October 28, 2008

Public radio at Gordon Parks High School sounds good.

It's hard to write about people of color in public radio and the next generation of public radio storytellers when you're a full-time college student. It is a vital subject. That's why it was vital to create a way to introduce secondary students to the craft. With help from the University of Minnesota's Prof. of Journalism, Diversity and Equality, Catherine Squires, I designed a program, during the summer, which would do this.

Our pilot project at Gordon Parks High School, one of St. Paul Public Schools' alternative learning centers, is halfway through its first cycle. We have several smart, hard working and interested students who have dug into the work with the recorders and interviewing. We have made satisfying progress as of the seventh lesson. This is a good time to reflect on how it has gone, how that feels and how effective the program is.

They have learned to use the H2 Zoom digital audio recorder. They've learned how to interview each other and emphasize open-ended questions. The students stuck with it. The students have checked out the recorders so that they can do field interviews; this was a pleasant surprise. We thought their lives would only allow in-school interviews; that their rarely stable lives would impose major limits on whom they could interview.

Some of our students are less engaged than our stars, but they hang with the lessons. Maybe they're waiting some the next new and exciting lesson or piece of technology!

Their latest lesson introduced them to basic critical listening skills and a procedure for transcribing and logging their sound. Both are vital skills, but the latter one is neither fun, nor interesting. The project has run at least as smoothly as we had expected. One sign of that is Minnesota Public Radio's interest in producing a story about pilot project. They also want to air one or two of our best students' stories once those are ready for "prime time." We expect to welcome one of their reporters on Thursday October 30th.

A question remains: who among our best, most engaged and enthusiastic students will ask to do more advanced work in the spring? I had designed a curriculum with rigors that were based on my experience at National Public Radio's Intern Edition. In reporting an Intern Edition story, the work was hard and as demanding as your ambitions were; I was ambitious. Since I had not taught this stuff before, I probably made the lessons too difficult and too long. It was important to me that these students learn how to report and produce a story that has at least two source. If we can do that in the spring, that would satisfy many of us.

There's another question: will our pilot project meet the school district's rigors so that they'll invite us to stay? They want our lessons help raise the students' grades in English, social studies and other subjects. I'm a radio storyteller, not a trained teacher. I'll leave that question to my teaching partner, Prof. Squires.

Please come and read about the stories our students are working on or learn about how and why we created this project.

I hope that American Public Media's Center for Innovation in Journalism or Minnesota Public Radio's will earn grant money, which they will designate for recruiting and grooming new public radio journalists of color. From talking with them, I know that they want to do this. The cooperation between myself, the Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality at the University of Minnesota and Gordon Parks high will have to fill the barely met need. We hope to spark these students' passion for telling stories through sound.

Thankfully, the school's principal, Steve Lindberg, assistant principal, R.C. Johnson, and the English teacher, Paul Creager, who is our host as he opens his classroom to us, have supported and eagerly allowed us to mount this experiment.