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How to Make the Classroom Part of the Story

Visiting a classroom while reporting on education issues is a core part of understanding how instruction takes place. But it can also be a missed opportunity, without careful thought and planning.

If reporters don’t ask for a lesson plan in advance, for instance, stick around after students leave to speak with the teacher, or even make plans for a return visit, they risk failing to make the most of this on-the-ground reporting.

These were just some of the takeaways from the “How to Make the Classroom Part of the Story” panel at the Education Writers Association seminar on the teaching profession held Oct. 18-19 in Chicago.

The two panelists have teaching experience, so their insights as journalists were sprinkled with anecdotes and helpful tips from the point of view of an educator who’s been on the other side of the reporting process.

On the panel were Cathryn Creno, formerly of The Arizona Republic and now a teacher in the Tempe, Ariz., Elementary School District, and Alexandria Neason, a staff writer with the Columbia Journalism Review and a former high school English teacher in Wahiawa, Hawaii. Also, the moderator, David Loewenberg, an EWA program specialist, is a former pre-K teacher in St. Louis.

The discussion wasn’t limited just to what reporters should be mindful of when visiting a classroom for a story, but the relationships they build with teachers and sources beyond those walls. Those are the building blocks that will help get you into the classroom, said Neason.

Becoming Known in the Community

“It’s really helpful if your face is known,” she said, encouraging reporters to get out into the community as much as possible so they can become familiar to parents, teachers and administrators. That means attending school board meetings, sporting events, open houses and science fairs.

Plus, if there’s a particular story a reporter wants to tackle, getting started doesn’t necessarily have to begin by going through the public information office first: Engaging with parents and teachers from the get-go will help get your foot in the door, she said.

“That’s a workaround that’s incredibly helpful. They can help advocate opening the door to their bosses,” said Neason, who was a Teach For America corps member in Hawaii before attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Once in the classroom , Neason said it’s a good idea to consider introducing yourself from the start, particularly if it’s an upper grade level — who you are, why you’re there, what you’re working on — to lessen the disruption of a stranger in the room, or even to build trust with students and get them to open up to you if you find time with them afterwards.

Above all, don’t leave immediately after the bell rings, Neason said. Stick around, talk to the teacher afterward, and return. One 20-minute visit won’t necessarily capture the true dynamics of that class and repeat visits could help create a better understanding of what’s taking place, she said.

She also encouraged reporters to frame a story assignment to teachers as “one rooted in a desire to understand and explain” and to not assume all teachers understand the journalistic process. Walk them through the steps you’re taking as you go along, she said.

Neason recalled the time she shadowed a teacher for an entire day, then accompanied her to a student track meet after school. The sporting event didn’t ultimately make it into her piece but was helpful in giving her a fuller picture of the teacher’s work day.

Reframe Your Questions

Creno, a reporter for The Arizona Republic for more than three decades before turning to teaching, comes from a family of educators. Equipped with a master’s degree in Spanish, she took a two-year teacher preparation program and now teaches middle school Spanish.

Her advice to reporters centered around being mindful of the dominant media narrative of the profession from a bird’s eye view: that of teachers picketing, or protesting low salaries, or struggling with other challenges.

Reframe the question, she said, and it’s amazing what kinds of answers you may get or even the sort of access. Creno recounted the story of a school principal in the Mesa Public Schools who had refused an interview with her paper for years.

As a reporter, she was having trouble getting him to respond, until one day she flat out asked him, “What do you love about your job?”

“It was like the magic key,” she said, in terms of getting him to open up to her and invite her into his school.

Other ways to reframe the question, she suggested, are asking educators: “What has gone missing from the profession?” or “What does your heart miss about teaching?” as opposed to, “Why did you leave (your job)?”

Creno’s point was not to lose sight of why many teachers are drawn to the profession — for that irreplaceable connection with their students. Reaching educators at that level, she said, can lead to richer and more meaningful interviews and complex stories.

She also underscored Neason’s point of sticking around after the class ends and asking the teacher, for example, whether the classroom experience that day was typical or did anything unusual occur.

Get Past the ‘Cute Factor’

Loewenberg, who was a Teach For America corps member, noted how important it is for reporters, if possible, to make repeat visits to a classroom, pointing out that teachers could adjust things in their classroom for just an isolated observation.

His three main tips for visiting an early childhood classroom are:

  • Don’t be distracted by the “cute factor” with young children;
  • Understand you’re just getting “a snapshot” if visiting one time; and
  • Come prepared with some understanding ahead of time of what early learning looks like.

Too often, people assume that early education is just “kids playing,” he said.

“Kids are never just playing … at least in a high-quality classroom,” he said. “We have lesson plans, even in pre-K. Everything they’re doing, they’re doing for a reason.”

Loewenberg encouraged reporters to learn the distinction between a “day care” environment and a high-quality pre-K classroom to better guide their reporting.

All three speakers emphasized the need to get a lesson plan or daily schedule from the teacher ahead of time so they can better follow along with what’s unfolding in class.

Above all, to cultivate relationships with school leaders and teachers, it helps to talk up any connection you have to the teaching profession, whether it’s via a friend, family member or your own personal experience, Neason said.

As a journalist covering education issues, she said, “I lead every conversation with, ‘I used to be a teacher.’”