A reporter writes when, where, why and how an event happened. Generally speaking we read what a reporter has to say in the daily newspaper. We are told the facts about fires, murders, car accidents, births and deaths. A cultural journalist, on the other hand, explores events within his culture. He or she examines the cultural, societal and community context in which a broad range of things happen. A cultural journalist explores currents within society, and draws conclusions. Cultural Journalism is an examination of ourselves. It is also about traditions: identifying them, writing about them and keeping them alive. The term, as least to my knowledge, was coined by Eliot Wigginton, a High School English teacher, teaching in rural Georgia. Unable to reach his students in the standard academic ways, discovered a wealth of interest in local history and traditions. He seized on this interest as a way to engage his students in writing and in life. He told them to go out into the community, into the mountains, and find the folklore, the people, the special places and write about them. His idea took off so well, that the students published their findings in their first school newspaper. That paper did so well, it was published as a series of books entitled “The Foxfire Books.” Those books then went on to be memorialized in a Broadway play starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
The goal of my curriculum unit is to develop a course in cultural journalism that concentrates on city life, an urban version of “Foxfire.” This curriculum would be appropriate for students in grades 10-12. I intend to divide the class into six parts, (neighborhoods, poverty, crime, jobs, architecture, anti cultural diversity), each of which will include selected readings, writing assignments, and field trips. I plan to spend one to two weeks on each section, thereby making an eight week curriculum, the length of a marking period at High School in the Community. An additional goal is to provide my students with a sociological view of cities, and an architectural view. It is also my hope to make them more sensitive to the socioeconomic and ethnic divisions in cities. In this way they will have a better understanding of the forces that shape them and the city they live in.
I have chosen a wide variety of readings for my curriculum unit so that I will be able to expose my students to many different kinds of information about the city they live in and cities in general. By reading selections from the list I have chosen, primarily from the an anthology entitled “The Little, Brown Reader,” students will see how great writers have written about city life. These readings will help prepare my students for a series of interviews and other writing assignments that we will do in journalism class. The interviews will take place in many different locations around New Haven, including the Yale campus, senior citizen centers, other schools, grocery stores and coffee shops. The students’ mission, as cultural journalists, is to discover how New Haven residents feel about their city now, the way it used to be, the changes that have taken place, and the changes that could take place. Their best writing will be collected at the end, typed by the students in our computer lab and put into book form.
I will use William Zinsser’s book “On Writing Well,” specifically the chapter entitled “The Interview” to teach good interviewing skills.
Some of my specific objectives in this unit are to help my students:1.) Improve writing skills through a variety of writing assignments2.) Develop interviewing skills and techniques3.) Develop confidence through inquiry and interviewing4.) Find traditions and patterns in their society and communities5.) Learn the value of writing about what they know6.) Discover their own ability to investigate and interpret other people’s experiences.7.) Find their own place in the city through analyzing, seeing, and writing.
Because there will be so much writing in this class, I will need to set a tone of safety and cooperation within the classroom. As a writer and a teacher I truly understand the vulnerability connected with writing and then sharing one’s written work. I tell my students in all my writing classes that negativity and criticism are not allowed, at all! I learned this lesson from watching Lloyd Richards, the former Dean of Yale Drama School, conduct his workshops this way. The amount of creativity and the powerful plays playwrights produced under his tutelage is proof that this method works. If however, a written piece can be improved, we state that in a sensitive, helpful way. It has been my experience that after students feel safe, they will produce happily and, most importantly, proudly. I have used the following listening exercise in many different classes, always with a lot of success. It is fun, it teaches interviewing techniques and it breaks the ice amongst students who are meeting each other for the first time. Here it is.
Directions For this exercise, you will need a partner. (I divide the class into partners, randomly). Flip a coin to see who will ask the questions first. These questions are designed so that everyone has an answer. I also think of them as safe questions that illicit memories and response rather than fear and anxiety. Please feel free, however, to make up your own questions to suit your students needs. Proceed in this manner.
Step 1 Partner #1 asks the following six questions.
1.) Describe how you got to school in the first grade
2.) What accomplishment do you remember taking pride in during those early years in school?
3.) Describe the first time you remember being embarrassed in school.
4.) Who is the first teacher you ever liked and what did you like about him/her?
5.) What did you dislike about elementary school?
6.) What is your memory of recess?
Partner #1 listens intently as partner #2 answers. There is no note-taking allowed. Only listening. Then #2 asks number 1 the same questions. When they are both finished responding, each one sits down and writes a summary of what they learned from the interview. They are not to write it as a series of answers to questions, but rather in paragraph form telling the story they learned (in the third person). If they were good listeners they should have at least a page to write. When the whole class is finished, I ask each student to share their writing with the whole class. In this way we all get to know each other and hopefully build some trust among the group. Since my writing classes involve a lot of sharing and reading out loud this is good practice.