Ten young teens draped themselves over chairs, forming a sloppy circle in the center of an empty middle-school classroom. I sat on the edge of the circle, an outsider looking in on an extraordinary preadolescent confessional.
“OK, clean time. How long since you used? You know the drill,” said the drugand alcohol counselor as he kicked things off unceremoniously.
One by one, each of the students gave an accounting of his or her drug and alcohol use during the previous week. Funny, irreverent and vulgar, their hurt filled the room.
The girl with the longest clean time had two weeks and a day behind her. The girl next to her was still nursing a hangover from the night before. Their ages ranged from 11- to 14-years-old.
Being there, watching the fits and starts of pre-teens trying to navigate their way over the chasm between childhood and adulthood, was at the heart of a three-day series I wrote last June for The Seattle Times about “The Kids in the Middle.”
This was purely a shoe-leather story that explored the everyday lives of students, teachers and the principal at a Seattle middle school. This school became a sort of petri dish in which to explore what works and what doesn’t in reaching middle-grade students. The series relied on my fly-on-the-wall presence in the school. I was there at least once a week for most of the school year. And I filled dozens of notebooks with details that could draw readers into a story about the fragile, critical, sometimes funny middle years, and the unique issues that challenge educators in trying to reach these students.
Being with them consistently was the only way to earn the level of trust that ensured I could go literally anywhere in the school unescorted, listening in on classes, lunchroom conversations, teacher-lounge gossip, counseling sessions and more. I attended school dances, staff meetings, parent orientations, special artistic performances and graduation ceremonies. I’ve never had such wide-open access to a school and its students, and I know it grew out of the fact that, over time, I became just so much furniture, blending into the background of the school. The same was true for Times photographer Steve Ringman, who worked with me on the project.
“I felt like an alien from outer space when I first landed there,” he recalled. With cameras hanging around his neck, Ringman became a curiosity, an instant target for questions and a magnet for the class clowns. It was impossible to get the natural, spontaneous pictures he believed would best tell the story of these mysterious years.
But after about three months, “I became sort of a boring figure to them,” Ringman said. Familiarity bred comfort, if not contempt. By the end of the year, students and teachers weren’t even looking up when Ringman’s shutter clicked. The result was a set of pictures capturing quintessential middle-school moments—hallway roughhousing, a young couple slow dancing, the music teacher at the end of a long day, a line of girls primping between classes in the bathroom.
Being there, in the midst of the action, is essential for a photographer. This story proved once again to me that it matters for good reporting, too. There is no substitute for spending the time it takes to earn the trust and absorb the rhythms of her subjects’ lives. Of all the beats I’ve covered, including politics, health care and the courts, this is most true in education reporting.
Reporting education stories from a distance makes it difficult to cut through the jargon educators tend to use. And it is all but impossible to put into perspective the fads, from new instructional and testing methods to school-reform models, which ebb and flow through schools, and the subjective interpretation of statistics that can be used to buttress those fads. Test scores, disciplinary rates and other statistics are often less straightforward than they appear. Being there is the only way to know for certain that the story that appears to be captured in the numbers reflects what’s really going on inside the school.
Firsthand knowledge helps cut through the haze of fuzzy ideas and well-intentioned experiments that just don’t work in the bright light of a classroom filled with real kids. In computer-assisted reporting projects, being there is at least as critical. But with resources stretched at many newspapers,I worry that reporters—once armed with data—won’t have the luxury I had to linger so long within schools.
Test scores, dropout rates, free and reduced-price lunch statistics measure a part of the education picture, but numbers don’t convey much about the art and craft of teaching or tell us much about the motivations and challenges of the students. The best education reporting projects rely on spreadsheets and crunched numbers only to frame a story, not to tell it. In these stories, the role of the computer may be virtually invisible to the reader but instrumental in guiding the reporter.
So much of what makes a school successful—or not—is in the relationships among teachers and students, in the atmosphere of the classroom, in the school culture that dictates how seriously academics are taken. Does the teacher have control of the rowdy students in her classroom? Is it clear what she wants students to learn? Do students get it? Will they remember how to use what they’ve been taught? Those elements are nebulous and hard to capture by numbers alone. As I set out to report my story, I used statistics to help me select the school I featured. But when the story was published, its telling relied almost exclusively on what I had observed.
My shoe-leather approach offered parents a rare and valued glimpse into their children’s world. Being on hand to see and hear for myself what happened each day at this school paid off with rich details and evocative moments that let parents eavesdrop on events in their children’s lives that they would not otherwise have been a part of. As readers they were able to peek in on the choir class where the teacher struggled to keep control of an unruly group of altos.
“You have too many rules!” a girl complained, pulling out a tape recorder and hitting the play button.
“Please put that away. That’s a toy,” the teacher said evenly.
“No, it’s a tape recorder to keep people like you from harassing me. God, there’s like 75 rules. STUPID RULES!” she yelled. She was standing under a sign listing class rules, one of which said “I will show respect and consideration for others.”
And readers experience that sweet, fleeting moment when a year’s worth of work pays off, when teacher and student connect, and the light of knowledge burns so brightly you can almost touch it. This happened to Elizabeth Kim this spring during a special 10-week poetry workshop in Julie Lehnis’s sixth-grade classroom. The shy 12-yearold was terrified to learn she would have to stand up in front of her classmates, read her own poems aloud, and be judged on her eye contact and posture as well as her words. But every week she stood in the circle of her classmates, Elizabeth found it got easier until she was looking other students in the eye without fear and reading her poetry in a strong, clear voice.
Last month, Elizabeth did something she never imagined she could. She was one of a dozen middle-school students who volunteered to read poetry in front of a microphone at a crowded West Seattle Starbucks coffee shop. Wearing white carnations and carrying themselves with new confidence, Elizabeth and the others spoke poignant words they’d written about hope, peace and social justice. Shoulders squared, they looked the audience in the eyes, sprinkling in just the right dramatic pauses and hand gestures, though if you looked closely, you could see their hands shaking.
I knew what a metamorphosis this was for Elizabeth and her classmates because I’d been watching them since they arrived new to the school, feeling awkward and timid and confronting the challenges that go along with heightened expectations of these middle-school years. I was transfixed that night at Starbucks six months later, watching these newly confident young people on stage. That night, I could see the outlines of the adults they would become, rather than the children they had been.
I’m glad I was there during all those months so that I could see for myself the stages of this remarkable passage and, most of all, I was grateful I could share it with readers.
What we discovered is how hungry parents are to find out what happens in the classroom once they turn their children over to the school. It is difficult, if not impossible, even for parents who have the time to visit their children’s school, to get an accurate picture of what goes on. More than 75 people—most of whom were parents—called, wrote or E-mailed in response to the series. This was among the greatest number of responses I’ve ever received on any story I’ve written. Many parents said they were grateful to know their families weren’t alone in trying to figure out how to weather the tough transformation that their pre-teens were experiencing.
I know that the impersonal presentation of numbers or a briefly reported glimpse at this school or a selected classroom would never have connected readers to the issues and challenges that educators confront as this year-long assignment enabled me to do. This series served as a valuable reminder that while technology can help us, it can never be a substitute for using our eyes, our ears and our minds to portray the human experience.
Jolayne Houtz has been a reporter at The Seattle Times for nine years. For the past five years she’s reported on education, writing about the Seattle schools and statewide education issues and trends.