Real-World Learning for Student Journalists
Figuring out what makes a good story and how to tell it helps young reporters boost their critical thinking skills—and that’s especially true at this historic moment.
Students don’t have to be told that they’re living through unprecedented times. History is in the making all around them, from the pandemic that has disrupted school to the calls for racial justice that are echoing across communities.
In many high schools, student journalists are doing more than watching events unfold—they’re tackling difficult stories that extend far beyond their campuses.
For teachers who advise publishing programs, fast-moving events of recent months have raised new challenges about how to help students produce the news. Teachers also acknowledge the rewards of helping students think critically about what’s happening in their world.
“Journalism gives students a tool to engage constructively and productively with what’s going on in their lives,” says teacher Paul Kandell. Since 2000, he has helped grow the well-funded, award-winning media program at Palo Alto High School in California, where upwards of 300 students contribute to a variety of print and broadcasting programs.
Media arts teacher Jeromie Whalen, from Northampton High School in Massachusetts, says the value of a student publishing program goes far beyond teaching students how to write and edit. “It offers a platform for discussion of ideas in ways that may not be available otherwise,” he says.
For teachers looking to connect learning with real-world events in the months ahead, here are some pointers to consider.
Keep It Local
Students can bring a unique perspective to national or even global events by keeping their focus hyper-local.
Students who produce The Transcript, a weekly broadcast news magazine at Northampton High, filter every story idea through the eyes of their audience. “Our mission is to look at local, national, and international events through the lens of the Northampton community,” Whalen says. That means not limiting coverage to school sports or student council meetings. “Students are always looking for a local angle to have meaningful conversations around.”
When Covid-19 emerged as a global threat, Kandell encouraged his students to go all in—as long as they could find local angles to explore. “There are thousands of others writing about the same thing,” he reminded them. “The only thing you have to offer is a localized version. That’s where your real power is.”
As students planned coverage, they considered implications for every story in light of the pandemic. “If you were writing a profile of a softball player,” Kandell told them, “that story’s not the same as it was a few weeks ago. That player’s season was destroyed.”
To Whalen’s surprise, his students decided to produce more lighthearted content about how classmates were coping with social distancing. “When they pitched a DIY segment about hobbies students were doing at home, my first reaction was, ‘That’s not the news!’” But students were outspoken about meeting audience needs. Many of their peers wanted an emotional break from watching pandemic coverage. Whalen agreed, telling students, “This is your news organization. You know your audience better than anyone.”
Go Beyond the Basics
To become successful media creators, students need a tool kit of strategies and techniques that go beyond the basics. It starts with teaching students how to gather information and convey it concisely.
Finding multiple credible sources is especially important when students are tackling controversial topics. “You can’t go with the first source you find,” Whalen tells students. “Are you looking for bias? Are you finding diverse perspectives on a situation?” His students also learn to be media critics, calling out professional news outlets if they tell only one side of a story.
Solid reporting skills helped Northampton students produce a special report about an incident in a nearby community that involved a fight between two students who exchanged racial slurs. “Students’ reporting went deeper than other media sources,” Whalen says, “and led to better understanding than a 15-second sound bite.” Another episode involved a Latinx student who was suspended. Rumors were flying that he had been disciplined for wearing gang colors. Student reporters interviewed the student at home, got the principal to talk on the record, and covered a town hall about racial profiling. “They helped defuse tensions that were arising from misinformation,” Whalen says, “and made sure all voices were heard.”
Students who stick with journalism programs for multiple semesters develop the confidence to tackle tough assignments. When school abruptly shifted to remote learning in the spring, Kandell sent students home with recording gear and challenged them to produce video blogs, or vlogs, about their quarantine experience. “They already had a sense of story. They knew their audience. They were primed for this,” he says, and they produced a first draft of history in the voice of young people.
Let Students Lead
Journalism programs naturally create opportunities for students to grow into leadership roles.
Whalen gradually hands over the reins to students. They run staff meetings, make story assignments, and edit each other’s work. It was a student decision to continue publishing in the spring when school was happening virtually. “They feel like there’s a legacy to get the news out,” he says, “and to do it well.”
At Palo Alto High, spring term is typically when incoming editors step into their new roles. Kandell asked the new staff of Verde magazine if they wanted to put out a print publication despite the challenges of working remotely. They didn’t hesitate. In early June, a 48-page edition of Verde landed on every student’s doorstep.
“As teachers, we always talk about meeting students where they are,” Kandell muses. “That’s never been more significant than right now. Doing projects that allow students to express themselves—that’s where the magic is going to be.”