When teacher Alex Campbell received an email about the national Student Journalism Challenge, he asked his students at Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, Tennessee, if they wanted to enter it as a class project. Unlike many other entrants in the inaugural Student Journalism Challenge, sponsored by PBS NewsHour, XQ Institute, WETA, and Well Beings, these students weren’t part of a high school media class or student publishing program. Instead, they were taking the first course in a career track that focuses on teaching as a profession.
It was the contest theme—“Your Education, Your Future”—that caught their attention and connected to the curriculum. Students were invited to submit video, audio, or print entries that answered questions like “What do you want from your education that doesn’t currently exist?
When professional journalists evaluated entries from across the United States, they awarded two top prizes to Campbell’s students: best audio for Unengaged, Uninterested, but Why? and best video for Ugly, Airless Places.
For Campbell, the experience has reinforced his commitment to project-based learning as a strategy that gives students “a reason to come to school.” In addition to his own teaching, Campbell is the PBL coach for colleagues at Elizabethton High School.
Students rise to the challenge
“This project was so different from anything else I’ve done in school,” says 11th-grade student Makayla Payne. She was part of the team that created an award-winning video about attending school in a cinder-block building with no windows.
To produce Ugly, Airless Places, she and her teammates tracked down architects, psychologists, and school leaders to understand why their high school was built half a century ago with no natural light or views of the outside world.
“This is a problem that affects us every day,” adds 10th-grade student Andrew Barnett. “If it’s not fixed, it could even affect our kids in the future.”
Scaffolding the process
Initially, Andrew was skeptical about being able to produce a high-quality video on a tight timeline. “My first thought was, ‘No way,’” he admits.
Campbell scaffolded the experience, building on what students had already learned about the history of American education. He guided students to concentrate on research and interviews before moving to script writing and production. He also brought in broadcasting experts to share their strategies.
A key lesson came from a local news reporter. He described how he used a “storytelling diamond,” starting with a local angle, then going wide to add context, then returning to a local focus to finish. “We realized we had all the pieces of the puzzle,” says Makayla, “but he helped us put them together.”
Learning how to collaborate was another important lesson. Team members drew on their strengths to tackle specific tasks. When they encountered needs for skills that were brand-new, students took time to critique and improve their work. “I’d never heard of B-roll before,” Makaylah says. She and a teammate “kept retaking footage until we got the right angles we needed” for supplemental shots that would support the script.
Campbell expected students to find their own experts to interview, but he guided their learning by helping them craft professional emails and refine questions. They practiced interviewing skills “so it would feel like a conversation and not an interrogation,” he says. “These are transferable skills that students will use in the future.”
Stretching for excellence
Challenging students to enter a competition “sets the bar high,” Campbell says. “If they know that big-time judges will see their stuff, they think about it differently.” He frequently tells students, “If your goal doesn’t make you at least a little bit scared, then it’s probably not big enough.”
Authentic audiences can also be found closer to home. Campbell is currently working with another class to research potential solutions for chronic absenteeism. “I told them that the superintendent wants to hear from them in two weeks, and he wants to be amazed by your ideas.” That’s all the motivation students needed. “You want to get them excited about the end goal.”
Ensuring that students have the support they need to be successful is key to project-based teaching, Campbell says. “My goal is not to tell students what to think or how to make their final product. I’m there to ask, what are their weaknesses? What are their strengths? And how can I support them so that they can be successful?”
For Makayla, this experience has convinced her to continue preparing for a career in education. “Now I can see more of the story behind why school is the way it is. I want to dive deeper.” She also has newfound confidence as a public speaker—something that “was hard for me at first,” she says.
“Everybody has a voice,” adds Andrew. This project taught him that “if you want to be heard, you have to take initiative. Problems can’t be solved until you do something to solve them.” He also learned that community members are ready to support students when they take on ambitious goals. “We’re solving a real-life problem together,” he says, “not just preparing for a test. That means something.”