by Becky Sipos
When I was a beginning teacher, I was often dismayed how students didn’t improve their writing very much despite my best instruction. When I was “forced into” sponsoring the school newspaper as a job requirement and I began teaching journalism, I was amazed by the writing growth I saw in my students. What made such a difference?
As I began to assess the situation and to figure out what made the difference, a figurative light bulb went off. Students were doing real work for a real audience, and they wanted to do well. Students had a choice in the type of assignments they had. And they were truly responsible for their work. In my typical English class, if they didn’t do their work, they would get a poor grade and I would be upset. But on the newspaper staff, if they didn’t do the work, someone else would have to do it. After all, no newspaper leaves a big blank space that says “so and so didn’t finish his story.” Students who didn’t complete assignments had to deal with the wrath of their classmates. They immediately saw the impact of their failure to meet deadlines.
When the paper was published, they also learned immediately how well they did. If readers liked their stories or photos, they would get praise from teachers and students alike. If they got something wrong, boy, did people let them know. They soon learned emphatically the journalism rule of double checking and having multiple sources. The old journalism adage “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” was not a joke.
I now know that the factors that led to my students’ greater academic success are the ones advocated for in Principle 6 of Character.org’s 11 Principles of Effective Character. The factors are itemized particularly in the key indicators:
6.1 Students interact with academic content in engaging, hands-on, appropriate ways. And students have a voice in classroom decisions and plans that affect them.
In my journalism classes, students had to plan the content, assign the stories, design the pages, plan photos, sell ads and much more. I guided them and taught them, but the more responsibility they were given, the more they rose to the occasion.
6.2 Differentiated instruction appears organic and staff help all students do high-quality work and strive for continuous improvement.
Differentiating instruction was organic and jobs required different skills. Novice writers were given small briefs to write; experienced journalists got the big features or the breaking news. But it was all important, and they mentored each other to improve overall quality of each issue of the newspaper. I remember one time when two boys wrote something for the Valentine issue of the paper. They thought what they had written was hilarious. I thought it was sophomoric and shouldn’t be published. But true to our process, the student editors got to decide. They decided to let it be published telling me it was the first time they’d seen these two boys so excited about their work.
When the paper came out, the humor fell flat among our readers. The two boys said, “You were right. I guess it really wasn’t funny.” If I had said the stories couldn’t run, they would have shut down and decided that the paper was the teacher’s paper. As it was, they learned a real lesson on community values, and they became productive members of the staff, writing much higher quality work in subsequent assignments.
6.3 . This indicator focuses on three types of habits:
“thinking habits—curiosity, truth-seeking, critical thinking and open-mindedness”
“work related habits—perseverance, responsible decision-making, self-management, and challenge seeking”
“social habits—honesty, responsibility, collaboration”
All of these habits came into play every day, but I think the responsible decision-making was the most impactful. Students had to consider who might be affected by a story. Was there the possibility of harm? If so, was the story accurate? Did it need to be published? Did the benefits of publishing outweigh any possible hurt?
You may think that the journalism classroom is a special circumstance that makes all of this easy. But as I saw the impact of these principles, I began to incorporate them into my other classes as well.
I gave my English class students more opportunity for choice in their assignments. I designed lessons for real audiences. They had to enter a writing contest or submit a piece of writing for publication. I gave them more time for collaboration and connected their lessons to issues in the news.
A variety of recent research bears out the importance of principle 6. One study of 643 students in 37 secondary school classrooms indicated that three domains of teacher-student interaction were predictive of higher student achievement test scores at the end of the year. These domains include emotional support, classroom organization, and instructional support.
Of particular interest was the emotional support domain, which was further broken down into three components:
- Teachers’ ability to establish a positive emotional climate
- Teachers’ sensitivity to student needs
- Structuring of the classroom and lessons in ways that recognize adolescents’ needs for a sense of autonomy and control, an active role in their learning, and for peer interaction opportunities.
I like to think I did a good job of establishing a positive emotional climate and that I was sensitive to student needs. But it was the structure of the classroom and lessons that led to my students increased academic achievement. My journalism classes planned the content and design of every issue of the paper. They had specific roles to play and they had to be active participants. Interviewing sources and getting quotes was not something you could do from a text book. As I watched my students grow, I grew as a teacher.
I’ve heard reports of some teachers today having to follow scripted lessons. I shudder to think about the lost opportunities for student growth if teachers do not find ways to incorporate student voice and choice and more real world lessons. And it’s important to remember that educating for character involves an engaging academic curriculum.