Each morning last winter, the sixth graders in Beth Pollak's classes at MS 328, in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, took turns at the front of the room getting in touch with their inner weatherperson. With studied aplomb, they forecasted that day's weather, be it hot and humid or cold and dreary.
As they had seen done on countless local news shows, they listed the high and low for the day and urged their fellow students to take an umbrella, wear a warm coat, or put on sunscreen. Some students even mimicked real-life weather forecasters, ending with a catchphrase: "Back to you, Ken." (That would be the local ABC affiliate's weatherman, Ken Rosato.)
Not surprisingly, Pollak's kids buzz with excitement on a spring Friday when the class visits WABC-TV's Manhattan studio to meet weather anchor Bill Evans and watch a live weather broadcast. The class has just spent two and a half months learning about weather, and each student has a small reporter's notebook to take notes.
While waiting for the tour to begin, several students begin to vigorously shake their water bottles. "We know how to make tornadoes in them," explains an outgoing student, Kiara, as she demonstrates how easy it is to create spiraling vortexes.
Then Saundra Thomas, vice president of community affairs at WABC-TV, arrives to lead the tour. "Who has been to a TV station before?" asks Thomas. A few hands pop up. "What do you expect to see?" she asks.
"News!" one student shouts.
"Weather," says another.
"And cameras," a classmate adds.
The Inside Story
Thomas begins the tour on the fourth-floor newsroom. She regularly leads tours for classes, youth groups, and professional groups but especially enjoys taking children through the newsroom. "The tour gives them insight into how an office works, as well as how a TV station operates," Thomas tells me later. "It also demystifies the media."
Thomas points out the assignment desk, the editing rooms, and the offices where ABC 7's on-air news staff prepares for live broadcasts.
"News is similar to writing a paper -- you gather information," Thomas tells the class. "The reporters go out and talk to people, shoot video, and come back here to cut two hours of tape down to about two minutes -- which is not a lot of time."
After taking a look at the "flash" camera used for teasers about upcoming news and shows and for breaking news, the class visits the weather center, where Bill Evans speaks to the class before appearing on the noon broadcast.
"How do you know if it's going to rain or not?" asks a student named Larry, getting right down to basics.
"We use satellites," Evans answers, gesturing to the many monitors in the corner, all equipped with AccuTrack radars.
"How did you become a weatherman?" the teacher asks.
"I started in broadcasting when I was thirteen," Evans replies. He then tells the class about how a hurricane destroyed his family's home and farm when he was nine years old. "I've been fascinated by weather ever since. This is a great field to be in, because it changes every day."
Thomas then adds, "Unlike the other reporters, weather people do not use a teleprompter. They ad-lib."
Interestingly, none of the kids ask about global warming, perhaps because they, like Evans, are focused on today's and tomorrow's weather.
An Illusion Revealed
The students then visit the second-floor master control room, where they see the on-air light begin to blink as the broadcast starts. Many seem surprised by the solid wall of monitors the control-room crew have in front of them. They then make their way downstairs to the studio, where they watch Evans doing his live forecast.
"There's nothing there!" a female student exclaims as she watches Evans gesture in circles in front of a blank green screen. "Yeah, how does he do that?" a classmate mutters in a stage whisper before being shushed.
During the commercial break, Thomas explains that there are two monitors, one on either side of the green screen, and that the crew projects what's on those monitors onto the blank green background. "He looks into the monitors and sees exactly what we see; it's almost like he's looking into a mirror," she adds.
The class stands mesmerized as they watch the rest of the noon broadcast with the daytime anchors. Later, while walking out of the studio and into New York's Upper West Side, they speak excitedly about what they've seen.
"How do they not mess up?" one student asks, referring to the news anchors. "If I talk, I mess up sometimes."
"They speak different from us," another student responds, prompting her friends to imitate what they called the "reporter voice." She then notes, "They speak fast but clear. And their voices are really low, but loud."
"They sounded like robots," insists one unimpressed boy.
Beth Pollak, who majored in journalism before attending Columbia University's Teachers College for a master's degree in education, hopes the trip expanded her students' sense of their professional possibilities. "You don't know what you can achieve until you see what sort of opportunities are out there," she says. "Not just in reporting, but also in editing stories and shooting video."