A Quick-and-Dirty Back-to-School Guide for the Apocalyptical Educator

September 9, 2020

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EJ Academy: A Quick-and-Dirty Back-to-School Guide for the Apocalyptical Educator

By Bernardo H. Motta

The world is burning, contagious and toxic, but yes, you still have to teach your classes amid protests, disasters and a global pandemic. Worst of all, you have to do it while learning a host of new technologies and taking time to ensure the classroom (virtual or face-to-face) is a safe environment. 

With the semester just getting started for most of us, this quick-and-dirty guide will focus on what you can do now … and not on what you should have done a couple of months ago. 

The author suggests reducing undue anxiety, so students can focus on learning. Click to enlarge.

Tip No. 1 — Be a journalist: Journalists, and environmental journalists in particular, are public educators working with complex and dangerous issues by definition. You need to adapt on the fly to hazardous situations and to find new ways to get the information to the public. 

Use other award-winning work from members of the Society of Environmental Journalists as examples. Try to tell the behind-the-scenes stories focusing on how the stories were produced. Teach the process of how to report in full crisis mode. Students will love learning it from you and from others you bring in to talk to them.

Tip No. 2 — Simplify and streamline: Audio journalists are particularly good at this. All the complexities of a topic need to be explained simply and with one input in mind: the spoken word. Teach the students to do the same. Then, you can add layers if you have time or if your class warrants it.

Bonni Stachowiak has many great episodes and resources about online and hybrid learning in the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. One of the latest podcasts (#324) is specifically about teaching with Zoom, but the list of excellent resources is long and useful. The main takeaway is to be purposeful. Bonni and her guests offer quick solutions for you to make the technology be seamless in your class, so you don’t have to stop the class and curse it every other minute.

Tip No. 3 — Frame your course: Base your class on the value of the learning experience, not on how your students will be punished for every minor fault. Framing your class is as important as framing your stories. Use the wrong frame and you cause harm. If your class is framed around grades and punishment, that’s what they will take away from it. 

Instead, frame it around the value of journalism and how it can help people to make important decisions, especially in a world in crisis. Take time to say that you will support them as needed, that they will not fail your class if they get sick or if their internet connection lags. Reduce the undue anxiety, so they can focus on learning.

Tip No. 4 — You are not an island: Enlist help wherever you can. You don’t have to be an expert in instructional technology or in all the specifics of the journalism career. You also don’t need to entertain your students on Zoom for every minute of class you used to teach. 

Use the online world as your playground. For example, podcasts can provide nuanced and entertaining narratives on specific topics that will teach more than a lecture with slides through Zoom. Asking students to follow (and interview) specialized reporters on social media will do more for their careers than most in-class activities. 

Trying to teach basic technical skills online in a class that is not oriented for that? The SPJ Toolbox has recently gone through a complete update and it now has many new resources and video tutorials, including on environmental journalism. My summer class students loved it. Find the one that will be most helpful to your class, but limit the number of resources to avoid overwhelming them.

SEJ Academic Board Member Sara Shipley Hiles has recommendations on how to get help. Dawn Fallik, a medical investigative journalist and faculty member at the University of Delaware, started a Google sheet to help people teaching this fall to get in contact with journalists who are willing to do a Zoom session with your class.

For those on Facebook, Hiles also recommends two relevant groups on the platform, Pandemic Pedagogy1, and a second Pandemic Pedagogy group.


Use the calamities outside to 

teach them how to do the job 

in a world that needs good 

journalists more than ever.


Tip No. 5 — The world is literally burning: Students don’t need you to make their lives worse than it already is. They need you to teach them how to cope and work through the obstacles they are already facing. Use the calamities outside to teach them how to do the job in a world that needs good journalists more than ever. 

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma will help your students understand and practice care for the people they cover and for themselves. Go to the center’s page and show them the examples of journalists covering protests, hurricanes, forest fires, war and much more and how they contextualize it during a pandemic.

Narrow down assignments so they have immediate impact. Allow students to rethink the way they deliver their stories to their public. This is the perfect time to experiment.

Tip No. 6 — Don’t lower your standards for grading: Low expectations lead to low-level learning. Changing the focus of your expectations from quantity to quality is more appropriate. It’s not about how many assignments, stories and topics you cover in your class. Focus on teaching your students to learn independently and develop qualitative ways to measure that learning experience. 

Instead of spending days developing and grading quizzes and exams, try to focus on natural learning processes. Conversations and hands-on projects. Teach students how to help each other edit their stories and their discussion notes. That will help them understand what exactly you are looking for in those and it will help them to learn more about the process of learning. 

If you ask them to do a reporting project, ask them to focus on explaining how they obtained, interpreted and used evidence in their reporting. Just like many investigative journalists have been doing lately. 

Tip No. 7 —  Everything will fail and that’s a good thing: Finally, you should expect your students to face problems. Accept that you don’t really have much control over the current situation. Students will get sick. You may get sick. Technology will fail. A hurricane may hit. The options are limitless.

Do your best to support your students, but know that it is also fine if you need time off to heal or cope. Your students can understand that if you treat them as human beings. Humanize the situation as much as possible and use it to teach nuanced perspectives, deep descriptive writing, empathetic interviewing techniques and self-care for journalists. 

Make sure you have redundancy and alternative assignments. A critical self-assessment in case too many things go wrong can be a helpful alternative assignment. Give them a chance to tell you how they would have accomplished each part of the assignment if they had the time, resources and mental focus. In other words, measure their learning, not their material accomplishments.

Bernardo H. Motta is an assistant professor of journalism at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. In his more than 15 years teaching journalism, Motta specializes in testing journalism pedagogical theories in practical hands-on experiences for his students.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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