Keeping High School Journalism Class on the Cutting Edge

A journalism adviser confers with a student during an editing session at a high school in Vermont. Journalism classes across the country have changed in light of new digital tools, such as Twitter and livestreaming.
A journalism adviser confers with a student during an editing session at a high school in Vermont. Journalism classes across the country have changed in light of new digital tools, such as Twitter and livestreaming.
—Caleb Kenna for Education Week-File
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A Snapchat recap of a Friday night football game. Streaming school board meetings on Facebook. Posting a breaking news story about a school bomb threat online in real time.

None of it would have been possible when high school journalism teacher Sarah Nichols was in her students’ shoes more than two decades ago. But the new technologies are a regular part of life for high school journalism programs like hers at Whitney High School in Rocklin, Calif.

“It’s easier to reach an audience now. With that comes so much responsibility in terms of getting it right and sharing it carefully and wisely and using the tools for good rather than being wooed by their capability,” said Nichols, who is the president of the Journalism Education Association, a nonprofit that provides professional development to student journalists and their advisers.

New digital technologies—especially social media—come with plenty of headaches for teachers and administrators. But they can help student journalists connect with their digitally savvy peers. They can provide a motivational hook for students who might be disinterested in sitting down and writing an essay—or even a news story.

And perhaps more importantly, mastering the new tools and working with fellow students to tell stories on a wide variety of platforms can help students learn practical skills that are essential for college or whatever career they decide to pursue.

“I never feel like I’m training journalists,” said Mitch Eden, who teaches journalism at Kirkwood High School, near St. Louis. “What I’m teaching them is incredible collaboration and critical thinking. There’s a huge project-management task they have to get done and there’s a deadline. … I truly think what they are doing is going to benefit them in any field.”

Teacher Learning Curve

The ever-changing array of new gadgets and techniques can be a lot to swallow for some journalism advisers. Many are English or social studies teachers drafted into the position with little knowledge of the basics of reporting, much less mastery of digital publishing platforms like WordPress.

“Everything changes so frequently and there’s so much to learn and it’s overwhelming for so many [teachers],” said Aaron Manfull, a teacher at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Mo., who also serves as the digital media chair for JEA. “They’re not really sure where to get help and what tools they should be using.”

Manfull’s advice to his fellow newspaper and yearbook advisers: Get comfortable with a few tools and resources. But empower your students to master the latest social media platform, video technique, or web design feature on their own. Then, they may be able to help the adviser—and others on the staff—learn to use the new tool.

“I have kids who are way smarter than me in a lot of different areas,” Manfull said. “I think it’s really cool when I can sit a kid in front of the class and have them teach others.”

For instance, two of Manfull’s tech-savvy, sports-obsessed students once livestreamed high school games on the paper’s website. But when they graduated, the technical know-how left with them.

The next school year “started out rough. The streams were not working and I had no idea how to help them with it,” Manfull said.

One new editor taught herself to run the livestream, and also developed a new “livestream test” other students in the program must take to show that they can work the technology, too. Manfull’s students are requiring him to pass the test this year.

There may be nothing scarier for some journalism advisers than handing teenagers the keys to the school newspaper or yearbook social media accounts so that they can post to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more.

There has to be a lot of coaching on the front end, especially for less-experienced students. Some teachers say they make sure only experienced students are able to access their paper or yearbook’s social media feeds, or that student-editors approve tweets. But advisers are reluctant to say that they must sign off on every post—otherwise it will slow down the pace of real-time platforms.

One important lesson: Get the tone right. Students at central Virginia’s Prince George High School are told to live-tweet high school football games like objective reporters, not like exclamation-point-crazed fans.

“We have a saying, ‘Kill the cheerleader,’ even though we don’t literally mean that,” said Chris Waugaman, the school’s journalism teacher.

In Eden’s experience, once students are given the responsibility, they will rise to the occasion.

“There are not too many other places in this school where they are given this power and this authority, and with it comes great responsibility, and they take that very seriously,” Eden said. He doesn’t even have the passwords for his program’s social media handles.

And there are times when teenagers’ social media use can be a learning experience—for both teachers and their students.

In January 2017, political tensions were running high in the wake of President Donald Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Students on the yearbook staff at Corning-Painted Post High School in Corning, N.Y., covered a few of their teachers protesting the selection of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, capturing the moment in Instagram and Facebook posts.

Students on the yearbook staff at Corning-Painted Post High School in Corning, N.Y., clashed with district leadership over this social media post, which documents local teachers' protests against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Students on the yearbook staff at Corning-Painted Post High School in Corning, N.Y., clashed with district leadership over this social media post, which documents local teachers' protests against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
—Via Instagram

Then their teacher, Michael Simons, got a late-night call from the superintendent asking him to please take down the posts because of angry calls from local residents. Despite misgivings, Simons complied.

“It was one of the most uncomfortable things I had to do as an adviser,” he recalled. His students responded by changing the password on the accounts, locking their teacher out, and putting the post back up.

The district’s lawyer weighed in, saying the students were protected, in part because they had adhered to media ethics. They had covered the protest objectively, without favoring one side or the other. If they had added a “never Trump” hashtag, it would have been a different story, Simons said.

“It was a real nice win for the kids,” Simons said. “We really saw it as a win for everybody, because it was a teachable moment,” he said. Generally, “our administration does a wonderful job of backing our kids as long as it’s great journalism,” he added.

Discerning News Consumers

Even as digital technology blossoms, some high schools are paring back their focus on journalism to concentrate on areas like science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, said Kelly Furnas, a lecturer in communications at Elon University in North Carolina, who previously served as executive director of JEA.

But other schools are increasingly turning to journalism and newspaper courses as a way to teach students how to be discerning news consumers, he said. Some educators see this as more important than ever in an era when fabricated news stories are shared widely on social media.

“The good news is that society and educational institutions have seen media literacy as a growing need in secondary education,” said Furnas, who also serves as JEA’s global engagement director. “A lot of high schools have jumped on the idea that we can do a twofer. We can be teaching these news literacy skills as we’re teaching journalism production.”

To be sure, there are plenty of high school newspapers that still haven’t migrated online. School Newspapers Online, or SNO, a Burnsville, Minn.-based organization started by a former high school newspaper adviser that helps school papers go digital, works with more than 2,200 high school sites, the majority of those that have a web presence, said Jason Wallestad, SNO’s cofounder and co-owner. He estimates about another 6,000 to 8,000 high schools have newspapers that aren’t yet online. (Furnas' best guess is that it is about 50 to 60 percent of high school newspapers.)

There are only about 200 high school papers in the country that are “firing on all cylinders,” with daily updates to their web sites and consistent use of techniques like video, social media, interactive graphics, and podcasting, Furnas estimated. Hundreds more might experiment with those technologies less frequently, he added.

Many of the high schools that are on the leading edge are in better-resourced, more affluent communities with supportive administrations, Furnas said.

But any high school can create a strong program, said Michelle Balmeo, who recently moved from Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, Calif.—the heart of Silicon Valley—to West Albany High School in small-town Oregon.

Balmeo’s new administration supported restarting the school’s journalism program, which had been dormant for years. Balmeo has had to do some of her own fundraising for technology, turning to crowdfunding sites such as DonorsChoose.org for help.

She’s hoping her journalism class can eventually qualify as a career-and-technical-education program, and be eligible for federal funding. After all, she said, the new technology will give her students great preparation for the workforce.

“I always thought that high school journalism was on the cutting edge within the education world, getting kids the next skill before everyone else.”

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