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Lesson Plans

Jimmie Bellah
Journalism Teacher
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Lesson Plans

Finding a Voice

Finding a Voice

Jimmie Bellah at Memorial High School in Victoria, Texas.

Jimmie L. Bellah
Memorial High School
Victoria, Texas

Title: Finding A Voice

Description of Students: This unit is intended for 9th-12th grade high school Journalism I students in a public school of more than 3,800 students. Students attend four classes daily on an accelerated block schedule. The student body is about 65 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white and 10 percent African American; this is reflected in class makeup. Class size varies from 20-37. This lesson should be completed at whatever pace is necessary for group to grasp concepts. Some groups move faster than others. I have found this to be true with freshmen/sophomores versus juniors/seniors. The younger ones are easier to work with.

Generative Topic
  • How to create a feature story and develop individual writing style, thus finding a writer’s voice while giving a voice to subject of feature story.
Generative Objects
  • Samples of student feature stories found in “Radical Write” by Bobby Hawthorne; try one by Lisa Kasberg on page 18, “Trudging Along” on page 20 or “It’s The Smallest” on page 21. These pages also include writing tips for leads and putting it all together. More examples can be found in “School Newspaper Adviser’s Survival Guide” by Patricia Osborn on pages 203-211.
  • Samples of professional features taken from local media sources. Check local newspaper or available magazines for other examples.
    • (Exercises on writing leads, recognizing common redundancies, using transitions can be found in most journalism text books or “School Newspaper Adviser’s Survival Guide” by Patricia Osborn)
    • Understanding Goals
    • Recognize difference between a topic and a feature story idea
    • Discover the natural way stories are told to others
      • Painting a picture with words
      • Finding the nugget when nothing seems obvious
  • Learn different ways of creating interesting ledes
  • Find ways to keep readers moving through the story with use of transitions
  • Learning aspects of tight writing and getting rid of redundancies


Day One

  • Students are asked to close their eyes and envision the most interesting thing they experienced over the weekend or summer vacation. Allow about 5-10 minutes of absolute quiet while students. No talking allowed. This is an individual exercise. The only person allowed to talk is teacher. (Might be a nice touch to add classical background music)
  • Divide students into small groups and ask each member of group to describe their “interesting thing” to others in the group. Each person is limited to speaking for no more than five minutes. A timer will sound at five-minute intervals, signaling change in speakers. (This should take at least 20-30 minutes)
  • Students return to their desks and are instructed to now put that description in writing. They have 15 minutes to do so.
  • Students return to the small group they were in for activity two and take turns reading their descriptions to group members. When finished they return to their seats.
  • Class discussion on how many stories sounded the same orally and in writing. What, if any, were the differences between the two? Teacher will guide discussion and incorporate points about the naturalness of story telling.
    • How we tell the story is what sets us apart stylistically. It is what gives us our own unique voices.
    • Were students more natural when speaking about their experiences than when writing about them?
  • Why did some feel the need to tell the story differently in print? (Take remainder of period to do this and could possibly continue at beginning of second day if necessary.)

Day Two

  • Discuss feature writing and how it is a natural extension of story telling. The writer must find the “nugget” in their subject and then “paint a picture” with words that will keep readers interested. The “nugget” is what makes the subject of the story worth reading about. It is that special something that sets them apart and makes them newsworthy. Everybody has a story if a reporter listens closely and asks enough questions to find it. Teacher can demonstrate this by randomly selecting a student from class and conducting an on the spot interview. Take resulting information and show thought process on board of how information can be turned into a story. Get input or suggestions from students on this. “Painting the picture” is the form the story takes. (This will take about 45 minutes)
  • To further explore style have students read example of good feature stories written by other high school students. (This activity will take about 20 minutes or longer depending on how many you decide to read and discuss.) One good source of these would be the National Edition on my.highschooljournalism.org.
  • Explain roles of features and variety of types of features using examples from your textbook or go to “School Newspaper Adviser’s Survival Guide” by Patricia Osborn.
  • Students must now come up with an idea for their own feature. This will be done individually with a little brainstorming. Teacher should instruct students on difference in a topic and idea when selecting a topic. For example the Iraq War is a topic, but a former student’s return from the war is a story idea; teen pregnancy is a topic, but teens putting babies in dumpsters is a story idea. Students will turn in a subject for a feature at end of period along with a brief summary of what makes this subject newsworthy. Advise them to look for something new about their subject –we all know smoking is bad for your health, but what new information do you have access to that is not known. If there is not new information on the subject the story is just a repetition of what has already been said and done. One idea might be the new or subtle ways cigarette companies may be luring teens to smoke.
Day Three
  • Students will use class time to outline sources for the feature idea selected the previous day. They will prepare a written plan listing persons they will interview and any printed sources they plan to seek background information from. (Spend about 30 minutes on this)
  • Students will break into small groups and present their outlines to members of their group. Group members will then provide input on each individual’s plan perhaps adding other sources that may have been overlooked.
  • Students will receive instructions on time frame to collect information. Time allowed can be at teacher’s discretion. To give a taste of “real world” keep this time frame short. Three to four days to gather information is sufficient. Remind students they will need to manage their time in a way that they are able to obtain information after school as in “homework.” This is a good time to incorporate value of deadlines.

Day Four-Six

  • Library or lab time should be scheduled for student during class for the next few days if possible. Students may use this time to do research with help of library sources and Internet access. They may also use time to work on stories. Teacher will roam among students to provide individual assistance where needed. During this three-day period exercises on transitions, redundancies and tight writing can be incorporated each day during first half of class. These exercises are available in most journalism textbooks. Some have been provided with this lesson.

Day Seven

  • Day of Reckoning — Rough drafts are due.
  • Break into small groups and have students peer edit each other’s work. (About 40 minutes) Remind them they are not being kind by not pointing out mistakes or unanswered questions in their fellow student’s work. Have students first read their papers out loud to members of their group and then exchange and read. Each member of groups must read each story then using editing marks make corrections. When finished each student initials all papers they edited. (Advise student to not mark in a way that makes copy unreadable, use editing marks.)
  • Students return to their desks and use rest of class period to work on rewrite process.

Day Eight

  • Revised stories due for final grade.
  • Grading can be done on a daily basis at teacher’s discretion. (Daily participation grades, pass/fail on meeting deadlines, rough draft grade, etc.)
  • Final paper should count as major grade. I use the 6+1 grading system for final written work. This is a system which was provided to English teachers at my school that I modified a little to meet my needs.
Ideas and content

What you have to say-the reason for writing the paper. This is the message. Topic is narrow and manageable.

20 points
Organization This is what gives writing direction and helps move reader through ideas in a purposeful way. Begins with strong lead and continues with pacing, order and transitions. 15 points
Voice This is YOU coming through in your writing. It gives writing personality, flavor and style. Only you can give this touch. Honesty is important. Think about reader and use different forms as audience and purpose changes. Ask yourself if you would keep reading if paper was longer. 20 points
Word Choice Precise and colorful words as well as active a voice are Important here. Keep vocabulary natural and specific — not pretentious. 15 points
Sentence Fluency Listen to rhythm of language and read your work aloud to yourself and others and decide if you like the sound. Cut the deadwood; get rid of unnecessary and redundant words. 15 points
Conventions Edit your work and fix spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraph, typos and capitalization errors. 15 points
Presentation Neatness counts. This is how it looks. If handwritten it should not be careless, too slanted, loopy, or tiny. Make your writing inviting. It’s not a good idea for the person grading to have a migraine. 15 points

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