Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Clark-chime tower

The Clark College campus in Vancouver, Washington, features a chime tower — its bells hidden within an imposing red-brick fountain pen with a silver tip.

By Gosia Wozniacka

At the start of my Journalism 101 class, a student’s mother committed suicide. The news arrived via two brief emails — one from a counselor at the college where I was teaching, another from the student.

I was stunned, devastated, unsure how to respond. The act of self-destruction, a chasm, jettisoned into my novice classroom. How would this student get over losing a mother and study simultaneously? How should I help? Was I equipped to do this?

A greenhorn teacher, I had just three months of adjunct teaching experience under my belt. I had spent the past 15 years working as a full-time journalist, a staff reporter for The Oregonian and then The Associated Press. I had in the past taught high school students in classrooms and workshops, but teaching college called for a different level of expertise. I had wanted to try it for a long time, and when a part-time position opened up at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, I took it on.

Teaching college journalism, I thought, would consist of transmitting to students my real-life experience of a working journalist. I would inculcate in them the essentials of being a good listener and observer, asking open-ended questions, being skeptical, fact-checking and writing succinctly and with grace.

Yet I did not consider that these lessons would be just a scaffolding on which to thread a different kind of instruction; that the students would make me confront the tender flesh of being human and steer me to use my skills in ways I had not intended; that — though perhaps this is a truism, it’s one worth repeating — I would learn as much from them as they from me.

I liked to walk the college’s manicured, bird-filled campus. The cherry trees bloomed, weaving a carpet of pink under feet, and the chime tower — its bells hidden within an imposing red-brick fountain pen with a silver tip — punctuated the day.

I hurried with stacks of photocopies — “the art of interviewing”, “how to spot fake news”, etc. — to the basement classroom where I taught. As an adjunct, I didn’t have an office. I was paid only for the instructional hours, meaning that everything else I did was basically volunteering. And yet some of that unpaid time became most meaningful to me.

Clark-cherry blossoms

A familiar and favorite sight: blooming cherry trees on the Clark College campus.

After missing a single class for his mom’s funeral, my student returned. He was visibly distraught but determined to continue. We stayed after class and talked in the hallway. He didn’t look at my face but told me details about his mother’s death. I listened. I encouraged him, as I did in a previous email, to attend counseling, to seek out friends and family, to talk to me whenever he wanted.

We would work out a schedule for his late work. He could take time off as needed. I stumbled, wondering if I was saying the right things. I admired his tenacity, his desire —  bordering on desperation — to learn despite the circumstances. In the following weeks, he would sometimes stay after class and speak with me. At other times, he’d signal with his eyes, whisper an update (or not) and run for the door.

He wasn’t the only one who needed sympathetic ears. Several other students dealt with debilitating depression and other forms of mental illness.

One confessed he had recently changed medications and was struggling in his courses. He was easily distracted, he said, and his family life was in chaos — just like his writing, full of syntax and spelling errors. I often stayed after class to talk with him in the hallway. I shared contact information for the writing lab and the counseling center, and the link to a free online grammar spellchecker. I agreed to be his job reference. Though the news stories he wrote were tortuous to edit, he made a real effort and I appreciated it.

Another student had dropped out of high school and struggled with addiction, only to come back to college when he became a father. He said he had bigger dreams for his two-year-old daughter, whom he brought to class on several occasions when the babysitter fell through. She drew quietly while we discussed how to write a lead or structure a story. Her father, the student, asked a lot of questions. He planned to become a lawyer, and his work ethic, professional demeanor, and honesty were astounding.

I realized my students’ effort to connect, to show vulnerability, was the most important lesson I could learn and teach. Unscripted, raw conversations — moments no one paid me for, no one required of me, that had, on the surface, nothing to do with journalism – made this job relevant.

When a student confessed she had secured an important interview but was terrified to go through with it, we practiced. She was shy, a little socially awkward, she admitted, but I knew she had done impeccable research on her news story when she timidly slipped a list of detailed questions over my desk. Later, she told me she had nailed the interview.

On other days, daily life brought out the emotions. Another student who was a great writer once approached me before class. When I saw her ashen face, I led her into the hallway, where she immediately burst into tears. She explained her dog had just died and she needed to go home, but didn’t want to miss class. I gave her a hug, fetched her backpack, and told her that her absence would be excused.

I often shared with students something personal about myself: that despite being a successful reporter, I, too, was a rather shy and calm person. But this shyness didn’t prevent me from doing my work. It was, in fact, a weapon, a negative-turned-asset that helped with my reporting and writing.

I remembered what one student had written in her self-reflection, the first class assignment: “I am taking this journalism class to help me with my communication skills and social anxiety. I came from a poor home and neither of my parents went to college. I came to Clark to prove my worth and make a difference in my family…”

Only a handful of my students had said they wanted to become reporters — they aspired to be pilots, musicians, fiction writers, librarians, nurses, lawyers, business owners and teachers — but they all saw a benefit in learning about journalism. Some struggled financially, working full time to pay for college tuition and missing out on a social life.

Some were high school students — Clark College has a special program for those who want to get an early start on post-secondary education. Others hailed from very small towns — Vancouver, Washington represented a big city move for them. They were the first in their family to attend college, or one of ten or seven siblings. A few came to the U.S. from another country or had immigrant parents.

Though both of my parents were well educated (they were the first generation to attend college in their families), we were immigrants to this country. I had learned English as a teenager and knew about not fitting in. So while I felt happy when my outspoken students engaged in smart rhetoric, it was a million bucks day when a more reserved student volunteered an answer or when a working student or student with significant life problems continued showing up.

I asked them — no matter their challenges — to go a little beyond their comfort zones. But also to use their own personalities, interests and even challenges in the act of journalism.

I tried to treat them as reporters capable of doing real, impactful work. And though giving them feedback on multiple story drafts was extremely time-consuming, as was the copy editing, seeing their stories edited and published was rewarding.

Except sometimes it wasn’t.

When I failed my first student, I wrote him an email, profusely apologizing and explaining I was left with no other choice. He was one of my best writers but did not turn in the final project, a feature story.

To my dismay, there would be others. Some stopped showing up mid-way through the term. Others never finished reporting or writing their news stories. A few attended every single class but didn’t do any work. They didn’t respond to emails. I spent days wondering why they didn’t show up or submit an assignment — or why they had shown up but submitted nothing. Those whom I failed didn’t lack talent — they just stopped communicating about whatever it was that stopped them from completing their class work.

These disappearing acts were hard to accept. But a former professor and journalist helped me see them differently. It’s OK to fail, he told me; we all must learn how to do it. Sometimes, he explained, students needed to screw up. They needed to just sit through the class, even if they didn’t pass it. Some would take the class again and do well, others wouldn’t. Or they’d realize they needed extra help or a different approach to college.

Gosia Wozniacka

Gosia Wozniacka

Teaching, then, wasn’t so much about transferring knowledge as about helping students see their own selves and figure out how they functioned. It was about nudging them to become comfortable in a complicated world, even if that world wouldn’t include journalism.

On my last day of classes, I meandered into the campus green. Groups of students milled around the red-brick chime tower — I now knew some of them. I felt a sadness about the finish line, despite being utterly exhausted. As a part-time adjunct professor with two classes to teach, I had worked longer hours than I had for most of my journalism career.

I often stayed up past midnight preparing lesson plans and grading student stories. Yet, despite the negligible pay, the lack of health insurance and unemployment benefits, the experience was worth it. I’m thankful to my students for being open with me and for sharing their vulnerabilities. It was the most important lesson they could teach me about being a teacher.

Photographs: Gosia Wozniacka

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Gosia Wozniacka is a freelance journalist and photographer. She was previously a staff reporter for The Associated Press and The Oregonian. Gosia was born in Poland and often travels to her native country. She taught journalism and digital reporting at Clark College from January to June 2017.

Email: wozniacka@gmail.com

Twitter: @GosiaWozniacka

Editor’s note: I’ve known Gosia for about 10 years, dating back to when she was a student at UC Berkeley’s graduate journalism school. This piece tells you all you need to know about the personal qualities and reporting and writing skills that prompted me to recruit Gosia to The Oregonian. In the past year, we’ve met from time to time to share our teaching experiences and strategies. Who would have guessed we’d wind up teaching a few miles apart in the same city? She at Clark College and me at WSU Vancouver.

Tomorrow: Mary Pimentel, Monster

From the newsroom to the classroom

 

wsu-classroom

The classroom where I teach two courses at Washington State University Vancouver.

I’m five weeks deep into the 2017 winter quarter at Portland State University, already halfway done with the 10-week term. Across the river, five weeks in means I’m a third of the way though the 16-week spring semester at Washington State University Vancouver.

I’m teaching one course at PSU on Monday-Wednesday and two at WSUV on Tuesday-Thursday and, yes, that’s keeping me plenty busy. (I also work four afternoons a week at a local nonprofit, but let’s not go there right now.)

As I write this on a Saturday morning, I’m struck by how fast the time goes, particularly when snow days force cancellation of classes — two at each campus — during the first two weeks. Throw in the King Day holiday and that’s another day we didn’t hold class at PSU.

But who’s complaining?

Fourteen months after leaving The Oregonian/OregonLive, I’ve got plenty on my plate.

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Here I am this weekend with nearly 70 essays to grade, three chapters to read in three textbooks, two guest speakers to prepare for next week, and dates and times to confirm with a half-dozen more guests I’ve lined up in next couple of months.

Surely, this is nothing out of the ordinary for anyone who teaches full-time or even as an adjunct. Classroom time is just part of the deal. Planning and prep time take up a lot of intellectual energy, too, but the many administrative tasks involved — grading papers, maintaining a grade book, posting weekly schedules and lecture notes online, emailing students — account for far more time.

But, again, who’s complaining?

When I agreed to teach three classes at once, I knew I was in for a challenge. But the rewards are definitely worth it.

There is no better time to be teaching Media Literacy than now. When you’ve got a new administration declaring war on the press, throwing out phony accusations of fake news, and offering “alternative facts” as a diversion from verifiable facts that show Trump and his minions in an unflattering light, well, it’s the perfect time for a course like this.

My students at PSU have eagerly engaged on the subject, admitting their own shortcomings when it comes to digital literacy but also getting quickly up to speed in understanding who is providing what content (news, opinion, advertising) on the internet and for what purpose.

In Vancouver, I’m having a great time teaching Sports and the Media, holding up organized sports as a mirror of society. Coverage of sports has gone so far beyond just games, scores and hero worship to an era of athlete activism and self-marketing and wart-and-all coverage of coaches, players and programs. I present sports as a mirror of society, touching on racism, sexism, politics, entertainment, marketing and campus sexual abuse, among other topics. (Great timing to have Super Bowl 51 come along to illustrate the intersection of so many of these themes.)

I’m also teaching Reporting Across Platforms, traditionally a writing-intensive course designed to prepare students for producing words and images for print, broadcast and digital. I’m going at it somewhat differently, in light of the fact that many students are non-communications majors (let alone non-journalism majors) and have never done journalism in their life.

Accordingly, I’m trying to provide more context about the challenges facing today’s multimedia journalists in an era of 24/7 news and social media rather than emphasize basic skills of reporting, interviewing, writing and tweeting. The students are taking baby steps, but they’re also getting introduced to media ethics and the realities of a profession under siege.

I’ll check in again when the quarter and semester are done.

george-gosia2

I met for coffee recently with Gosia Wozniacka, a former reporter at The Oregonian and the Associated Press, who is now teaching a journalism class at Clark College in Vancouver. We compared notes on teaching.

For now, I take comfort in knowing I’m making a difference in how these young people are seeing things more clearly now — and even putting actions behind their words.

At least three students have let me know they have begun subscribing to The Oregonian/OregonLive or least committed to buying the newspaper two days a week as a sign of their support for local journalism. Several more made it clear to me, in emails or in class discussions, that they now understand the importance of a free press in a democratic society and are changing their media consumption habits accordingly.

What more could a teacher ask for?

 

VOA 6.0 meetup

baltic-canal

Another year of stellar writing by a diverse group of guest bloggers, ages 12 to 70. (Photograph by Taylor Smith)

 

 

If Voices of August were a child, she would be in kindergarten by now.

VOA, as this annual guest blog project is called, debuted on August 1, 2011, at a time when I was working at The Oregonian as a web editor focusing on community engagement. I had taught a couple of introductory communications classes (weekend mini-courses) at Portland State University that prompted me to start a personal blog and led to the subsequent birth of this project.

Fast forward to October 2016 and consider how things have changed or come full circle..

I’m no longer at The Oregonian, having accepted a buyout offer at the end of 2015.

I’m back at Portland State, this time teaching a full-fledged, upper-division class that meets twice a week.

Meanwhile, Voices of August just notched its sixth year. A week ago Saturday, about a dozen of us bloggers, along with spouses and other supporters, came together at a Northeast Portland brewpub to celebrate a remarkable collaboration: a month-long feast of writing, reading and reacting. (Yes, this is one place where you actually can read the comments and not have to take a shower afterwards.)

Click on images to view captions:

Each day, I post a guest blog that’s been written by a friend, neighbor, relative or former co-worker on a subject of their choice. Many of us are professional writers but most are not. And that’s the beauty of this thing. The variety of topics and writing styles flows from the fact that people write from the heart as much as their head, from their personal experiences and professional perspectives.

Since VOA began, about 70 people have participated as guest bloggers. Among them: teachers, professors, musicians, lawyers and documentary filmmakers. Contributions, totaling nearly 200, have come from several states and even a smattering of foreign countries: Vietnam, France, Slovenia, Poland and Texas. (Kidding. Just kidding.)

Looking back at my initial entry on 8/1/11, I launched VOA with three reasons in mind.

  1. I expected it would be fun. Boy, has it.
  2. I thought it could be a teaching tool. Indeed, I’ve learned much about online communication that I’ve applied to my work and social media.
  3. I knew it would bring more diversity to the site. Duh. When you invite people of different ages, races and ethnicities, people who represent different generations, bring varied life experiences and a constellation of passions, well, you wind up with something pretty special.

VOA is like opening a new gift every day. You never know if you’ll read something light or heavy, funny or sad, something universal or deeply personal — but you know it’ll engage you. This year, people wrote about their mothers and their cats, about politics and immigration, about love and loss, about pregnancy and a years-ago fishing trip gone bad.

Call me biased, but I think this year’s batch was the best ever. (I know, I know. I said that last year too.)

At month’s end, bloggers and regular readers cast votes for three favorite pieces — whatever resonated with them for whatever reason — and five were judged the most popular. In no particular order, they are:

“The memory keeper” by Gosia Wozniacka, writing from Poland.

“Rhubarb summer” by Jennifer Brennock, writing from Orcas Island, Washington.

“Night on the Kahawai” by Tim Akimoff, writing from Salem, Oregon.

“American internship in the shadow of Yellowstone” by Aki Mori, of the Portland area, and “My visit to Heart Mountain” by his 12-year-old daughter, Midori Mori. Both reflected on their family’s summer visit to two historical sites in Idaho and Wyoming where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.

A tip of the cap also goes to first-time VOA bloggers Anne Saker, Elizabeth Lee, Sue Wilcox, John Killen, Michelle Love, Maisha Maurant and Gosia Wozniacka.

Final word: Last weekend’s gathering at McMenamin’s on Broadway meant renewing friendships and making new ones between sips and bites and much goodwill. It was great seeing friends from Washington, Oregon and California.

For me, though, the best takeaway from VOA 6.0 was the thank-you note I received from Midori the day after our gathering. In it, she said she had always imagined that the only way to innovate for future generations was as a top government official such as senator or president.

“But the fact that I was given much positive acclaim in my essay moved me to a new perspective I have never once perceived,” Midori wrote. “It was the fact that such a small action, as to writing a blog entry, had moved and altered many people and their way of thinking. I, only being 12, have much to discover in this universe. However, I am grateful to know that my writing was just the beginning.”

If you missed Midori’s piece or want to re-read it or any of the others published this year, visit the VOA 6.0 index page.

The memory keeper

GW hands

“How do you keep the memory of a country, the place that birthed you, that imprinted itself on your bones and brain?”

By Gosia Wozniacka

Last summer, fall and winter, I watched them come. People from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Crossing, swimming, floating, pushing on across land and water to escape. Toward Europe, a safe place to anchor.

Their images and words filled my computer screen, inhabited my body. I was angry at Europeans who protested their arrival. Angry at friends and acquaintances who likened them to terrorists. Suddenly I felt the anxiety and uncertainty of my family’s own departure and arrival.

28 years ago, my parents, younger brother and I left Poland, a country in eastern Europe, seeking refuge. I was eleven, it was 1988. We were not escaping war, but a broken communist nation with food rations, no private enterprise and militia pacifying striking workers. The Berlin Wall stood 400 kilometers west, imposing, unimpaired. No one could then imagine that countries in the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union’s so-called satellites, would change so rapidly, so soon.

My parents were desperate to give us a better life. We left in a cramped, rust-eaten Fiat, squeezed in between comforters and pots and pans. My parents didn’t even tell my grandparents we would not be coming back, for fear someone would stop us. At the borders, they lied to the guards who threw our belongings to the curb in search of trafficked people and goods.
GW shadow

“How do you preserve images, words, scents?”

We set up a large, ugly ridge tent on a camping ground in Paris. My brother and I spent days in nondescript offices alongside other children, white, brown and black, eating apple butter from vending machines while our mothers and fathers asked for asylum. After two years in France, my parents decided to begin again. They sought to go to the United States, where job prospects were better. Catholic Charities sponsored the four of us: we were, for a second time, refugees, crossing the Atlantic toward a new life, each with only a leather suitcase.

So many years later, I knew well the work Europe’s new refugees would soon begin. Learning a new language. Figuring out the intricacies of another culture. Missing home. Translating and re-translating school work. Finding a job in a place where your education, experience or social status do not count. Surviving the first few years while pretending to family back home that you have gained more than enough. Fitting in. Blending in. Building again.

But there was something else these new migrants didn’t know, had no way of knowing yet. One day, many years from now, they and their children would face a different challenge.

How do you keep the memory of a country, the place that birthed you, that imprinted itself on your bones and brain? How to preserve images, words, scents? And should you? And is it useless, because after so many years your country has no scent and you do not love her anymore. And what was it that you once loved? What was it that you could not carry, but yearned to maintain?
GW woman

“We were not escaping war, but a broken communist nation with food rations, no private enterprise and militia pacifying striking workers.”

This I could tell them: Do not mistake the memory of a country, of a language, with patriotic pride. It isn’t the love of flags, of national heroes or bloodied history. Look and listen for scraps of certain light, reflections of dreams, ephemeral syllables that long ago formed and shaped your ability to imagine and to speak. The undersoil of you.

This I could tell them: It is — it will be — a great pain when your own language retreats into you, becomes an intruder. When you discover it occasionally, with surprise, while sitting down for a quiet moment. Fontanna, you think, water fountain. Mouth the word, taste it. Krople, water drops. Woda, water. These words are still inside, forming, shaping, minuscule eggs in the ovaries of the brain. They may be your first thoughts in weeks in a language that once was your own, that once was fully your own. But maybe you dream in it, and you don’t even know? No, you dream without language. Ever since you have moved countries you have always dreamt without language.

I have tried to find it again, the sights, the language. You will, too. You’ll rifle and nose, sometimes in a fury. You’ll return often once the political situation has stabilized, bringing back suitcases full of food and books. You’ll photograph fleeting things: fields, trees, your grandmother’s hands. It won’t be enough. And yet, if you do not try, if you are not conscious of it, your life could deflate. People get bent out of shape from losing what they cannot name, from letting go of this language of themselves. They hang without bottom, reaching for alcohol, drugs, razor blades. Or they turn angry, abusers, terrorists, jihadists, thugs. Forgetting cannot easily replace a scaffolding collapsed.

Nearly three decades after I left my country, a peace. It arrived when I ceded: there is loss and more loss will come. I am not who I was. I do not fully fit in my own country, nor in my adopted one. I switch languages, I switch worlds, I am a beat behind. I leave people on continents with warm plates on tables, with children to be born and old people to be cared for. I had to make a choice. About the place I live, the people I love. This, all this, is harder than living out your language, your country, stationary, straightforward, rooted. You — migrant, refugee, immigrant, newcomer — are everything else: in motion, active, porous, open wide. Your heart can crack, but it can also build new tissue.

GW2

Gosia Wozniacka: “I had to make a choice. About the place I live, the people I love.”

This year, after visiting Poland, my country, still my country, I flew back. To Oregon, North America, where I now live, another country of my own. I camped in Mount Hood wilderness, walking around the volcano covered in greyish veils. I sat with friends in my garden, eating fat raspberries from the bush outside my bedroom window, in awe of the community of people I have found. I biked along Portland’s buttes, at sunset watching deer ramble out of the forest to browse. Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams floated above the clouds.

At the fish ladders of a dam on the Columbia River, salmon and lamprey slid past the current, repeating an ancient migration rite. Landscape, animals, plants and people have bound me to this land. They are my vocabulary, the new language I am building, the slivers of light and sound I hold. I am, like these fish, imprinted with the early years’ magnetic field, the tattoo of a far-away birth. The salmon and I travel to the ocean, but do not forget the way toward home stream.

Gosia Wozniacka is a writer, news reporter, photographer and observer of the world. She has traveled across the continents, but has also found happiness in being still and enjoying the people and geography in front of her. 

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Editor’s note: The opportunity to meet aspiring journalists who were not only talented but also wonderful human beings is what I enjoyed most during the years I spent as The Oregonian’s newsroom recruiter. Gosia Wozniacka was among the cream of the crop — a UC Berkeley graduate student who was fluent in four languages (Polish, French, English and Spanish), had a love of international reporting, an interest in immigration policy and a gentle, gracious personality. It was my privilege to recruit her to Portland, where she became an award-winning reporter and later wrote for the Associated Press.
Tomorrow: Michael Granberry, America: still ‘the beautiful’?