Three days to publication and the journalism classroom at Birmingham High School looks like the Los Angeles Times in miniature. Students input last-minute articles, proofread copy, examine, criticize, and change layout, argue over headlines and bylines, debate front-page articles. When the dismissal bell rings at 3:05, no one leaves. Students know what has to be done in order to send the Courier to the printing company at eight the next morning.
When the 3,000 papers arrive later in the week, we sort them by homeroom and stuff fliers that advertise driving schools, tanning salons, tuxedo rentals, and pagers. We distribute the papers on campus and mail them to other high schools around the city.
Then the journalism students wait for the compliments and criticism they know will come.
Publishing a student newspaper is an authentic learning experience, not a textbook exercise to earn a grade and accumulate credits toward graduation. The only blanks the journalism students come across are the 16 blank pages they have to fill every four weeks. There are no assigned vocabulary lists to memorize. When they’re stuck for a word, they go to a thesaurus without being asked. They know that work turned in late, no matter how much time and effort they’ve put into it, doesn’t get published. Deadlines mean just that.
Teachers frequently hear about different learning styles and the various strategies to reach all students. I don’t give it a thought. On a newspaper staff, students find their own niches. Danny seldom leaves the computer. Robert single-handedly sells advertisements at $300 to $500 an issue. Readers turn to Kim’s horoscopes first. Iris and Edward touch a nerve when they report on sexual harassment on campus. Jason is second only to Siskel and Ebert when it comes to movie reviews. Milt covers new teachers, drama news, and anything else he can get his hands on. He’s a junior with plans of becoming senior editor next year.
Student journalists--freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, C students to A--are dependent on each other. I don’t have to hound them to do their jobs. When one doesn’t, it reflects on everyone. Either we all win, or we all lose.
These students deal with questions of ethics every day. Are teachers and administrators, star athletes, and club presidents public figures on campus? If an athlete is ineligible to play because his grades are too low, is that his business or is it news? It takes money to run the paper, so should we accept ads from anyone willing to pay? If students are not allowed to carry pagers, can we still advertise them in the school paper? Do we cover fights on campus? Drug busts? Theft? We don’t want outsiders to think we have a bad school, but is not reporting that news self-imposed censorship?
They learn about the power of the printed word to incite, inform, entertain, wound, and praise. Outside class, they defend each other and everything in the paper, but among themselves, they consider carefully each of the many letters to the editor they receive. Publishing a school newspaper is heady, humbling, and real.
Maybe high schools have it all wrong. Perhaps we should stress the basics less and push students into producing more. A group assigned to write a textbook, rather than read one, is going to learn a lot more about history--and writing, researching, teamwork, and compromise. Students will learn more about food and nutrition running a catering company, seeking clients, marketing their wares, than they will studying the four--or is it five?--basic food groups.
I had a traditional education that covered all the basics, yet I remember almost nothing I learned in high school. I was so busy earning high grades to get into college that I didn’t take time for extras. But it’s the extras--drama, sports, band, cheerleading, debate, yearbook, and journalism--that make high school a worthwhile learning experience, not just a steppingstone to college or a place to mark time before getting a job.
I look back over the years I’ve taught a traditional English curriculum and wonder how much of what we did stuck. But I have no doubt that what my students do in journalism, without much help from me, will serve them well in the future.
The author teaches English and journalism at Birmingham High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as The Front Page