After a Master’s, the next step was a Ph.D., and then a long career of wearing tweed jackets and inspiring the collegiate minds of America.
I never made it to the end of that Master’s degree, and I’m surprised I stayed more than a semester. One of my jobs in grad school was to teach college juniors the intricacies of media writing, and it took me about half a semester to realize it was a lot more fun running a media group than it was teaching a group of young people who thought they already knew how to do it.
Since leaving graduate school, moving to Houston and, now, running a group of six newspapers (The Leader being our flagship), I don’t think I’ve once stepped back in a classroom in a teaching capacity. Not until this week.
As some of our readers know, The Leader hosted our inaugural Media Camp this week and since Monday, we’ve had 40 young people, between the ages of 9-14, show up every morning with groggy faces and plenty to say.
On Monday, after our first day of camp, I came home to my wife, who took one look at me and asked if I needed to go straight to bed. I don’t think I had opened my mouth to tell her about the experience, but the look on my face must have suggested I had been run over by a school bus full of antsy adolescents.
If you haven’t spent a week in a room with 40 children on the budding edge of puberty, may I tell you about this experience?
There’s a scientific phrase often used to describe the length of time a person can focus on a singular train of thought: “attention span.” It is a foreign concept to children between the ages of 9-14.
During our media camp, I spent one of our first hours together explaining the craft of interviewing. I explained that interviews are best conducted as conversations; working from a list of questions eliminates the ability to listen and ruins most great interviews. I even wrote it on the huge whiteboard in our classroom: “The best interviews are conversations.” One of my colleagues and I even gave a demonstration of how to have one of these conversations.
When we finished, I asked the students to tell me what they had learned about interviewing. One student, I promise, said you should always have a list of questions ready. I thought hummingbirds had short attention spans. These young people have them whipped.
During another exercise, I gave the students a quick primer on how journalists come up with ideas for stories. I explained that sometimes people call us with stories, other times, we find them ourselves, based on what’s happening around us. Always, I suggested, we should write stories based on facts.
The exercise I gave these students was to come up with a list of three or four stories based on things that had happened to them. As we went around the room asking students to share their ideas, the first answer knocked me on the floor.
A sweet young lady said she would like to do a story about what is happening in the twilight zone. The what?
I asked the student to tell me where, exactly, this twilight zone was, and with a completely straight face, she replied: “It’s deep under the sea.”
Listen, I know I’m an old codger, but I am certain my brain did not work the same way these children’s brains do.
The reason their brains don’t work at peak performance is probably because they will consume any edible material you place in front of them.
We bought them snacks for the week and placed them in the classroom. Huge mistake. The fruit snacks, chips and crackers were gone after Day 1.
And let me tell you something else I didn’t know: I asked the young people if they all had Facebook accounts, because we planned to teach them how to use social media properly. They looked at me like I asked them if they all had a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
“That’s what our parents do,” they snarked. “We don’t use Facebook.”
If I lose my own snarky sarcasm, let me tell you what else I’ve learned this week: The young people we’re raising have different interests than we had 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, and that’s just fine. These are great kids who actually seem interested in learning something new.
That doesn’t mean hosting this media camp has been easy. If you had 40 young people in a room, you’d realize the same thing.
Which brings me to this conclusion: The greatest, most disciplined and patient people we have on this earth are teachers.
I always thought teachers had it easy. They worked nine months, vacationed for three, and were paid well enough to survive on that income.
I was wrong. Three months is not nearly enough vacation for the blessed souls. They deserve six months on and six months off. They deserve double the pay, no matter what we’re paying them. And every working parent who drops his or her child off for school each day must realize the folks who have made working with young people a profession are absolutely the saints of our society.