Unexpected Lessons. When my class turned into a ‘newsroom.’

Today, no sooner I got to school, I saw an email to staff about a coffee truck stopping by. A fundraiser for the school’s Cheer team. Not your common or garden food truck (a converted horse trailer) Exchange Coffee is a company with an interesting origin story.

So as my students came to class — my Writing and Publishing class –I nixed the day’s assignment on my lesson plan and asked them if they like to work as an impromptu news team. Grab a camera and some mics I told them. Someone needed to prep for the story, to look up some background information of the owners of Exchange Coffee. Another began to write down possible questions on a small white board while two others tested the audio, and if the clip-on mic units were charged. Clip-on mics aren’t the best for impromptu stories, so one student, adapted our ‘dummy’ mic to the Hotec clip-on, so that it communicated back to the camera. We rushed downstairs. I asked the owners (who also make and serve the coffee) if it was OK to do a story about them.

Once that was cleared, I got the students to shoot some B-roll. A school bus rolling in. A weird half moon was rising as the sun came over the Queen Creek horizon. An engine roared –possibly a train or a noisy aircraft from the nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Sound engineer? Check. Camera person? Check. Reporter? Check.

As we began to roll, Don Meyer, an English teacher unexpectedly wheeled into frame, in full biking gear. Perfect! (I’ve featured Mr. Meyer on a podcast and blog post so I was confident this ‘customer’ would agree to being in the story.) The story was suddenly growing more legs. The ‘reporter’ began describing the scene, and got a interview with the owner/barista.

The audio quality turned out better than we expected. More than that, our reporter sounded like a reporter, despte just having 5 minutes of planning the story. The camera person got her right shots. Fifteen minutes to the bell, we switched off the tech and headed back to class to review the work.

NOW COMES THE LEARNING PART. I will play back the recording, and over the next few days and have the students critique their work. Could they have done anything different? What about lighting? What about camera angles? What if this was an ‘incident’? How would they handle it? Could they have interviewed customers? Could they have got a different camera angle – say from inside the truck?

Publishing in a digital world is tricky business. It’s never static. Stories, like lesson plans are always in flux. The best lessons are learned on the job. We are often poised at the top of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, ‘creating original work,’ investigating, revising, reconstructing knowledge in the moment. Sometimes a coffee truck hijacks the lesson plan. You adapt and run with it.

Tomorrow I have invited an author, Jessica McCann, talk to the class about the writing craft, about fiction, and picking out details for a story. Does a video story or podcast have something in common with a novel? We’ll ask!

NEXT WEEK, my students will be working on podcasts. Who knows where this –and what unplanned events – will take my class. Stay tuned. Didn’t I mention – my class starts at 6:30 am? I might need more coffee!

‘Colors of Colombo’ gives voice to the voiceless.

A Web developer and a journalist walk into a juice bar. The book that they just published paints the city I grew up in, in stunning light.

Photo by Nazly Ahmed

If you’ve lived here, you’d know when to duck a ball flying in your direction from a raucous cricket match. (The clue is often a pair of Bata slippers making do for a wicket.) Or where to find isso vadas, or chinese rolls; where that bicycle-tube repair guy on Galle Road sits under a piece of plastic; or what time the knife sharpener and choon pan tuktuk might arrive. These ‘experts’ and entrepreneurs however, are easy to miss because they just blend into the cacophony that is Colombo. Sadly many of them are hidden in plain sight like faded wall posters. But no worries – Nazly Ahmed has them in his viewfinder. He pulls up on his motorbike and takes in the details with his trusty camera. Lucky us! 

Colours of Colombo is a glimpse into that other side of Colombo, the lives lived in the shadow of the luxury apartment towers, and by unkempt beaches. It may be too small-scale a book to qualify for a coffee-table piece (which is my only beef with the collection. Visual storytelling like this ought to be seen in large format.) But the colours that pour out of it let us pay attention to those slices of life that are left out of tourist brochures. Who else would focus on a road sweeper in Mattakkuliya surrounded by grit, casting an ominous shadow? Or the tuktuk driver taking a nap like a cartoon strip framed against a giant piece of graffiti? Or the saravita seller’s serene, weatherbeaten face? These lead characters are part of the daily docudrama played out across the 15 zip codes of a city I once called home. Sadly, many of them are in transit, or worse, anonymous. Their names don’t roll in with the credits. Nazly (the photo-hobbyist and web developer) and Kris Thomas (the writer) have taken pains to put many names to faces, giving voice to the voiceless, a secondary, magnanimous accomplishment.

Reading this book made me wistfully attempt to recall those who’ve remained nameless in my childhood. (Your list is probably as big as mine.) The vedamahathaya down Havelock Road who once reset my dislocated elbow; the smiling lady outside St. Peter’s College who sold us ambarella achcharu through the iron gates. The tuktuk driver who religiously showed up on Sunday mornings to take my mother to church. The rickshaw man who transported my cousin and I to school and back. The kiri-karaya from Sagara Road. Their legacy is not found in my photo album. But they were itinerant actors who were part of a city drama never forgotten. 

Nazly and Kris don’t just take us back in time. They freeze the frame. I was glad to see that they all but ignored the parts of Colombo that privileged folk –and Instagrammers – go after. The bars, the buffet tables, the coffee shops. Yes there are some waterfronts in shimmering light, but some beaches (like one in Bambalapitiya) are murky. Shanties stand out against a backdrop of affluence. The other waterfront (a once hyped floating market), they note, is abandoned. 

By an unhappy coincidence the book comes out in a time when Sri Lanka is facing its biggest crisis. Colombo, where all the machinations of the political economy are worked out, is experiencing power cuts. A lighting effect –and irony –any photographer would not miss. We could be optimistic and see Colors of Colombo as a glimmer amid the virus of poor governance.

Podcasts light a fire under old media.

Podcast listening is rising sharply though many people still find podcasts hard to fathom. On the one hand podcasts’ ‘long form’ story structure doesn’t fit into some people’s social media consumption habit filled with memes and GIFs. Or, they tend to be dismissed as too mundane, given how many ‘vlogs’ (video blogs) bubble over with rants and risqué material guaranteed to harvest clicks. There is, however, a wide chasm between these two. Plenty of gaps being filled by experimental podcasts. Atlantic magazine has ‘The Experiment’ to do a deep dive into the culture and politics. Slate, in 2016 began what it called a ‘rolling podcast’ style of delivering fresh content around the elections, as did the New York Times’ podcast ‘The Daily.’ While these niches await proper nomenclature many podcasts have mined the gaps that the media were once reluctant to invest in.

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

My hypothesis is that podcasts are lighting a fire under the media, giving rise to a new journalism. The climate couldn’t more right for it, with people cloistered in make-shift home offices, or tired of the formulaic story arc on the evening news. There’s also the smart-speaker set, who can listen to something different while making coffee, or doing laundry. 

The term ‘New Journalism’ isn’t a new label. It was used in the Nineteen sixties and seventies when journalism was invigorated by fiction writing techniques.

What differentiates this kind of journalism is that in a podcast, the journalist-as-host brings in a sense of immediacy not possible in print media. The journalist tiptoes in and out of the story to connect the dots.

In December 2019, the Pulitzer Board announced a new category for audio reporting – basically podcasts. It called this an experimental move in recognition of a “renaissance of audio journalism” that opened up “non-fiction storytelling.” I’ve been listening to The Daily for about a year now, alongside This American Life, On the Media and This Week in Tech. So I was delighted when This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer. This long-running show may have been the spark for many podcasts today.

Even as the pandemic closed many, many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling. Here’s to audio journalism!

Note: A longer version of this post appears in Medium

Split-screen? Lives in contradiction are the norm.

I’ve been curating front pages of the New York Times over the past few months, as a record of how how we are dealing with unfolding events during the pandemic. Some images are so grim that they could have been plucked from a newspaper in another country.

Take this one, for instance. Homeless shelter? Activists? People destroying incriminating evidence? Sadly it’s how people in one of the wealthiest states in the US are keeping warm, after the winter storm crippled its power grid, disrupted its water supply. This is in San Antonio, Texas. Boiling snow for drinking water became the norm.

Then there was this on the same day the winter storm hit – Perseverance of another kind, on a planet 30-plus million miles away. The Mars rover, named Perseverance, landed in the afternoon, Arizona Time. Even the search engine couldn’t resist a bit of exuberance as the page loaded. (that’s a screenshot of my Google search engine results for ‘Mars Rover.’)

COVID has laid bare our split-screen lives. Bitcoin made waves this week, but at the same time economists think the number of unemployed exceeds 10 million in the US. Those hunkering down, and those lifting themselves up are living side by side. The disgruntled and suspicious, and the hopeful move on. Those facing unbearable tragedy, sitting next to those who are building new lives.

When a green screen pops up in class

Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.

And then this happened.

Computer lab at Benjamin Franklin High School

As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.

I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.

This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.

A flurry of writing in schools?

Is the pandemic a catalyst for creativity?

I’ve been teaching writing for the past three years as one component in my Computer class. I teach technical skills –formatting documents, and creating presentations — while always introducing current, big-picture issues in information and communication technologies, or ICT, and social media. You know, privacy, trolls, AI, disinformation…

BUT 202O DELIVERED A SURPRISE PACKAGE, besides a micro-organism that derailed us: An explosion of student writing. Fiction, mainly. The capstone project for the past three years has been an eBook my 7th graders research, write and produce. I noticed a sudden interest in fiction writing by last December, so I invited this semester’s students to consider a Writer’s Club. This week, the club is beginning to take shape. It’s fitting: Benjamin Franklin was a prolific writer, after all!

In parallel with this, in my other class on Writing and Publishing class for high school students, writing seems to come naturally. Which is why they take this elective, after all. But what surprises me is how much of writing they have already begun. Two students are already working on a book. Reading their assignments makes me wonder where these young authors have been hiding all these years. Has COVID been a catalyst for creativity? Somewhere, in some research department, there’s probably a study going on about how lock-downs and screen-time have driven young people to books again; how young adults are discussing issues not covered by memes and Tik-Tok.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, I INVITED JESSICA MCCANN, a Phoenix based author and freelance writer to talk to my class on Monday. Jessica writes historical fiction, and her story of how she researches her character, and crafts her story is inspiring. Her examples are what we writers could identify with such as taking on the mundane work (writing about topics such as ‘garbage’), editing work for a different kind of ‘reader’ (corporate documents), and a brush with law literature. The latter is what serendipitously led to her digging into a court case involving slavery in the late nineteenth century, which led her to a character who figures in one of her books.

Speaking of craft, Jessica talked about the need for a writer to capture and convey the sensory experiences of a scene or a character, whether it is interviewing a celebrity or an anonymous figure in history. [Her books areA Peculiar Savage Beauty” set in the 1030s Dust Bowl, and “A different Kind of Free” set in the pre-Civil War era. Having always leaned toward Sci-Fi, I’ve never read much in the historical fiction genre. I’m sold now!

My students this week are working on a blog post. In a few weeks they will create and produce a podcast, and then a newspaper. Elsewhere, and anecdotally I hear that interest in journalism is on the rise. Does that mean a return to long-form journalism, and greater value placed on writers across all genres? I hope so.

In this COVID economy, my students’ eBooks shine a light

This year too I am so inspired by the work that students in my computer class have produced. Their capstone project is a 24-page eBook, and this year I relaxed the guidelines and let them choose any topic. I wanted to see how they use this moment in time to come up with ideas, rather with no boundaries.

I wanted to see what has been brewing in the minds of young people. I was in for a shock! This semester, I noticed more fiction emerging than all the semesters before, combined. Even the non-fiction was telling. Topics include, “The most tragic events in history,” the solar system, and one on somewhat gruesome events of World War II. But the outpouring of fiction made me have to allow them to go beyond the 24-page requirement.

Here are some of the topics:

The Mind Traveler,” “The Girl Astronaut,” “A Vacation in the Woods,” “The Mystery Letters.” Two books on Softball as a backdrop to drama, two on dance techniques, a romance, one on the harmful technologies affecting young people, and one two on mental illness. There’s more….

My students design the front and back covers using only copyright-free images, they control margins, and on my insistence, ad nauseam, use plenty of white space. Take a look at these, and let me know if what we are seeing an explosion of creativity in 12 and 13 year olds. Perhaps this year with so many ups and downs has rekindled the urge to read, imagine and tell stories. I hope I am right.

It makes being a teacher so rewarding!

Click on the images and they link to actual eBooks.

Curtail pre-teen cellphone use. Please!

“It sucks to be Asian,” was one of the many comments teenagers left on the comments section of an article in Common Sense Media. Well?

Let me respond to this as an Asian person. It’s true that we fit the tough-love stereotype. It has worked in our family. We look at cellphones as a privilege –a luxury even. Certainly not a necessity.* I find it amusing that Common Sense Media, also features an article for parents titled, “What’s the best cell phone for kids?” and it begins to answer it by saying “Honestly, the best cell phone for kids is one they use responsibly and respectfully…” Which is a safe but highly irresponsible answer. The best cell phone for ‘kids’ is no phone at all, if by kids you mean children who can barely feed themselves, or do still use a booster seat.

To put it another way, pretending that very young children need a device to initiate phone calls “for emergency purposes” is a lie many parents tell themselves. We told our two children, right up to 7th grade that if they urgently needed to make a phone call to us, they should go to the school office. Or a teacher.

In my school, students cannot use a cell phone during school hours. No ifs, no buts. Many of my students ask me if they could call a parent from my desk phone when they forget their lunch, or sports clothes. Or need to stay late for a make-up assignment. I happily oblige.

We did not ‘invest’ in a phone just to be our children’s pacifier, or a way to spend idle time. We recognized early enough –long before the cellphones-and-mental health uproar– that giving a child a multi-media device was like force feeding a child with weed. Here, take this and stop throwing a tantrum!

We often hear of many parents making excuses for giving a child a phone (for ‘research’ purposes!) only to hear that the child is suddenly turned sullen, finds hard to make friends etc.

I get the ‘correlation’ vs ‘causation’ argument. This is another dodge. Society didn’t have to wait for the ‘data’ to prove that the correlation between nicotine and cancer had turned to causation, did we? Adults are afraid to admit that smart phones are harmful for fear they may be cast as Luddites, laggards or simply out of sync with the times. If you watch the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, you will hear how the architects of the features that get young people hooked to smart phones, do not give their own children these devices. Here’s that trailer.

The Social Dilemma. Around 1 minute, you will hear from Sri Lankan born former Facebook exec, Chamath Palihapitiya whom I have featured on this blog before.

Knowing what we know that ‘dopamine feedback loops‘ are built into the apps children get addicted, the radicalization potential of many sites, the exposure to porn, and the effect of social media on social discourse, the smart phone is a loaded weapon.

Kids do not need a cell phone. Curtail their use of your device. Do not buy them a phone. Please!

*The cost of a phone is now approaching $1,500.

Could we ‘Cancel’ these unfortunate words?

Weaponize? Trendjacking? Chillax? What cave did these words crawl out from? (This is an update to a post last month on Vocabularitis.)

I cringe when I hear someone say ‘weaponize,’ which once belonged to the military industry, but had been twitterized to a pulp just because it’s easy to add an ize to a word. I found this hilarious analogy at Dictionary.com. “If you start pelting your brother with grapes, he might accuse you of weaponizing your fruit salad,” it says. If we had our way, we would update Macbeth’s imagination running riot as he approaches a sleeping Duncan.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me weaponize thee.

Consider, too the sudden emergence of the word ‘Cancel.’ What’s wrong with boycott? Oppose? Ignore? Deny? Or (to dredge up a non-word) Unfollow? Speaking of which unfollow was thrust upon us about ten years ago, and has become headline worthy. As in “Billie Eilish Unfollows Everyone on Instagram.” For heaven’s sakes!

And then there’s that abomination the media repeats – mansplain. The Wikipedia entry for it says it is a pejorative term, and could be a form or ‘misandry.’ Meaning, it’s a weaponized word.

No point getting all blustered (OK, cancel that word and replace it with ‘huffed up.’) Just chillax, will you?

Journalism on the ballot, in Bob Woodward’s expose

To be charitable, Donald Trump may have not read a single page of one of Bob Woodward’s previous books, let alone All the President’s Men. Or else, why in heaven’s name would he have even volunteered to speak to one of the journalists whose reporting caused Richard Nixon to exit in disgrace? The latest book, Rage, might reveal why the president seems to want a journalist’s attention, given that he rails against the media all the time.

But it’s not just Trump whose motives are murky. Why would Woodward not tell the American people that the president’s on-the-record interviews were contradicting his public statements –statements made, one must note, in front of Woodward’s colleagues? Sometimes weekly.

Trumpism is not the only thing on the ballot. Journalism is. Not the simplistic fake news variety, but journalism within the toxic political economy. The Sean Hannity’s of this world we get, and dismiss as journalism’s caricatures. Woodward didn’t have to seek Deep Throat this time in some shadowy parking lot. Deep Throat found him (apparently to “unburden himself”). This could have been breaking news – the kind that could save lives and could have spared a nation grief and ignominy. But the manuscript was tucked away until an opportune moment. Woodward, with his and partner Bernstein’s indefatigable reporting and risk-taking left us a legacy for what good, solid, timely information could do. But with so many platforms that ‘break’ the news for us now, Breaking News is broken. Tiny little shiny shards spat out of a wood chipper to settle down all around us. We flick them off our sleeve and move on.

Will this crisis, a horror story not of Rage but indifference, also pass?