Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Webcams allow students to stay connected

Webcams allow students to stay connected

(Place your mouse over hyperlinked headline above. Click to read the original story)

This is definitely a story that jerks at the heart and adds human interest. A first grader is a leukemia patient undergoing treatment, but the least of her worries is missing out on school. Thanks to a home laptop and school Webcam, she can still keep up with her schoolwork and stay connected to what's going on in classroom. This is a chipper, young optimist who, despite her deteriorating health, loves education and her class.

The first paragraph most resembles a blind lead. We think that Becky is a regular 7-year-old who plops in front of her computer, but we don't exactly know why she participates in class from home until we get to the 2nd paragraph or the nutgraf. The nutgraf fills the readers in the information that writer withheld until the readers were caught off guard. That's what makes a key eye grabbing story.

The sources that the reporter interviewed cover a variety of angles to make the story whole. For instance, Becky's pediatric oncology director provides the outlook on technology and how it affects children with cancer. We have her mother who is encouraging her daughter by allowing Becky to have these interactive home-based tutoring and learning sessions with the class. Then Becky's teacher describes the reactions of the classmates and how they greet Becky and interact with her via webcam. There are no immediate gaps in this article, and the sources speak on behalf of story and add color to the blocks of descriptive paragraphs.

The reporter did a great job of letting Becky's voice be heard. She is the mainpoint of the story. Everything else revolves around the issue of Becky--even the idea of webcams and participating in school while at home. Most of the quotes from Becky were cute and funny and gave off the impression that a little girl was speaking. The writer really didn't have to do much else to get the readers to envision the first grader's voice speaking through the article.

The writer could've improved on using less block-sized paragraphs and using more colorful quotes. However, there is no repetition between quotes and the transition, so the readers are presented with new information in each paragraph.

I'd say the writer does an excellent job of setting up the story. This was one that I couldn't really find anything more to critique than to say, 'Let's think of a more creative headline.'

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Region's jobless rate up sharply: District reaches nearly 10 percent

Region's jobless rate up sharply: District reaches nearly 10 percent
*Place cursor over hyperlinked text above. This leads to the original story.

The nation's unemployment rate is rising rapidly in this unstable economy, but that is not what makes this story newsworthy. Rather, Washington Post writer V. Dion Haynes assumes that the readers know about the economic crisis and that the repercussions include joblessness. Haynes goes ahead and presents new information, creating a dimension of timeliness in this article. The news from this reporter's angle is that government data released yesterday shows D.C.'s unemployment rate rising to nearly 10 percent. More specifically, from January 2009 to the data's last collected date, D.C.'s unemployment rate leaped from 9.2 to 9.8 percent. Notice how in the first paragraph the writer says "nearly 10 percent" instead of "9.8 percent" to make the summary lead more reader friendly.

In paragraph 2, the writer creates an element of interest to tie in with the lead. Oddly enough, D.C. has a higher unemployment rate than the national average, despite the fact that this area has a growing federal workforce, meaning more job opportunities. The writer goes on to explain that D.C. receives added protection from the economic crisis and mentions that a total of 5,000 federal and 3,000 state jobs were created within the past year. Haynes does a good job of explaining this detail for people outside of D.C. who wouldn't quite grasp why it's surprising that the unemployment rate is skyrocketing in D.C. The reporter shows that despite the District's added advantages, people in this area are still losing jobs and uses some statistical evidence to support that point. However, too many figures can dry up a news story. Here Haynes finds a fair balance between numbers and a verbal explanation. The reporter does a good job of choosing only the relevant data and inserts them into the story to give the readers a tangible idea of the facts. Then the writer let's the sources do the rest of the talking.

Financial experts are saying their predictions were miscalculated when they thought it would take until at least 2010 for joblessness to rise to 10 percent. This mismatch of predictions gets readers curious about exactly how experts are coming up with the figures and whether they can believe them. The fact that officials could be wrong creates a dramatic element in this piece. Also, the story touches upon the issue of rapidly increasing unemployment rates of African Americans, creating an issue of race tension. Source Anirban Basu does point to the fact that African Americans are the first to be laid off and last to be rehired, but the writer finds a balance by reporting that D.C. has a higher number of undereducated and low-skilled residents as a population. By combining information about the general scope of the population, there is less tendency to magnify the attention on one ethnic group. What the reporter could've done was interviewed people who were laid off, including Caucasians, Asians and African Americans. That would be another way to see the full scope of unemployment and not point fingers at any singular ethnicity.
This article has multiple dimensions, and it's definitely a piece that elicits readers' reactions. The writer talks to a number of good sources, and the facts and figures speak for themselves. It's unfortunate that even with the creation of new jobs, less and less people are equipped with the skills to perform the work. I would definitely want to see if the writer does a follow up on this issue of unemployment and goes into more depths with the dimensions that the reporter touched upon in this piece.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Putting some straight talk into Obama's education speech

Putting some straight talk into Obama's education speech

*Please click on the link above. It is hyperlinked to the original news story.

Changing hands in the presidency is never a fluid transition. Former policymakers rise and fall. However, issues such as war, health care and poverty never go away—neither does dealing with a messy issue such as education reform. President Barack Obama must confront the hot issue of improving student achievement in “failing” schools. By failing schools, the general definition is a school that fails to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or meet state standards on the state-administered standard achievement exams. Many U.S. schools are left in the dust tracks as nations around the globe race to be #1 under the sphere of academia.

This article starts out with an assertive, powerful speech Obama delivered to address the reality of crumbling schools and the lack of teacher quality in the 21st century. This lack of tools and resources hurt the students’ opportunities to become educated for the future and well-adapted to the market economy. That’s what gages readers’ interest—stories about lost hope for our generation. It’s interesting how our generation is stuck in between an economic recession and lack of administrative decisions to stick to a curriculum that works and pick out the cream of the crop teachers to educate the youth. Students can easily call themselves the victims of an innocent battle among the nations to raise the standards of an excellent public education, but that’s not to say students shouldn’t be held responsible for their own growth. The article puts the government and school officials in the position of victimizers. They are the target of blame in this case. This story does make school districts sound as though they aren’t doing much, even though as a whole they’ve come a long way to equip students with the tools they need to raise the students’ level of achievement—not only on to perform better on tests but to reach personal milestones as well.

Something about the lead stands out. Not many news stories begin with a quote. I understand why the writer would use the quotes earlier in the story since the writer is trying to use Obama’s vision as a check list. For instance, Obama said increasing the school day just like in South Korea does nothing for the U.S. students because more hours spent after school doesn’t necessarily ensure improvements. That’s his insight about what doesn’t work in improving a child’s education. The reality is that schools have already tried to expand their school hours, but some students don’t use that time wisely.

The story uses mini titles in each section to describe the multi-dimensional issue of education reform. Each section is clearly labeled and begins with a quote from Obama. If this story could be broken up into a series of news briefs, more like president’s briefs, the readers would have an easy time sifting through the subcategories. It’s convenient for the readers who only have time to quickly scan through the article and read what the president thinks.

This story is too quote heavy. Sure quotes give the readers a synopsis or gist of what the prominent figure said. However, there needs to be a fair balance of transitions to break up the monotony of each quoted phrase or sentence. Even though the writer purposely designed the story so that Obama’s stance would be the pivotal point about which the individual issues in educational reform revolve, it’s not enough reason to beat the readers over the head with just his quotes. I wouldn’t say there was a loss of reader’s interest because the story was structured quote after quote. In fact, this is a more unconventional or layman's style of news writing. I believe this story could’ve used better transitions to tie into each new paragraph.

In order for this story to be objective, the voices of the youth and educators cannot be muffled. That is, there needs to be a balance of sources. There are several key ideas that Obama touched upon, with each section beginning with a quote from his speech, but where are the sources to defend their position? From reading this article, no public school teachers are represented and certainly no students had a say about the changing face of education. This piece would’ve read with more credibility and objectivity if the writer sought out the party most directly affected through changes in the curriculum. For instance, why isn’t it realistic to lift the caps on charter schools since Obama is asking states to lift the caps on the designated number of charter schools? State officials who oversee the funding for charter schools can answer that question. What else can the money for Early Education programs be used for? This requires a response from an educator with an idea on the fiscal spending plan of the government and a little bit of financial background. Even someone who supports works closely with educating young adults, such as a college professor or chancellor, could answer this question and contribute to the objectivity of the story. Why not invest in the education of students in high school and college, who are closer to gaining jobs in the real world, as opposed to toddlers?

There are many unanswered questions in this article, partly because the writer doesn't give the other side a chance to speak. As a news story, the point of posing a question is to get the readers’ attention and provide immediate feedback through the knowledge of expert sources by the end of it all. Gathering information requires rubbing shoulders with multiple sources to create that sphere of objectivity in any news piece.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Disorder in merged D.C. schools: teachers alleging attacks by youth find themselves scrutinized

Disorder in merged D.C. schools: teachers alleging attacks by youth find themselves scrutinized

*Place cursor over title above. The original story is hyperlinked.

This is the saddest story I've ever read about teachers trying to earn a living in a school full of hostile students who need disciplinary action and academic attention.

The first paragraph uses an anecdotal lead to capture the audience by presenting an action-oriented scene: Woodson high school teacher William Pow writes on the blackboard. As people read that first part of the sentence they may ask, "What is he writing?" or "Why is this action so important?" and then BAM. The audience reads that the teacher turned around and saw a textbook hurtling toward his head. More action. And then the stark reality that a student tried to injure a teacher. Hostility. This is an outstanding way to introduce the content of the story: a series of first-hand accounts teachers give about their experiences working in a classroom where students at any moment may walk up to a teacher and strangle the instructor or shove her into a desk - simply because that kid is having a bad day.

The writer makes it clear why students would engage in malicious behavior by allowing the teachers to be the observers. The instructors come up with fair reasons why students act the way they do. They think that because Woodson High is under reconstruction and all the high school students are temporarily stuck in crowded classrooms at Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast Washington, it's easy for the kids to boil up in anger. Ok, so the teachers emphathize with the students. But they are less than understanding when teachers have to go to the hospital to treat concussions. In the teachers' point of view students are not the scapegoats but are the sources of staff members quitting their jobs at Woodson.

This story allows a myriad of sources to speak. The main focus of the story is the teachers' experiences in the classroom, but this piece maintains its objectivity because the writer gives Woodson's Principal Darrin Slade and a history teacher Brandi Drummonds the chance to come to the students' defense. Slade gives the rationale that teachers who report receiving abuse from students may be covering up the fact that their jobs are on the line. And actually one of the teachers who talked about his abuses was on a 90-day plan, which requires teachers to work through the shortcomings of the students or face termination. Drummonds said she never experienced kids throwing textbooks at her because she strived to create a controlled and active classroom environment, which she said was key to keeping the students engaged. This gives the readers an idea of a teacher who is composed and authoritative. Also, Drummond humanizes the students at Woodson and proves that although they act out of control, they are just as easily influenced to behave by positive actions that teachers take.

The story takes an interesting spin. It highlights a conflict and human interest by focusing on the hidden abuses teachers face from D.C. students in the classroom setting. This is an atypical or odd piece about education - not the run-of-the-mill "teachers to help students increase ACT scores by 2012" type of story. And the fact that some teachers are defenseless and unable to provide credibility to back their accounts makes it appear as though Woodson staff members are stuck in between a rock and a hard place. Normally teachers remain silent about their abuses because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

This multi-dimensional piece gives a chance for more than one voice to speak. It also allows for some sources to remain anonymous. A number of teachers willingly talked about their abuses, but they wanted to remain anonymous. Now my question is: Does that make these sources any less credible even if they want to keep their identites concealed so they don't risk getting fired? After all, anonymity facilitates information gathering for the journalists. Any journalist could say in their story that they spoke with "so-and-so" who wished to remain anonymous. What if that "so-and-so" never existed? Isn't there always that area of doubt when people read about an anonymous source? Do you believe what that anonymous sources says?

Doesn't that also mean these sources placed an incredible load on the Washington Post education beat reporter's shoulders - trusting that their names will never appear in print? Imagine what it took for the writer to win over that trust - a lot of professionalism and guts to ask uncomfortable questions.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stimulus to help retool education, Duncan says

Stimulus to help retool education, Duncan says

*Place cursor over the title above. The news story is hyperlinked.

First of all, it's interesting to take a newsworthy topic such as the distribution of the $100 billion stimulus package and magnify this poignant issue of funding less affluent D.C. school districts in the midst of an economic crisis. The impact would be most heavily felt for families that send their children to schools that are swallowed in financial debt. Most likely, administrators of these schools are unable to fire incompetent teachers and reward quality workers, and there are increasing gaps between the academic standards of the state and actual performance of students. The story has an interesting spin, but it seems congested with too much detail slapped together in tightly compacted paragraphs.

The first pargraph is best described as a summary lead that peels back the covers, unveiling the story's multi-faceted content. Yes, there is much to be done with the "unprecedented influx of cash," but I'd say start off the story with a short, simple lead and save the details for the nut graph. I can't help but notice that the first paragraph looks a bit bulky. Even saying it makes readers sound like a lawn mower. The commas make the writing choppy, and the lead resembles one big grocery list of comma overkill. I understand that the writer wanted to give the readers an unbiased view on different issues that the D.C. school systems are grappling with and place equal emphasis on each problem. However, I believe the story can be set up in a way that the readers eventually collect all the pieces as they read and understand that the money is important to a lot of public schools and needs to address a wide range of issues.

This writer does a good job of unveiling the common misconceptions that any school within the proximity of Washington is brimming with the most diligent teachers and "run-of-the-mill" prodigies. That's just not the reality of some D.C. school systems, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan attested to that fact. Actually, Duncan seems to be the only source that the writer attributes. His statements are assertive and bear authority, but the presence of only one source leads readers to question the objectivity of this story. Of course, Duncan may be one of the most knowledgeable sources the writer could find. But ordinary people understand Duncan's agenda, too. One could focus on a family with many school-aged children and get the parents' thoughts on how they'll be able to prepare their kids for college. Also one could talk to teachers and see what they think about administrators firing teachers who are not helping students improve academically and what they feel about tenures as the only buffer between being jobless in a heart beat and hanging by a thread. This writer missed out on many valuable sources. If this could be written as a "how to" piece on maximizing the usage of federal funds, I think everybody would have an opinion. It wouldn't be just a story focused on the education secretary's two-cents. Ordinary people are just as intelligible as authoritative public figures. Give them a chance to speak in this article.

One advice I would emphatically point out is that there needs to be more than one voice in this story. Yes, the focal point of the story is Duncan's agenda, but this writer is missing the bigger picture. The economic crisis is taking a toll on people across the nation. School districts are begging for the government to sprinkle some money into their piggy banks and educational funds. Educators all across the nation want the best possible education for the students so they get better jobs and stay optimistic about the future.

Other than that, Duncan brings up interesting ways to utilize the financial aid such as opening school doors for 14 hours. Having longer school days is beneficial for students who need help after school and require more time spent learning outside of the classroom setting. Also, Duncan makes the issue of funding public schools a big deal because the U.S. needs to be ready to compete with the world. That gives this story some added glamor, and readers get the impression that America has an obligation to strive for academic excellence. Personally, I think America has been trying to redeem herself ever since Sputnik and the "space race" against Russia. That may be stretching the story a bit because this is about trying to maximize opportunities for school children-- not establishing training grounds for another Cold War.