Sunday, September 12, 2010

Singing Opera in Journalism Class

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the authors relate a story by the writer Nora Ephron, who described how a high school journalism teacher have her class its first assignment – to write an article for the student newspaper about all the teachers and staff would be in a seminar on Thursday. The students dutifully wrote their stories. The teacher read them and then noted they had all missed the lead, at least as far as their readers were concerned – school would be closed on that day.

It was an unexpected thought or conclusion – and the entire class had missed it. Being unexpected is one of the attributes of ideas that are “made to stick.”

I have one of those journalism stories, too.

I took my first journalism course – Introductory News Reporting (J 51, as we called it) – in my sophomore year. The instructor was relatively young for the faculty at that time – somewhere around 40. There were stories that he had been in the military, and there were stories he had been a Jesuit priest. Both could have been true.

We all knew that something would be different about this class when he gave us a week to memorize the Associated Press Style Book. And we were expected to have it for every class. After that week, he gave us our first in-class assignment: write a news article from our “Assignment Jonesville” workbook.

And then he said: “You have your style books with you, and the dictionary is right here. All the facts are in the assignment. Just so you know, if you make a style error, it’s an automatic F. Same thing for a misspelled word. And for a factual error. You can now start.”

Shock set in immediately. Then came the second shock.

He started doing calisthenics. Side-straddle hops (jumping jacks). Push-ups. When he finished, he started singing. Opera. (And he wasn’t bad.) Then back to calisthenics.

To say that the class was rattled would be an understatement. Every one of us was convinced we had fallen into the hands of a lunatic. And we had – a lunatic for writing accuracy. A lunatic for writing properly. A lunatic for learning how to do your work in a noisy, distracting newsroom. A lunatic for teaching you how to work under tight deadlines and do it accurately in the middle of chaos.

It worked. Well, it worked for some of us. But the end of the semester, 70 percent of the class was gone, most having transferred over to advertising (I'm making no moral judgments here). I stayed. I took the second journalism course with him, and a history of journalism course, and two independent studies. After that first year, he was moved from teaching the introductory courses – the Journalism School grew alarmed at how many people were switching majors. But the quality of student journalism skyrocketed.

What I learned stuck. And a lot of it still sticks, 40 years later. I can often block out the entire world to get writing done.

And all because a teacher chose an unexpected way to help us learn. the Heath brothers, I think, would smile.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess has started a discussion on Made to Stick. You can find last week’s discussion on the concept of “simple” here. This weeks's discussion is on "unexpected," so take a look at Laura's post, "Unexpected Journey."


Laura said...

This is a remarkable story, Glynn! I'm left wondering if I would have been as brave as you...I fear I would have been one of the transfers.

Calisthenics? Really? He must have been crazy like a fox. Sounds like a great teacher.

Deidra said...

My father-in-law had a professor in med school who wrote his points on the board with his right hand while erasing them with his left. Of all the classes he ever took, my father-in-law always talked about this one. My father-in-law was an outstanding physician! When he died a few years ago, the line of grateful people whom he had delivered or treated seemed endless. There were so many wonderful stories of how he had impacted their lives for good.

I'm with Laura. I wonder if I would have transferred?

Anonymous said...

it takes a good lunatic to produce another. glad it stuck.

Bill (cycleguy) said...

Glynn: first time visiting your blog. I chuckled as I read about the unorthodox way you were taught but marveled at the way it (you) turned out. I don't know that I would have transferred out, especially to advertising, but I KNOW I would have had trouble with two or more things going on. I am not ADD or ADHD but I have trouble multi-tasking. I love music but if I am studying or writing I have to shut it down (unless it classical for background noise). I sing with the lyrics. I sing the words if it is instrumental and I am familiar with it. Hmmm wonder what the Heath brothers would say about that? Loved the story and end result.

L.L. Barkat said...

Too funny.

I recommend borrowing a toddler if you can't find a teacher who does calisthenics. :)

Monica Sharman said...

What a great idea! And the attrition rate---better fewer who are really serious about it, than many who aren't willing to do the hard work.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I never had a professor that gutsy, although I had a few I thought were crazy.

I'm glad you stuck with it, Glynn. We at HCB are the better for it! :)