Comic books and the fixes that shape our lives 

Hi. My name is Jim, and I’m a comic book nerd.

My childhood was an odd blend of library books, Matchbox cars, and comic books. It was the colorful battles of good versus evil in the pages of comic books that most captured my attention and imagination. 

Every nerd had a dealer, a place with colorful circular racks of comics that revealed new adventures with every squeaky turn.

My dealer of choice was aptly named County Drugs, an old-time corner pharmacy in Gateway Plaza in Jeffersonville that specialized in convenience and service. They knew me. I knew them. They had my titles. I could always get my monthly fix. 

It helped that County Drugs was in the same shopping center as another Lang family fix, Mario’s Pizza. My sister and I knew that a trip to Mario’s meant more than just pizza and sandwiches.  

For Suzanne, Mario’s provided the magical gift of jukebox music, a chance to dance freely around the restaurant to the tunes of Billy Joel and, I kid you not, Anne Murray, while awaiting our food. 

For me, though, Mario’s provided the perfect opportunity to sneak down to County Drugs to snatch up the latest Batman or Uncanny X-Men.

These are the moments that provide hints of who we will be. My sister’s future as an actress, theatre arts teacher, and arts lover began with her childhood dance recitals at Mario’s.

And my lifelong fascination with great storytelling began with Batman’s battles with the Joker, and the X-Men’s struggles with humanity. My monthly comic book fix shaped my love for reading and writing and led me to a high school journalism classroom, where my students’ reporting and storytelling about real people and events shape lives, too.

And now, while I still devour the heroic adventures of Batman and the X-Men like the true comic book nerd that I am, I’m just as hooked by the stories my student journalists report, write, and publish. In a world where truth often seems as incredible as a comic book story, the stories of teen journalists are as essential — as heroic — as the wildest superhero exploits. 

Too often we view our childhood “fixes” merely as distant memories, glimpses of our past selves long forgotten. In truth, though, these fixes – our habits, routines, and simple moments – impact who we are in unthinkable, unpredictable ways. They shape our lives.

They shape our stories. 

They help us shape others’ stories, too. 

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This year my students will help me write well

By Jim Lang

Writing is a funny thing. Sometimes the words pour out of us. Sometimes we hit dry spells.

Perhaps it’s been the hectic schedule of summer, or maybe it’s been the frenzy of the new school year, but I have produced a vast amount of nothing during the last few weeks.

Like most educators and writers (let’s face it – most teachers are writers, too), my inspiration so often comes from my own students. That is the case with me now.

As I write these words, I am surrounded by the sounds of my own student writers — tapping keyboards, scratching pencils, sighs of frustration, the turning of notebook pages. My classroom at this very moment is filled with the oddly active silence of writing.

That’s the commitment we’ve made as writers in my Journalism I class this year – to spend time writing each week, usually on Fridays. This is our time away from the stress of standardized tests, the rapid pace of our hallways and classrooms, the to-do lists that seem to own our lives, and the noise.

We will write here most Fridays. Perhaps we’ll work on our story assignments. This week it’s our personality profiles. Perhaps we’ll work on something unrelated to school. Something unique. Something special. Something not dictated by endless streams of data, standards, or tests. Sometimes “just something” is enough.

We’ll share our writing here, too. We’ll help each other grow as writers through editing and revision. We’ll trust that our love for writing will help us make this classroom a true community of writers.

So, here I am writing. Today I am not their teacher.

I am a fellow writer.

My dry spell is over.

Teacher Appreciation Week 2014: The Places I Loved and the Lessons I Learned in High School

by Jim Lang

The next four years Jeffersonville High School took me into the world of high school journalism, and thanks to Tony Willis, I never really left. To this day no educational experience has so thoroughly shaped me as a person and as a teacher as being a member of The Hyphen newspaper staff. I loved every minute of it.

I learned to write and report in Tony Willis’s classroom. I learned how to lead and listen, to rely on and value others. I learned how to work with my peers as a team and how to problem solve. And along the way I gained valuable friendships and experienced a love for scholastic journalism that guides virtually every decision I make in my own classroom today.

Mr. Willis’s newspaper room (it was always more than just a classroom) was my home for four years of high school. I carry the lessons I learned from him and my fellow Hyphen journalists to my own student journalists every day. He influenced me in a way that no other teacher ever has.

That’s what I remember the most about Jeffersonville High School – the incredible number of exceptional teachers who contributed so much to who I am today.

French teacher Jenni Herfel initiated my love for travel during a 20-day, 5-nation European class trip in 1985 that remains one of my favorite high school experiences. Traveling with Mrs. Herfel was just like learning in her classroom – it was a fun adventure.

Social studies teacher Margaret Shea taught me to love history and to think deeply, critically, and logically; to this day, I still love solving logic problems because of her European history class.

Government teacher Bill Wilson introduced me to my love for politics and government. English teachers Rita Blois and Judie Wortham continued to introduce me to authors and books that I loved. Reading was fun in their classes. Their colleague, Carolyn Carter, pushed me as a writer more than any English teacher ever has, and in doing so, sharpened my writing skills for college and beyond. Chemistry teacher Jim Kennedy was the strictest teacher I’ve ever had – I had to work every day to earn a “B” in his class. More than any teacher, Mr. Kennedy taught me how to study and to push beyond barriers to learn.

And then there was Jill O’Daniel. I spent three consecutive years in her French classes. Every day was fun. I confess I don’t remember a lot of high school French – Bonjour! Je m’appelle Jim! Aujourd’hui! Um, and oddly enough, Ferme la bouche! But French was just like journalism – project-based, interactive, and challenging. We used to create elaborate projects and posters using French terms. We all had French names – I was Jacques for three years. And perhaps most of all, I remember really enjoying learning with my fellow students. Ms. O’Daniel had this oddly sneaky way of always being prepared yet always placing the responsibility for our learning in our hands. She made me a better student, and in doing so, ultimately has made me a better teacher, too.

My high school years prepared me perfectly for life. Jeffersonville High School was a school full of special, dedicated teachers who worked every day to make a lasting impact in the lives of their students.

And here’s the thing. Don’t let the false rhetoric of education “reform” and misguided emphasis we now place on standardized tests and school-wide grades fool you – Jeffersonville High School is still filled with dedicated, incredibly talented educators. The names have changed. The challenges are different. But the dedication to the success of each child remains.

Thursday: A Special Place Defined by Two Special College Teachers

Teens who create, produce, and perform often learn the most

by Jim Lang

Two lessons I have learned as a journalism teacher and media adviser over the years:

  • Some of the most valuable student learning often occurs after the school day ends.
  • Some of the most valuable learning occurs when students produce a product or perform.

I considered these thoughts again this week as I dodged various groups of marching band students after school in the hallways. Preparing for their state competition that occurred yesterday in Indianapolis, these students avoided  the gathering storm clouds outside and moved their practice inside.

Passersby who observed these talented musicians would observe every attribute needed to excel in the “real world”:

  • Creative problem solving
  • Complete mastery of skills
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership (every group was student led)
  • Pride in their work
  • Pride in each other

I see this same kind of dedication and learning in our school’s theatre, orchestra, and choral programs. I see it in our radio/TV, NJROTC, and business management classes. And I see it in my own classroom with our newspaper, yearbook, and web media students.

Classes that provide students the chance to learn skills and practice them in a high-stakes environment provide some of the most essential learning and leadership opportunities. And in a time when our educational system overemphasizes the need for standardized testing, these courses provide the necessary creative outlet for real learning.

Just as significantly, they also provide teenagers a “home” within the school, a place where they will create memories and take a special kind of ownership for their learning.

It’s no coincidence that social media is filled with Floyd Central marching band students proud of their sixth-place finish at state this weekend. These students have spend countless hours dedicating themselves to something larger than themselves, all while learning at the highest level possible.

This is the same special kind of learning that occurs when our theatre students work tirelessly to perform Les Miserables. This learning occurs during every orchestra or choral concert, or radio/TV broadcast. It occurs when my own journalism students write a story, design a spread, or publish a newspaper. And for that matter, it occurs anytime students accept the fact that their learning is primarily their responsibility.

When teens in any class or extracurricular activity gather to practice, create, manage, or perform, they do more than just learn at the highest possible level.

They also create an experience that they and others value and appreciate.

And that experience is much more essential, meaningful, and special than any standardized test they’ll ever take.

San Francisco convention reminds us we must protect journalism, arts education in an era of failed leadership

by Jim Lang

On Sunday I returned from a five-day journey to San Francisco with four Floyd Central journalism students and a colleague. We attended the annual spring convention sponsored by the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association.

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Welcome to California: San Francisco provided a valuable learning experience for my students and for me.

As we attended classes and explored the incredibly beautiful city of San Francisco, I was reminded again of how essential strong elective programs like journalism, media, and the arts are to our schools.

Thousands of engaged, excited high school journalists from all over the nation descended on the Marriott Marquis to learn, compete, and improve their journalism skills. San Francisco provided the perfect backdrop to enhance the experience with historic sightseeing.

My fellow yearbook adviser and I simply turned the trip over to our four senior editors. For five days, we followed their itinerary as they chose their classes and escorted us around the city by navigating public transportation. The trip was the ultimate learning experience where we empowered our students to make all decisions. They did not disappoint us once.

Our San Francisco experience reminded me how much students learn when they get out of the classroom. Our journey reminded me of the value of so many similar school-sponsored trips taken by our school’s exceptional theater, orchestra, choral, and band programs. It also reminded me how much more valuable learning is when our students have the opportunity to decide more than simply which bubble to fill in on a standardized test.

Sadly, it seems our public schools are moving away from offering these kinds of real world experiences, especially here in Indiana. If the ISTEP testing debacle of the last week does not alarm you, then, frankly, you are either not paying attention or simply do not care about the quality of our public schools.

The nationwide education”reform” movement that emphasizes accountability through excessive corporate testing has seized control of Indiana schools. Students and teachers will be held “accountable” through their scores on these corporate tests that seem to gobble up more of our time for classroom instruction each year.

Of course, the complete mess that resulted from this week’s testing proves no one is holding the corporations creating and administering these tests “accountable,” despite the millions of dollars they are earning from legislators posing as fiscal conservatives.

Yes, this is the “business model” that so many education reformers and local chambers of commerce advocate for our schools. It’s a model that wastes time, money, and resources. It’s a model that actually increases federal control over our schools and limits local control. It’s a model based on the false premise that we must test, measure, and standardize every aspect of learning.

Most dangerously, though, it’s a model that will lead to the destruction and removal of journalism, media, and arts programs in our schools. Because the truth is that students in these classrooms think critically, solve problems, embrace challenges, develop good judgment, and master all of the skills necessary to recognize the kind of false logic, hypocrisy, and ineptitude of so many of our current political leaders.

It’s already happening. It’s been two years since we eliminated elementary art, music, and physical education in the New Albany-Floyd County Schools. While in San Francisco, I heard from several of my own colleagues from other states about the severe limits or complete elimination of their journalism programs due to severe budget cuts or because their curricular areas are no longer considered important because they’re not measured on their states’ standardized tests.

Our “leaders” continue to slash our most valuable educational programs, all in the name of fiscal responsibility, yet provide enormous sums of money to outsource our children’s educations to corporations and provide bailouts to failing charter schools.

And we just let them do it.

I thought about this a lot last week as I watched my own students get truly excited

Alcatraz was one of my favorite visits...such interesting history.

Alcatraz was one of my favorite visits…such interesting history.

about attending classes where they could improve their skills and learn from some of the best educators and journalists.I considered it as I watched them intently listen and photograph during a fascinating two-hour trek through Alcatraz. I reflected on it again as they embraced the culture of Chinatown and other areas of one of our most vibrant U.S. cities. And I realized just how much more relevant and important this experience was for them than anything they’ll experience as a result of Indiana’s many wasteful education “reforms.”

I also wondered just close we are to seeing a day where elective programs are history in our public schools.

One thing is certain. We need a change in direction in Indiana government. Now. As stewards of our own government and our children’s futures, we must do a far better job of understanding the complex issues of financing and managing our public schools.

Most importantly, however, we must be more vigilant and protective of our invaluable journalism, media, and arts elective programs. We must ensure that they prosper and remain an integral part of our schools in the face of a culture that values accountability over genuine learning and desires an education system that emphasizes test scores over experiences.

We must protect our nation’s student journalists, musicians, and artists, because we’ll so desperately need the kind of leadership and integrity that they can provide to clean up the mess left by our current “leaders” that we continue to elect in Indiana and nationwide.

Student journalists can teach us about real learning

by Jim Lang

In the last seven hours, I have watched student journalists from California to Indiana to New Jersey work collaboratively to write, photograph, film, and cover the arts on the Indiana University campus. As part of a converged newsroom project at the High School Journalism Institute, these high school students have traveled to IU to enhance their writing, communication, and leadership skills.

I watch these students write, edit, revise, and problem-solve, and I reflect on the many ironies of our modern educational system.

Time and again we listen to our political and educational “leaders” lecture us about the failures of public schools. We must be more accountable, they say. “Data” has become the latest buzz word, as learning has been reduced to a series of standards and memorized facts. We push teenagers to load up on Advanced Placement and honors classes because, of course, with such impressive labels, they must be the most rigorous classes. And the fact that these classes are “weighted” to enhance grade-point averages and may even lead to college credit offers even more incentive to urge teens to select these courses.  After all, the less time students spend in school, the less expensive it is.

All of these ideas have floated through my mind as I have watched these journalism students today. These kids value their experience here because they choose to be here. They value the experience of learning instead of padding their GPAs or working towards a “weight” that places more value on some classes than others. They learn the most not by filling in bubbles on a scan-tron, but by actually working together as a team. Their skills and knowledge are measured not by test scores, but by real-world projects that they will produce and publish.

Just as significantly, my value as an instructor is not measured by arbitrary data that I record in a spread sheet, but by the quality of real work my students publish. As an educator this week, I am accountable not to test scores, but to the writing, photographs, designs, and story packages produced by students who actually had to think and problem solve instead of memorize facts.

In his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink makes a compelling case that intrinsic motivation produces more results than extrinsic rewards in human motivation. I have witnessed this today. I observe this each time I teach a journalism class at IU or at my high school. And more and more, I have come to believe that teenagers will learn the most in classrooms and learning environments where they choose to be, where they are intrinsically motivated to learn.

It’s time we stop listening to political and educational “leaders” who preach the value of excessive testing, accountability, and extrinsic gimmicks that reduce the value and importance of true rigorous learning.

We can learn a lot from these journalism students and their peers. Perhaps it’s time we listen to what they’re telling us.