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CASTL Project Summary - June 2002
The Components of and Philosophy Behind a Successful Journalism Learning Community
Esther Wojcicki
Palo Alto High School

What is it that enables the Palo Alto High School Journalism program to produce such exceptional results year after year? Is it the curriculum that is so exceptional? Is it the class structure? Is it the culture of the classroom? Is it the quality of the students? Or is it something that cannot be replicated, the teacher? These are the questions I have been the subject of my study for the past year. In coming up with the results of my study, I have used a variety of techniques: daily journaling, concurrent student journaling, student feedback forms on a monthly basis, class discussions, discussions with colleagues, discussions with the principal, feedback from parents, and feedback from students who graduated in the past ten years. In doing this research, I have documented that not only do students produce excellent work in this program, but that it transforms their lives. Many parents told me what an "enormous difference the program has made in the life of my child." Students who are presently in the program have confirmed this finding. It not only impacts their performance in the journalism class, it impacts their work in other classes and impacts how they feel about themselves.

I examined the curriculum of the beginning journalism program and the advanced journalism program and in doing so had the advantage of having another journalism teacher teaching the identical beginning journalism curriculum at the same time in the school. He was also teaching a similar advanced journalism program which published a magazine instead of a newspaper. The results surprised me: it was not the curriculum that was the key component. While the curriculum is important, just transporting the curriculum to another school will not result in excellent outcomes.

The second part of the program I examined was the class structure of beginning journalism as well as the structure of advanced journalism. In beginning journalism, I looked at how the assignments were formulated, how much time the students had to do the work, the pacing of assignments, the grading policies, and the role of the teacher. Was the beginning journalism class teacher-directed or student-directed or somewhat in-between? In beginning journalism, the class structure had an impact on the outcomes. Of particular importance was the way the program was set up, the grading policies, the option to revise repeatedly, and the role of the teacher. More detailed information can be found in the Carnegie website. But in advanced journalism the structure of the class takes on a much more important role. The structure of the program is one of the key components of success. Both the advanced journalism program in the newspaper and the magazine used similar learning community structures. In examining the structure, I looked at the following:

  • Systems and cycles of work
  • Job descriptions for editorial board and reporters
  • Role of the teacher

The last part of the program that I examined was the culture introduced first in beginning journalism and then carried out in advanced journalism. It was this part of the program coupled with the learning community structure of the program that turned out to be key components in producing excellent outcomes and transforming the lives of students. I used the following indicators to determine the culture of the program:

  • The quality of the student-teacher relationship
  • The way in which the teacher fades from teacher to adviser/coach
  • The degree of trust between students and teacher
  • What kinds of traditions had been established
  • The existence of unifying group activities: parties, dinners, t-shirts.
  • Connections to the school community, local community, national community
  • Teacher expectations for students
  • Student expectations for themselves

Finally, in conjunction with my project, I spent a considerable amount of time investigating research that I thought might lend credibility to what I have been doing in the classroom and help me better understand the theory behind my practice. I found that there was considerable support. These are some of the things I did: researched Project Based Learning (PBL), attended the conference Kids Who Know and Do; read the works of William Glasser, M.D. whose theories support what I have been doing in my learning community; and read Communities of Practice, Learning, Meaning and Identity by Etienne Wenger whose work also supports and helps me understand better the philosophy behind the learning community I have developed. I also discovered that Linda-Darling Hammond of Stanford's School of Education and the Annenberg Foundation have collaborated on a telecourse for educators illustrating the principles of Cognitive Apprenticeship which involves authentic performance tests, modeling, scaffolding and coaching, all of which are included in the Palo Alto High School journalism learning community.

People might say it is the quality of the students we are lucky to have at Palo Alto High School; others will say it is "you, the teacher," and teachers are individual. First, we are fortunate to have excellent students at Palo Alto High School, but that is not the primary reason for success. If it were, then other schools with similar student populations would be achieving the same results. They are not. We have only to look in neighboring communities and across town to see that is not the case. On the other hand, I can look across the Palo Alto High School campus to see another program run by another teacher who adopted this same culture and structure and who is now also getting excellent results. See the Verde Magazine on the website.

As for the reason that "it's you and your personality," referring to me as a teacher and referring to my personality as significant factors in the success of the program, there is some truth in that statement. But it is not only my personality. It is the culture that I have created which enables students to grow in ways that they cannot anywhere else in the high school program that makes the difference. The culture and the structure can be transported.

In summary, my research on my teaching has led me to conclude that the culture of the program and the structure of the program are far more important than the curriculum. Setting up a journalism learning community based on this philosophy can help transform the lives of students.

© 2002 - Esther Wojcicki - Email: thewoj@hotmail.com