Thursday, March 14, 2013

Slice of satire

This is my first year teaching journalism. As with any first time course, I'm muddling my way through and learning right along with my students. It's an odd class because my journalism 1 students are there at the same time as my newspaper staff. They literally sit of opposite sides of the aisle in the lab. I only have 7 staff members and 14 J1 students. So, I spend a lot of time going back and forth between production issues and teaching the intro class.

Because my staff is so small, I've always intended to get my J1s more involved in writing. Finally, for the last issue, I had my J1s complete assignments that could go into the paper. I had them write articles about elective choices and essentially told the staff I was taking over 2 pages. But the editors would choose what went in, and I expected then to work with the author and edit the piece. For this issue, I had a host of feature articles they could use, and some were selected.

About two weeks ago, the editors asked if we would be doing an April Fools issue this year. If we were, they wanted the J1s to write many of the articles.

Well, I ran with it. This would be good practice in formatting a news article, and I could teach satire, too. Last week, I showed them some articles on The Onion (always a risky maneuver, but I just don't acknowledge that I see anything on the screen except what I'm focusing on), which had been doing a series riffing on mass shootings (FYI, no one is shot in this series). While they thought the "Gunman series" was hilarious, I mentioned it was probably a bit too risque for school. Still, they could see how it was playing on our fears and using puns. This week, I brought in a couple of tamer articles (here and here), showed them the pictures of Vice President Biden, and also discussed how an English-language Chinese newspaper had taken seriously The Onion's article "Kim Jong-Un Named The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive For 2012."

These two days set the stage for a brainstorming session where I helped them come up with ideas for satire. I steered them away from lampooning particular individuals, and we all ended up laughing at the ideas we had for explaining some of the recent trends at school. I won't spoil them, as the article have yet to be written, and some will certainly appear.

Yesterday, I asked them to go a step further and start the writing process. They were to:
  1. Write what you are satirizing and some ideas for how you want to go about it (techniques) 
  2. Write out Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, just as you would with a real article.
  3. Write your lead.
Again, they seemed to be having fun, but I could tell they needed something more to work with. 

So this morning, I wrote a model for them. I wanted to make it as much a straight news story as I could, including quotes from "parents," "students," and staff ( I admit I stole names of my teacher friends, and I hope they are amused). I also didn't want them to figure it out right away. I think half of why The Onion is so funny is that the news format is so well done.

It took them a bit to get it, but they did. Now, I have a model to share, and I hope it inspires them to avoid the "over the top" articles in favor of a more subtle flavor of humor. Even if it doesn't, it was fun to write, and I thought I'd share that as today's slice (wow...long winded intro for this, wasn't it?).

School technology—we depend on it, but sometimes buy the wrong things. 
Who: Mr. Martin Grimm, Centreville High School principal
What: Announced a new 1 to 1 tablet initiative to PTSA.
When: Announcement at March 19 meeting. New initiative starts next year.
Why: To provide students with resources they need to learn.
How: Each student will be issued his or her own tablet and will use it in all classes.

Issue: Volume 6, Issue 6.5, April 2013
HEADLINE: Grimm Announces New 1-to-1 Tablet Program for 2013-2014

At the March 19 meeting of the Centreville High Parent Teacher Student Association, Principal Martin Grimm announced a new one-to-one tablet initiative pilot program. The program, which starts during the 2013-2014, will provide a brand new tablet to each CVHS student on the first day of school. 

Grimm told parents the initiative would provide basic tablets to each student, which they would receive during their 1st period classes on September 3. Because the program lost some of the money due to the anticipated $62 million FY 2014 budget shortfall, students would have to provide their own styluses and covers to protect the new tablets. However, Grimm estimated that these would cost each student “no more than $17” for a simple portfolio-style cover and a stylus.

“We are excited to be part of this new program. Giving students the tools they need to success, that’s what this is all about,” said Grimm. “These tools allow kids to take what they learn with them to each class, which should really help our kids be more organized and ready to learn.”

Fairfax County Public Schools chose CVHS as one of 3 district high schools and 5 middle schools to participate in the test. If all goes well, the program will be adopted across the county in the fall of 2014. Then, each student enrolled in middle or high school will receive his or her very own tablet.

“These new tablets are not a replacement for the current technology. They’re a supplement. We still need laptop and desktop computers to administer the SOL [Standards of Learning] tests. All of those are computer tests now,” Grimm said.

Parents who attended the meeting applauded the announcement, but others felt FCPS acted too late and wasn't taking advantage of the latest portable devices. 

“Tablets aren't new,” said Teresa Bunner, parent of sophomore Aaron Bunner. “ I've used one since I was a little kid. I have them all over the house and still use them to write lists and letters, and leave messages for Aaron. I’m disappointed it's taken so long to get them into the schools.”

Bunner also expressed disappointment that students would receive full-sized 8.5x11” tablets instead of newer, more portable devices.

“If the school system want real portability, they should try the 5x8” tablets. They might be a little more expensive, but they are so useful,” Bunner said.

Kathy Blackler, who has two children at CVHS and another son at Liberty Middle School, was enthusiastic about the tablet pilot program. 

“I’m glad FCPS is willing to try to help families with this new program,” Blackler said.  “The country’s ‘bring your own device’ program is expensive for families. Some teachers required separate binders and tablets for each class. Those supplies get expensive!”

Student representative Kevin Kim, who will graduate before next year’s program starts, wondered if the new tablets would be a distraction and would add to theft problems and honor code violations at the school.

“Stuff gets stolen here, especially in the gym,” Kim said. “If these tablets all look the same, how will teachers know who is doing the work?”

Another student who attended the meeting, freshman Cindy Minnich, said she wasn't sure one tablet would be enough for her to do all of the work for her classes.

“My teachers require a ton of class work and homework,” Minnich said. “I just don’t think these things can store that much information. And I can’t even use it in computer graphics. It isn't compatible with any of the Adobe software.”

Some staff, too, also seemed to question the new program. Front office secretaty Kim Grennek pointed to the growing pile of student belongings in the lost and found, and speculated that many of the new tablets would end up there next year.

“It will be tough to tell them apart,” Grennek said. “After a while, the main office will probably start to look like Office Depot.”

According to Grimm, CVHS will order 3000 new tablets in July. He expects to keep several hundred in reserve as replacements for lost or stolen tablets and for students new to Centreville.

“We’re really looking forward to bringing this affordable new device to our Wildcats,” Grimm said. “Even though most of our graduates go on to colleges and higher education already, we think using tablets in every class will make them even more competitive in college admission and the workplace.”


  1. This sounds like fun activity! I love The Onion, too. I hope your students have fun writing their stories. Please share the link (if there is one for your school paper) when they publish April 1.

    1. We have started archiving the paper on! I will certainly post a link when we upload it.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. :)

  2. This is awesome! I love The Onion, and it was a great move to use it to help students get a grasp on Satire.

    1. I love it, too. Some of what they publish is a bit over the top, but there are so many examples to use. There are two on literature, "Girl Moved To Tears By 'Of Mice And Men' Cliffs Notes" and "Copy Of 'The Scarlet Letter' Can't Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins" that I will use with my AP Lang students later in April.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. :)

  3. Fantastic! I love the project and your sample article. (Wow! Time has really flown, eh? I didn't realize little Cindy Minnich was already in high school.) ;)

    1. Ha! When I had to put in another student, Cindy's blog about her freshmen was on my mind. I hope she reads the satire when she gets a break from the endless to do lists.

  4. I hooted at the "all of those are computer tests now" line. Great modeling, teach! My students are often tricked by The Onion.

    1. Thank you for the compliment! They had some trouble with the subtle humor in my article, too. In their world, tablets are computers. I literally had to go to office depot's website and type in "tablet pad" as a search and narrow it to paper.

      I suspect many would be fooled by The Onion, too, if I hadn't exposed them to it.

  5. Your article/example is great. There is so much evidence of comprehension in this - not only understanding of satire, but well thought out quotes and questions that sound so close to what someone might really say. The reader has to really think - how great is that?

    1. That's exactly my goal. I can't wait to see if my staff can pull off the issue in the next two days. If they do, it will be amazing.