My classes have been assigned a feature story. More specifically, a personality profile on someone in the community whom they think is newsworthy. Each student is to interview his or her subject and two others. Each student is to find the "unique whatness" of his or her subject--what makes the subject interesting. Each student is to figure out a theme, or common thread that will weave his or her story together. Students struggle with this concept of theme.
A theme can't be cliche, or shouldn't be. But you can't just write the subject's history or resume. It can't be a chronological story (well, most often it can't). So, for example, one of my students is writing a personality profile on the woman who runs(?) the Big Brothers Big Sisters program here in Norman. My student wants to write a lot about this woman's job, but she can't just report on BBBS. This is a human interest story. So she thought about it and came up with the idea of a matchmaker, except this woman isn't a matchmaker in the sense we first think of (Fiddler on the Roof). She is a different sort of matchmaker. I liked it. I thought it was a good theme for a student writing her first feature story/personality profile.
So today was the first day back for my students after spring break '07. (Spring Break, baby, yeah!) I knew they wouldn't be prepared, wouldn't have completed their interviews, wouldn't really be ready to start thinking about theme and their story leads and nut graphs or to start outlining their stories. So, I tried something new.
I didn't want to just talk at them about how a feature story differs from a basic news story. I've done that before. They don't listen. They needed something more tangible to work with. I went out on a limb and let them interview me. They walked into class. I asked them, "With a show of hands, how many of you have honestly started interviewing for this assignment?" (for which the complete rough draft is due in two days). A few raised their hands. OK. Then, "Take out a sheet of paper. Imagine you're interviewing me for this assignment. You're writing a personality profile on me. You have to find out my 'unique whatness.' Take a few minutes and write down some questions you'd like to ask me."
Now, I talked about this with my husband last night. My students don't need to know me on a deeply personal level. Honestly, I don't really know why. I mean, does their knowing me a little bit personally keep me from teaching them? I don't think so. I also don't think it would keep them from taking me seriously. I can still grade someone unbiasedly if they know me a little bit. I can still help him or her become a better writer (I hope). It's when teachers start getting to know their students and hanging out with them outside of class that is crossing the line, right? I don't do that. But still ... I told my students I reserved the right to make some of the answers up. I couldn't do it. They asked me quetsions that I couldn't make up answers to. So I answered them. But it was a short interview. (And it was interesting how one class pursued a much more personal line of questioning than the other. And the class that didn't--that basically just asked me about work and my caffeine addiction--came up with the better themes.)
This was my goal: students need to realize they can't go out and do a bunch of interviews for a feature story and write/complete the story that night, because what will happen is, they think they've got what they need; they sit down to write; maybe they even have a theme picked out; but then they realize there are HOLES. There is information they need to go back and find out more about. This is true almost every time.
So I asked, "From the information you just extracted, what kind of themes pop out at you." The class then brainstormed. We talked about holes and going back for more, about timing, about a lot of things. I asked them how they might lead into the story. Leads are so very important. I asked them what kind of stories or ideas would they want to develop in the body of the story that back up the theme they'd like to go with. It was good. This made a good transition into talking about the stories they're actually working on.
So, we talked about their stories. About possible themes. We brainstormed. Then the class worked on their stories. I gave them questions to respond to; they started outlining or drafting. I don't care whether a person thinks it's wrong to let her students interview her; I think the class went swimmingly. Goals were met.
Now we'll just have to see how those drafts turn out Thursday.