1. Behind the story: Open doors — and open teachers

    July 28, 2014

    opening-doorWhen I set out to write a piece about helping teachers build their own and students’ social and emotional skills, I anticipated that principals and teachers would be hesitant to speak with me. This is not an easy time for teachers: faced with an expanding set of responsibilities and accountability measures, many teachers will tell you that they feel harshly criticized and even scapegoated for all of the American educational system’s problems.

    Despite some teachers’ frustrations that the stories of their daily challenges are not being heard, there is reluctance among many to talk with members of the press. I expected that the topic of my reporting would be a particularly touchy one; social and emotional skills like managing frustration, dealing with conflict, and communicating effectively are sensitive topics for some people, perhaps especially for teachers, whose job success depends on them, and especially today, when teachers feel that their every move is under a microscope. The project I wrote about, in which trained experts provided social and emotional coaching, required teachers to engage in a great deal of reflection and personal growth. I wasn’t sure if teachers would be prepared to share the stories of that growth, especially if it meant describing the “before” picture as well as the “after.”

    What I found, however, was that the solutions journalism approach provided an opening for me to engage educators in honest and thoughtful conversations. When I first spoke with principals, and then with teachers, I described my goals from a solutions journalism perspective, explaining that I was there to report on the project because it was showing promise and that I wanted to learn more about what was making it successful. I also explained that I would be honest about the challenges so that readers could evaluate the project for themselves and think about whether and how to make similar projects work better in the future.

    Upon hearing this, principals immediately opened up. Some told me they found this kind of coverage lacking, and that they felt frustrated by a growth of negative news stories about teachers. Teachers, too, were quick to open up, often telling me that they were eager to share what they had learned in the hope that it could help other teachers, schools, and students. [Read more...]

  2. SoJo Learning: Getting to ‘How’

    July 28, 2014

    how-to-write-picOne of the exciting things about covering education is that almost everyone has some experience with schooling and almost everyone has an opinion. But as a writer who has been trained in child development, I know that there is often more complexity and depth to educational problems and their solutions than the average person sees – and sometimes more to the story than traditional journalism covers. There is a tendency in education (and therefore in its media coverage) to look for a quick fix or a miracle cure. Whether the topic is charter schools, universal preschool, or iPads in the classroom, this can lead to real problems, because asking whether a new solution works without understanding why or why not could reinforce a tendency for educational fads to come and go before they’ve been sufficiently tested.

    Because I was trained as a researcher as well as a writer, my instinct is to look for the “how” – the processes that might explain why and when something works (or doesn’t). Solutions journalism is an ideal platform for examining the “how” in ways that are embedded in the vivid and engaging stories that occur in schools every day. The lives of children, families, and educators are not only what make education writing come to life, but are the very reason for the financial and human capital investments in education that the media strives to cover.

    For me, one of the biggest challenges of solutions journalism in education is balancing the stories of those people with the narrative of the reforms and initiatives designed to improve their lives. The details of an initiative are the meat of the solutions journalism story, and are necessary for readers to make an informed judgment about the value of the solution. But getting bogged down in the details or drifting into policy wonk territory can lead the writer to lose the audience and jeopardize the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the solution. This is particularly challenging in a short form project because of the space limitations. [Read more...]

  3. Rwanda is setting the pace for progress against HIV/AIDS

    July 21, 2014

    Photo credit: Gates Foundation

    Photo credit: Gates Foundation

    “Stepping up the pace” is the short yet poignant theme of the 20th International AIDS Conference, which is taking place July 20–25 in Melbourne, Australia. The world has seen tremendous progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS over the last decade, documenting huge advances in treatment effectiveness, access to affordable drugs, and ways to prevent further transmission of the deadly virus. Because of what the world has collectively done to tackle the disease, being diagnosed with HIV today is no longer an inevitable – and early – death sentence.

    But the AIDS community continues to face many challenges. Funding for vital treatment and programs is flatlining and millions of people remain unaware that they’re infected with the virus. Some of the world’s leading AIDS researchers and activists lost their lives last week on the way to the conference. To honor their work, I’d like to highlight places that have truly “stepped up the pace” against HIV.  [Read more...]