Sunday, February 18, 2018

After Parkland

            My students are in the midst of a five-day weekend, and their well-deserved break began at about the same minute that a 19-year-old began shooting ex-classmates and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday. It soon became clear that this was another school shooting with multiple fatalities, yet also a shooting in which students had used their phones and social media platforms during the event to document for the world just what a school shooting looks and sounds like.

            I’m aware that nearly every media platform has been a forum for gun-control debate over the past four days, and I’m also aware that many students at this Florida high school have been speaking out, channeling their grief toward gun-control activism. It’s a teachable moment, so what does a journalism educator do?

            First, you respond to the messages you’re sent. The first journalism student who reached out to me about the shooting sent an email at 1:30 a.m. on Friday. She had stayed up late writing a powerful opinion piece about guns in America. I responded to tell her she had done what she needed to do, which was to get her words down on paper. I followed up with emails to the editor-in-chief and business managers to see if they were interested in adding more pages to next week’s paper, in order to cover this issue. They said they were up for it, and other students began volunteering to write and lay out pages for our coverage. My advice to the writers was to do what that first student had done – write what is on their minds. We’ll have time to do more reporting on this issue in the weeks ahead, but for now the kids seemed to need an outlet for their emotions.

I have witnessed the powerful emotions this debate produces. Twenty years ago, I was a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, and I was assigned to the gun-debate beat. School shootings were on the rise, and so were protests. I traveled with a group of protesters to Springfield, Mass., the home of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. The protesters placed pairs of shoes belonging to individuals who had died from gun violence in a local park, then traveled to Smith & Wesson’s headquarters to march.

One of those protesters had lost her husband to a gun murder, and she had become a nationwide leader in the cause. Another had lost her son when a neighborhood child got his hands on a gun left unattended in a home, and accidentally shot the young boy. This protester told me about her commute to work, and how it took her past the cemetery in which her son was buried. She would drive into the cemetery each morning, mourning her son’s death before continuing on her way to work.

I also interviewed gun advocates at the local sportsmen’s club. As they gathered for dinner and fellowship, these avid hunters told me what I’ve heard time and again over the past two decades: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. I listened, took notes, and thanked them for their time.

The following year, two young men shot and killed many of their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado, and now school shootings had become part of our national parlance. I interviewed Staten Island students who had been questioned in their schools because they, like the Columbine shooters, wore trench coats. They were confused as to what a coat had to do with gun violence. So was I.

Two months after Columbine, I left full-time reporting for full-time teaching. My working life, since the summer of 1999, has been devoted to teaching first, and writing second. I have taught writing skills to many students, and over the years the classrooms and schools in which I’ve taught have become more and more protected from the outside world. The Newtown, Conn., shootings of more than five years ago led to stricter security in schools across the nation. The school shootings, however, have continued.

At no time during these two decades have federal legislators passed any laws regulating the Second Amendment rights that Americans have. When nothing happened after Newtown, it seemed as though federal gun regulations were simply an impossibility. Now we have Parkland, with Snapchat videos documenting the violence. We have students appearing on the Sunday-morning talk shows to challenge their legislators.

As an educator, my job is typically to keep my own political views out of the classroom. My role is to ask good questions, support students in their journeys of discovery, and remain present for all voices that arise. I’ve had students conduct projects on safe gun use, in which they documented the ways in which they and their parents used guns safely at shooting ranges. I’ve also had students write passionately about the need for stricter gun control. And just a few months ago, I helped a student as she wrote a news story about her peers’ views on gun control, featuring students on both sides of the issue.

When we resume school on Tuesday, I will remain dedicated to helping my students feel safe and protected in finding their own voices on this issue. But I also want my students to feel safe and protected in the literal sense, and that’s where it becomes difficult for teachers like me to remain truly objective on this issue of school shootings and guns. I have a very hard time understanding why we can’t regulate a guaranteed right more closely. Full background checks, a national gun registry and bans on semiautomatic weapons seem like common sense to me. Laws like those passed in Connecticut after Newtown seem completely reasonable, and in keeping with the Second Amendment rights that many Americans treasure.

I’m happy to share those views with students if they ask. But back in the classroom, I will encourage them to talk and listen and find their voices. I am a teacher who views gun control as a must. But I am also a teacher who must support his students. I’ll start by encouraging my student-reporters to go after it, both in their opinion pieces and in their own reporting. Their peers in Parkland have experienced a nightmare, and instead of hiding their heads these teens are inviting us all to a serious and necessary conversation. I’m going to encourage my kids to take part.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Teacher Dad

            I had known for a few months that I’d be teaching my daughter. I just didn’t know what she should call me.
            Not Dad. And definitely not Mr. Hynes. Ideally, also not any of the names she might have mumbled under her breath throughout the past 16 years.
            But like it or not, here we were together. At my high school this year, I am the only journalism teacher. Katie goes to this school, and she wanted to take Journalism I. So on the first day of school, I looked out upon my class of ambitious young reporters, and among them I saw my own flesh and blood.
            I introduced the class to them, talked about my own journalism experience, and asked them if they could identify the terms “journalism,” “news” and “media.” They were interested, and we were on our way.
            At some point in that first class period, Katie raised her hand. “What should I call you?” she asked.
            I thought to myself, “Didn’t I have an entire summer to think this over?” I did, and I had not considered it. Searching for an answer, I flashed back to my previous job, an alternative school in Boston at which I had taught for three years. At that school, teachers were called by their first names, to deepen the sense of community among students and staff. “That will work,” I thought to myself.
            “OK,” I said to the students, who were actually quite interested in where this was going, “I don’t want Katie calling me ‘Mr. Hynes’ in class, so I’m going to give everyone in this class complete permission to call me ‘Warren.’ ”
            The kids smiled; some of them even let out a “Yes!” or a fist pump. When class ended, one of the students walked up to Katie and said, “Man, I really thought he was going to say that we could all call him ‘Dad.’ ”
            Over the next few weeks, a few students tried out “Warren” to see how it felt, and they ended up going back to Mr. Hynes. As for Katie, it’s kind of a funny thing; she calls me “Warren” all the time at home, along various other “W” first names, such as Wally and Wendell. That’s all done in a loving attempt to get under my skin. I can handle it, as I’d much rather she call me by a nickname than not talk to me at all.
            At school, though, she really couldn’t avoid “Dad.” It just came out that way, even in class. In moments when life is busy and stressful – which school can often be – we need to call our parents what they are to us. I’m Katie’s dad, and her brain couldn’t take the time to consider my first-name suggestion. She just needed me to be her father.
When school was over, and she was Face-Timing a friend on the phone while I walked by, it was back to “Hello, Warren.” When I called her down to dinner, she’d respond with “Yes, Warren.” But during those journalism classes, she’d call me over with a question by waiting until I walked past her desk, then whispering, “Dad.”
We made it through the semester-long class in one piece, and now she’s off to other activities. But as the second semester began, I scanned the rosters for my spring blog writing class and saw something even more terrifying than teaching my daughter.
I’m now teaching her boyfriend. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

We Get the Job Done

            It happens every time, I’m sure. But this was our night to see it. As two men rap six short words, a Broadway show is drawn to a halt mid-song by the audience’s response; actors and orchestra wait out the cheers before continuing.
My wife and I were celebrating our daughters’ birthdays (16 and 13) by taking them to see Hamilton, the smash-hit show whose soundtrack they’d been listening to for many months. Who would think that the perfect Sweet 16 gift would be a hip-hop Broadway show about a Founding Father?
            Toward the end of Act One, the cast performs the electrifying song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” in which they depict the Revolutionary War’s final conquest. When Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette meet on the battlefield, they can see that victory is at hand. As they open the song, the two men use their shared experience as outsiders to America (Hamilton hails from the British West Indies, Lafayette from France) to explain their success. “We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run,” Hamilton says. Lafayette responds with one word: “Immigrants,” to which Hamilton joins him in rapping, “We get the job done.”
            That’s when the audience starts roaring. They know that when Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote these six words, he wasn’t just talking about the immigrants of 1781; he was, of course, arguing that immigrants are still getting the job done in America as we speak.
            Debates over immigration have dominated American discourse throughout the past year, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. As I review the news accounts of our immigration debates, I think back to my experiences as an educator. In my 19 years as a full-time teacher, I’ve worked with many immigrant students. Some were in my classroom because their parents had fled violence in countries such as Kosovo, Ethiopia, Venezuela and Afghanistan. Others were there because their parents were hoping for better opportunities than they had in Vietnam, Nigeria, South Korea, the Dominican Republic or Haiti. Still others were here because their parents had taken job opportunities, moving their families here from China, France, Egypt or Canada.
            I’ve taught a Dreamer who went from the top of her high school class to babysitting because she couldn’t apply for admission to college. I’ve taught a teen who worked 12-hour graveyard shifts at a parking garage before coming to school. I’ve welcomed students into my school’s Community Service Club from Haiti, Iran, Venezuela and China, all of them looking for opportunities to serve. In recent months, I’ve watched my service club students volunteer their time at a program that serves refugee families, most of them from Syria and Iraq.
            Whenever a student from a new country arrives in my high school in central Jersey, inquisitive American students pepper that student with questions: What was it like growing up in your native country? What’s the difference between there and here? How are you doing with schoolwork? Have you been to Manhattan? When it started snowing one December day a few years back, a student of mine from Egypt told me she’d never seen snow before. Without hesitation, the entire class led her outside, where she looked upward, spread out her arms and caught all the snowflakes she could.
            I think the American students are so eager to learn from their immigrant peers because they understand something fundamental about this country: Immigration is a sign of our nation’s overall health. When people want to come to America, it means that our country is doing some things right. It means that the freedoms, economic opportunities and sense of community we’ve built are inspiring people from around the world. It means that our tradition of welcoming others has built us a level of global respect that is beyond measure. It means that for every individual who takes advantage of America, there are countless others who are giving America even more than they’ve gotten. So when you see a new student from another country in your class, it’s a sign that you were blessed with your place of birth. And you’re willing to share that blessing with others.
            This is the way it’s gone in this New World for four centuries now. I hope that as we debate the specifics of immigration laws, we find a way to hold onto this idea, which a certain copper statue in New York Harbor tries to remind us of every day.
            When the audience finishes cheering for that line in Hamilton, the song resumes. “So what happens if we win?” Hamilton asks. “I go back to France,” Lafayette says. “I bring freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.”
            And that’s the other thing about immigration: When people have the chance to see America up close, it also can give them the motivation to bring that torch of liberty back home. But when we wall ourselves off from the world, that chain reaction becomes impossible.
            So as the government debates continue on, I’m going to follow the instincts of my students, the words of Hamilton, and the observations I’ve made over two decades of teaching.
            It really is true. Immigrants, and those who welcome them: Together, we get the job done.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Words Matter

            On Friday, I took a moment from my 11th- and 12th-grade journalism classes to make sure my students knew of the editorial decisions that newsrooms across the country had been faced with the day before. My students know that news media outlets all have their own style manuals, which includes a guide to which words the outlets consider vulgar and inappropriate for print. But sometimes, those rules must be broken.
            Thursday night, many news outlets decided to temporarily reverse their style rules regarding vulgar language by reprinting some words attributed to the president of the United States. According to numerous sources, the president had referred to certain nations as “shithole countries” when negotiating immigration law with other lawmakers during a Thursday meeting. He also had asked why we would want people from Haiti here in the U.S.
            This was not the first time that President Trump has spoken derisively of individuals from developing countries during immigration talks, according to sources who have attended meetings with him. In addition, the president has used incendiary words regarding other ethnicities and nations many times, particularly during his campaign speeches. His administration’s travel ban was developed to target a particular religion, as he had promised it would during his campaign. And his words after the Charlottesville tragedy revealed, at the very least, a clear concern with offending white supremacists.
            Due to the president’s dedicated track record of demeaning individuals who are not white or European, the news media was aware that it had a responsibility to continue reporting his approach to diversity and immigration. This included coverage of the president’s words. So when he took the shocking step of calling other nations a vulgar term on Thursday, most news outlets decided that reporting the exact words was essential to giving readers the full story. The president’s words serve as a reflection of the country he leads, and it was deemed essential that you and I know our leader is now comfortable with using “shithole” to describe would-be allies. Media outlets felt they owed us that level of specificity.
            I asked my students if they agreed with this choice, politics aside. Everyone who raised their hand said they did. The details mattered immensely here, they said. I encouraged them to keep following this story during the weekend.
            Tomorrow, we celebrate a man whose words inspired a nation and world, and whose leadership led not only to American freedoms but also to worldwide admiration for the promise of America. That promise, of a nation where all men and women are created equal, has not been fully realized, of course. We have seen this on numerous fronts, from race relations to immigration to sexual assault to educational segregation to voting laws. We have so much work to be done, which is part of the reason why Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become more and more a day of active service and reflection. But on that third Monday in January, we also have the chance to listen to King’s words and remind ourselves of just how much potential our nation has.
            And no matter your politics, it has typically been the case that the president of the United States uses words of maturity and dignity when speaking to that promise of American liberty. You could criticize the president’s agenda and executive orders, but you were likely to find no problems with his words when it came to representing the nation’s ideals.
            President Trump has promised, throughout his campaign and his presidency, to be a disruptor. That has involved clear challenges to laws that he disagreed with, but it has also involved a shift in the president’s use of language. He has used spoken word, social media and official statements in a form more befitting a barroom brawler than a chief executive. That is troubling to many, for sure, but in journalism it’s also news. It’s a shift whose impact we can’t assess quite yet, but which we must cover thoroughly. When someone chooses to alter the way in which the most visible country in the world presents itself to the world, that is a news story of the highest order. It means that for nearly every word Trump utters, reporters must share with us the policy details, the politics and – often most of all – the degree to which his words are taking us into unchartered territory.
            So yes, today it’s “shithole.” And tomorrow, we’ll see what’s next. My students get it. The words matter, and they must be covered.