Northwest Scholastic Press

The Best Journalism Teacher I Ever Had

Though she was most famous for her films and books, Nora Ephron, who died at 71 in 2012, actually started her career as a journalist in high school in Beverly Hills. Ephron graduated from Wellesley College before beginning her career as a journalist at the New York Post. She then went on to write about the 1970s women's movement for Esquire.

Nora Ephron 1941-2012

Nora Ephron 1941-2012

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The best teacher I ever had was named Charles Simms, and he taught journalism at Beverly Hills High School in 1956 and 1957. He was young, cute in an owlist way — crew cut, glasses, etc. — and was a gymnast in the 1956 Olympics. He was also the first person any of us knew who had stereo earphones, and he taught us all to play mahjong.

The first day of journalism class, Mr. Simms did what just about every journalism teacher does in the beginning — he began to teach us how to write a lead. The way this is normally done is that the teacher dictates a set of facts and the class attempts to write the first paragraph of a news story about them. Who, what, where, when, how and why. So he read us a set of facts. It went something like this:

“Kenneth L. Peters, principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium on new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, and several others.”

We all began typing, and after a few minutes we turned in our leads. All of them said approximately what Mr. Simms had dictated, but in the opposite order (“Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty,” etc.).  Mr. Simms riffled through what we had turned in, smiled, looked up and said: “The lead to the story is, ‘There will be no school Thursday.’”

It was an electrifying moment. So that’s it, I realized. It’s about the point. The classic newspaper lead of who-what-where-when-how-and-why is utterly meaningless if you haven’t figured out what the significance of the facts is. What is the point? What does it mean? He planted those questions in my head.

And for the year he taught me journalism, every day was like the first; every assignment, every story, every set of facts he provided us had a point buried in it somewhere if you looked hard enough. He turned the class into a gorgeous intellectual game, and he gave me an enthusiasm for the profession that I have never lost. Also, of course, he taught me something that works just as well in life as it does in journalism.

After teaching at Beverly Hills High School for two years, Charles Simms quit and opened a chain of record stores in Los Angeles. I hope he’s a millionaire.


1 Comment

One Response to “The Best Journalism Teacher I Ever Had”

  1. Rob Melton on June 18th, 2013 1:00 pm

    You can never go wrong following Charles Simms’ teaching methods. I ran across this column when I first started teaching. It planted firmly in my mind the importance of the epiphany in a student’s learning. Everything that followed in my teaching was based on this notion of learning — that the student only knows through a series of well-orchestrated epiphanies. I used to give a stylebook test and we would grade and discuss it together when we were done. Then I had my own epiphany — what you want a journalist to do when they don’t know the answer to a style question is to look it up. After that, I just handed them the test, and usually 15-20 minutes into the test, someone would ask “Can we use our stylebook to figure out the correct answer?” to which I replied — to the amazement of the other students in the class — “Of course!”


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The Best Journalism Teacher I Ever Had