January 10, 2021

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to the faculty of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University. Their invitation gave me a chance to review the literature, if you will, from lessons learned in fall 2020.  I want to encourage and empower you to dig deep to find creative ways to make spring 2021 valuable to your students and manageable for you as an instructor.

I don’t have all the answers — unfortunately, no one does. But I want to remind you today that what you do is really important. You cannot forget that. And rather than look at that as a stressor, I want you to think about it as an honor. You have been put on this planet and on this path to impact the brains, hearts and futures of the students in your care. So if you can, when times are stressful and you’re down, remember that you’re bearing an honor, not a burden.

I hope this assorted collection of ideas gives you the boost you need to carry on over the next few months until The Normal Time returns.

If you think Poynter can be of service to you in other ways, please email me at ballen@poynter.org to talk.

Let’s start with mental health — yours and theirs

  • Yours: This is a time to manage expectations. The pandemic is a global emergency. Don’t forget that. As a classroom leader, you have a responsibility to put your oxygen mask on first.
  • Theirs:
    • Make sure all your students know about university counseling services. Include its phone number, email and website on your syllabi. A lot of these systems are already overburdened in a good year, and the pandemic may have neutered them further. Consider mentioning some other tools like mediation and mindfulness apps like Headspace or Calm.
    • Consider really spending some time talking about the importance of mental health and emotional wellness. One classroom I visited in the fall said their professor was the first adult in their lives to talk about and emphasize the importance of mental health and self-care — most hadn’t even heard that advice from their parents.
    • Speaking of their parents … many companies offer EAPs, or employee assistance programs. If a student is on their parents’ health insurance, they might qualify for free professional counseling, but it might not be something they would know to ask their parents about.

A hodgepodge of suggestions for spring

  • Do an audit of your fall. What were your pain points? Have you thought creatively about how to change them? What can you focus on that seemed to have the most impact? What did you learn was most important?
  • Allow yourself to shed some detail that felt important but didn’t resonate with your students. It’s not about lowering your standards, but learning how to be flexible in your considerations around them.
  • What is your ratio of lecture to discussion to asynchrony? Does it need to be tweaked?
  • If the goal is engagement, how can you look critically at last semester, find those places where you were pleased with engagement, and apply them to the rest of your teaching?
  • Consider starting the semester with an activity that encourages sharing even just a tiny bit about yourself with your students. Replicate it in class daily, weekly, monthly — you pick — to help establish rapport and create a situation in which your students are comfortable while being challenged by your curriculum.
  • Continue to create opportunities to share and foster community.
    • Make your students mark their attendance by checking in on a Google doc with the last picture in their camera roll that they feel comfortable sharing.
    • Or suggest they name their favorite movie or show and explain why.
  • Examine your use of Zoom tools. What worked and what didn’t in chats and breakout rooms? Take a few minutes to address the shortcomings and benefits of each. Configure your syllabus to take them into account. For example, more breakout sessions may be harder on the professor but classes like them. So are they worth it?
  • Get fun speakers who will tell interesting and compelling stories about their work lives. Tap the journalists you know — they will be invigorated and the students will get a kick out of it!
  • Play some music when your students enter the classroom. Make an issue of it.
    • Maybe pick the No. 1 song from the Billboard charts 50 years ago that day, or when you were in college. Do a poll to see if they’ve heard it.
    • Take requests, or have theme weeks.
    • Never forget that most young people love and are heavily influenced by music. How can you use this to your advantage?
  • Be incredibly clear on what you will accept and won’t accept. Make every week Syllabus Week. Go over it again and again.
  • Consider adopting a silent meeting format for one of your classes.
  • Forego one assignment/project. Announce this policy at the beginning of the semester — or save it for the middle when the struggle feels real. For those who turn in everything, drop their lowest grade.
  • Consider crafting some learning agreements.
    • These could be from the professor solely, or you and your students could come up with them as a group in class.
    • Don’t let this be a one-and-done experience. Trot your expectations and agreements out every week. Remind students that you are in a unique circumstance and you agreed in January to make the best of it.
  • Consider your one-on-one meeting structure.
    • Would it work for you to have two meetings — one at the beginning of school and one mid-semester? This would allow an initial get-to-know-you conversation and a follow-up for some real talk (if needed).
    • Or consider a feedback week mid-semester to check in, talk to students and see how they are doing and how their assignments are coming.
    • If students are struggling, announce an amnesty day or week in the middle or late in the semester in which you’ll accept late assignments.
  • Have you considered GroupMe or Slack as an alternative means of communicating with your students? What do they prefer? Can you incorporate that?
  • If you are a subscriber to the Chronicle of Higher Education, you might like to follow their columns by  James M. Lang, a professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and author of the book “Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It.”

The heart of my advice today is that you’re not just a professor anymore: You’re also a guidance counselor and social worker in unprecedented ways.

If that feels daunting, think of it this way: Remind yourself of a professional who was instrumental in helping to shape your professional life. How would they be treating you right now if you’d been stuck in a pandemic when they were your lighthouse? Maybe now is the time to act that way, too.

Don’t forget Poynter when you’re building your courses! Here is a link to my previous newsletter, which contained a great rundown of everything Poynter offers that I think would be useful in the classroom.

College headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

Internship database update

A reminder that Poynter’s internship database is up and running. New this week we have a position with the American Society of Magazine Editors.

This week’s classroom lesson

In my newsletter before the break, I told you about a new initiative I’ll be bringing to you this semester — a subscription service of case studies about the business and ethics of contemporary journalism for use in classroom discussions. I’ll have more information for you next week, but for now, a sneak peek …

This week, USA Today asked readers for help in identifying protestors inside the U.S. Capitol. Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones got ahold of the paper’s spokesperson, who told him the paper wasn’t working with law enforcement — it just wanted to further its reporting on the issue by identifying those who stormed the Capitol.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Is it appropriate for USA Today to attempt to identify people who are potentially criminal suspects? Why or why not?
  2. If law enforcement were to ask the paper to hand over the IDs, should it? Why or why not?
  3. How is this different from TV stations or newspapers running security camera stills of suspected robbers in an effort to help law enforcement?

One last thing

Thanks to generous funding from our partners, we are still looking for professors at HBCUs, Hispanic-serving institutions, community colleges, and schools with traditionally low-income students to take advantage of some lost-cost to free passes to our five-hour, asynchronous Newsroom Readiness Certificate, normally $29.95. You can see a text version of the course outline here. If you’re interested, please email me at ballen@poynter.org and let me know what students you’re looking to serve, if you are able to contribute anything to the cost of the courses, and how many passes you’d like.

Let’s do this!

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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