The Smoke Signal, MSJ's Official Newspaper


Teacher Spotlight: Mrs. Cohen

By: Staff Writers Hannah Bi & Shuhan Jin

English Teacher Sandra Cohen has been teaching at MSJ for the last 20 years, guiding generations of students through the Smoke Signal and Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). Following a newspaper career in advertising and marketing, her professional experience has helped her make an immense impact on her students, whom she sets up for success in their future careers. After overseeing newspaper operations and sharing her passion for English and writing with many young students, she plans on retiring at the end of this school year. This teacher spotlight delves into Mrs. Cohen’s journey at MSJ. 

The Smoke Signal (SS): Why did you decide to become a teacher at MSJ and what has your teaching journey been like so far?

Sandra Cohen (SC): It was in the year 2000 when I decided that I might want to make a switch in careers from the San Jose Mercury News. I set up an informational interview with the then Superintendent, Doug Gephart, and I just came in and talked about what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to teach English on a high school level and make a switch. It was an interesting thing because he told me, “You know, you could walk into the ROP center and run the store and teach retail,” but I said, “No, I really want to do something completely different.” He said, “You realize you’re going to take a cut in pay,” and I said, “I didn’t realize that.” I think he realized I was serious by the end because I kept saying, “No, no, I want to do this. I want to be in the classroom with kids.” He called me after I passed the [California Basic Educational Skills Test] (CBEST) test and said, “We have a position, it’s at Horner Middle School, the teacher has to leave, and it’s Eighth Grade English. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Absolutely.” I went into the school and immediately enrolled in something that they call a project pipeline, which was emergency pedagogy for someone who had never been in the classroom. I was going to school and teaching at the same time.

SS: When you moved to MSJ, did you immediately become an adviser for the Smoke Signal and also teach for ERWC?

SC: ERWC wasn’t introduced until a little bit later, so that hasn’t been that long. As far as the advisership for the Smoke Signal — no, there was another adviser at that time, Jean Bruneck. I want to say it was a good two or three years, but then he left the school to go to a different district and start up a paper in Portland at a high school there. So he asked me [to be the Smoke Signal’s next adviser]. I was interested. I started shadowing him, and I just decided it would be a cool and fun thing to do. I think it’s been about 18-20 years, longer than [any past advisers other than] Sherry Sabra, which was a long time ago.

SS: How has the Smoke Signal as an organization evolved over your time as the advisor? What are some things that have stayed the same?

SC: I think the basic focus on good writing has stayed the same, and the way that the paper is divided has stayed the same. The sections that we have now are what we had before. It used to be that Feature was called something else. I think the newspaper was a lot smaller [in size]. Every cycle we do about 20 pages, and sometimes ours would be 16 or, you know, even 12 if we didn’t have the time. But that number of issues per year and the size of the paper has gotten bigger. I think the quality of the writing has gotten better. It’s not to say that it was bad. It was just that the focus might be on somebody’s dumpy car in the parking lot, or it might be on more things that were funny. Now I think we’re taking a little bit more of a serious tone in what we do and what we look at.

SS: What are some of your most cherished memories over the years working in the newspaper?

SC: That’s really, really hard to say because really, truly every single year, it’s a different set of faces, and it’s different skill sets. It’s always been truly amazing just to watch students go from being a little bit scared and reticent about what they do to finding their power, getting their voice, and [becoming] leaders. So I would say that each year, that’s the most fun thing: watching the students develop [their skills] over the course of a year. There certainly are some things that stand out, like when we were contacted by Zack Larsen [FUSD’s Assistant Superintendent]. He said, “You know, we have a big [50 year] anniversary [for MSJ coming up].” We all worked together and said, “You know, we have to create a team, and do something on the back page that [reminisces on] MSJ.” We did, and it  was really fun — looking into the history and seeing how the school was. I also think that when we cooperated with [MSJ’s] sister school in Shenzhen province, China before the Olympics [in 2008], we arranged a huge event where we had Yearbook, Peer, Leadership, and [the Smoke Signal] involved with all these organizations. We did a Human Domino Olympic ring in the amphitheater. That was epic, and we made the [local] paper. That was just so much fun because it got everybody and all the organizations involved.

SS: Aside from the Smoke Signal, you’re also a teacher for ERWC. What has that been like, and have you had any favorite memories or things you learned from that class?

SC: I think it is one of the favorite things that I’ve taught. I love, love, love literature, and everything about it. But when they introduced this topic, it was a shift away from literature, and is one of the paths that seniors could take as their choice for 12th-Grade English. I really gravitated towards it because of having worked in newspapers, not as a reporter but in advertising and in marketing and product development and product management. I was familiar with what kind of brilliance comes out of newspaper reporting and reporters. It was a chance to take nonfiction, articles, and case studies — things like that — and make them relevant to the units [in the curriculum]. So I like the focus on writing, reading, and speaking, which are really truly three things that I came to do — to improve that for everybody. So that’s what drew me towards it. I also like the idea that we weren’t given binders with curriculum. At this school, we worked really hard to create our own curriculum and create our own kinds of resources that we thought the students would like. I guess the freedom and the autonomy to do that was very cool.

SS: What are some of your favorite memories at MSJ overall?

SC: It’s got to be the Expo and the work that I did to create that. It was a complete sea shift [away] from the way that open house has always been. We went from having tables in the gym where parents would stand in line and teachers would say “Here’s our books,” and then over to something that was more a showcase of students’ work. That was something that Zach Larson had seen in other schools. We had this field trip where we went out to look at a Livermore school while they were doing this. I said, “This is absolutely fantastic.” From the food trucks to the photo booths to each department getting excited about what they were going to do, [we also had many] parents coming in and community members coming in. Truly, that’s my most epic thing that I’ve ever done, and I am so, so proud that it just continues to go because in my mind, it’s not really about what the teachers teach. It’s about what the students have done. So I like the aspect of that — that we can see showcases of student work.

SS: One year, for the Spring Expo, the Smoke Signal put on music and did a little dance. I think you said that was last year, but I thought that was really cool.

SC: The first year, because I was the one who was managing the project for the whole school, the journalism students got really excited about that. “What can we do? How can we participate? What role are we going to have?” Somebody came up with the idea of doing a flash mob. It was fun because they all had papers and they strategically put themselves in and around the bell tower quad, sitting down, and walking through. All I had said on the map when I was giving which [places for the] departments to go to, was “something special in the bell tower quad.” I didn’t say what it was. Then I kind of walked through, or the students did — I can’t remember — and somebody pushed — probably my job — the tape recorder to play a song. Then all of a sudden, people started coming in and singing and dancing. That was pretty funny. 

SS: Shifting away from MSJ and teaching, you worked for a professional newspaper, the Mercury News. How was that like before you became a teacher and also how has it helped play into your job at MSJ?

SC: My very first job — I’ll go back a little further — out of college at Michigan State was with the Chicago Tribune. I was in advertising in the city probably for a couple of years in what was then called classified display. So that was a time in the city when it was booming and apartment buildings were transitioning from apartments to condominiums. That was when I worked in the [paper’s] real estate division, and it was just incredible to watch so much money pour[ing] through the door. We all had to have assistants just to get all the signage and ads into the paper. I learned a lot there about what [working at a professional paper] is all about. 

I think that when I came to California, it was very hard to get into newspapers in Southern California, so I ended up veering off a little bit into a magazine, San Diego Magazine, which was very glossy and classy and a lot of work though. Then [I worked at] another magazine called Executive Magazine, which isn’t around anymore, but I probably lived in a really nice place. But there weren’t a lot of job opportunities for people who hadn’t had the experience that they thought I needed. 

When I came up here and got recruited by the San Jose Mercury News, within the 17 years that I spent there, I did a lot of different jobs within the building. Advertising territories, different assignments, and stint in classified as a manager. I managed Sunday products when we had them, a magazine called West which became Silicon Valley Magazine, as well as the television guide. We had a television guide for now. It’s on your screen. I think that was really fun, but the most enjoyable work I did was in project management because then I got to work with all the different parts of the papers. I got to meet and understand the editorial division and business because they were projects and products I was in charge of.  Out of all the different areas, I think that was the most fun — managing projects. It’s also strategic that while I was doing that, the dot-com bubble hit and started to climb. Once again, there was so much money rolling through the door of The Mercury News because everybody was coming out of the woodwork to advertise all the internet-related things. We even syndicated some of our work; we developed something cool. All of the other markets would say we’ve got to have that in Miami and various other places. So we would figure out how to get that business into other papers. 

The coolest thing I ever did, ever, was to be flown on the company’s Learjet to Kansas City to take part in a “how to get more business from grocery stores” event. So yeah, I can say that I flew with Tony Ritter on the Learjet to a business meeting. Very cool, very cool. 

So from there, product management. I truly think that a lot of that comes into play here; the things that I’m doing to create the levels of leadership to create the processes that we do — that comes from that work.

SS: Yeah, and we can clearly tell. The Smoke Signal isn’t just about writing, there’s so many different levels and everyone’s learning how to be a leader and how to work with other people. 

SS: Over the years, what do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

SC: I’ll answer that, but I’ll preface it by saying it’s not my direct accomplishment. But I would say that it is the success of this newspaper from all different definitions of success. How professionally it’s done, the engagement level of the students who work on it, and the organization We have quite a few alumni that have gone off to college, went to work for their newspapers, and came back and said, you know, “It’s fun to write,” but one of their comments was, “It’s just not like how the newspaper was here.” They noticed that it’s a little bit more chaotic, it’s less organized, and fewer people know what everybody’s doing. So that’s a really big compliment to this program, that from the standpoint of organization, we have it together.

SS: What will you miss most about MSJ when you retire?

SC: Don’t make me cry. The people, definitely. That’s what I missed about San Diego, about Chicago, about you know, leaving Horner and coming here. I miss the people, and I will continue to miss the people. I think the work will carry on — it won’t be the same. It will be different and not in any kind of judgy, bad way, it will be different because the dynamic will be different, but I will miss the students most of all.

SS: Do you have any advice for students or any advice for students who want to aspire to become journalists?

SC: To students who actually want to become a journalist, I think that I would be straight up and say that, that career and that industry is not what it was when I was involved. But what’s the same is good solid journalism — that will never go away, even if it’s becoming a content provider or becoming a storyteller. Lots of our people went to Google when it first started or Yahoo News when it first started. The physical newspaper as the place where you get your information doesn’t really exist anymore, but a lot of specialties like community reporting, podcasting, and online products [still do]. I would say the reason I came here still exists, which is to get the foundations of reading, writing, and speaking right out there and improve everybody’s skill level. So I would say that they should go into that career with their eyes wide open, and know that there are going to be opportunities, but won’t be conventional and the same as they were before. I would look for ways to go and specialize in internet reporting, and that’s something that is very, very popular now. One of my friends just won a Pulitzer for flood coverage of an online paper they run in Santa Cruz.

SS: On a very similar note, what advice would you give for new teachers, both entering the English department or just in general?

SC: For teachers in general, I would say that you must love this job. You must love to be in the company of young people. If you don’t, it’s just not where you ought to be. It can be very engaging, but also very demanding of your time and your energy. [Even] if you’re somebody that’s big [on teaching] and has empathy for what students are going through, it’s taxing, but I think that those qualities are also really, really good to have. As a teacher, in the English department, be passionate about what you teach and what you do. The students will most definitely pick up on that just like they would notice if you weren’t informed or if you weren’t passionate about what you were trying to teach them. So number one, I’d say that, but generally speaking, teachers will do well when they understand that students just, no matter how uber talented they are at Mission, that they need to be seen and they need to be understood for who they are, not what they produce or the grades that they get or what they aspire to do, but just who they are. So each day I try to see my students and make eye contact and see what they’re about, see how they’re feeling and pick up on that. So, I think getting to know students as people is a very, very important part of teaching.

SS: Can you share with us some of your plans after retiring?

SC: Sure. I always jokingly say that I’m going to do whatever I want to do, or not. I’m probably going to be sleeping in, probably going to be doing things like reading for fun. My stack of books to be read just keeps getting bigger and bigger. I will do some local travel. I will spend time in Pacific Grove where I have a little place there that I never get to be at long enough. I’ll be with my dog who is 13, and who knows how long I’m gonna have her, so she most definitely will be my sidekick wherever. To feed the professional side of me once I start feeling like, “Okay, that was fine. Now what am I going to do?” I’ll probably form some writing groups or join some [writing] groups. I’ll get back to work on book projects that I started and never finished, and travel. Just do what’s fun.

SS: What is the legacy you want to leave behind at MSJ?

SC: Oh gosh, those lessons are really kind of a hard route to me. If there’s a legacy, it’s in M-2. It’s in the people. It’s in the product. So I think number one that’s, you know, that’s important to me, that the paper is what it is. That’s huge. I would also say as far as teaching goes, [it would be creating] a place where students felt like I was fair, that I would challenge them, but at the same time I understood special circumstances that came up. I always used to say, you know, where we come into ERWC because speaking of that, [regardless of if] it’s people who definitely are ready to be an engineer or they’re people who need to improve their writing or for whatever reason, I say, “Whatever your skill level is, I’m going to take it up, you know, to a new benchmark.” So I guess raising the bar for the students that have gone through [ERWC is another achievement].

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