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Five Questions For … Mother Jones Writer Kristina Rizga, On `Failing’ Schools, Objectivity, and Talking To Teachers

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For her story Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong, Mother Jones contributing writer Kristina Rizga went deep inside San Francisco’s Mission High School, to find out what was underneath the “low-performing” label. Her work has attracted both praise and some criticism.(Click here for her exchange with blogger Alexander Russo, and here for the Fordham Institute’s take, again with Rizga’s response). Rizga spoke with EWA about how she approached the project, and lessons she learned along the way.

1. You spent a significant amount of time at Mission High, building relationships with the students, teachers and staff. Were there moments that you had to guard your objectivity?

It’s something I struggle with as a reporter every day. My belief is that I don’t think any of us can be purely objective, although it’s an ideal we should strive for strongly. We all bring our biases, backgrounds and education to our reporting. That’s why it’s important to hear from as many diverse voices as you can. When you recognize that you bring unconscious biases to a story, you can always check in with yourself throughout your work. You can say, “This is what the student says, this is what the teacher says, this is what the data says. Now, what is the truth?”

2. Did you go to Mission with a story in mind, or did it evolve along the way?

What I really wanted to do as a reporter was to understand what the challenges were in a so-called failing school. I planned to spend six months at Mission and then six months at a so-called “better” school with higher test scores, find the formula for why that school was better, and suggest that as a solution. Really quickly, I realized that Mission has students from 47 countries, many have been here less than two years, and that students bring special needs–both social and academic–with them. I realized there really isn’t a utopian model that is going to work for most students and most teachers.

3. Did you find yourself changing positions on any issues or rethinking assumptions about how student and school success is measured?

I went into this project really believing that test scores, while an imperfect measure, were the best measure we have today to evaluate schools. But you spend 18 months on a campus, and you begin to realize that a much better measure of what goes on in a school is the actual student work, as well as student and parent feedback. Students give amazing answers when you ask them “What are you learning, how are you learning, when do you know you are learning?”

4.There’s a remarkably vivid section in the story in which you describe your protagonist Maria’s thought process as she struggles to answer a practice test question. How did you build that narrative?

That was one of the most difficult scenes for me to recreate. We’re not allowed to observe the actual test but I thought it was absolutely critical to the story. I wanted to know what does it feel like to be a student taking this test. I watched Maria take the practice test, and I focused on her body language – how she behaved when she was writing the answers. I caught her nervousness, her anxiety, her bouncing leg.

Afterward, I asked her to walk me through one specific test question, and we talked for 30 to 50 minutes about it.

She told me she had to translate the question from English into her native Spanish before she could try to answer. That’s something I understood. I’m from Latvia, and I did the same thing when I moved to the United States at age 18. For years, I had to translate, and I was really slow.

5. What advice might you have for other education writers who might be considering tackling a similar narrative project?

I always want to ask a lot of questions, and sometimes I find myself talking more than listening. Sometimes it’s useful to just let the tape roll. Some of the best moments (in the story) were spontaneous – discussions that went on after class, real mentoring and collaboration among teachers and students.

One of the things I heard from teachers was that they feel stories tend to lump them into “one teacher” or “one principal” saves a school. It misses the role of the student, and in schools there’s a lot of things that are student oriented.

I had the same problem at the beginning. I was talking about data, and teachers were talking about students. It was as though we were speaking different languages. A teacher finally asked me, “Why do you talk about jargon and numbers and studies?” Once we started talking about specific students like Maria, and how they learn, and how the teacher finds evidence that her students are motivated and learning, everything changed. That was a breakthrough moment for me. If you can talk to teachers about students, and not studies and numbers, that will help a lot.