Real-World Learning for Student Journalists
It is not necessary to inform students that they are living in historically unprecedented times. Everywhere they look, history is being written, from the flu pandemic that has disrupted school to the calls for racial justice that are resonating throughout the country.
Some student journalists are doing more than just sitting back and watching events unfold; they are tackling difficult stories that have an impact far beyond their own schools’ walls.
The fast-paced events of the past few months have presented new challenges for teachers who advise publishing programmes on how to best assist students in producing news stories. Teachers also recognise the benefits of assisting students in developing critical thinking skills about what is going on in their world.
“Journalism provides students with a tool to engage constructively and productively with what is going on in their lives,” says Paul Kandell, a journalism instructor. The award-winning media programme at Palo Alto High School in California, where he has worked since 2000, has grown to include upwards of 300 students who contribute to a variety of print and broadcasting programmes.
In the words of Jeromie Whalen, a media arts teacher at Northampton High School in Massachusetts, the value of a student publishing programme extends far beyond the instruction of students in the writing and editing processes. “It provides a forum for the exchange of ideas in ways that might not otherwise be possible,” he says of the platform.
Listed below are some considerations for teachers who want to tie their students’ learning to current events in the months ahead.
KEEP IT LOCAL
Students can contribute a unique perspective to national or even global events by keeping their attention focused on the immediate surroundings.
Students at Northampton High School who produce The Transcript, a weekly broadcast news magazine, look at every storey idea through the eyes of their target audience before publishing it. According to Whalen, “our mission is to examine local, national, and international events through the lens of the Northampton community.” This means that coverage should not be limited to school sports or student council meetings. “Students are constantly on the lookout for a local angle around which to have meaningful conversations.”
The appearance of the global threat known as Covid-19 spurred his students to go all-in—as long as they could find local angles to investigate. Kandell’s students did just that. They were reminded by him that “there are thousands of other people writing about the same thing.” “Aside from a localised version, you don’t have anything else to offer.” In that area, you have the most influence.”
The implications of the pandemic were taken into consideration as students planned coverage for each storey they wanted to cover. As Kandell explained to them, “if you were writing a profile of a softball player, that storey isn’t the same as it was a few weeks ago.” “That player’s season was completely ruined.”
Whalen was surprised when his students decided to create more lighthearted content about how their classmates were coping with social distancing, much to his delight. In response to the DIY segment pitch, I exclaimed, ‘That’s not the news!’ because it was about hobbies students were doing at home. Students, on the other hand, were outspoken about the importance of meeting the needs of the audience. Many of their peers desired a break from the emotional turmoil of watching pandemic coverage. In agreement, Whalen said to the students, “This is your news organisation.” You are the only one who truly understands your target audience.”
GO BEYOND THE BASICS
Students who want to be successful media creators need a toolkit that includes strategies and techniques that go beyond the basics of the craft. Beginning with teaching students how to gather information and convey it concisely, the process can progress to other areas.
When students are dealing with contentious issues, it is especially important for them to find multiple credible resources. “You can’t just go with the first source you come across,” Whalen explains to his students. “Are you on the lookout for bias?” Finding a variety of viewpoints on a given situation?” As part of their education, his students are taught to be media critics, who call out professional news organisations when they only report one side of a storey.
Northampton students were able to produce a special report about an incident in a nearby community that involved a fight between two students who exchanged racial slurs. The students’ reporting skills were excellent. “Students’ reporting went deeper than other media sources,” Whalen explains, “and resulted in better understanding than a 15-second sound bite from a news broadcast.” Another incident involved a Latinx student who was expelled from school. Reports spread that he had been punished for donning gang colours while on duty. Student reporters conducted an in-home interview with the student, obtained an interview with the principal on the record, and covered a town hall meeting on racial profiling. “They assisted in defusing tensions that had arisen as a result of misinformation,” says Whalen, “and they ensured that all voices were heard.”
Students who remain in journalism programmes for several semesters gain the confidence to take on challenging assignments. Students were given recording equipment and challenged to create video blogs, also known as vlogs, about their quarantine experience when the school abruptly switched to remote learning in the spring. “They already had a sense of what was going on. They were aware of their target audience. According to him, they were “prepared for this,” and as a result, they produced a first draught of history written in the voices of young people.
LET STUDENTS LEAD
Students who enrol in journalism programmes will naturally be given opportunities to advance into leadership positions.
Whalen gradually relinquishes control of the course to the students. They run staff meetings, assign storey assignments, and edit each other’s work in a collaborative environment. It was a student-led decision to continue publishing in the spring semester, when school was taking place entirely online. “They believe they have a responsibility to spread the word,” he says, “and to do so effectively.”
Spring term is traditionally the time of year when new editors begin their duties at Palo Alto High School. Kandell approached the new Verde magazine staff and asked if they were interested in putting out a print publication despite the difficulties of working remotely. They didn’t waste any time. Early in June, a 48-page edition of Verde was delivered to each and every student’s door.
‘As teachers, we are always talking about meeting students where they are,’ Kandell reflects on the subject. “There has never been a time when that was more important than right now. It will be in doing projects that allow students to express themselves that the magic will occur.