All the News that’s Fit to Teach

Four teachers at Garfield Junior High School team up with the newspaper editor to develop an interdisciplinary unit with the newspaper as the basis of the curriculum. The teachers struggle to decide what "interdisciplinary" really means. They wonder if working together--long said to be a great idea--can be tougher than going it alone.

Steve Keegan talks with Brian Beecham.

I ran into Brian Beecham, editor of the local newspaper, in the men’s room of my favorite restaurant, two days after he had written a scathing piece on our school. The article was a rambling condemnation of public education, and our school just happened to be a handy target for his wrath.

“Oh, Mr. Keegan,” he said, seemingly embarrassed by the encounter. “I’ve been thinking it over, and I was wrong to be so harsh. I want to apologize, right here and now.”

“Okay, Mr. Beecham,” I said. “But next time I wish you would insult me in the men’s room and apologize in your newspaper.”

Pencil: Editor’s tool

Beecham never explained his change of heart, and I didn’t ask. I had no way of knowing, of course, but I couldn’t help believing that Beecham’s distress over the story had helped stimulate the newspaper’s partnership with our school system. Up until now, The Scottsville Herald had never done anything for the school system other than run the scores of the football and basketball games. About six months after my encounter with Beecham, however, The Herald published articles by our students in a special section for young people. They also sponsored a program to provide newspapers to local schools at reduced rates, and they started an internship program for the high school students. Still, what I really wanted was a way for Garfield Junior High to be more involved with The Herald.

Keegan talks with Pat Wilhelm about collaborating on a newspaper unit.

I had been teaching for three years in Scottsville, a city of 90,000 people, and each year I encouraged my eighth-grade history students to develop a routine of reading the newspaper. I believed they needed the awareness of being part of a bigger world that you can only get from reading the paper. I got that feeling for years by reading the national, state, and local news. I always finished with the international events, the editorial, and a couple of op-ed pieces. My students may not have grasped the true importance of all of this, but I was amazed at just how much they did learn to appreciate this window on the adult world.

“Hey Steve!” I heard Pat Wilhelm call from across the parking lot. “I talked to Harry last night, and he’s with us.”

Baseball box scores

Pat Wilhelm, the math teacher, grew up playing baseball, the only girl in Little League. She read the box scores religiously and spent inordinate amounts of time with newspapers and racing forms handicapping the horses. She also possessed a never-ending source of ideas for teaching “newspaper math”—calculating revenues from advertisements sold by the word, predicting numbers of likely subscribers based on past subscription records, and examining proportions of space devoted to news versus that given over to advertising.”Great!” I responded. Harry Shabanowitz, the science teacher, was just the kind of person we needed to make things happen. Along with the English teacher, Ruth Sorensen, we had a good team, I thought. “We’ll round up this band of frustrated journalists and start ourselves a newspaper.”

A team of teachers—Steve Keegan, Pat Wilhelm, Harry Shabanowitz, and Ruth Sorensen—begins the unit. Shabanowitz challenges a student’s story.

When we finally rolled back the accordion walls of our four classrooms in the west wing of Garfield Junior High that September, and assembled our 80 students, we were deep into production of the first issue of The Garfield Gazette. Harry served as managing editor.

Harry was about 50, although it was difficult to tell, because he had the energy of an 18-year-old. He seemed to read everything, but he never missed a stock market report or a horoscope. Addressing the students, he said, “Okay, I want all you science reporters to tell me the name of the person you interviewed, the topic of your story, and how many manuscript pages you have written.”

A student near the front, Judy, spoke up. “Dr. John Sanders—my grandfather. Podiatry. Ten pages.”

A few rows back, LeRoy stood up to address Mr. Shabanowitz. “Gretchen Vanderkellen. Astrology. Twelve pages.”

Harry peered over his glasses at the boy. “LeRoy, this is supposed to be the science section, not the comics. Are you trying to roll in a story on the occult?”


LeRoy seemed ready to plead his case. “You said we could identify a topic we were interested in! Astrologers predicted the future based on the mathematical positions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. They also kept track of their movement. Astrologers were practically worshipped by people. I think they were respected as much as our scientists are today. ”

Pulling a story outline out of his backpack to show Harry, LeRoy went on, “See, Mr. Keegan showed me how to take some things astrologers might say and to prove that their ideas are not that different from other people’s ideas today.”

See the story outline below:

Harry sighed, “Look, that’s all very interesting. I think I understand where you want to go with this piece, but it does not belong in the science section.”

Teachers discuss interdisciplinary issues over pizza.

Teachers discuss issues

Harry, Pat, Ruth Sorensen and I met one night in early October for pizza and beer. We had been passing each other in the halls for weeks saying we had to get together and work out a few things, but we never seemed to have time to do so. No question about it, we were making things up as we went.

See the Audio transcript below:

Supposedly our common task was to build an interdisciplinary unit using the newspaper as the basis for our curriculum. I was to be responsible for the history component of the project—overseeing hard news, the editorial page, book reviews, and the entertainment section. Harry would be our science person and double as managing editor—making sure everything got done on time, fit together, and got printed and distributed. Pat would handle the math, running the business side of The Gazette, and she would oversee the sports desk. As the English teacher, Ruth would direct the copyeditors and develop the features. We vowed to review assignments at a later date, but hadn’t even had time to think about them since we started.

When we had agreed to work together last spring at the urging of our principal Mr. Lelich, our spirits were high. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we thought we could handle just about anything a bunch of eighth graders could throw at us. But now, we seemed to be barking at each other more than adults should.


Steve Keegan

I was convinced that this was the most important teaching endeavor of my professional life, but I worried that the others didn’t see the project in quite the same way. “Our task is more than teaching our subject matter in interrelated ways. The kids come in here not knowing what they are going to do with their lives. They are too young really to know. But some are already failing, goofing up their chances for any kind of success. Others are college bound. They just assume they’ll succeed. I think interdisciplinary studies can help students connect with each other and link school work to real life. Some kids, like Leon Johnson, for example, are smart as hell but poor. This is the best chance he’s going to get to make something of himself.”

“Leon?” Pat said. “That kid has such a chip on his shoulder. I don’t know what his problem is. But I’m not going to let him spoil things for the rest of the students.”


Harry Shabanowitz

Harry seized on that thought. “I think the most important connections we need to help students make are in their own minds,” he said. “I have watched them go through general science and biology without understanding why they are here. They can’t explain how an experiment relates to a concept in the text, or how a scientific concept in the text relates to a practical example of the concept in our lives. They just go through the motions—even the bright students. They just have no self-discipline.”


Ruth Sorenson

Ruth nodded in agreement. “I know what you mean Harry,” she said, but I think about all those raging hormones, and I can’t help but believe that the time will come when they will settle down and get to work. They’re only eighth graders. What we need is to give students some sense of ownership, so they’ll take responsibility for keeping the publication going. We can’t do everything for them.”


Pat Wilhelm

Pat waited a moment and then said, “The other night when I was telling my mother about our work together, I was sort of stumped for an answer when she asked me what I meant by ‘interdisciplinary studies.’ I sure don’t want to be stumbling around in front of parents or the school board trying to explain what we mean by ‘interdisciplinary studies.’ I would like to be able to tell people how our work is different from what we used to do.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, “I have the feeling we are running around with all these different ideas about how our areas fit together.”

Harry thought for a moment. “I think we need to explain what we mean by ‘interdisciplinary.’ Define it. Even draw a picture of what we envision as an ‘interdisciplinary newspaper unit,’ maybe something like this concept map.

See the concept map below:

A team of students experiences conflict.


Broken Pencils

Just as I was about to head down the hall to a meeting of the history club, I heard angry voices coming from Pat’s room. I stuck my head in to see what was going on.

A team of two reporters, a photographer, and an editor were arguing over their assignments and their responsibilities. When we’d reviewed student records to make team assignments, we tried to make the groups heterogeneous. This particular team had one outstanding student, Leon, and three average-to-weak students—Peggy, William, and Kenny. The team was supposed to cover the Bulldogs’ football game. Everybody had an assignment, but from the sound of the argument, only Leon had completed his work

Pat might have been right about Leon being hard to deal with, but I had to hand it to him. He was


an exceptionally bright kid. He had incredible natural ability, and he worked hard to complete all his assignments, even doing extra work on many occasions. But it seemed like he was caught in a downward spiral. He worked to compensate for what he didn’t have—money, status, friends—but the more he did, the less the other kids liked him. He wanted so badly to be accepted, but they didn’t give him the time of day. I wondered how I would have reacted in his situation.

See the audio transcript below:

As I moved inside the room, I sensed it was time for someone to intervene, and I didn’t see Pat. “Lighten up you guys! This is supposed to be fun—you sound like a bunch of teachers trying to figure out whose turn it is to take lunch duty.”

Peggy seemed relieved to see a teacher. “Mr. Keegan, will you help us? Kenny and Leon are being a pain.”

No sooner were the words out of Peggy’s mouth than Kenny leaped out of his chair and grabbed Leon around the neck. The room erupted in cursing, spitting, and screaming as they wrestled one another to the floor. Peggy looked terrified, but some of the other kids in the room were cheering them on.

I managed to grab Leon just as he was about to punch Kenny for a second time. Leon was only 13, but he seemed nearly as strong as I was. Kenny was so angry that he was crying. I don’t think Leon hurt him, but Kenny just lost control.

Then Peggy jumped right in front of Kenny and screamed at the top of her lungs, “Stop it!” Her voice was so loud, even above the din of the two warriors, that she scared me, too.

“Hey you guys! What’s going on here?” shouted Pat Wilhelm as she entered the room. “I want you two out of here NOW! Head straight for the principal’s office. I’ll be right behind you.”

Pat whirled toward me. “This is the third time this month I’ve had to deal with Leon. He runs his mouth all the time. I just don’t think he is the kind of kid who can deal with this learning situation. He needs more structure. ”

I could see Pat was upset, and this was not the right time to talk. I’d talk with her later when everybody had cooled down.

Teachers and principal meet with Brian Beecham to discuss a grant proposal.

I had spent the last six weeks perplexed about The Gazette, but I had also witnessed some incredibly inspired teaching. Harry could be maddeningly linear, yet he taught with real fire in his belly. Ruth’s passion for language was obvious, but her spirited harangues on word usage came more often and with greater intensity. Despite the fact that Pat and I seemed to talk past each other at least as often as we communicated, she was really fun to work with. There was no denying that we had inspired the kids to care about the fortunes of The Gazette.

As I walked down the hall on my way to the principal’s office, I couldn’t help but wonder why Mr. Lelich had called this meeting. Pat and Ruth were standing just outside Lelich’s door when I got there. Harry came puffing up behind me. “Steve! What the hell is going on?”

“Beats me, Harry,” I whispered, as we all moved into the inner sanctum.

As we entered, I saw Brian Beecham from The Herald standing on the other side of the coffee table—looking wealthy. I thought of Hemingway’s comment: “The rich are very different from the rest of us. They have more money.” Beecham stood as testament to the fact. Without those expensive clothes, he would have been one mighty average-looking guy.

“Ms. Sorensen, Ms. Wilhelm, Mr. Keegan, Mr. Shabanowitz,” Beecham extended his hand to each of us as we entered. “Pleasure to see you again, Keegan.”

“Thanks, Mr. Beecham. Good to see you too,” I said, with only minor reservations.

Lelich began to explain why he had called us in. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I know some of you have to get ready for parent conferences tonight, so I will get right to the point.”

“As you know, Mr. Beecham has taken a keen interest in our school system. Our partnership with The Herald is unique, and we have already begun to see some real payoff for students. As of last Friday, 22 students from the high school have done internships at the paper. Another 10 will start next week. Garfield students are getting The Herald free of charge, and I know you four have been using it to help guide your work with our own newspaper,” Lelich droned on, I thought, without getting to the point. “But I didn’t invite you here to discuss the past. I want you to hear what Mr. Beecham has to say about the future.

“I appreciate your willingness to hear me out,” Beecham said, looking at all of us. “I have been following your efforts with The Garfield Gazette, and I am quite impressed. In fact, I’m so impressed, I have come to make you a proposal.”

The Gazette

Beecham leaned forward in his chair. “I am prepared to offer Garfield Junior High School $80,000 over the next two years to strengthen and extend the work of your newspaper.”

Lelich was absolutely beaming.

“That’s fantastic!” I said, silently chastising myself for ever doubting the sincerity and ruddy good looks of this benevolent capitalist. “You said a ‘proposal,’ Mr. Beecham. What do we have to do to get the money?”

“I’m a businessman,” Mr. Keegan said. “But my wife used to be a teacher. My mother, too. I have known for a long time that you have to catch kids when they are young to maximize your influence on them. But I gradually forgot how important education can be. I lost my bearings for a while. But when we ran that negative story about public education —you remember the one, Steve—I was embarrassed to realize how crotchety I had become. Keegan, here, made me wonder if I had been hanging around with too many old rich guys—the ones who have a jaundiced view of today’s generation. Since then, I have watched the high school interns work with us downtown, and I like what I see. But I am also convinced that if we worked with young people sooner, say in junior high or maybe even elementary school, we could do a lot more for them.”

“Are you suggesting we start an internship at The Herald for our students?” I asked.

“No, I’m not sure what we would do with them down there. You are the teachers. You have the expertise. Show me how you can collaborate to help your junior high students perform in ways that will make them successful adults.”

Beecham went on, “I’m sick of all the hype about test scores. I’ve hired and fired lots of people who probably had great test scores and high grades, but who couldn’t survive in my world. They had to work with all kinds of people and perform all kinds of tasks, and they just couldn’t cut it.”

“Now this is a challenge,” I thought to myself. We needed to figure out how to show Beecham and others that we were succeeding. More important, we had to demonstrate that students were getting as much or more out of their work with The Gazette than they would from traditional classes. Maybe we had not truly faced the tough issues as a team about our conceptions of the newspaper unit.