Standards is clear: Journalism, and all the skills surrounding this broad area, is the ideal curricular vehicle to help our students gain 21st-century skills and demonstrate them to a variety of audiences.”

Freedom of Expression
When I made the decision to become a superintendent, I vowed I would remain a teacher first — and the greatest lessons I learned as a teacher came from working with my journalism students. I now have the responsibility to lead a school system that ensures all students are prepared for college, career and citizenship. I believe part of that responsibility means guaranteeing my students’ freedom of speech and equipping them with the requisite skills to exercise that right responsibly.

While it may seem risky to some educators to trust students to report the news and share their opinions in a public forum, I believe we have a professional obligation as educators to do just that. Otherwise, according to a 1994 report, “Journalism Kids Do Better: What Research Tells Us about High School Journalism” by Jack Dvorak, we risk creating “not only the absence of a free student press, but also bland, apathetic students who are unaware and uninterested in their rights.”

Susan Enfield is superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash. E-mail: susan.enfield@highlineschools.org


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