Bullets In a Philadelphia Classroom

from The Village Proposal

by Christopher Paslay

A student shows up to journalism class with bullets—but the good kind.

In the spring semester of 2002, I was given the opportunity to teach Journalism.  A primary function of the class, which was open to all Swenson students interested in news writing and current events, was to produce the school newspaper.  This was one of the first orders of business when the class began.  The first week I broke students into groups of three and asked them to brainstorm for possible names for the paper.  Students began writing titles down on slips of paper, at which time I collected and read them aloud to the class and asked for feedback.

“Okay,” I said.  “How about the ‘Swenson Voice’?”

“Man, that’s corny.”

“How about ‘The Pulse’?”

Boo,” someone shouted.

Finally, after three days of discussion, an African American student named Lawrence came up with The Swenson Scroll, a title that struck a chord in me immediately.  Interestingly, when I read the title to the class, there was only a lukewarm reception.  Some students still thought it was “corny”.  As the teacher of the class I eventually overruled them: The Swenson Scroll it was.

My next objective for the class was to give the students a crash course on news.  What was news, exactly?  What were its elements?  Where did you find it and how did you report it?  Being that it was a beginner’s course, I explained to students that news had to be three basic things: interesting, accurate, and important

We spent a week learning these principles, dissecting newspaper articles and watching news broadcasts.  We talked about sex and violence in news, and whether it was the media’s job to inform or to entertain.  We talked about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity, or put another way, the difference between opinion and fact.  We had lengthy discussions on whether total objectivity in journalism was even possible—could news really be “fair and balanced?”—being that an editor’s decision on what news to cover and how to cover it could have serious consequences on the public’s perception of the world around them. . . .

. . . Once the students began writing their stories, it usually took the entire 96 minute class period to finish.  Most students needed to rewrite their articles at least once before they produced anything worth publishing.  It took some students even longer to get it right.

Lawrence, the most enthused student in the class, often rewrote his articles several times before he perfected what he was trying to say.  At one point during the semester, Lawrence had come to me with a story he’d written about Swenson’s teen pregnancy program.  Excited, he showed me his article so I could approve it and put it in the current issue of The Scroll.

I read his article with a poker face, but Lawrence saw through it; he knew there was a problem.

“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.

“It’s too wordy,” I told him.  “You have this big long introduction, but you don’t say much.  This is a good start, but where are the facts?  Where are the five W’s?”

Lawrence reread his opening paragraph.  Then he explained to me that he was trying to grab the reader by telling a mini-story in the opening.  I told him that it was good effort and a good idea, but that it wasn’t working.  His personal anecdote was just confusing things and delaying the real facts of the story.

“Should I rewrite it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him.  “Get right to the facts.  Remember, the most important information comes first.”

Lawrence nodded, took his paper and went back to work.

The next day, at the end of class, Lawrence came back up to my desk with his rewritten article and asked me to give it another look.  I did.  However, it was still too wordy, and I told him so.

“Bullets,” I said to him.  “You have to write in bullets.”

“What’s that?”

“It means your sentences need to be short and powerful.  Bang!  Right to the point.  One after the other: bang, bang, bang.  Like bullets.  What’s with all these words, Lawrence?  I’ve read your writing before, and I know you can write much tighter than this.  You’re thinking too much.  You’re trying to sound too sophisticated, and you’re not saying what you mean.  Just say what you mean, real simple.  Just say it.  Don’t worry about how it sounds.  If you do that, your style will come naturally, so will your voice.  Does this make sense?”

Lawrence stood thinking for a minute.

“Bullets,” I told him.  “Go back and rewrite it.  Keep it tight, and get to the facts.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

The next day Lawrence came back with his article after a third rewrite.  I took it from him and read it, quite pleased by his progress.

“Bullets?” he asked me.

“Bullets,” I told him.  “Congratulations, Lawrence.  You made it into the school paper.  Nice job, buddy.”

“Thanks!”

A week later, when the paper was published, Lawrence was all smiles.  So were the 16 other students whose articles had made it into the Swenson Scroll.  That April, during Swenson’s spring parent-teacher conferences, Lawrence’s mother came by my classroom to meet me and discuss Lawrence’s progress.

“Lawrence really enjoys your class,” she told me, proud of her son.  “He really respects you as a teacher, too.  He talks about your class all the time.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “That’s good to hear.  Lawrence is a great kid.  Excellent student.  He always puts in one-hundred-and-ten-percent.”

Lawrence’s mother smiled.  “He was just so proud of his article in the school newspaper, let me tell you.  He carried it around with him for a week.  Showed everybody in the entire family.  It’s now hanging up on the refrigerator for all to see.”

“That’s really great to hear,” I said.  “Good for Lawrence.”

I shook hands with Lawrence’s mother and she left.  Lawrence would go on to publish two more articles in the paper, and finish the class was a 95 average.

The following year, when Lawrence was a senior, I kept-up my relationship with him, occasionally seeing him around school and chatting with him in the halls.  He looked different his senior year, however.  He was thinner by at least 15 pounds.  He was also wearing a new hairstyle, keeping his head completely bald.  Later, of course, I’d learn that it wasn’t a new hairstyle at all, but the aftereffects of chemotherapy.  Lawrence had brain cancer, and was slowly losing his health.  He would fight the good fight and make it to graduation, but shortly after commencement, he passed-away.

It happened during the summer, so I didn’t find out until the new school year.  It was a tough summer for Swenson students.  Two other students had died, one in a traffic accident and another by committing suicide.  But Lawrence was the hardest to take.  I’ll never forget his articles in the school newspaper, or his passion for writing and his enthusiasm for my class.

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Filed under Parental Involvement, The Village Proposal

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