The Journalism Year
A required course in high school journalism would give kids the tools to tell the stories of their communities and make them active contributors to civic life—not just readers and writers.
High school students on the verge of independence admit they feel trapped by the news. Preoccupied but largely powerless, they’re simultaneously anxious and apathetic. Citing eroding voting rights, worsening climate change, and mass shootings in public schools, many teens believe they’ll inherit a world that adults have treated carelessly.
That’s why it’s a great time to teach them to be journalists.
Inundated with disinformation, students seek truths they feel too frequently stay hidden—and need reliable methods to separate fact from fiction. A journalism class revolving around a web publication empowers students to participate in truth-telling by sourcing, reporting, and writing stories themselves. They can start with their own communities, as real people with real voices doing real work, holding power accountable, from the bustling school corridors to the superintendent’s office or even City Hall. They can even change how people with influence see issues they care about.
Most schools already have student publications, of course, but this work ought to fill a rigorous yearlong English class, and it should be a graduation requirement, not an elective or an extracurricular option. Call it a kind of internship. Frame it as an act of service. Documenting the important stories of a school and community should become a rite of passage for all American teens, and their work should live indefinitely in digital archives as an enduring public record of the world they occupy—and their contributions to it.
A Novel Approach
Students often sign up for my journalism class to avoid antiquated texts and an inflexible emphasis on writing academic essays. It’s true: For nine months they won’t be assigned a single novel.
That doesn’t exactly mean they avoid literature.
Last year, over a few weeks, my journalism students read a San Francisco Chronicle article about an AI program staving off a man’s despair after the death of his fiancée, a Mother Jones piece on “purity culture” at a Bible college, and a New Yorker story about a woman’s quest to get her father’s murderer released from prison. I selected these articles (and others throughout the year) with students in mind. Like fiction, the articles feature artfully structured narratives, distinct authorial voices, and vivid characters and settings. They contribute to important discussions about technology, morality, love, death, religion, sex, power, injustice, race, and privilege, which students have already encountered in literature, from Shakespeare’s Othello to Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
Likewise, the authentic writing tasks—investigations, profiles, opinion articles, first-person narratives, and more traditional news stories filed on deadline—make concepts like character development, narrative arc, and expository detail something to practice, not just appraise. Unsurprisingly, my journalism students start to approach everything they read with their own writing in mind.
Facing high standards for publication, they learn to view the editing process as both a vital and constructive collaboration, a practical necessity rather than a tedious gauntlet. My favorite metaphor involves sculpting: Thorough reporting gives students a rough hunk of marble that they chip, scrape, and smooth over repeated revisions, moving from content to structure to fact-checking to syntax and, finally, proofreading. With fewer total weekly pages to read, and more at stake in the outcome, students find the time and patience for the process.
Inherently interdisciplinary, crossing paths with statistics, science, and art—the stuff of Common Core dreams—journalism is also inquiry, another much-celebrated prerogative in secondary education.
My students embrace this facet of class. A talented athlete, Max wanted to explore how private high schools attract the county’s middle school sports stars. Savannah and Claire teamed up to investigate misogyny at school—a ripe topic, considering the controversies and protests ripping through Bay Area high schools.
Over the “journalism year,” inspired by what they read and care about, students direct their own learning, gravitating toward questions they want answered, and imposing their will on our digital publication, the class’s ongoing product. And students usually see their work as important. Denying that would deny their importance, the idea that their lives and stories matter.
Collecting Stories, Connecting to Purpose
Reporting challenges students as much as writing. They think Shakespeare is tough until they have to interview sullen ninth graders, not to mention elected officials, administrators, and other community members with power. Journalism rewards the development of intangible social skills often neglected by conventional academic classes, and provides students with the tools to study their community, map its assets, and show care by capturing its stories.
“I wanted to be a voice for everyone at our predominantly Latino school, the pressures some students didn’t want to talk about,” says Danna, who previously struggled with social anxiety but felt a connection to the topic that spurred her on. “When people have experiences, they should be talked about.” She eventually interviewed elementary school principals and newcomer immigrant children and filed a piece on the district’s programs for English language learners.
Kayla, meanwhile, met with an attorney specializing in First Amendment issues for a story about censorship of the school’s Broadcast class, Kyan interviewed police officers about policing in county schools; and Max played phone-tag with an elusive Catholic school football coach.
A journalism student from four years ago, Helen epitomized the value of these intangible skills. She wasn’t initially the strongest writer, but she emerged as a fearless and dogged reporter. She couldn’t conceal sloppy sourcing in frilly prose—even the best writers rarely can—but she could assemble a good story by walking into anyone’s office, approaching strangers, asking questions, and, importantly, listening until she learned what her readers needed to know.
When a canonical novel fails to enchant, students cheat and plagiarize. In contrast, there are no shortcuts for reporting stories. It becomes a completely different kind of class, because the old tricks don’t work when the goal is building a nuanced understanding about what impacts a community.
Student journalists may start with what affects them, but that’s not always where they end up. A first-generation immigrant herself, Danna realized how much she didn’t know about the unique challenges facing teens who arrive at school within days of entering the United States. This kind of work invariably takes students into other lives, expanding what they know about their communities and connecting them to people who think and live differently.
There’s no better prescription for personal growth.
An Open World
I frame my journalism class as an open-world game with borders that players can expand.
Along with finding journalistic beats, students capitalize on talents, setting precedents for future cohorts. They might organize a reading of personal narratives, or create a podcast to accompany an opinion section debate. Extra credit pours forth—a simulation of real-world bonuses and promotions. Students have the freedom to explore and the understanding that they’ll be rewarded if they do.
In this class, the teacher is an editor, a publisher, a facilitator. Students are interns learning on the job. They annotate articles to understand structure and sourcing. We project their notes on the big screen and discuss them. They write discussion forum responses, as educated readers simply reacting to a story and as writers seeking models, evaluating how the pros establish mood, scenes, settings, and characters. Often, cautionary tales teach them as much as exemplars (especially when a writer stumbles trying to capture something authentic about the teenage experience). Full-time journalists sometimes appear as guests via Zoom and field questions about everything from note-taking to phone etiquette. Students also manage their time and work independently. It’s normal, for example, for a student to leave class for 30 minutes to conduct a phone interview.
Pressure and deadlines feel less dangerous when a grade isn’t the only reward. The work may be high-stakes, but students have ample support from the teacher and classmates. I might read 15 drafts over a class period, conferencing with writers. A story usually goes through two peer editors and several rounds with me before appearing online.
In typical group projects, students often operate in isolation, but with journalism, each individual effort constitutes a piece of the collective work. Students are at their best when everyone gets published. Their classmates are allies, even when a class, as it always does, contains factions, and disagreements arise.
A few students challenged Kyan when he proposed an opinion story decrying the tongue-in-cheek slogan “Kill All Men” as counterproductive to the feminist cause. After the article’s publication, Danna and other students active in a freshman mentorship program thought Kyan had grievously misinterpreted perspectives shared at one of their meetings. As peers waged war in the comments section, these students cauterized the conflict and rewrote the offending section as the whole class watched. The present and future work demanded that they find a resolution.
Journalism imbues students with responsibility. They create a public product to which anyone can react, which means, like professional journalists, they face criticism and controversy, whether groundless or warranted. Even the experience of making corrections helps, as Kyan and his classmates learned. Students see that mistakes are rarely unfixable and learn to grow from engaging, listening, and responding to credible complaints.
There are no schools or districts, to my knowledge, that require that all students study and practice journalism.
Are there obvious institutional barriers to getting a single district to adopt the “journalism year,” even as an experiment, even if it’s merely a consistently available option as opposed to a requirement?
For sure. Some kids genuinely crave four years of literature and want to take AP exams. School schedules are sensitive organisms. Standardized exams loom for underclassmen, though that’s over by senior year and journalism prepares kids for testing success anyway. Districts also move like molasses, and teachers sometimes shrink from the unfamiliar. I could even see a certain breed of dad bursting into school board meetings to protest the “fake news” course he hears his kid’s going to have to take.
In some sense, a class focused on extensive reporting and polished writing is out of step with the media zeitgeist: cynical sparring on Twitter, brash newsletters on Substack, and listicles with spicy headlines to hook ever-degrading attention spans. A slice of the American electorate equates journalists with vermin. It’s easier than ever to imagine a journalism teacher having students cackle at the very notion of honoring truth.
I have faith my journalism students will take the truth seriously, even when it’s messy, and try to solve problems, even when they’re complicated. For all the flaws in their work, they showed me that they learned this lesson.
“We had to invite a conversation around our story” on misogyny at school, explains Claire, who was wary of readers assuming that she and Savannah were lighting prose torches to settle scores. “It was clear in our article what we felt, but I wanted to break it down logically, the nuances of what parents and teachers do and how it affects how boys act.”
I’m not interested in building a massive farm team for The New York Times. The real payoff is this, a slight edge in a game of inches: I hope students will have at least a semi-functional B.S. detector, an antidote to the froth of online disinformation. They may even be more confident and empowered facing an unknown future.
What’s the point of all this? That’s a classic teen response to a new assignment, and also what a beleaguered teacher might say when lessons fall flat. Committing to authentic projects that repeatedly smash through classroom walls reminds everyone—educators and students alike—that there’s a point beyond learning objectives, that the academic effort means something, that they can make a real difference. Ambition is contagious.
The stakes—a healthy society—are too high not to try to shape teens into stakeholders who value the lives and stories of others. The tumultuous, hurting world, a stage, aches for curious, empathetic, insightful, and courageous actors, not just capable readers and writers. As journalists, teens rehearse the role.
When it’s done in good faith, the practice gives them practice.