“I’d like to speak to a doctor,” the young reporter said, biting his lip and rolling his eyes skyward as he listened to someone on the phone from the county public health department.
“What, you don’t have doctors there?” the reporter asked. Another pause.
“You’ve got what? Epi-what? Look,” explained the reporter, a little impatiently, “I just need someone who can give me a quote about the new flu going around.”
Welcome to the North Beach Chronicle, a monthly student newspaper not unlike other student publications around the country, with two exceptions: North Beach is an elementary school, and all the third, fourth and fifth graders—not a select journalism class—write, illustrate, photograph and sell advertising for the paper.
The all-inclusive newspaper program is the brainchild of Nakonia (Niki) Hayes, a veteran administrator hired as principal three years ago at North Beach Elementary School, a small public school located in an affluent Seattle neighborhood with an active Parent Teacher Association. Despite strong financial support and parental involvement, Hayes was surprised to discover the school’s test scores were faltering, especially in writing: Only 36 percent of North Beach’s fourth graders had passed the writing section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) the previous year, a test soon to become a requirement for students to graduate in Washington State.
Hayes, a former journalist, took a gamble that newspapering skills would boost the test scores and reinvigorate the school’s writing program. To get it done, she hired me, a former Time reporter/writer, as the school’s journalist-in-residence—a task I entered with trepidation and enthusiasm.
Could eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds, who had trouble sitting still for more than 10 minutes at a time, develop the skills to become reporters? And even more importantly, would those skills make them better learners and more likely to become sophisticated news consumers—or news consumers, period?
We had no idea, then, what was possible.
The Experiment Begins
September 12, 2001: I was in a North Beach classroom and had asked fourth graders to open The Seattle Times and point out anything they found interesting about the previous day’s devastating news that featured the terrorists’ destruction of the World Trade Center. The kids gravitated, naturally, towards photos, in particular, two that were on opposite but facing pages inside the A-section:
“This,” said one of them, pointing to a picture, “is Osama bin Laden.” Then he pointed to the second picture, Palestinians waving their arms. “And these,” he continued, “are his men.”
When I first started teaching, I found that though the students could read the words of news stories, they weren’t always comprehending what they were reading and seeing. This is probably connected to the fact that the United States is one of the few countries that does not require teachers to offer media literacy to their students.
This absence of media literacy was a problem vividly illustrated in virtually all the current events presentations I witnessed at North Beach that year and at others I’ve seen at dozens of schools since. Typically, students would stand in the front of the room reading fractured versions of the “five Ws and one H” of a news story. At the end of the presentation, listeners often still had no idea what the story was about.
It was evident that if these students were going to write for a newspaper, they had to learn to read one. I started by putting transparencies of news stories on overhead projectors and reviewing the different elements of a news story. Before they could go past the first sentence, they had to identify the five Ws and one H answered in the headline and the lead. That’s actually quite a lot of information, by the way, and required repeated group story assessments before students were ready to identify those elements in the stories by themselves.
We did other assignments in the classroom to get children accustomed to reading and scanning the news. We analyzed what we could factually surmise, and what we could assume, about news photos. We held weekly news quizzes, where students had to find the answers to questions in news stories. And though the first time students struggled through the exercises, by the second, third and fourth times around they’d made quantum leaps.
Reading and comprehending the news, by the way, is an often missed concept in junior and senior high school journalism classes. I’ve had more than one journalism teacher sigh with frustration over trying to teach kids how to write a good news lead. I always tell them to start at the beginning: “Make sure they know how to read one before asking them to write one.”
This photograph of a salmon—taken by a fifth grade student—was used in a classroom exercise to help children determine the difference between facts and assumptions. Students were asked to list what they knew as facts from looking at the photo and also list assumptions they might make. The only verifiable fact was that a man was holding a fish. Assumptions included that the person was a fisherman, the fish was dead, that the fish was scared. At the end of the lesson, students learned that the man who was holding the fish is a wildlife biologist, and he was showing fifth graders how he harvests eggs from a dead salmon, like the one he is holding. Photo by B. McFarlane.
The Chronicle Comes to Life
Fourth grader Matt P had a plum assignment: North Beach’s person-on-the-street column, in which students in every grade and one adult are asked the same question and direct quotes are put under their pictures. But his question “What do you like best about school?” offered up only lackluster answers at best. And when I sent him back to reinterview a fellow fourth grader in his classroom for the third time, he put his head in his hands and burst into tears.
Actually this assignment, and any news story, was much harder than it appeared. Students must be able to introduce themselves fully, state their intention, ask the right question, identify a good direct quote, and write it down. No wonder Matt started crying.
Matt’s teacher looked over from where she was helping another student type in a story. “Are you having self-esteem problems, Matt?” she asked gently. He nodded, lifted his head up, and took a few gasping breaths to compose himself. She then led him over to another journalism assistant, who wrote a script for him, took him out to recess, stood over him as he got his quotes, and jumped in with helping questions when he needed them.
In 10 minutes, Matt had four great quotes written down, was high-fiving his adult helper, and had totally forgotten his tears. “I’m doing person-on-the street, and you wouldn’t believe the great quotes I have,” I overheard him telling a friend as they toted their lunchboxes towards the cafeteria.
Part of what teaching journalism to young students taught me is to recognize that there are a multitude of skills coming into play and that people will get stuck at predictable places. At the elementary level, particularly, a teacher can assume nothing. Most students forget to bring their notebooks, paper and questions to their first scheduled interviews. They have trouble introducing themselves and what they are doing. They can’t talk and write at the same time. Their note-taking skills are slow and painful—as they try at first to take down every word. They are afraid to ask if they don’t understand something. Phone messages will often leave them tongue-tied.
And that’s all before they start writing.
What we found at North Beach is that it’s important for them to hit the wall and equally important for an adult to expect this and be prepared to prop them up and move them forward. That’s when the learning takes place.
Take the following example: Three fifth graders were conducting a phone interview with a children’s theater artistic director by speaker phone for the Chronicle. The call was monitored by a journalism intern from the local university, but still, one girl looked up at me in the middle of the interview and mouthed frantically “she’s talking too fast” and quit writing.
At the end of the interview, the intern sat them down. “What do you remember about what she said?” she asked the girls. As the ideas came out, the girls could write them down without the pressure of having to ask the interview subject to wait. They got their story and even some accurately spoken direct quotes.
Showing vs. Telling: An Adaptable Writing Mantra
When fourth grader Kyle W. brought a movie review he’d written for me to review, it started predictably like most book or movie reports throughout history: “‘Monsters, Inc.’ is a great movie with something fun for everyone.”
“Hey Kyle,” I asked. “Why did you like the movie?”
He thought about it for a second. “Because usually it’s kids who are afraid of monsters,” he said. “But in ‘Monsters Inc.,’ the monsters are afraid of a baby.”
“That’s your lead, Kyle,” I explained. “You tell us why you like it, not that you like it.”
Showing your story’s importance vs. telling it is a mantra in most newsrooms. It’s also a powerful writing tool in the classroom. Asking students to offer details to buttress their observations and opinions does two things: It forces them to evaluate whether those opinions and statements are true, but it also offers them the chance to find their voice as a writer because the details they might chose are different than someone else’s, but equally valid.
Before each newspaper comes out, teachers walk their students silently around the school. At the end of the trip, they list what they’ve noticed that’s interesting or different. Often, those observations can be turned into news stories. It encourages kids not only to notice what is around them, but also to find out what is happening and why it’s happening. “It’s kind of like a detective mystery,” one teacher told me, the first time we let 150 kids loose on the school to start their reporting.
These writing skills don’t need to be confined to newspaper articles. They apply to virtually every school writing assignment and can boost a student’s writing abilities. Once in a third grade classroom, I was scheduled to teach a journalism lesson just after the students had returned from a field trip to a local park. “We wrote little stories about our field trip, would you like to hear them?” the teacher asked me.
“Not yet,” I said. “First, kids, tell me the most interesting things you learned on the field trip.”
I wrote their observations on the board: We learned about nurse trees, and different kinds of snakes, and that some frogs look like they are dead, but they aren’t; they are just catching flies. Other ideas flew out, with some excellent detailed descriptions.
“Now read me the stories,” I asked.
Did any of these details make it into the stories? Predictably, not one. Nearly everyone started the same, with a chronological summation of the event: “We got on the school bus and went to the park.”
That assignment would have produced more diverse and interesting results if the teacher had first led students through the exercise of identifying exciting details, then instructed them to write about the most exciting thing they saw on the field trip. That would bring out both individual student voice and offer more structure to stories that would otherwise never break out of the chronologically told story mold.
Journalism and Writing
Niki Hayes’s gamble ultimately paid off: The WASL scores have climbed dramatically, from 36 percent of fourth graders passing the WASL the year before we started the program to 58 percent the next year, to 72 percent the next year, and to 79 percent last year.
We’ve also found that the different jobs of the newspaper can engage students who otherwise wouldn’t want to write: An Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder student turned out to be a brilliant photographer; a highly functioning Asberger’s syndrome child helped seal envelopes and file contracts, and our first-year advertising team of fifth graders hit the pavement nearly every day after school, earning an average of $500-$800 per issue. At year four, advertisers contact North Beach in the fall, eager to get into the newspaper.
More importantly, though, I’ve had some great reporters and writers. There’s Andrew F., a gifted fifth grader and avid skateboarder, who became the school’s skateboard correspondent. His first story, on skateboard tricks, fell apart, but his next three stories worked: a news story about new skateboarding rules; a story on skateboard fashion, and a review of Seattle’s skateboarding parks. “He didn’t like writing last year, but he can’t stop this year,” his mother confided to me. That’s probably because he’s writing about what he likes to do, rather than some random assignment.
And there’s Luke M., a fifth grader who decided to find out why “guys were on ladders and wires were hanging out of the ceiling.” It turned out to be a great story, as the classrooms were all getting phones to call outside the building and computers were being networked together.
“I’m doing OK,” he told me, after presenting a surprisingly well researched draft, “but I’m having trouble thinking of a good lead.” As we pondered that question, I said “How about this one: Phones and networked computers will be added to classrooms soon.”
Luke looked at me with disdain. “That’s the same news lead you suggested last month, when we wrote about new playground equipment,” he said. “Let’s keep thinking.”
Leah Kohlenberg is the founder of Specialized Education Training Company (SETC), which offers continuing education training and writing/journalism lesson plans for K-12 teachers. For 13 years, she worked as a reporter for Time in Hong Kong, ABCNews.com and several daily newspapers across the country. She has trained and coached journalists in Mongolia, Slovakia, Armenia and the Republic of Georgia.