Ds Scholarship

Piloting a Project: Tips and Handouts From Teachers Working With Our Profile Unit

When we introduce a new contest on our site, we always create resources to help teach with it. But we know those initial resources aren’t enough. While everyone on our editorial staff is a former teacher, none of us are currently in the classroom — or have ever taught during a global pandemic. For real-world tweaks and tips, we count on the intrepid educators who are willing to pilot a new curriculum, then tell us what happens.

This year we debuted our Profile Writing Contest, and, below, three members of The New York Times Teaching Project are helping us fill in the gaps. We hope you’ll borrow from their ideas, whether to participate in the challenge, to do a similar project of your own, or just to focus on a few of the skills the unit can teach.

First, Blake Buckholt, an English teacher in Utah, explains how he’s working through the full step-by-step unit we’ve published, but creating his own hands and presentations along the way, and sharing them with you. Then, we spotlight a Connecticut high school’s inspiring profile project, overseen by Kristina Harvey, an English teacher, and Lora Simakova, the student newspaper’s editor in chief. Finally, we show you how Rama Janamanchi, an Ohio English teacher, has scaled the assignment so that it focuses closely on skills, yet still meets our contest’s goal of encouraging students to get to know the people in their community.

Take a look, borrow what you need and let us know in the comments how you’re adapting this unit and its resources.

Fascinating people are everywhere: in our neighborhoods, schools and communities. So when the Learning Network announced its first ever Profile Writing Contest, I was excited to encourage my students, paper and pencil in hand, to interview the interesting people in our community.

However, as an English teacher with no experience in journalism, I had no idea where to begin. Developing the curriculum for a new writing unit — one that includes the basics of journalism and portrait photography, no less! — was overwhelming.

These two resources The Learning Network developed in conjunction with the contest were a godsend:

But while they broke down the process of writing a profile piece, I needed tangible resources — daily lesson plans, student handouts and presentations — before I could get started. So I adapted the Learning Network’s steps into easy, use-it-in-your-classroom-today documents.

I haven’t finished the full project, but here is where I am so far. You can make a copy of all of the handouts and presentations by clicking on the provided links, and I’ll be adding more resources to this post as we go.

Day 1: Read a Range of Profiles to See How It’s Done

To help students understand the conventions, expectations, purpose and audience of profile writing, conduct a genre analysis. In the student handout “Profile Genre Analysis,” students will find, read and analyze five Times profiles pieces.

In addition to (or in lieu of) students answering the questions on the handout, they can work in pairs or small groups to answer the questions in the “Genre Analysis Presentation.”

Day 2: Choose a Subject (and Recommend a Relative)

The student handout “Choose a Subject” — and its accompanying teacher presentation — is divided into three parts. Parts 1 and 2 have students read and reflect on the insights Corey Kilgannon shared in his profile of Supergirl, the world’s strongest teenager.

In Part 3, students will begin the most difficult part of this unit: Choosing a subject to interview. This section includes advice from Corey Kilgannon and Chris Colin, both Times experts, about how they go about finding fascinating local people to profile. It ends with students picking The Learning Network’s brainstorming activity to help a person to profile.

Because one of the rules of this contest is that students can’t interview relatives — in journalism, that is a conflict of interest — the Learning Network suggests that students can suggest their relatives to other students as possible subjects.

To help, I created “Recommend a Relative. Steal a Relative,” which allows students to refer their fascinating family members to their peers. Remember: A spoonful of extra credit encourages students to do more than expected! You can create your own “Recommend a Relative” form here. To create the “Steal a Relative,” click on “Responses,” then click on the green “create spreadsheet” icon and rename the document “Steal a Relative.” Be sure to change the sharing settings to “anyone with the link can view” and share the link with your students.

Here is a screenshot of how the students’ suggestions looked when I exported them to a spreadsheet for my whole class to see:

Finally, I also recommended some of the interesting people I know (with their permission, of course) as subjects for my students. Subsequently, my students interviewed an ultramarathoner who has type 1 diabetes, a prosecuting attorney who used AncestryDNA to solve a 20-year-old cold case, a professional wildlife photographer who captures rodents holding teddy bears, and a retired detective who believes in Bigfoot.

Day 3: Practice for the Interview

In this lesson, students practice the interview process by interviewing a classmate they don’t know well. The teacher presentation “Practice for the Interview” walks students through choosing a theme, writing interview questions, starting the interview and asking follow-up questions. After students interview their peers, they can reflect on the process with this handout.

Day 4: Prepare for the Interview

The student handout “Prepare for the Interview” and accompanying teacher presentation break down researching the subject, choosing an angle and writing interview questions.

Homework: Contact Your Subject and Set Up an Interview

Because of the nature of this assignment, students will most likely need time outside of class to contact their subject and set up an interview. Once students have scheduled their interview, they can complete and submit this brief handout. In this short presentation, Corey Kilgannon offers students advice on what to say when contacting their subject.

Homework: Conduct the Interview

Before you send your students out to conduct their interviews, review this presentation of advice from Times experts. Once students have completed their interview, they can complete this short reflection, designed to help them start thinking about what material they will include in their Q. and A. profile.

And stay tuned: More to come as my students and I continue to work!

Long before we came up with our profile contest, the staff members of The Forum, the Wilton High School newspaper, did their own version — a multimedia piece called “Hidden Gems.” In fact, their faculty adviser, Kristina Harvey, a Teaching Project alumna, and the paper’s student editor, Lora Simakova, were instrumental in helping us think through the details of our own contest!

To introduce “Hidden Gems,” student writers Bella Andjelkovic, Joy Ren and Lora Simakova explain the rationale for the project:

In a poll of 54 high school students at Wilton High School 48.1% do not know the names of any of the staff at their school excluding teachers, counselors, and administrators, 77.7% of students do not feel like they know these staff members well, and 72.3% of students rarely converse with them.

Most graduate students without ever learning the name of the cafeteria worker that sat behind the cash register at lunch, the custodian that swept the gym floors after school dismissal, or the receptionist that greeted them every morning.

Read the full introduction, then click through the online presentation to get to know Kim Ely, Nancy Murphy and Rodney Thoby.

We asked Ms. Simakova to do a version of our “Annotated by the Author” feature and walk us through some of the writing choices her staff made. Below are the first two paragraphs of the piece on Kim Ely, in bold. Under it, Ms. Simakova’s commentary:

Step through the doors at the front of Wilton High School, and you arrive at Kim’s Booth. With a genuine smile behind her mask, she welcomes over 1,000 students into the school every morning, and wishes them a good day every afternoon.

For years, “Kim’s Booth” has been the prime location for peppermint candies, a reliable delivery system, and a greeting followed by a quick chat between classes. She really has become a daily “destination” for many students, marking her booth as an essential landmark of Wilton High School. A mere 7ft by 9ft rectangular prism with all sides wrapped with glass, the booth has woven itself into the very fabric of the high school’s culture.

Our audience was not only the students and faculty of Wilton High School, but also the community and even strangers with no previous knowledge of the school. We wanted to help the average person to understand the power and importance of Ely’s role in the school. We really zoom into her job and why the students like her so much. Notice how we give real, relatable examples such as grabbing peppermint candies or having a quick chat on the way to class.

Think of these “painting a picture” examples as sort of transitions from section to section. You want the reader to have a breather from information when they read, and oftentimes that means adding fun and descriptive language and visual scenarios to bring that to life.

Whether you are having your students create profile pieces for our contest or for your own classroom or school, there is much to learn from the accessible, welcoming, thoughtful way this newspaper’s staff laid out the feature. Note not only the writing, but also the photography, audio and video clips that introduce each person.

Who are the “hidden gems” in your community? How could your students learn more about them, then share that information?

Maybe in this chaotic Omicron-variant winter you don’t have the space in your curriculum to do the full profile project right now. If so, you might borrow some ideas from Rama Janamanchi, an English teacher in Ohio.

She has invited different administrators — including, so far, the Director of Athletics, the Facilities Manager, the Director of Student Services, and the Academic Dean — to visit her classroom at the Lawrence School in Sagamore Hills, Ohio, to be interviewed by her students. To hone their listening skills beforehand, her students used these questions from StoryCorps to interview each other. As they worked, they decided which of the questions seemed most natural and useful for the adults they would interview.

Then the class focused on asking follow-up questions, a skill that might look easy, but takes quite a bit of practice. In fact, many of the Times we quoted in our step-by-step guide addressed the subtleties of doing this well. For example, Corey Kilgannon cautioned aspiring interviewers to make a list of questions, but to use that list carefully:

It’s good to have a list, whether on an index card or on your phone or in a notebook, in case you either get nervous or you forget. But don’t get too scripted. It’s always a conversation. Anything they say can fuel your next question. Like, “Really, you did that?” Or, “How did you pull that off?” Build off what they say and formulate new questions based upon what they’re telling you.

Ms. Janamanchi created tools like the worksheet shown in the image above to help her students understand how to listen to others, whether fellow students or adults. She knew she had met that goal when, after one of the interviews with an administrator, a student said, “We think we know people but we only see one side of them until we hear their stories. Then we see them in a whole new way.”

Now Ms. Janamanchi is thinking about how her students can share what they learned. Our contest asks for a full Q. and A., based on Times models. Her scaled-down model might take the form of a one-pager or a quick sketch. Both allow them to translate what they heard without feeling the pressure of creating a full Q. and A. And after they practice with formats like these, Ms. Janamanchi says her students might move on to creating a Top Five list (modeled on The Times’s My Ten) or a more traditional profile (like the ones created for Corey Kilgannon’s column Character Study).

Are you teaching with the profile contest — or any individual elements from it? We’d love to hear how. Post a comment, or write to us at LNFeedback@nytimes.com, and thank you!


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