Sharpie pens organized for a new school year

The start of a new school year is upon us. That may have some feeling excited — days spent with old and new friends, new adventures in learning and all those yummy new school supplies. I retired from the classroom five years ago, but the other evening found myself culling my random stack of notebooks and organizing my Sharpies. I realized I was caught in a familiar tug of emotions: anticipation about tackling projects with renewed energy — and anxiety about feeling behind before I even got started.

I expect the latter feeling is widely shared, especially by parents and teachers and college-age students — anyone who has lived through this cycle long enough to know what’s likely. My closest lifelong friend was one of those students who started the end-of-semester term paper the day it was assigned, but she’s an exception in my experience. I was a last-minute all-night writer — damn good training for a career in daily newspapers. Now I think about my former colleagues who are still teaching, and know most of them suddenly find the summer was too short and the best intentions of advance prep for the new term weren’t realized.

This year promises to be especially intense as students return to the classroom after two-plus years of COVID disruption. No matter what your risk tolerance for COVID, the disruption isn’t over. The news has been filled with stories about teacher burnout, concerns over school safety and the learning time lost. I’ve read some pieces about how universities are bracing for an influx of freshmen who are simply not prepared for the rigors of college.

We would talk each year at the Missouri School of Journalism about new challenges we faced: teaching to a social media generation, helping students who lacked foundational grammar, staying relevant across cultures and races and political views. A favorite game over after-hours beer was to identify which pop-culture or historical or literary allusions we could no longer use; mine came when an Indian-born student said she had never heard of Jesse James and an entire classroom was baffled when I riffed on early Saturday Night Live skits. I had long since given up using “Gone with the Wind” as an example of story endings. I couldn’t even count on shared knowledge of “Eleanor Rigby” anymore, so have had to find additional examples of detail, theme and story structure.

That all pales compared to what teachers face now. I have no magic potion to ease their scramble. But as a fellow traveler, I want to offer Storyboard as a useful resource. I hope students use it as a way to study the lessons of the journalistic masters. I hope teachers look through it for examples that demonstrate craft — everything from writing ledes to interviewing to ethics. I invite them to draw assignments from it, and to have their advanced students pitch to Storyboard: What could be better than having an aspirational journalist interview a pro they admire? And trust me, almost all of those pros will make themselves available to talk to the next-gen.

The news as school

It doesn’t take a new school year to learn, and keep learning, how to elevate our journalism. All you have to do is read, watch and listen the story work being produced day after day. Two of my favorites this past week…

DAVID McCULLOUGH, considered by many to be the best historical biographer of recent times, died this past week (Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022) at 89. In an obituary by Daniel Lewis of The New York Times, McCullough’s lessons live on, often in his own voice. Consider this summary of how he viewed his craft:

 “I think of writing history as an art form,” Mr. McCullough said in an interview for “Painting With Words,” a short 2008 documentary about him on HBO. “And I’m striving to write a book that might — might — qualify as literature. I don’t want it just to be readable. I don’t want it just to be interesting. I want it to be something that moves the reader. Moves me.”

Lewis went on to summarize other things that made McCullough’s work special:

He went a step further, inhabiting his characters like an actor preparing for a role. While writing “The Great Bridge,” he grew a beard, like the engineer Washington Roebling. Working on “Truman,” he formed the habit of taking brisk early morning walks, just as the president had done.

But my favorite bit was the mention of a small writing ritual that paid big rewards:

Throughout his career Mr. McCullough and his wife would read his early drafts aloud to each other — a practice he credited with improving his writing enormously.

Delicious and poignant phrasing from SALLY JENKINS of the Washington Post, writing about Serena Williams’ announced transition out of tennis to her next-life adventures:

Retirement is the one opponent Serena Williams can’t overpower. All great athletes, no matter how masterful they are, no matter how in charge of their field or court, have to reckon with this moment, when they realize with a sense of rank injustice that their sports immortality has run bang into their human mortality.


A version of this essay was first published as the Storyboard newsletter on Aug. 13, 2022.

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