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NEW YORK — When planning an election-year trip to the Southwest border for our undergraduate political reporting class last spring, we imagined reprising an award-winning reporting journey we took to a rural swing district in Maine during the 2018 midterms.

This time, we wanted our students at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, to report on contentious border issues –immigration, Trump’s wall, the Latino vote and voter suppression – that have turned Texas into a purple state.

The pandemic, which hit New York City just a few weeks before our departure in April, was not part of our plan. It not only scuttled our trip, but both the pandemic and the economic fallout hit our majority minority students hard.

The switch to virtual teaching was especially jarring for us because our course was built completely around our spring-break trip – with all the excitement that travel entails. In the days after Baruch closed its campus, we agonized: Should we reorganize the rest of the semester around another topic?

Amid the pandemic, could we give students hands-on political reporting experiences? Must we abandon the background dossiers that students had prepared on New Mexico and Texas?

We could neither travel nor meet in person. To create as much hands-on experience as possible, we contacted dozens of sources whom we had lined up for our students to meet at the border – local politicians, religious and community leaders, academics, immigration advocates and even border police – and they graciously agreed to be interviewed remotely.

We organized our 14 students into reporting pairs, assigning each several interviews around story topics they had brainstormed as a class. We sensed, correctly, that we had built a sufficient foundation for the students to take the lead on these interviews.

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Early in the semester, during a unit on the U.S. Census, we had taught them how to plumb demographic data and to understand why the census was key to both political apportionment and allocating federal funds for institutions like public schools.

They fanned out across historically undercounted communities like Harlem and reported on the 2020 census. Still, we were taking a risk. Last April, as the coronavirus swept through the city, our students and their relatives, many of whom work front-line jobs, were especially vulnerable to the health and economic devastation befalling New York.

Several students lost jobs and suffered financial difficulty. One battled an illness with Covid-19 symptoms; another saw her mother hospitalized.

Yet, amid tragedy and loss, our students showed up to our weekly online classes to workshop story angles and share ideas. On two occasions – with a young Mexican-American state legislator and with administrators from a rural school district – the entire class participated in Zoom interviews.

From their video boxes they asked informed questions, took prolific notes, and planned follow-up interviews. The students’ deep engagement continued as they edited stories, solicited photos from sources, wrote headlines and produced a package of articles about border life interrupted by politics and the pandemic.

To our surprise, our innovative course worked far better than expected even during lockdown. Our Zoom classes became a safe harbor for our students who emerged better trained and more politically aware than we could have imagined.

It is tempting to look at the impressive journalistic work our students produced during lockdown as confirmation of the validity of online education.

To be sure, we learned a lot about what works on Zoom and what doesn’t, along with the challenges of keeping students, sequestered in small online squares, engaged. We broke the class into segments so that the pace was quicker and followed up frequently with emails to make sure communication was clear.

However, we’re convinced that the success of this class is owed to our ability to build a community based on nurturing shared interests in politics and social justice – along with deep reservoirs of trust nurtured during two months of pre-pandemic, in-person classes.

As we look forward to a fall semester teaching entirely online, we are translating those hard-fought lessons to the complex task ahead.

One key takeaway is that students are highly motivated when they become active participants in research and are introduced to people working on the issues being studied. Another is the importance of being strategic about building student participation into every class – for example, by assigning pairs of students to prepare short background presentations each week.

Transferring a hands-on approach to teaching fully online is very difficult and requires a degree of planning not typical of in-person classrooms, places where debate and conversation arise.

This model of teaching could be used in a range of disciplines beyond journalism, at both high school and college, to engage students in complex issues and disciplines.

It also gives students – in our case predominantly Black, Latino and Asian – a better understanding of the importance of civic engagement for addressing social and racial inequities, especially relevant during these times of political polarization and protest.

Equally important, it lifts their gaze from narrow demands, sharpened during the pandemic, of holding down jobs and caring for family while also in school.

Of course, transferring a hands-on approach to teaching fully online is very difficult, and requires a degree of planning not typical of in-person classrooms, places where debate and conversation arise organically from provocative readings and discussions.

Ultimately, we looked to our earlier successes and decided to somehow salvage our original plans. Our political reporting classes had grown out of student reporting trips we took to Cuba, where we covered emerging entrepreneurism in 2015, the arts in 2016, and the local environment in 2017.

Our students thrived on the adventure of visiting Cuba – our first trip took place just weeks after the détente between President Obama and Raul Castro – along with the challenge of reporting on social, economic and political changes in this long-closed society, and the implications for American policy.

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Looking forward, we are applying these lessons to the upcoming semester. Andrea will teach a seminar on the arts and New York City for students in CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, building lessons around historical connections between the arts and protest movements.

To engage students, she will assign student teams – essential to building community in online classes – to research history and context for lessons.

They’ll include the development of Central Park, with its now-controversial monuments and landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted built atop Seneca Village, a destroyed African-American community, along with Depression-era Mexican muralists and the capitalist critiques of playwrights like Clifford Odets.

Class visits via Zoom from a New York Historical Society librarian, a labor reporter from The New York Times and even New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who moonlights as a thespian, will bring these subjects to life.

In Vera’s class on news media’s role in society, students will work in pairs to profile the journalistic landscape in foreign countries, as a way to understand press freedoms around the globe.

Student teams will zero in on countries that interest them. Vera will bring in experts from groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists to brief students about their work. 

Such lessons take weeks of preparation, reaching out to experts and breaking down classroom segments for variety. It means allocating so many minutes for student presentations, short videos or podcasts, group work in break-out rooms, guest speakers, brief lectures by one of us – to avoid the stasis that can easily set in on Zoom.

We learned during our border project that students rise to the challenge when lessons are linked to a region or theme with powerful real-world consequences for them and their communities.

Most of our students came away from the border class determined to become journalists; two secured coveted paid news-media internships on the strength of their class work.

We would never choose to teach online, but are hopeful these lessons will serve our students – and others – during the rest of the pandemic.

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at CUNY’s Baruch College in New York. Her latest book is After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (The New Press, 2018)

Vera Haller is an associate professor of Journalism at CUNY’s Baruch College in New York. She is also an active freelance journalist, covering New York City news as well as foreign immigration stories for publications. Previously, she was editor-in-chief of amNewYork and editor of NYNewsday.com.

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