Saturday, February 21, 2015

Launching a 21st Century School Newspaper and Fostering School Community for Life, Liberty, and LITERACY

Guest Post by Dr. Rose Reissman, Literacy Coordinator - Ditmas IS 62 (Brooklyn, New York)

This past fall 2014 our Title 1, Brooklyn middle school, Ditmas IS 62, a school that has a state of the art Science and Engineering program plus its own regularly produced television news show, decided to launch a classic school publishing entity: a school newspaper. 

Initially, as I sat with the head teacher advisor for this new effort, we both wondered how such a classic  school activity, one closely associated with print, a medium truly before our students’ time,  would work. Would our high tech student reporters and their digitally oriented audience take ownership of it?

Would this just be a top down, teacher-pushed, exercise in necessary reportorial and argumentative skills? Would we expectedly just get participation from a handful of compliant students involved in it for their own sense of accomplishment?  In a school with a very strong television newscast program, so popular in fact that participating students are recognized by peers in the hallways for their television news roles, would a print newspaper have any school wide impact?

As we sat with an initial team of 8 students, kids who identified themselves as writers and came forward to work on the project, we had them talk about things in the school which concerned them and on which they wanted to report. Energies and enthusiasm among the team began to build.  One of them stated “running” the discussion and announced she would be willing to serve as the editor in chief.  She started taking notes of the discussion and collecting team contacts.  She had each member of the swiftly coalescing team begin to visualize the look and features of “their” school newspaper. 

The head advisor and I simply set out copies of the NY Times, NY Daily News , and NY Post as anchor newspaper texts.  By the end of the first session, many of the students sitting around the table had come up with their own “beats” and initial story ideas.  We ended with a challenge about the “flag” or the title of our newsletter.

By the second meeting the students were basically “running” their news team on their own with the head advisor and I  simply facilitating and keeping the excited students focused.  They discussed a flag for their newspaper and went around the table to take a vote as a team on its selection.  Their selected flag was not one we advisors would have suggested. But that was fine, they “owned “ their paper, after all. 

Led by a newly formed team of a seventh and an eighth grade co-editors, the team solidified their “beats,” committed to potential stories to report on, and several departed from the room in search of interviews or leads.  Others sat down by laptops to research issues before writing their reactions to events.  Using the style and format of the local print adult newspapers as an anchor, they identified a potential lead story for our school – the visit of the author, Veronica Chambers - a former student at the school in the 1980’s. Our young newspaper staff hoped she would share her success as a writer and communicate her positive memories of Ditmas as a nurturing environment for her authorial talents. Two of our reporters “covered” the visit and brainstormed their own interview questions. Other team members reported on a partnership with a  Bear Creek, Pennsylvania Charter School.  They used their notes from a trip to visit and selected photos for the story. 

As do reporters at an actual newspaper, the students identified ongoing student happenings and issues within the school as points of interest.  Among these were: Student Council, vending machine snacks, classroom campaigns to raise awareness of the need to adopt rescue dogs, specialized high school tests, and the controversial weight of standardized test scores.  One of the reporters who is also a talented songwriter and driven vocal performer (at the elderly age of 12) decided that the newspaper’s launch should be promoted on the school’s DNN Ditmas News Network Television show.   Students identified beloved and key school staff such as Rudy Lewis, Head of the school safety team and Gerard Sargent, the head of the Flatbush Development Corporation. He recorded a jingle backed by two of the students who editors and dancers as community figures to report on.  The students who had passionate interest in dance, art, and international life (some were Bangali or Pakistani) wrote special features reflecting their expertise. The paper launched with a joyous team celebration luncheon at a nearby restaurant.

By  the second issue, the student news team, coordinated by its two student editors, was off and running, with its advisors stepping back.  The self-designated gossip columnist (calls herself “Pheme”) started turning in gossip columns focusing on wardrobes and school rumors.  A restaurant critic wrote up the restaurant where the launch celebration had been held as well as the Food court the team visited when they were invited to tour the news studios of WCBS 880 and WINS 1010, two important, big-time NYC stations. 

Students who were from International Backgrounds (13%) of the school, and those native born in Brooklyn, reacted to international events such as the Ebola crisis, the bombing of a Pakistani school, the initial suppression of The Interview film, Malala’s winning the Nobel Prize, and Je Suis Charlie as citizens of the United States and citizens born into the religious/ethnic backgrounds of these international news happenings.  Students on their own sought out adult teacher and adult local political leader responses to these issues.  One of the students, a gifted graphic artist who ironically was headed to become a science major, started creating editorial cartoon commentary for the issue focusing graphically on: censorship of the Interview film, Eric Garner police controversy case, the Pakistani School Attack, and Je Suis Charlie. 

The culturally focused, internationally born reporters weighed in from their perspectives as either Muslims or international citizens of the world on the controversy over the depiction of the prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo.  Three reporters gave up their lunch period to interview a class of ESL students on the issue. Student reporters brought in their own story ideas based on school-wide initiatives and curriculum themes such as a comparison of the feature film Selma to the actual historical events of the March.  One of the reporters talked with her grandfather and unearthed a photo of a meeting between him and John Lewis, depicted in the film

The initial team which met on designated after school time, gained new recruits and freelance reporters.  Those directly involved with it were celebrated on the television show and some of the writer/camera crew began contributing to the newspaper, as well.  But was this lovely print publication  (a digital e-version is distributed online, as well) important beyond the students immediately producing it and the student audience it addressed directly?  

Yes, teachers began reading it on their own beyond mention of their names and commended the student reporters on their work and art.  Other students whose work was not featured in the newspaper, asked how they could purchase or get a copy of the printed publication.  Staff joyously looked at their candid photos which, like those in local tabloids, decorated the paper.  Students generated their own ideas for issues and insider columns.  The e-issue of the paper prompted students from Major Johnstown High School in Pennsylvania to offer their own commentary on how cultural jokes would affect them from their more homogenous, rural Pennsylvania perspective.  A visiting author, Jacqueline Woodson, was impressed by the level of their commentary.  Teachers and staff members contacted the student editors with story ideas.  Karina Constantino, the Superintendent of District 20, praised the newspaper at the monthly Council of Education meeting. Praise and financial support came in from the Flatbush Development Council.

While the first issue only covered 7 of the school’s 45 classes (the school has 1300 students- including ESL, Special Needs, Principal Classes, Collaborative Team teaching Classes and regular 6-8 students),  by the second issue 40 % of the school’s classes were either represented in articles or had individual student contributors.  Parent leaders were featured as celebrities and the school’s adult volunteer program was covered by a reporter in the eighth grade who also trained the volunteers in differentiated instruction.

Yes, all well and lovely for school spirit, staff and community.  However, in this time of school accountability to meet PARCC Model Frameworks, to prepare students for college and careers, and to align with the Common Core Standards in ELA and History/SS, how can this newspaper project be justified, even though much of it is done afterschool (with support from the Flatbush Development Corporation) and, in truth, the paper is put together by a limited number of students?  Firstly, the students involved became active, authentic apprentices in the field of journalism as they tackle word limits, do editing, focus on stories, interviews, research, and collaborate in teams. 

True, this newspaper program was fortunate to arrange visit to two major NYC broadcast stations, CBS880 and WINS 1010. However, other middle school newspaper teams can also arrange visits to local news offices in order to connect student skills to the real world of work.  Standardized testing and writing Common Core standards are all about argument writing and reading  as well as writing informative details about topics that are informational.  These are essential components of news reporting, as are Common Core History  topic research, use of secondary/primary sources, identification /use of document quotes and placement of graphics with text content.

Dr. Anthony Bryk’s research as part of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on research predicates school success on collaboration and developing a positive nurturing school environment.  Our newspaper, the Ditmas Bulldog Buzz, is the product of a team of teacher advisor collaborators (SS and ELA) plus a growing team of additional school instructional, guidance, administration, safety office, and support staff working together to facilitate the student’s efforts.  School branding can and is achieved through school vehicles and devices run by and produced by students, teachers, and parents.  The Ditmas Bulldog Buzz both reports on the rigorous multi-content Science, Law, ELA and other content area happenings in the school and authenticates it for the reporter researcher team.  The newspaper fosters a supportive and positive environment in which high expectations for the students are realized through their publication and the reporting process. Strong family and community ties are effected as students cover and become part of teaming with the PTA president, the Parent Coordinator, and the adult tutor trainers.  Students present their product and process to the school community and train teachers and students at other schools. Mr. Barry Kevorkian, the Principal of Ditmas and his team of assistant principals: Ms. Santiago, Ms. Smalley, Ms. Esposito, and Ms. Lynch work collaboratively with the students, staff, and parents to make certain the newspaper “covers” the school activities and community involvement mission. Ultimately the newspaper filled with the images of the spirited faces of Ditmas students, staff, community and outreach beyond the walls of the school, concretizes and “images” the trust and affection that bonds “Ditmas”citizens on all levels as a community. An  essential framework for great schools emerges  in one fell swoop with a school newspaper.  The classic vehicle of the school print news team transforms the 21st century PARCC and CCSS aligned school visions, one student newspaper issue at a time.  This speaks “volumes” of the power of the press to inform and to define a community with links to life, literacy and liberty.

Visit the Ditmas Bulldog Buzz at: 
Dr. Rose Reissman is a veteran English Language Arts educator who founded the Writing Institute Program currently based in Ditmas IS 62.  Under the leadership of Barry Kevorkian, Principal, 18 educators collaborate with Dr. Reissman to produce literacy projects.  Mr. Downes (Head Advisor), Ms. Xavier (ELA Editor), and Dr. Reissman are faculty advisors for the Ditmas Bulldog Buzz, a student newspaper that reports on local neighborhood, New York State and International News as it affects the students’ lives as citizens of the world.

“Classroom Climate, Rigorous Instruction and Curriculum, and Students ‘Interactions in Urban Middle Schools.”  The Elementary School Journal 108.4 (2008): 293-312. Web.

Newmann, F. M. (University of Wisconsin), B. Smith, E. Allensworth, and A.S. Bryk. “Instructional program Coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 23.4 (2001): 297-321.