Daunting. Overwhelming. Hectic. Crazy. These are perhaps the first words that come to mind when asked to advise or teach newspaper, the seemingly dying branch of scholastic journalism, to budding high school reporters. It’s time consuming and sometimes demotivating but completely worthwhile despite the growing discussion of convergence and the expiration of many major professional newspapers.
Despite this grim reality, there is something completely gratifying about teaching students how to write well, design eye catching pages, work as a team and then the pride involved with sharing a newspaper (regardless of the ink latent fingertips) for an authentic audience.
When I arrived at World Journalism Preparatory School, it was evident that this school was not like other schools I had taught at before. It had only been open for one year prior to my arrival and already it had a reputation for greatness that was unsurpassed by other places. The teachers enjoyed working there and the administration was remarkably supportive. It was the best case scenario for starting a newspaper: open press, no prior review and complete student responsibility and ownership. I was told right away that I was there to help them grow as journalists, not to do it for them. (Honestly it was a relief because the last school I had taught in was literally the complete opposite… principal had to see every issue before it went out and the kids couldn’t say anything that was even slightly off putting about the school. It was stifling to say the least.) Where to begin, though? I spun my wheels for a little bit taking what I know about writing for and running a paper and trying to translate it into a class that would produce a paper.
The First Try – our biggest failures are often the impetus for our greatest successes
Things didn’t start off as well as I had hoped they would. Getting the students to write was a challenge despite the fact that they attended a school that centers itself around writing. Breaking them out of the mold they were accustomed to writing in was the next challenge and then teaching them InDesign was surely going to lead me to early retirement. My first year was a bit of a learning experience for everyone. We were able to get out three issues, none longer than eight pages and although there was improvement, there was still much work to be done.
Round two: Learning from my mistakes – leading by example
After what I considered a less than successful start (as I hold myself and my students to extremely high standards), I knew a new approach was necessary. So I took a deep breath and started at square one again, mission statement. What is it that we want to represent? What kind of editorial policy should we have? Whose voices should we represent? What is our purpose for being? The students broke up into groups and read an anonymously published editorial from the prior year and a letter to the editor that the parent coordinator had written in response
to the editorial. This was the first necessary step. Without purpose and parameters, there would be no way to gauge our growth; we needed to be deliberate in our actions and from the first step, the students needed to be the ones to decide. Ownership needed to clearly be theirs.
The class was asked to search the mission statements and editorial policies of other school and professional newspapers and to post what they had found on our class blog. We then came together as a class and created what we felt was a good composite of what we saw. The students felt strongly about not allowing “unprofessional language” into the paper. They wanted to be taken seriously. The tone was already different from the year before and it was clear we all meant business. I knew that they would work harder than they had ever worked before in an English class, but the rewards would be greater than anything they had experienced before as well. “My impression of our class was that it we were going to learn about how to write in a newspaper and by the end of the year I learned InDesign and how to write different types of articles,” said Eirene Skocos, sophomore. “I wasn’t expecting the class to be so hard. I thought we were going to learn how to write articles and then there was so much other work like the Blazer [the school paper].” Many of the students felt the way Eirene did and many of them asked to be transferred out of the class complaining that it should have been listed as an Advanced Placement (AP) because of the amount of work. Motivation was going to be an issue and continuedto be (for all of us).
Writing boot camp
The hallmark of any good paper is good writing. So we put design on hold for the first few issues until the students were writing up to par. Mini lesson after mini lesson, we would work entirely as a publication. Everyone learned news writing first and tenets of it. We had long class discussions about what legitimate news was and the kind of material we wanted to run in our news section. We talked about timeliness, proximity, importance, audience. We examined newspapers with ongoing current events assignments where they looked at author’s craft reflecting on the writer’s ability to stick to the inverted pyramid and determine how engaging the style of lead was. How could they use what they were seeing in their own writing? What could they improve?
Learning news writing is difficult, particularly when accustomed to writing essays, so the students were having a hard time conceptually. They revised and revised tirelessly as I sent them back to the drawing board to cite sources and check facts and get more quotes, shorten paragraphs. We conferenced daily to address the individual needs of the students and just when they started getting their footing about themselves, the layering began. And so began the three ring circus. If we were going to run a proper paper, we needed more than just a news section. The class was promptly split into sections and now in addition to writing the news the whole class was writing, each section was responsible for learning the new writing and creating a piece for that. The students decided what went in and by November, we had our first issue coming in at 16 pages which was longer than almost all of the previous year put together. We were on a roll and the students were exhausted.
Every time we satisfactorily finished a type of writing as a class, we started a new one and the students were still responsible for keeping up with their section work as well. If we happened to be working in their section, then they needed to produce two articles for the next issue. We continued to conference daily and my section leaders checked in with me daily as well. A reference library was created for students who needed more modeling or more reading time and the students began using it as often as they used me and each other to improve their writing. Before long, we were really functioning as a paper.
Feature writing, investigative feature, editorial/opinion, sports writing and entertainment found their way into everyone’s thoughts. We talked about proper interviewing technique, reviewing notes and citing appropriately. Continued discussion of content and writing were ongoing and abundant, but the conversations moved away from my direction and into their hands. After having taken the Poynter’s boot camp last summer, it had been suggested to allow the students to make and learn from their own mistakes without my shielding them too much. This piece of advice got me through this year and I think all of them are better journalists for it.
Selecting the first editors as the leaders emerge
I had my clear talent and my clear leaders in the room. Struggling with how democratic the process should be, I worked alone for this first selection process. Seeing as I knew them as students and writers now, I knew who needed pushing and who needed more time. My editors in chief were an unlikely pair: a natural leader with people skills, but with less than stellar writing and an impeccable writer who was longing to be set free from her shell. They turned out to be a great pair; both eager from the get go to please me and do a good job. The section leaders were standouts too, comfortable commanding several peers and capable of maintaining quality from their respective sections even when motivation was at an all time low. Those who didn’t think themselves capable, rose to the occasion because of my confidence that they could do it and others began to meet deadlines and help out despite not having the role officially assigned to them.
Progress… and the beat goes on and on and on…
The year went on and we managed to get out five issues, each one gaining in complexity and thoughtfulness of writing as well as design. InDesign proved to be the bane of many a students’ existence, but all of them showed proficiency in the end. We even called in a professional to teach a full day class to the teachers and students and then turn-keyed the information to the other students. It was remarkably helpful in getting the students engaged in wanting a more dynamic publication as well as getting more teachers to use the program in their instruction in our continued effort to further the journalism theme throughout content areas in our school.
The students continued to question the importance of everything that went in and tackled hard issues like the school’s grading policies and teacher involvement in student lives. There was a particularly good opinion piece written about teacher contact with parents that came from one of my other feeder classes. (I also taught a foundations in journalism class to my freshmen). They expanded their ideas of important to world news and managed to keep it interesting for a middle and high school audiences alike. With each paper that came out, the readership grew and by our final 60 page issue, there were few better sights than walking by all the classrooms after delivery and seeing the students flipping through the pages that we had created.
With the newspaper world crashing around, a newspaper teacher has to ask if this is a dying skill to teach now. For a high school such as ours, it is hard to say that we will ever give up the print form of reporting news. We have Nings and broadcasts and podcasts galore, but the authenticity of real newsprint will never go out of style. Despite the dirty fingers, the students wouldn’t readily run to the school’s website for the same information. In secondary education, the health of the school can be determined by their newspaper and for that reason, we must continue teaching this way. Having something to hold and look at and be proud of is irreplaceable and I’ve watched several kids become reporters this year that never thought they’d want to be them.
Helpful texts and websites when first starting out