Journalism assignment evokes terror, fulfillment

Bob Satnan - Contributing Columnist

Bob Satnan

Contributing Columnist

You never know what will click with students. As a teacher, you go into a new lesson with hopes that the kids will engage, but it’s always a roll of the dice.

On Thursday, the dice came up seven for me.

Since becoming a teacher in 2013, I have explored different media to find inspiration for various lessons. When it comes to feature reporting, my go-to guy now is Steve Hartman, a brilliant storyteller for CBS News.

A few years ago, Hartman worked on a series called “Everyone Has A Story.” The premise was exquisite in its simplicity: Someone would throw a dart at a map of the United States and wherever it landed, Hartman had to go to that town, open the phone book and select someone at random and do a story about them.

He visited with a former school lunch lady in South Carolina who continues to feed her church congregation every day in her living room, a little boy who gives balloons to his grandmother who passed away by releasing them from the highest hill in town, and a guy who moved to Alaska on his girlfriend’s whim, only to be dumped by her; he stayed and leads a rather eclectic existence.

The point is we all have a story to tell. There is some piece of each of us that can provide insight, amusement or inspiration for others. I frequently say I believe in “the power of the story,” and Hartman proves my contention.

Early in the week I shared some of Hartman’s stories (just search online for Steve Hartman CBS and you’ll find them) with my Introduction to Journalism students at Smith-Cotton High School. We discussed what made the stories interesting and engaging, and how going into an interview with an open mind and open ears can lead to a fantastic story. Then Thursday, I surprised them.

Just after the start of our class period, I had the students draw slips of paper that included the name of an interview subject and their location in the high school. The assignment: They had 20 minutes to get to their subject, conduct an interview and return to class. Everyone has a story, so the students needed to detail an important or interesting tale from their subject – and quickly.

The look on my students’ faces was a mix of angst and terror. I really wish I had photographed their reaction – all bugged-out eyes and open mouths. They dashed off to their assignments and as they made their way back to begin writing, a trend emerged. They all were smiling, some gushing about the stories they would get to write. The assignment was to write a story, but the lesson was bigger.

On Friday, I opened class asking if the students thought they had enough information to write a good story, and all expressed confidence. I then took them back 24 hours, to the moment they learned about the assignment and the looks on their faces. They laughed a little – always a good sign – realizing the folly of their initial fears. I encouraged them to remember how they felt both at the time they learned of the assignment and when they returned, because the real lesson was that they should stop dreading new or different experiences and start embracing chances to expand their horizons.

That’s pretty good advice for all of us. We should encourage it in our children and expect it of ourselves. As Henry Ford once said, “One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his greatest surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.

Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.

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