Writing From Models – Even Cooler Than I Thought It Was

Last week, I had a discussion with one of my Digital Journalism 2 students about using a rhetorical question as a lead or nut graph in opinion or feature writing. Generally, I hate the rhetorical question lead.

Why?

Because the answer to the question is the lead, or the nut. But I guess it works sometimes…

Then, I was struck right in my tender opinion that very evening by Pete Wells’ viral, scathing review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, written almost entirely as a series of questions:

What exactly about a small salad with four or five miniature croutons makes Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar (a) big (b) famous or (c) Guy’s, in any meaningful sense?

Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?

It goes on.

I shared the piece with my student, along with a critical take on media coverage of the Broadwell – Petreaus affair from Hanna Rosin in Slate, in an attempt to expose the role of tone in writing opinion. Needless to say, she got it.

At the same time, I delivered a “challenge,” something I give the kids from time to time in order to guide the learning environment.   It looked like this:

Challenge 2: Some of you are writing, some are doing photography, others video, some graphic design, others marketing; most of you are doing a number of task types. Choose one facet of what you have been or will be doing and find a GURU. Be prepared to share what you find.

  • Dude, What’s a Guru?
  • A Guru in this case is someone who does the task that you are doing or want to be doing – and someone who does it brilliantly! Bring an awesome example to share and discuss.

Some students are looking at PSA videos, others are reading Mike Royko, others looking at Pulitzer Prize winning photo essays. This student decided to mimic the style of Wells’ piece to express her frustration with the SAT. The piece poured out of her, from

“WOW!”

first draft to published in 48 hours. I provided a touch of feedback on organization, leading to a small expansion of two paragraphs. Otherwise, all her. Writing from models is powerful.

I was so impressed with the piece that I tweeted it as an example of writing from models. Within a few hours, someone even favorited the tweet.

It was Pete Wells. The student’s response? “WOW!”

Cool.

Student Centered Grading

This is a work in progress, building off of my work over the past eight years with students writing rubrics for performance tasks, but I’m examining student-set goals and measurement of progress this year in my Digital Journalism 2 course. So far, these kids have done incredible work in the first six weeks of school. Together, the students have made inroads into a variety of social media – check out Instagram #zispeaceday – and published a vastly improved, though still quite flawed, student newspaper. In a small class of seven, each is following individual interests, asking me questions I’ve never heard in 12 years of teaching English: Hey, Mr. Hoke, I was thinking of writing a piece on mobile phone use in school. Is that okay? Is it okay to write? 

Yes.

Of course, we’ve created rubrics for features, but there’s other stuff: managing social media arms, formulating marketing campaigns, managing peers, publishing photo essays. This week we’ll sit down individually, and students will share what they want to be graded on, and how. I already know they’re learning and that they are making improvements to the products they are creating, but we need to make the learning transparent via their blog-based portfolios and get some reflection going, leading to future goal setting. However, I want the students to feel flexible, able to respond to needs as they arrive, which makes goal setting a tricky prospect. As long as time frames are loose, this should be no big deal.

We’ll see. I’m sure there’s plenty I can’t anticipate right now, but I’m not cynical about the possibilities. This won’t get gamed because the students care about the product, the outcomes. I will have to push them toward professional-quality work by sharing models found online, but together I hope we can spiral up toward better and better products sensibly.