Six Tips for Teaching Journalism

Tips for teaching journalism

Teaching journalism is so important in today's climate, yet so many teachers are thrown into it without preparation or guidance. Even though teaching journalism was the reason I wanted to teach (I was actually a journalist before I became a teacher), I still found it to be incredibly challenging. Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned veteran, I hope my tips will help make your job easier.

While I was in college, I was fortunate enough to have one of the best writers in our area as my professor. Professor Julie Jensen McDonald was one of the toughest writing teachers I ever had. The first thing she asked our Newswriting class was, "What are the three most important words in journalism?" After answering numerous wrong answers, she replied loudly, "ACCURACY, ACCURACY, ACCURACY!" Without accuracy, she explained, there is no story. This was back in the early 90s, before the age of "fake news." It's just as--and even more--important now to teach this to students. I always hung a sign in our writing lab with those three words on it to remind students to always strive for 100% accuracy.

Some of the ways you can instill this in students include:
• Provide a list of all students and staff and require students to triple-check the spellings of all names.
• Require students to use primary sources for information.
• Require students to triple-check facts and figures.
• Require students to verify quotes from their sources.

The best textbook you can provide your students is the newspaper. It always amazes me how many students begin journalism class without ever reading a newspaper. Through the wonderful Newspapers in Education program, schools can get online access to digital editions and some newspapers will still offer print editions of their paper to schools, free of charge. Ask your librarian if your school has an online or print subscription.

When you have access to the paper, read stories together with your class. I would read aloud the lead of the big news stories and ask students to name the who, what, when, where, why, and how of each story (we had to go deeper into the story, normally, to answer the last two). The more your students practice identifying these essential elements of a news story, the more proficient they will become when writing their own. 

To practice news writing, I offer a step-by-step presentation and tutorial with handouts and activities for students. It's a great way to train students for this writing style.

I would argue that a customized handbook is quite possibly the most valuable tool in any journalism class. It will save you time (and your sanity), will promote consistency in writing, and will teach students to find answers to their questions themselves. 

Handbooks should include things such as the proper way to write the date, time, and titles as well as whether the publication should use "says" or "said" in attributions. It will also give instructions on which fonts (and sizes) to use and where and how to save work.  

If it seems like a daunting task to come up with your own handbook from scratch, I can help you out! You can download a ready-made handbook that is completely editable using InDesign (and it also includes a PDF version).

Get into the habit of having regular staff meetings. If you produce a school newspaper every-other-week, have a staff meeting the day after publication. If you have writing assignments due every month, have a staff meeting at the very least once a month. It's important to address any problems before they become bad habits and equally important to praise students' efforts. Staff meetings are also a great time to get organized and assign duties for each deadline period. 

Begin your staff meetings with positive reinforcement by having students share what they liked about the last issue of the paper or the last batch of stories the class wrote. (If you don't have an outlet for sharing student work, start now! Even if it's just on a private or school website, it's important for students to read one another's work.) Have a student write all the positives on the board so students can see what worked well and repeat the formula for the next issue or round of writing.

When discussing what needs improvement, try to remain positive and not get nit-picky with individuals. Don't single anyone out or allow the staff to attack or single out others. Instead, ask each individual to share what they would improve from their own story/assignment. How could they make it even better?

Staff meetings can be an effective tool for team-building and morale. Bring treats or allow students to bring in treats to share. Food and drinks are effective motivation tools with teens and can change the atmosphere immediately.  

Organization is key when producing a school newspaper or yearbook. You must have everything planned out in advance. Staff meetings are a great time to plan your publication and assign duties to students. A yearbook will require a ladder that should be displayed at all times in the classroom or office. The ladder should include the contents of every single page in the yearbook.

When you are planning a newspaper, you should have some areas designated for regular features. For example, the first page will always have the latest late-breaking or headlining news, the second page often has the staff box (listing the staff members, positions, contact names/numbers or emails, and a brief staff policy or objective). It will also usually have continued stories from the first page. On the remaining pages, designate a page or area for features, opinions (which would include movie and restaurant reviews), and sports. You could also designate an area for photos from around school (this is always easy to include on the last page). By having a designated spot for everything, it makes it so much easier for the designers to lay out the paper. 

Students should also have a clear idea about their story when they are preparing to write it. They can download this FREE Reporter's Checklist to organize the essentials of their story. It includes an example so students can see how it is used.

Finally, you want your students to have ownership in their work--to feel connected and an integral part of the overall product. There is a thin line between being an advisor and being a micro-managing editor. It can be hard to allow students to make mistakes, but it is essential for them to learn and take ownership over their work.* Your job is to provide the tools; their job is to use them and create with them. 

Ways to encourage ownership include:
• Allow students to generate story ideas.
• Allow students to pick their own yearbook theme.
• Allow students to decide which fonts to use (within reason).
• Allow students to choose their own assignments.
• Require students to peer edit: choose student editors (take volunteers and select the most competent) and make them responsible for editing all stories, photo captions, and the layout of the publication.
• Don't edit or rewrite student work yourself; allow students to make mistakes.* It's OK to let students know that their story has some errors that they should correct, but if they fail to make the changes, don't do it for them. 

*I do have one exception: when producing a yearbook that parents, students, and staff have purchased, it is important to strive for perfection. If a student accidentally misspells a name, by all means, correct it if you catch it before it goes to print. In this case, being a last-minute editor is OK. I'd rather have happy buyers than students upset because their name was misspelled in something as permanent as the yearbook.

I hope these tips will help you as you navigate teaching journalism. It's helpful to seek out other teachers who are in the same boat, but so often you may be the only journalism teacher in your school or even district. Look for others on social media (Twitter is an excellent tool; search #journalismteacher) or connect on sites such as

My fellow bloggers here on the Secondary English Coffee Shop have shared some of their great resources, as well. Check them out here: 
Newspaper Unit Bundle by Stacey Llyod
Journalism Teaching Bundle by The Daring English Teacher

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