Do as I say, and as I do: Why I’ve assigned myself a semester of homework

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week's homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Yes, I still prefer to write by hand. I wrote this week’s homework in my journal before typing it for this post.

Even teachers have plenty to learn. Last week I began my seventh semester as a college instructor, and my third semester teaching advanced news writing and reporting.

A pattern has emerged over the years: The first time I teach a course, it’s a little bumpy. I’m excited but adapting to new curriculum and expectations. That semester is always special because I’m learning how to teach the course as the students learn from taking it.

The second time around, my confidence grows. I have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The course is a bit stronger than the first time out, and there’s some magic that comes from that alchemy, too.

But there’s a danger in returning to the same material. When life and my “real job” demand more of my time, I’m tempted to coast in the classroom.

That’s a double-edged sword, at least in my opinion. A stronger command of the material means I’m better prepared to pass the knowledge onto my students. But I can’t check out of the process. Every job has its ups and downs, of course, but I want to be all in with my students every semester.

They teach me, too.

Students motivated me to join the Society of Professional Journalists, a move that paid for itself with the first event I attended. Now I serve as my chapter’s president. Thanks, students. That move bettered my life and career.

This semester’s class will add another layer to my learning. I spent the end of the summer revisiting past lesson plans and evaluating how I could improve the course. (My spring students sparked this process with helpful suggestions in the end-of-semester evaluation. We really do read those things.) I read the textbook, Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools,” and selected exercises for homework and in-class assignments.

As soon as I finished my reading, I began again with page one. I’m going to spend the next three months completing homework assignments alongside my class.

I’m prone to climbing on my soapbox, especially when it comes to writing and reporting. To me, journalism is like breathing, a sentiment I shared in the first class period. And so I’ve also lectured the students about the value of this book, and why I hope they’ll hold onto it long after semester’s end. I purchased my copy a decade ago, although I’m sorry to say I’m only now beginning to take advantage.

We read this week about beginning sentences with subjects and verbs; ordering words for emphasis; and using active verbs. We’ll discuss those tools at some length in tonight’s class, but I asked the students to complete a private assignment for tool 40, “draft a mission statement for your work.”

They emailed those mission statements to me, and I’ll use them as a reference point throughout the term. I’m copying my own statement below. It’s imperfect–everything is–and basic. I intend to return to it and refine it throughout the semester and my career. But I hope it’ll serve as a touchstone as I navigate my job, and some sort of accountability as these 16 students and I grow together.

Features are sometimes seen as puff pieces, strictly positive and shallow depictions of topics meant to entertain, not inform. There’s value in pure entertainment, but I want more. My goal is to report on stories that help readers understand their communities. That may mean a deep dive into an arts organization’s value, or a news feature that adds context to a breaking story.

I am to do this using the medium best suited for the story. That may be a traditional news article–my specialty–but could also take forms such as audio, video, slideshows, lists or social media. I want to maximize the available tools.

Because my beat is broad, it can be difficult to home in on specific assignments. Therefore, I’ll set aside time at the end of each month (perhaps two to four hours) to examine opportunities in the month ahead.

I also hope to rely heavily on a narrative approach and refine my use of writing tools, such as those outlined in Roy Peter Clark’s book by the same name.

I intend to write about class throughout the semester, both to create transparency for my interested students and to hold myself accountable as I seek my own growth. My goal is to continue growing as a reporter even as I encourage others on their paths.

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