Two-Way Radio: Is this thing on?

I had the pleasure and opportunity to work with three other teachers who all shared the keynote at today’s Dynamic Landscapes conference in Burlington, Vermont, a conference about the intersections of authentic student voice, pedagogy, and technology. 

I shared the story below to contextualize and challenge teachers and administrators to not just work to empower students but to embrace empowered students, too!

We must double-down on both our efforts to empower students to find their voices and our own preparation to listen collaboratively when they do.

I have decided to publish that excerpted story on this site because in many ways it is my origin story of learning to care, think, and act so deeply for personalized, experiential, and performative learning, learning that insists young people come to understand themselves as learners in the world and understand how to shape those worlds in informed, strategic, and empathic ways. What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team sees both of these as part of its mission.

It’s a gorgeous May day in 2007, and I’m sitting in the dungy basement of Carol’s Hungry Mind Cafe with a high-powered attorney fresh off his drive from Boston to take up a case on behalf of some of my students, pro-bono. I wanted to teach story writing, not become the story.

It was near the end of my fifth year of teaching, and I had just returned to the classroom, budget cuts having forced me from the English department two years earlier. I was thrilled to be back.

I started that Fall completely rejuvenated by the summer break, the summer where I could think big about the year ahead. Vibrant energy had turned the Journalism club into a credit-bearing class that I was to teach. I had made plans with our local newspaper to have 10 monthly 8-page inserts published in each of the 6,000 copies put into circulation. That’s about 1/2 of a million newsprint pages filled with student voice. I was ready to roll.

On the first day of class, I huddled up with the Journalism students; they introduced themselves by sharing why they had enrolled, and received pretty typical responses: “I needed a ½ credit of English,” “It fit into my schedule.” But those were thankfully balanced with others’ twisted enthusiasm for the subject: “I love photography and I don’t want to write anything,” “I just want to be one of those rogue journalists that kind-of pisses everyone off.”

I had some good, hard work to do to build a collaborative team of journalists that shared ownership in ways that felt safe and inspiring, pushing each other to be better together.

We brainstormed every Monday morning: What are the stories we need to tell? What are the stories that no one is telling? And…we hit your usual suspects: “The End of the Fall Season Sports Roundup” and a few profile-pieces on new faculty members.

But then things started happening…

A student filed a lawsuit against the school that her constitutional rights were violated when her application to start a new club was denied.

On another day, a train traveling directly behind the school went off the tracks, crashing, letting out noxious gas, forcing a full-school evacuation. That same photographer-student was out in PE class when it happened and when the crash came and everyone scurried inside out of fear and confusion, he did what any PRO photojournalist would. He grabbed his camera and raced to the tracks, the first on the scene.

One weekend, a group of students got drunk, which probably wouldn’t be news except they got loaded after breaking into a property formerly owned by Robert Frost and demolished the furniture for firewood. And while this might have been something Robert Frost would have seen as resourceful, the town did not. One of our Journalism students needed to recuse himself from that coverage. But, our photo-journalist became published in Seventeen Magazine as the story made national headlines and he made the press pool when 20 of his peers were arraigned in court.

We still had a sports highlight here or there, but these students were doing real work and it was beyond fantastic. It was deeply meaningful to each individual and to us collectively as students sought to understand, create, and contribute to their worlds. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

And, then as any good story does we hit a snag.

One of our journalists wanted to write a story about smoking pot during school, or that’s what it seemed like to me when I read his initial submission. When I pushed him on this, he calmly and clearly rebuked that this was not about smoking pot at all but (1.) how some students were breaking school rules, (2.) how a teacher knew about those rules being broken, (3.) she wasn’t following discipline procedures, and (4.) she was in fact penalizing innocent students when she forbid the entire Jazz Band to participate in a showcase they recently earned.

That student went onto NYU as a journalism major.

I never wanted to own the paper and this was my test. I knew the students must own it. I needed to make sure they approached topics and made decisions as informed citizens and journalists working as a collaborative team. From there, it was their own.

We talked this story over in detail and over for days. The injustices compelled attention. They ran with it: interviewed the principal and gave him an advance copy before it went to print.

6,000 copies were published on a Thursday. By Monday, the school board was asking questions, and on Tuesday the principal suspended a student cited in the article and made it known that all future papers must be submitted to him for prior approval. That’s where it gets interesting. Public forums. Case Law. The Hazelwood decision. Fear of censorship. Chilling effects on writers.

In the weeks and months that came, I walked a very fine line. I was scared. I was enthralled. I was proud. I was deeply encouraged to see students speak their truths. They were joined by parents and community members, national student press law centers, major news outlets from across Vermont, and a volunteer attorney.

They were beautiful in their advocacy for news, for one another, for perceived injustices, for the freedom to write without intimidation. It was a moment that every teacher could wait a lifetime for yet may never experience.

After months of public comments and having listened carefully to sound and passionate young people, the school board finally reached a decision and wrote a new policy that enshrined that all student publications were indeed not “public forums,” that students had no rights usually associated with a free press, and that all copies of all student publications would be reviewed and amended by school administration.

That was it. The class never ran again. The newspaper vanished.

With everything that died inside me in the moment the board adopted that policy, something deeper and and more sustaining began to take root that would make me recommit to the most important thing I could do with the rest of my life, which was to continually create ways to empower students to tell real-life stories about things that matter most to them in order to get people to think, and to care, and to act.

And, it all started by a bunch of rogue journalists who ‘kind of’ wanted to piss everyone off and their unlikely mentor who helped some students share a few more truths.


Photo by Олег Жилко on Unsplash

Tim O'Leary

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