Chocolate Milk. Capri Sun drink pouches. Snickerdoodles. Sugar cookies. Pipe cleaners. Glitter glue. Colored feathers. The checkout clerk asks, “Looks like a fun party — kid’s birthday?”
“No,” I answer. “Just supplies for a journalism design class. College kids.”
And so it went almost every week this past school year: snacks and crafts and lots of learning. I had been assigned the editing and design course after a 16-year absence from teaching something similar. In 2000, it was all about designing a newspaper front page. What to do?
I needed to get up to speed on the latest design technology, and my students and I needed to learn three Adobe products: InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. I did a free eight-week Adobe “Train the Trainer” online course last summer. The instructors’ teaching made me think about creativity and how my students seemed to lack it.
All of my students received artist berets, sketch pads, drawing pencils and charcoal on the first day of class. I also had them complete an information form about their design skills and what they believed to be their creativity level. Many students had said on the first day of class that they were not creative and were “worried.” That worry soon ended, though.
The university where I teach is a “Tree Campus USA,” so I had all 16 students choose one of the many trees, give it a name and photograph it over the fall semester as the seasons changed. The students then used the photographic images in assigned projects. They also drew the tree and its leaves or branches and did bird crafts to place in their trees. I said the students needed to “know the tree, be the tree.”
Of course, those first two weeks were fun, but my students also began to relax and share their work willingly with others. They laughed and created wonderful things such as clay birds with googly eyes that they placed in their trees and photographed.
Then, after the first two weeks and through midterm time, the students learned the three Adobe products using their tree photos and drawings for the assignments. We did “little planets” with Photoshop, Tree Campus posters with InDesign and tree logos with Illustrator.
As long as the students made it to class, tried the assignments — and didn’t whine — they received an A for the first half of the course. (Everybody gets an A!) I should note that no templates were allowed in this course; everything had to be created from scratch.
I discussed basic design principles every week — the use of typography, color, white space and so on. I printed their assignments and taped them to the white board at the front of the classroom; we then held critiques. The food became more sophisticated — hummus, pita chips and carrots (although Capri Sun was always a hit). The next half of the semester, I assigned graded projects such as magazine double spreads and covers, complete with simple grading rubrics.
I asked the students what they wanted to create that wasn’t on the list of projects. Because many of them were looking for internships or their first jobs, they wanted to learn how to do an infographic resume, not the brochure assignment I had planned. This is an example of when I needed to bring in a professional graphic designer, who was happy to receive an Amazon gift card in exchange.
The students in my classes, both fall and spring, liked the course, according to course evaluations. They looked forward to it. It was a space where they wouldn’t fail — and could get something to eat at the same time.
Students had to learn to plan their projects or designs in their sketch books, not just jump in with no thought (which many tended to do at first). As they moved from my lectures into creating their own work, I learned that I needed to be a tour guide, not “a sage on the stage” — something I learned from my Adobe training course.
Adobe emphasizes three steps for the instructor to use in the classroom:
- Do direct instruction, remembering that students’ attention spans are short.
- Do guided practice, where students help each other and the instructor helps, too.
- Do independent projects, which were my students’ graded projects.
The MIT Media Lab, now in its fourth decade, promotes “The 4 P’s of Learning”:
- Projects: Learn by doing
- Peers: Learn from others and by teaching others
- Passion: Do/create things in which you are interested
- Play: Make it fun and make time to play
I incorporated the 4 P’s of learning without knowing it. I came across the 4 P’s this spring. I think these can be utilized in many journalism courses, though — not just design.
As one student said in a course evaluation: “I liked that Dr. Peck focused on helping us further develop a sense of creativity. A lot of the classes that we take in this program are about rules, theories, methods, etc., and it was nice to have a class where you could do anything.”
Give the students the tools they need, then let them experiment. You might be surprised with what they create. I was.
Lee Anne Peck is a professor of journalism in the School of Communication at the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, where she teaches media ethics, media writing, and editing and design courses. Peck serves as a member of SPJ’s Education Committee. Twitter: On Twitter: @lpeck80 Email: