Using actors to teach journalism

Show don’t tell is a writing 101 rule, but Ryerson j-prof Anne McNeilly  uses it in her teaching. Hiring an actor to stage a dramatic scene in class pushed the students into reporting mode and created “the most memorable classes” McNeilly has ever taught. Show don’t tell is a writing 101 rule, but Ryerson j-prof…

Anne McNeillyShow don’t tell is a writing 101 rule, but Ryerson j-prof Anne McNeilly  uses it in her teaching. Hiring an actor to stage a dramatic scene in class pushed the students into reporting mode and created “the most memorable classes” McNeilly has ever taught.

Anne McNeillyShow don’t tell is a writing 101 rule, but Ryerson j-prof Anne McNeilly uses it in her teaching. Hiring an actor to stage a dramatic scene in class pushed the students into to reporting mode and created “the most memorable classes” she’s taught.

When I first began teaching Information and Visual Resources (the course title definitely needs sexing up, I’m already asleep), I found the prospect of  engaging the attention of more than 100 web-surfing, snacking, chatting first-year journalism students in a large lecture hall daunting. And the Ryerson podium with its array of microphones, touch screens and lighting controls made me wonder if  I was going to launch us all into warp speed 6 if I inadvertently touched the wrong spot on the panel.

I was there to tell this tech savvy bunch how to search the web, how news is a “departure from the plane of the ordinary,” about the adrenaline rush that comes from discovering “newsworthy” information, and about how finding/reporting that info is really hard work. I had to tell them about FOI requests and how people in power sometimes try to hide information or spin it; and mostly I had to tell them how taking a few facts and writing a truly elegant sentence can produce a sensation akin to hitting the sweet spot on the tennis racket.

I decided to show them, not tell them.

Ryerson was not only all for it, the university’s experiential learning office aided and abetted me by hiring an actor to create a dramatic scene in the lecture hall that caused students to snap to attention and focus on what was happening in a way that surpassed my wildest dreams.

I’ve staged two such dramatic events and there is no doubt these are two of the most memorable, if not the most successful, classes I have ever taught.  

I stage this class early in the course when students are still new to the university and unsuspecting. The first time, the actor, posing as a disgruntled student wanting a higher mark, entered the hall and interrupted the lecture (which was about gathering information from sound observation) to argue with me about his grade from the previous year.

Disgruntled Student: Excuse me, Ms. McNeilly, I really need to speak with you and I can never find you in your office. It’s really important.
Me: I’m sorry. Do I know you?
DS: You should, I was in your class last year and I cannot believe this has happened.
Me: Unfortunately, I’m in the middle of a class just now.
DS: You’re the only one who can help . . . ( He continues to focus on his issue while I try to get him to leave.)

After the unhappy student left the room, the lecture was abandoned (this is newsworthy!) and students were challenged to write the lead for a story about the disruptive incident for the university’s student newspaper, The Ryersonian or The Eyeopener.

But this “dramatic event” unexpectedly generated a heated debate among the first-year students about the ethics of even writing a story about an individual’s personal problems. Some argued that the fact the disgruntled student came forward with this problem before 150 other people only emphasized the need NOT to take advantage of him! After 15-20 minutes, I terminated this debate, putting it on the back burner, so students could try to write an accurate lead for a story should we decide to submit it to the university paper. (I later learned that the moment the actor interrupted the lecture, a student began text-messaging the editor of the student newspaper with a blow-by-blow account of what was occurring – “U won’t blv wht jus hppned.”)  

Then, students compared their leads with three or four neighbours, choosing/refining each other’s work and, finally, agreeing on a best collaborative lead. A volunteer then recounted the group’s lead, which I typed on the overhead for all students in the room to discuss.

Thanks to advice from the experiential learning office, the actor presented as assertive, but not threatening so students didn’t feel motivated to wrestle him to the ground or call for security. He appeared wimpy and needy, pleading for a higher grade so he would be eligible for a teaching assistant position that came with much needed extra money.

He also remained outside the lecture hall doors, pretending to be agitated and pacing the hallway, in case a student wanted to follow up – some did. Amidst the debate about his privacy, a couple of students jumped up and ran out to get more info and to confirm his identity.  

Creating the incident moved students from passively receiving information to reporting mode, as they were asked to begin and structure a story that accurately and fairly represented what they had just observed. They had to move from casual to professional observation.

Students had a variety of observations and opinions about what the disruptive student said, how he behaved, and what he was wearing. For their stories, they needed to: capture the details of what happened; experience the reliability of eyewitness accounts; determine a lead; think of what information they needed to complete the story; write the story; determine the follow up. (For example, if the disgruntled student was successful in getting his mark raised, it would  be a significant story.)  Not one of the students questioned the truth of the incident.

In discussing leads, heated debate also arose about what words to use – did the actor who posed as the student “burst” into the class, “storm” in, “interrupt” or “disrupt?” Were students “surprised,” “shocked,” “startled,” “taken aback” or “astonished?” How much information about him was fair to include? Was he “flustered,” “angry,” “upset,” or “desperate?”

To prevent an untrue story from being published in the university paper, students were told in the final seconds of class that the event had been set up. They were shocked – and delighted. They’d been hoodwinked!

Afterward, many told me they would never forget the class. It had confirmed their decision to become journalists. But a couple of others who came to see me wanted to discuss their reservations about a career in journalism, feeling they couldn’t cope with such an invasion of an individual’s privacy.

The editor of the student paper later showed me the text-mail exchange between herself and the student in the class, which was a springboard for new discussion in the following week’s lecture about news dissemination, privacy issues and events that occur in public places.

This class was so successful, I staged a second dramatic event last fall, which unfolded in much the same way as the first, with students again debating whether to report the incident. This time, an older actor posed as one of my colleagues. He interrupted the class because I hadn’t returned a video to him that he needed for his class which was about to begin in 10 minutes. Of course I’d forgotten to bring it and of course he became terribly upset.

Upset Colleague: What do you mean you forgot it? I told you I was going to need it for my next class. What am I going to do now? My whole class is based on the material in that video.

Me: I’m really sorry I forgot, but there’s not much I can do now. Don’t you have a backup plan?

This time, students graciously suggested that I terminate their lecture so I could drive home and get the video my colleague needed so badly. This group was a little more skeptical . . . one student asked if it was a set up, but I was able to allay that concern by wiping my brow and exclaiming, “I wish.” Another couple of students left the lecture to determine whether the colleague was on the faculty/staff list. Why wasn’t he? they wanted to know when they returned to the lecture hall. Oh, the staff list is never up-to-date, I responded.

For next year’s event, I’m considering another dramatic interruption – perhaps two actor/students, who are enrolled in the course, could get into a lovers’ spat resulting in the girlfriend slapping her boyfriend’s face,  or vice versa, before storming out of the lecture hall.

And I’m also anticipating that my future students won’t be reading this account about staging dramatic events! What will I say if they do? Hmmmmm. You believe everything you read?

Anne McNeilly has more than 25 years experience as a journalist including 18 years at The Globe and Mail and stints as a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. She currently teaches journalism at Ryerson University.