Seven of us waited pensively for the sold-out program to begin. Our meeting was supposed to take place after it ended, but then word arrived that we were wanted backstage. Several months of preparation and anticipation suddenly came to an end.
Rachel Maddow, the nationally-acclaimed television host and graduate of our own Castro Valley High School, wanted to see us early.
By the time the memorable interview began, I’d been teaching high school journalism for a dozen years. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it on. Unlike some teachers thrust into the role, I had a bachelor’s degree in journalism and several years of work experience. But I had a feeling that teaching the subject to teenagers and overseeing a high school newspaper would require tremendous time and energy. Still, I agreed to give it a try.
That first year was indeed a blur, as the students somewhat frantically produced the newspapers and I tried to figure out how to guide them. Each of those early issues felt like a herculean challenge that we just barely managed to overcome. It’s still not easy but over the years our program has grown and prospered. Rather than publish fluff and pictures lifted (illegally) from Google, our newspaper and web site cover important subjects uncommonly addressed by student media like teen pregnancy, marriage equality and the state’s budget crisis of the recession years.
Our program provides a great service to our campus community, especially to the students who produce it, I would say. A list of skills the kids acquire from journalism could practically fill an issue. Writing, editing, photography, page design and business management are just a few. The technology students learn (proficiency in Photoshop, InDesign and WordPress, for example) provides highly marketable job skills that apply to multiple career fields. And while computer skills are an important aspect of our work, many kids benefit from the push to unplug from their devices long enough to meet real live people face to face.
They do so with classmates and other teachers on a daily basis, but a few other highlight interviews stand out. Reporters from our newspaper have met and written about Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee, and Major League Baseball players including Pablo Sandoval, the 2012 World Series MVP. How many other high school kids can say that?
Alumni of our program have become newspaper reporters, editors and book authors. We have a television producer, a radio host and a radio reporter who worked as far away as Ghana. Our graduates put their skills to use as teachers; two became college professors. Others have gone to work in presidential and other political campaigns, in Congress, and at high-tech companies such as Facebook and Pinterest.
When Maddow met us before a public appearance promoting her bestselling book “Drift,” we got to do more than shake hands and take pictures with a national celebrity. The students worked together to make an eight-minute video that became the most-watched interview our group has ever produced. Everyone contributed at a high level. Our top editor conducted the interview warmly and smoothly, with the poise of a professional ten years older. She called the event the highlight of her high school career.
That evening became a highlight for me too, just as teaching journalism has been. Advising our newspaper has allowed me to work with some of the brightest kids at school and bond with them through our work on a labor of love. Our group’s writing and photography lets me know other members of the student body and their accomplishments. The changing technology of the field has helped me keep my computer skills up to date.
Just as I thought, teaching journalism requires tremendous time and energy, even more so than I ever imagined. But I’ve learned that it’s more than worth the effort.
Tips for successful student publications
Sell subscriptions to cover printing and hardware expenses. Even if you give away the issues on campus, many families will pay about $20 a year to have them sent home. By mailing at least 200 copies, you will qualify for the Postal Service’s drastically cheaper bulk rate.
Network! Affiliate with the Journalism Education Association, which has a branch in Northern California (jeanc.org). Join the National Scholastic Press Association (studentpress.org/nspa). Enter competitions and attend conferences, which support both teachers and students.
Embrace technology. Google Drive offers the perfect platform for collecting and editing articles. Learn enough Photoshop and InDesign to support your students. There are lots of free YouTube tutorials to help with this.
Create a web site. To reach your mostly-teenage audience and to motivate your students, you’ve got to go where the kids live. School Newspapers Online (www.schoolnewspapersonline.com) makes it easy to get this started. Once it’s established, promote it through Facebook and Twitter.
California Educator, 2014