Getting students to ask tough questions: My 5 favorite parts of ‘Searchlights and Sunglasses’

Knight Foundation asked the students, educators and professionals who beta tested our new digital teaching tool, “Searchlights and Sunglasses“, for their five favorite lessons. The book explores the digital transformation of journalism, and with one click turns into a classroom tool, offering  a learning layer with 1,000 lesson plans and resources for educators. We will be posting our beta testers responses over the coming weeks here on KnightBlog.

By Mark Goodman,  Kent State University 

There’s much to like in Eric Newton’s remarkable new ebook, “Searchlights and Sunglasses”.  I don’t agree with all of his conclusions about the kinds of changes we should be demanding from our media organizations or exactly the way journalism education should be transformed.  But there is absolutely no question that Eric has his finger on the pulse of the information needs of communities and the methods of news delivery that have changed so much (and yet too little) from when I was in j-school over 30 years ago.

One of the best things about the book, in addition to the fact that it’s an engaging, interactive, visual treat – the kind of electronic resource I wish more publishers were producing – is that it is backed with supplemental material for teachers at all levels to support classroom use.  Full disclosure: I was part of a team that contributed some of those supplemental materials in the “Searchlights and Sunglasses” “learning layer.”  But many of the portions I appreciate most came from others with only my enthusiastic endorsement.  

Here are my five favorite achievements of the companion materials in this book.

1) They engage students in examining their own media consumption.

An activity in chapter one (“Tracking your family’s media history”) asks students, what media do you consume? And how does that compare to that of their parents or grandparents? We all believe, thanks to media reports, that consumption varies dramatically among generations.  But prompting students to ask those questions of their own family members and quantify their own use as well makes the variation meaningful to them in a way a research report never could. A different assignment in chapter one, part two, (“How do you know what to believe?”) asks students to explore what they learn about digital literacy and the trustworthiness of news sources.  And one in chapter three (“The National Broadband Map”) asks them to discover the broadband Internet speed in their community.  Again, encouraging students to explore their own experience gives a discussion of this issue real world relevance. RELATED LINKS

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2) They encourage teachers and students to ask the hard questions of their schools.

A discussion in chapter one asks teachers of journalism and student media advisers the question almost no one in the classroom or newsroom takes the time to seriously consider: “how do you start over?” If educators and students were creating a journalism curriculum or student publication from scratch, how would they envision it?  It’s a shockingly obvious question, but with provided links to relevant resources, it’s one that should start every school year.

Newton is one of the strongest and most articulate proponents of the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education.  A discovery topic in chapter two (“What’s your j-ed model?”) describes the spectrum across which journalism programs at the college level exist and encourages students to think about whether the program they are in meets their needs.

3) They recognize that student media must be part of the discussion.

For years, discussions of journalism education at the university level avoided any mention of the student media experience.  Debate about the teaching hospital model has forced a recognition: schools that support a vital student media operation are already modeling a teaching hospital.  A discussion topic in chapter two (“The role of student media”) gives students the opportunity to explore how student media resemble and differ from the more widely recognized, school-directed content creation projects operating at some journalism schools today.  A discovery topic in the same chapter (“More freedom for students”) prompts active consideration of the First Amendment protections for student journalists and makes clear how challenging teaching journalism can be when press freedom isn’t part of the equation. And an item in chapter four (“Can students have impact?”) recognizes some outstanding student reporting that brought about real change.  There are many more direct references to student media in the learning layer.

4) They make understanding and defense of press freedom, including for students, a priority.

In addition to the discovery topic mentioned above, the “Searchlights and Sunglasses” learning layer references the First Amendment and the importance of the values it embodies repeatedly.  One discovery topic in chapter three (“The First Amendment”) prompts an exploration of what students actually know about this provision in our Constitution. Another asks, “What are shield laws?” and provides links that allow students to explore what rights journalists, including students, have to protect their sources and unpublished information.  An activity also in chapter three engages students in consideration of the conflict between “Security vs. freedom.”

5) They engage the imagination.

As I’ve already said, “Searchlights and Sunglasses” is a visual treat.  But it’s not just the pretty pictures that engage the imagination.  In many learning layer items, students are pushed to “think outside the box” based on real-world constraints and to recognize that not every vision becomes reality. One example: chapter one’s discovery topic (“From sci-fi to fact”) allows students to take the fiction they love and compare it to reality. It’s a fitting message for all of Newton’s exploration: even if his predictions don’t come to pass, he definitely captivates us with the discussion.

Mark Goodman is the Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University

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