“Journalism is not creative writing”

That’s what I told my students when one of them asked me about the difference between creative writing and journalism. “Journalism has rules, standards,” I said. “Not everyone can be a journalist, but anyone can write a story.”

What a challenge to be teaching journalism! I’ve only dreamed this day would come…

On the first day of class, I gave the eight students who showed up – the roster listed 10 names –  a run down of my background and experiences. “I work three jobs and I still don’t have health insurance,” I said and they laughed, “But I’m really happy to be here and I want this class to be fun for you.”  Then, they went around the room and introduced themselves; most said they did not know what or how to write and I nodded encouragingly; it was par for the course. Most of them talked about transfering into the journalism school at UCF or UF, and I discovered my real job would be preparing them to succeed.

I told them not to worry about raising their hand if they had a question because they needed to get into the habit of speaking up without anyone’s acknowledgement; I’ve covered plenty of press conferences where no one waits for permission. I said, “Just don’t interrupt me. Wait for the natural pause in the conversation and then just go for it.”

They hung onto my every word, wanting to know more about why I chose to be a journalist. “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” I quoted, revealing how I’ve lead a life of adventure and have always wanted to give back. I told them I hoped my stories and lessons would gain their respect, which would make my class worth attending.

I felt bad about not having a syllabus ready on the first day, since this was one of my pet peeves as a student myself, but I explained how I only had a few days to prepare at all, and instead, I offered them a chance to interview me, which, looking back, did not go as planned since they do not know how to interview, yet.

On Wednesday, only four students showed up on time to class, which started at 9:30 a.m. To be fair, it rained all morning and cars packed the parking lots to capacity. I figured one or two decided to drop the course but when one of the outspoken students from the first group did not show up, a pang of insecurities flooded my conscience: Would I be respected as a journalism professor? Was I good enough to teach? After about an hour, the outspoken one showed up, claiming he stayed up too late and overslept, and I felt a little better before telling the class, “You all should consider this class your job and, just like in the real world, you get to be late once.”

That’s one of the requirements for my class, apart from purchasing the AP Stylebook – AKA The Journalist’s “Bible”. “You have got to be on time,” I told the class. “When you’re late, you disrupt my class and that doesn’t make me happy.”

Hopefully, next week, I’ll still have some students. The only question is what and how to teach it?

“The fact is, I wasn’t born a journalist. It took me years to learn to write the kind of story my students need to be able do on their first day on the job. Just like it’s taking me time to learn how to teach the reporting skills I worked so hard to master. I hope I finally get it right before I run out of teeth.” Joe Coleman


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