Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Transitioning from blogs to?

After using blogs with my classes for almost four years now, it is a little disturbing to think that soon the format I use will be gone. My school has made it clear that they are not committed to maintaining the Manila system we use, but has also reassured me that they won't leave teachers in the lurch even though they have had some security issues recently.

So after coming to this realization, I spent part of an in-service day learning about Moodle. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to the hopes I had for it, but it did get me thinking about what I would want in an ideal online class site.
Here's the list I came up with:
The ease of use, and hyperlinking capabilities of a blog.
Testing, polling and quiz applications.
Chat room capability.
Discussion capability like a blog that can be open to the public.
The flexibility to determine what is public.
Social networking for teachers like Facebook (with groups that bring together content areas).
The ability to turn on focused social networking for students.
Ability to upload content (including video) for both students and teachers.
The capability for a group to create a document and track changes like a Wiki.
Ability to import quizzes from textbook companies.

A system like this would empower both teachers and students to interact and share their knowledge far beyond the classroom walls in a much more effective way. Is any of this currently out there?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Citizen Journalism - Massaro Update

I must admit that spending two days in Bloomsbury talking to residents and writing about Monica Massaro's murder made me obsessed with this unsolved murder. I spent a lot of time searching the Internet and even set up Google Alerts on the topic.
And although there has yet to be anything released officially from the State Police, it looks like they have a suspect - a truck driver from North Carolina who was caught during a home invasion in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

The mayor of Bloomsbury is announcing it on the town's website (although some of the details originally posted have been removed), and it has been reported in the news in both The Chelmsford Independent. and in the Star Ledger. The Democrat is planning a major update this week as well. I've passed along some of the information I received through this blog from an anonymous commenter. He or she was obsessed with the case as well and found an amazing amount of information through the Internet and a friend who lives in the town.
So I guess in a sense we are both citizen journalists. We are interested and informed about a specific topic, and through posting on this blog and e-mailing the paper, we are adding to the articles (and type of articles) that will appear in the paper. Of course, I could take this a step further and go to Bloomsbury, talk to people and post an original article here or on another online space, this would be closer to what generally considered citizen (or grassroots) journalism, but I've begun my transition to the classroom, so I'll let the professionals handle this.
I do think this situation illustrates the variety of roles citizens can play in the gathering of news, and it will be another lesson from my internship that I will bring to my students.
Apparently the lessons just keep on coming!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Internship - Last: My Reflection Column

This summer I’ve had the opportunity to practice what I teach.
During my four week internship, I traded in my identity as Mr. McHale, English teacher and newspaper adviser at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, for Tom McHale, reporter at the Hunterdon County Democrat. I was able to make this transformation through the New Jersey Press Foundation’s Teachers at Newspapers Program.
As a reporter, I’ve written news and feature stories, worked on obituaries and re-written press releases. I’ve also had the opportunity to cover a land use meeting, interview interesting people, and even cover a murder. In addition to all of this, I’ve worked with Shirley Sasor to try and develop a stronger connection between the county’s five high schools and the newspaper.
My work with Newspapers in Education and the development of a teen section for the Democrat is something I hope to continue into the future.
After all that, what can I take back to my students and newspaper staff?
A new appreciation for the role of the news media in society. In covering the murder of Monica Massaro in Bloomsbury, I got the chance to see a close-knit small town yearning for information. The day after her body was discovered, officials wouldn’t confirm her name, address, or even how she was killed. We worked hard to publish what we could find out through a variety of sources and illustrate how residents were reacting to the lack of information. I participated in discussions with editors on what we could say and what we should or shouldn’t say. Contrary to prevalent public perception, I have been part of a newsroom that cares deeply about the accuracy and ethics of what they print. I’ve even witnessed heated discussions over the choice of a single word.
The importance of knowing and serving your readers. As I’ve worked with editors, I’ve learned the importance of not just telling a good, concise story, but also making the local connection. I’ve come to understand that the Democrat is in the business of telling the story of Hunterdon. In that context all of the decisions that are made make sense: From the collection of stories that make it on the front page, to the printing of almost every letter to the editor, to the history photos and columns, to the use of Mr. and Mrs. in front of names. All of it revolves around a projection of Hunterdon county's identity and a respect for the reader. The Democrat takes its role as a community newspaper into account with every decision it makes. I hope the staff of The Lamp works to serve the Hunterdon Central community in the same way.
A new knowledge of the community in which I teach. For nine years I’ve known little about Hunterdon county beyond the highways I travel to commute from my home in Pa. Yes, as one of the editors likes to tell me, I’m a carpetbagger who lines my pockets with local tax revenues. In reporting on local meetings, attending the Farmers and Businessmen's Picnic, talking to local officials and citizens alike, and just being a part of the gathering of news, I’ve come to know the county’s people and places much better.
Everybody has a story to tell. In my few weeks here I’ve had the opportunity to learn the stories of a variety of current and former Hunterdon residents. I’ve talked to the Red Cross National Volunteer of the Year, a former resident who is certified to fly the world’s largest passenger aircraft, a world-class master rower, a former resident who is an online business whiz kid, and a master auto technician who will compete for a world championship. I’ve come to discover that in telling their stories, I’m telling the story of this community. And that being a good reporter involves being curious and taking a general interest in those around you. My students would do well to reach out to some of the more than 3,000 people who walk through the doors of Central each day.
So as I begin the transition back to “Mr. McHale,” I’d like to thank everyone in the Democrat’s newsroom for sharing their knowledge, craft, and friendship; all the people who shared their thoughts and stories; Tom Engleman and the NJPF which provided this opportunity; and all those who read my stories as well.
I return to Central a better writer, teacher, and adviser.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Internship Pt. 4: More Murder Story

Once the article appeared on Thursday (August 9), we began to receive feedback. Letters to the editor complained that Monica was much more than the "rocker chick" she was described as in the press. This was certainly true, but as we were putting the story together for deadline, all we (and other papers) had to go on was her myspace page.
The letters to the editor provided a glimpse into another side of her and also gave me sources to call for additional information. I felt that we needed to do more, even though a week after the murder, no new information had been released. I was glad that the editors decided to send me back to Bloomsbury.
My return was exactly one week after my first visit and much had changed. The street was no longer blockaded and there was no visible police presence. Some potted plants were left on Monica's front porch, but other than yellow crime scene tape across a side door, there was no sign a murder had occurred. Children laughed and yelled across the street from the scene at a church's vacation bible school. I wanted to try and find out more information and depict how the town was reacting to the unsolved crime. I talked to the director of the bible school and the pastor of the church. I went to borough hall, but unfortunately it was closed for the week. I talked to a few people on the street and went to the general store again for lunch. I didn't come away with any new information, but I did find that although daily activities were returning to normal, people were scared and frustrated. And that became the story.
When I returned to the newsroom, I called members of the town's Celebration Committee who had sent in a letter to the editor that we were running. This led to a long conversation that really gave readers a new view into who Monica was and how this small town was reacting to her death.
I was proud that we were able to bring attention to this woman and this small town that had been affected by this tragedy. My story ran along with an editorial that criticized the lack of information from public officials. This angered the state police, but really illustrates the role of the press in society. Public officials have a duty to provide citizens with the information they need to live their lives. I know this is an ongoing investigation and the police's first responsibility is to solve the murder and ensure the safety of everyone, but by not telling anyone anything other than "they do not believe anyone in Bloomsbury is in any immediate danger," leads to rumor, fear, and frustration.
It was this environment that I tried to describe in my story. The police weren't happy about it, but I hope the residents of Bloomsbury felt it accurately portrayed what they are going through.
It's now over four weeks since Monica Massaro's body was found. No one has been arrested, and no new information has been released.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Internship Pt. 3: Reporting on a Murder

On Tuesday, July 29, our assignment editor came in with a tip that there was a murder in the small town of Bloomsbury in the northwest corner of the county. In Hunterdon County this is big news. The last murder was two years ago, and Bloomsbury is a small borough of less than 900 people – that was characterized by one reporter as Mayberry RFD.
A buzz of excitement went through the room as reporters tried to get information about it. State police confirmed the crime, but wouldn’t say anything else. The reporter that usually covers this town was on vacation, and most everyone else was working on stories for deadline. The Democrat is a weekly paper which is printed off site on Wednesday, so Tuesdays are very busy.
It was decided that I should take a camera, drive to Bloomsbury and see what I could dig up. I have to admit, I was really excited. This was big news for the paper, and I really wanted to come back with something we could write a story about.
When I got there, state police had barricades set up at each end of the block. With the murder scene in the middle of the block, I knew I wasn’t going to get a usable picture or even be able to see the address. So I parked my car, and walked around the block to see what I could find.
The first person I talked to was getting out of his car after a trip to the store. His house was directly across from the barricade and he didn’t even know what had happened. I had more luck as I walked up to the street behind the murder victim’s house. A woman was going up the steps into a local business. I asked if she would talk to me and she reluctantly agreed telling me that she was the one who called the police. Apparently, guys who worked in the shop found identification material and makeup from the victim behind their building which borders on a NJ Transit high-speed rail line. They turned in the materials to this woman who called the house several times and then knocked on the door before going home for the day. She called police when no one answered.
The next person I talked to was a former state trooper who surprisingly had no misgivings about talking to me. He lives very close to the victim and gave me some great quotes and some information that the state police told him. I was on a roll and spent the next couple of hours knocking on doors, observing police behavior (a helicopter buzzed the neighborhood) and visiting borough hall and the general store where many locals come for lunch.
In the end, I had details that no one else was able to get. Another reporter, Curtis Leeds, worked his contacts with the state police and prosecutor’s office to complete the story. Of course, the officials were giving out very little information and weren’t happy with the information that we printed.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Internship Pt. 2

A good deal of my internship has been spent living the life of a new reporter. This meant writing obituaries and press releases. These could grow tiresome, but it also gave me a glimpse of one of the Democrat’s strengths – the awareness the editors have of their reader’s needs.
In obituaries this means always putting the local connection up front - whether it be family that lives in the area, a local business they owned, former resident, etc. For press releases it means appealing to the interests of readers in the most concise way possible.
After I got my feet wet covering meetings and writing releases and obits, I moved on to a variety of feature stories which were mostly profiles. My stories ranged from the Red Cross Volunteer of the Year, to a world class female rower in the 50-55 age grouping, to a young online millionaire, to a former Hunterdon resident who is certified to fly the world’s largest passenger plane. The last one even got on the front page!
Writing these profiles was something I really enjoyed. I tell my students that everyone has a story and I’d love to see more profiles in the school newspaper. The profiles that I was assigned came from a number of sources – public relations e-mails, other articles, and even other readers.
Of course, even in these stories the local angle is paramount. If they no longer live in the area, the connection needs to be made upfront. And even if they do live in the county, adding other residents that are relevant to the story offers “circles of connectivity,” as one editor put it.
The way front page stories are chosen also gave me a glimpse into the way the newspaper serves their readers. They try to constantly focus what is of interest to their readers and give them something other papers can’t – a local angle that is informative, entertaining, and even quant. They represent Hunterdon’s rural, small town, nature in the corner of the most populated state in the country.

This awareness and dedication to readers is something that I’d like to encourage the school newspaper’s staff to focus on as well: What is the student body interested in? What do they need to know? How can you represent the identity of the school to readers?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Internship Halftime

I’ve now completed two weeks of my internship made possible through the New Jersey Press Foundation and taking place at the Hunterdon County Democrat. In this time I’ve learned what it’s like to be a new reporter at a community newspaper, and have developed a much more thorough understanding of the history and culture of the community I teach in.
I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and for the last nine years have crossed the river to neighboring Hunterdon County in my commute to my job teaching at Hunterdon Central Regional High School. I travel almost the entire way on interstates, and other than field trips and a few homeschooling assignments, I really don’t know my way around the district no less the entire county. This internship helped change that a bit.
In covering the Franklin Township Land Use Planning Board, I got to experience the northern end of the county. One that is very rural (outside of Clinton) and determined to keep it that way. Just the experience of trying to cover a meeting where it was difficult to hear and contained language that I sometimes barely understood was an experience. It took effort to follow all that was going on during the five hour meeting. Still I was able to get the hang of it and I found it interesting how the board attorney basically ran the show as he had the expertise to understand what was going on, interpret it for the board members, and then offer them options based on the law. Sometimes the smallest details could sidetrack the panel, but it is at these meetings that a lot of what affects people in their daily lives happen. So I voraciously took notes.
What was most interesting was the people who come out for these meetings. Almost everyone in attendance is there to present their case, but there are a few exceptions. One person that caught my eye looked like he had just emerged from the woods. He sported a long, scraggly red beard streaked with gray. His long hair was pulled back in a pony tail. He wore a beat up blue cotton button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up and filthy cut off jeans. But the most striking piece of apparel was the black rubber boots that came up to just below his knees. Peeking out of the top of the boots were what looked like woolen hunting socks. This character walked up to the board table after the paper work was distributed by the clerk, put on a pair of gold rim glasses, and skimmed the contents before taking a seat on the floor. This didn’t seem to disturb the board members as they filed in.
The rest of the meeting itself went fairly smoothly until the last presentation of the night which I had little interest in. It seemed like a simple land division case that would be quickly resolved, but apparently it touched off an old feud involving a former law suit, a former mayor, and divisions within a family. At the end of the evening I was wondering whether some of the participants were going to come to blows.
As I stumbled out of the meeting at 12:30 a.m. I watched in my rear view mirror as angry residents stood in the dark discussing the case which the board decided to postponed for two months. And boy was it dark! I guess Franklin Township doesn’t believe in lighting the parking lot of their offices because I couldn’t even find my car at first. I went up to the wrong vehicle and then had to feel for the dents a suicidal deer made to positively identify my van before inserting the key in the door.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Summer Vacation

I’m beginning the second week of an intensive journalistic experience. I am completing a four week + internship with the Hunterdon County Democrat provided through the New Jersey Press Foundation, and I am enrolled in an online course entitled Boot Camp for Scholastic Journalism Advisers offered through NewsU which is a project of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Week one was a lot of work, but I am learning a lot, and most exciting of all, I am gathering material and sources that I can bring to my journalism students and newspaper staff. I hope to use this blog as a document of my experiences and as a place to reflect on what I have learned. Look for regular posting for the next few weeks as I attempt to grow as a reporter, writer, and teacher. Please feel free to add your comments and experiences to the mix.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dealing with the Distraction Factor

One of the things I struggle with, in classes taught in computer labs, is the distraction factor. My Journalism 2 course is structured so that students work independently and function for much of the course as freelance writers. Now I know in the real world, freelance writers work from home much of the time. They might multitask among any number of activities including reporting, writing, reading, checking e-mail, eating, and talking on their cell phones. Unfortunately, in a classroom setting that is governed by school rules much of this is impossible. In addition, watching students get done “just what they need to do” for the day to spend much of the 82 minute block playing games, commenting on Facebook, or playing videos on YouTube drives me crazy.
So the question I’d like to pose is how do you set up an environment that functions as a writers' workshop where students are productive without being distracting or breaking school rules?