Flint Hills stories lure Elliott School students out of classroom
The Flint Hills Media Project at Wichita State University helps students become well-rounded journalists by getting them out of the classroom to look for real stories.
The Elliott School of Communication summer course will mark its fourth year in June when students and faculty go onsite to cover the ever-mobile Symphony in the Flint Hills. The course runs June 10-July 5, with the event on June 15.
“(Sitting in a classroom) doesn’t teach you to be a journalist or a storyteller,” said Amy DeVault, an assistant professor for the Elliott School.
“You have to be out there meeting and talking to people and finding out what makes them tick,” she said.
The students not only gain experience creating media for digital and print formats, but they also cross into other disciplines as they prepare to cover a range of topics.
“Students have to prepare to interview orchestra musicians and to write intelligently about the symphony concert," DeVault said. “They learn everything they can about the tallgrass prairie and the history of each region we’re covering.”
This summer, the students will add military history and knowledge to their repertoire.
The Symphony in the Flint Hills (SFH) has been staged in a different pasture every year since 2006. This year’s symphony takes place in historic Ft. Riley. Students will also cover the stories about current Army training and life at the fort.
‘A learning lab’
Since 2010, Elliott School students and faculty in the four-week course have helped tell the story of music, rural life and small towns as the symphony has moved through a new Flint Hills county each year.
The first week, they drive to the chosen site, set up headquarters in a nearby motel some days before the symphony, and fan out in teams to find stories.
The following three weeks back in the classroom are feverish as they write features; edit stories, photographs and videos; and design, layout and publish work on a project website and in a glossy, four-color magazine.
Some of the stories are even picked up by state and local newspapers and television stations.
“The (Flint Hills Media Project) provides a great learning lab for students and teachers alike,” said DeVault.
She has taught the course for three years, the first two with late professor Les Anderson, who developed the course concept.
Last year, associate professor Kevin Hager co-taught the course with DeVault and quickly caught her enthusiasm.
“It’s one of the classes that people who teach should want to teach because it’s not books and lectures and classrooms,” said Hager. “It’s going out and doing what you love to do.”
“This class is becoming one of our leading examples of experience-based learning,” said Lou Heldman, interim director for the Elliott School.
Nationally, out-of-classroom environments are increasingly seen as vital teaching opportunities for many professions. Education Week and related publications are emphasizing the value of real-world settings to improve digital learning, gain a broader base of knowledge and hone skills in problem-solving and creative thinking.
Meanwhile, the Elliott School’s popular media project has attracted the attention of national education associations.
In April, DeVault and Hager were invited to co-present the Flint Hills Media Project at the 2013 National Broadcast Educators Association conference in Las Vegas. And last November at the National High School Journalism Convention in San Antonio, DeVault led a daylong workshop on team storytelling by taking more than 50 high school students out into the city to find and tell stories.
The messages: Get out of the classroom and into real stories. Think like a reader. Use multiple tools to tell your story. Work together using each person’s strengths.
When Matt Cecil, the new Elliott School director, learned about the project during his Wichita State interviews last fall, he took the idea back to South Dakota State University and helped create a similar experience for students to get off campus and cover an annual summer festival.
On the scene
“Les taught me how to teach this way,” said DeVault, who, in 2009, joined Anderson in a similar lab environment in tornado-wiped Greensburg, Kan., as its residents rebuilt their lives and their town.
As with Greensburg, the Flint Hills course puts faculty working side by side with students and encouraging them to develop their own relationships with sources.
“It’s like the old apprentice model,” said DeVault, adding that it builds strong bonds between all participants.
Good journalism is all about relationships, she noted. When the students get to know the people they are interviewing and something of their culture, they become more involved in the stories they are producing.
Kristin Baker, an Andover High School journalism teacher who participated in the 2012 Flint Hills Media Project, wrote about the closing of Marlow Woodcuts in Americus, Kan., after touring the dusty remnants of the once thriving business with its last owner, Wanda Douglas.
“Whenever Wanda got teary-eyed, so did I,” said Baker, who was taken aback at the delicately carved beauty of the woodcuts once sold all over the world.
“When we started, our goal was to help Symphony in the Flint Hills get these stories in the media. Second, of course, was to give our students that experience,” said DeVault.
And, while helping the SFH organization narrate the story of the distinct Flint Hills eco-region, which has the most dense coverage of intact tallgrass prairie in North America, something else has happened, DeVault said.
“What we didn’t expect is that students from everywhere would come home with a love for the Flint Hills and an appreciation for Kansas people.”