Articles about "High school journalism"

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Journalist covered high school’s censorship of a coming-out story while ‘tears ran down my cheeks’

Lynn Tiley, center, and her son Taylor Ellis, center left, with Ellis’ dad, Billy, right, outside the Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (Mike Wintroath/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)

I first heard of Taylor Ellis’ story while meandering through one of the news apps on my phone. I immediately clicked on the story and began reading about the Arkansas high school student and the decision by administrators at Sheridan High School to pull the profile written about his coming-out story from his junior yearbook. As a gay man who came out in high school, the story resonated with me.

Nearly a week later, I was sent by my newspaper here in Little Rock, Ark., to photograph a press conference happening on the steps of the capitol building. Headed by Chad Griffin, the president of Human Rights Campaign, the press conference struck chords with me as Ellis and his mother spoke. She got choked up at the idea that, because of who he was, he was excluded from the yearbook. Ellis stroked her hair and Griffin gave her words of encouragement and she continued without her script.

The whole time I took photographs, tears ran down my cheeks.

When I was 15, a freshman in high school in Indiana, I decided to come out to my family and friends. I had a very supportive family and was mostly accepted in high school. I had friends who stood by me. There were some hard times as I walked the school hallways, not hiding who I was. But I had more good experiences than bad.

Senior year, I got a message from a friend on Facebook. She also happened to be the yearbook editor. She asked me if I would be interviewed for a profile in the yearbook to talk about my coming-out experience and with being openly gay in high school. Read more

Middle school students in the journalism workshop at Harrisonburg High School. (Photo by Valerie Kibler)

Va. high-school journalists teach middle schoolers that everyone has a story

Middle school students in the journalism workshop at Harrisonburg High School. (Photo by Valerie Kibler)

Audrey Knupp’s first shot at journalism begins like this: “Knowing Megan Fitzwater (‘Fitz’), you wouldn’t expect her to have a pink room. Her personality is much more tomboyish. Throughout her life, Fitz has won numerous awards for basketball and rowing and received offers to play basketball in college. Now she is a James Madison University student who coaches basketball at Thomas Harrison Middle School (THMS). And her room is still pink.”

The seventh-grader gets to the story behind that in the next paragraph. And she got to the story itself through a nine-week program at Harrisonburg High School, which brings middle schoolers into the Harrisonburg, Va., high school once a week to learn about journalism. Read more

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Fenway Park

Through in-person training, inner-city teens learn what it takes to be sports reporters

Last summer, I walked into a computer lab in the bowels of The Boston Globe carrying a stack of photocopied worksheets from the High School Journalism Institute and eager to pass my sportswriting knowledge along to three inner-city students from the Boston public schools.

That’s the beginning of this story — but the culmination of another. I spent the 2005-06 basketball season following the hoops team at Boston English — the nation’s oldest public high school — for my master’s thesis. That experience convinced me that Boston’s inner-city athletes deserved more attention.

Coverage of city athletics in the Globe and The Boston Herald was typically limited to following the best basketball teams in the winter and running 10- to 12-inch stories on the city championships for other sports, whose athletes often played to empty bleachers. Meanwhile, suburban schools were covered by the city’s major metros and their own local papers.

In the summer of 2009, the Globe ran a seven-part series, “Failing Our Athletes,” that decried the sad and woefully underfunded state of the BPS athletics department. That sparked the creation of the nonprofit Boston Scholar Athletes (BSA) program. It also inspired me to start a blog, BPSSports, covering Boston public schools athletics. Last year, the BSA and the Globe decided to devote a page on to covering BPS sports and tapped me to run it. (BSA funds the site, but we have full editorial autonomy.)

Working with TiP

I found students to contribute to the new site by collaborating with Teens in Print (TiP), a citywide student paper sponsored by the Globe. (Sadly, most of the 19 high schools in the district don’t have newspapers.) My hope was to hook them on reading and writing through the appeal of sports. So there I was, going back to school with my worksheets and a head full of visions of the inverted pyramid and memories of my own days in high-school journalism.

Ralph and Dennis were already TiP staff writers; my third student, Nani, had been recommended by a another after-school program. All spoke English as a second language: Ralph is Liberian, Dennis is Ghanian, and Nani’s family is from Cape Verde.

We took it slow: I spoke of ledes and nut grafs and the importance of learning the boring basics before getting to the fun and flash, reminding them that NBA players learned to dribble and pass before they could crossover and dunk.

After just a few days of working with my new pupils I realized my first mistake: meeting at the end of sweltering summer days when Ralph and Dennis had already logged a full day at TiP. To their credit, they rarely dozed as I droned on about the finer points of game stories and stat-taking, along with incessant reminders that there’s “NO CHEERING IN THE PRESS BOX!”

When I passed out a worksheet about action sentences in sportswriting during one of our first sessions, I realized the basics weren’t basic enough. BPS has the same issues as any other district serving low-income immigrant families, so I wasn’t shocked that my students struggled to compose complete sentences. But I was surprised at how often I had to harp on them to make their subjects and verbs agree.

Grammar Girl’s video explaining active voice was a lifeline — she not only explained it much more clearly and succinctly than someone who barely passed AP English could (that would be me) but, more importantly, she offered a fresh voice to break up the monotony of hearing only me.

I broke down the elements of my old stories for my students, had them reconstruct their own versions, and compared their efforts to mine. We practiced taking stats by streaming an old NCAA Final Four championship game online and hitting pause when they fell behind — a crutch I knew they wouldn’t have when we took a field trip to cover a summer-league basketball game.

Switching to Twitter

By summer’s end my students had mastered “action sentences,” but things were about to change: My editors asked me to have them pilot a Twitter app that updates high-school football scores in real time on Now those newly minted complete-sentence skills spilled their tweets over the 140-character threshhold.

“You know how I told you to write in complete sentences?” I joked. “Don’t do that anymore.”

There were even more obstacles when it came time to cover football games in the fall. Unlike suburban teens glued to their smartphones, city kids can’t always afford to keep their lines live if they can afford a smartphone at all. So tweeting a game wasn’t always an option. Ralph told me all summer that his dad would get him a smartphone when school started, but when he finally got one it was quickly stolen. Dennis never had a smartphone, but could sometimes borrow one from his sister or a friend. Dennis and Ralph spent much of the fall playing for their school’s soccer team, limiting their time.

And no matter what their background, good luck asking a teen to give up Friday night with friends.

Ralph and Dennis’s immigrant families didn’t always grasp the value of learning sportswriting. Dennis’ mother didn’t have a car, and his aunt worked long hours as a nurse, which made it hard for her to drive him to games. And when he did cover games, he had to compete for computer time to file a story at home. I finally found a good answer: Have Ralph and Dennis live-tweet games, meaning their duties ended with the final whistle. Both worked their way up to live-tweeting alone, and Dennis’ aunt drove him (after working the overnight shift) to cover a New England high school tradition: Thanksgiving football.

Looking ahead

Ralph and Dennis were busy and didn’t contribute to the site during the winter and spring seasons, but earlier this summer I took them to a New England Revolution soccer game. They sat in the press box, met the Globe’s reporters, attended the postgame press conference and interviewed players in the locker room. (I hope to take my new students to a Boston College football game this fall.)

Ralph’s job prevented him from returning to TiP this summer, but he wants to help out in the fall. Dennis is back, and while he still struggles with writing, he’s hanging tough and taking my constructive criticism like a champ. As for Nani, she’s now playing soccer for Dean College in Franklin, Mass. Meanwhile, I have two rookies, James and Karl, who are off to a fast start. Both have already earned their first bylines — James’s story is here, while Karl’s is here.

English is the two newcomers’ first language, and they came to me from an exam school that has taught them to write well — when I preemptively started a lesson on active voice, James and Karl bluntly told me that they already learned it in school. Unlike last summer, this time around we meet during their TiP work, not at the end of the day. Both James and Karl are quick studies in the art of keeping stats and comfortable conducting phone and live interviews. I’ll have no qualms sending them to games this fall.

The newspaper staff at Boston Latin will get class credit for contributing to the site this year, a model I’d love to replicate district-wide. And this fall I’ll be teaching a 10-week sportswriting class to seventh graders through a program called Citizen Schools, preparing them to cover middle-school leagues sponsored by the Play Ball! foundation. Starting to work with students in junior high will make them more prepared to report from fields and gyms on their own when their feet hit high-school hallways.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

  • Collaboration is key. A lot of organizations do similar work and are eager to help identify students interested in sports journalism.
  • Athletes are most interested in working with me — but non-athletes have fewer time conflicts in the afternoons.
  • Fundamentals are boring. I tell the students that they have to suffer through the stale stuff before they get to the fun stuff. And even then, I warn them that covering games will be tedious at first.
  • Throw ’em in the deep end. Once you’ve gone over the basics, let your students write a practice story. Then walk through the process and compare their work with a professional’s. From there, find a rec-league game for them to cover and try to let them do all the talking.
  • Rewrites are learning opportunities. Ultimately, a student’s work has to be publishable, which can outweigh the urge to let original work shine through. This is a tricky balance but a necessary one if students are going to eventually cover games on their own.
  • Be honest. I tell inner-city students that it will likely be more difficult for them to master sportswriting skills than it would be for their suburban counterparts. But I also tell them they can do it, and that trying harder isn’t a bad thing.
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Seattle School Board reverses proposed censorship policy
Soon after reports surfaced that the Seattle School Board was proposing a policy that would subject student journalists to censorship, the group reversed its position. KUOW’s Phyllis Fletcher tells Poynter’s Al Tompkins how beat reporting helped her break the story:

…you have to find things that haven’t made anyone angry (yet). You’ll find things that are quirky, interesting, odd, or that demonstrate that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The more you bring these things to light, the more you and your audience learn, and the more you build credibility with tipsters — and with the body you cover.

When you first start to cover a legislative body, it’s boring, intimidating, thankless, confusing, and all those things that cause you to question your life choices. Find a way to be amused by the tedium. Bring food. Get into it like you’re watching a movie. If your employer supports it, tweet or blog during the meetings. Notice the speech patterns and trivialities that drive you nuts. If you don’t understand something, ask about it. If people seem to be speaking in code, pay attention to that. Save all your tape. If you cover the same beat long enough, your old tape will be useful to you later.

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How Seattle journalist got school censorship scoop

Seattle area public schools will allow free speech and free press thanks to an alert journalist who spotted a hidden pending policy change.

This is a story about the value of good old-fashioned beat reporting that included pawing through boring-looking documents. It is a story about how endless hours of committee hearings and school board discussions can build the foundation for a great story.

Phyllis Fletcher is the education reporter for Seattle’s KUOW public radio. She mostly covers the Seattle School District with occasional suburban and higher education stories. Like journalists in most smaller newsrooms, she can also get pulled into other daily assignments as needed.

Phyllis Fletcher started at KUOW as an intern about nine years ago.

Fletcher perked up when she spotted what she believed was a change in official policy about whether student newspapers in Seattle schools should be free to print what they wish or come under the potentially heavy-handed rule of principals.

At first, school officials denied there had been a change. Then they agreed there had been. Within a few days of Fletcher’s report, and a flood of media follow-ups, the school district completely reversed the policy.

None of this would have happened if Fletcher had not been intimately familiar with the school board’s inner workings, and if she had been less curious about a document buried within another document online. What follows is an edited interview with Fletcher about her work.

Al Tompkins: Did you know what you had when you read the passage on the school document? What on earth made you look at the otherwise fairly dry (and unsearchable) document?

Phyllis Fletcher: I knew as soon as I saw the words “principals,” “review,” and “prior to publication” that it was a huge change. Years ago, I learned about the policy overhaul project, and made a mental note that when those changes were finally unveiled, I should look for any language that would give principals prior review of student newspapers.

I made this note because I had covered a press freedom lawsuit in another district where principals had prior review. That was when I learned that Seattle, in contrast to the other district, granted students freedom of the press. That’s also when I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not guarantee press freedom in public school student papers, and that Washington State is not one of the seven states that guarantees that right. So restrictions like prior review are legal in Washington under state and federal law, and they often lead to “prior restraint” — i.e., principals killing stories. The draft policy in Seattle would have let a principal kill a story for reasons as broad and subjective as being “inappropriate,” “disruptive,” or not “in keeping with the school’s mission and instructional values.”

It sounds like you knew more about the change in the policy language than some board members.

Fletcher: It appeared that way. The policies were developed by district lawyers who report to the superintendent. The lawyers had guidance from a statewide organization that advises school boards on policy matters. I called the board member who oversaw the changes, and he denied that the language was a change from current policy. I described the content of the old and new policies.  He asked to have some time to look into it and call me back. He did, and he admitted the change, but described it as a protection to keep students from printing libel or obscenity. Journalism teachers say their students already enjoyed that protection, and point out that the district’s existing free press policy already barred libel and obscenity.

What made this even more interesting was that the proposed change ran counter to an argument the Seattle School District had made in court that summer. The district had been sued for libel, and had argued in court that it was not responsible for damages because its students had freedom of the press.  (The district also argued that the article in question was not libelous, because it was true.) The district won that case, and it’s under appeal.

Do you cover a school beat? Why is that important for newsrooms to do, especially when newsrooms need their journalists to cover so much territory these days?

Fletcher: I think it’s important for even a small newsroom to assign beats and/or let reporters develop them. Even if a beat is a subject matter that doesn’t have a go-to board (like the education beat and school boards), the coverage should include legislative bodies that set policy in that subject area. So much of what happens in those entities is public, but murky, for one reason or another.  You can rely on watchdogs to tip you off. But that’s just part of it.

You also have to find and expose things that haven’t risen even to the watchdogs’ finely-tuned radar. That means you have to find things that haven’t made anyone angry (yet). You’ll find things that are quirky, interesting, odd, or that demonstrate that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.  The more you bring these things to light, the more you and your audience learn, and the more you build credibility with tipsters — and with the body you cover.

It’s important for reporters to have beats because the same plots and themes are resurrected constantly: strikes, layoffs, lawsuits, audits, elections. When a reporter can cover a beat for a number of years, that experience and expertise lets the reporter add nuance and context to a recurring or continuing story, and the audience benefits.

What is the bigger story here that other journalists should start digging for? Where will they find stuff like school policy on open press?

Fletcher: When you first start to cover a legislative body, it’s boring, intimidating, thankless, confusing, and all those things that cause you to question your life choices. Find a way to be amused by the tedium. Bring food.  Get into it like you’re watching a movie. If your employer supports it, tweet or blog during the meetings. Notice the speech patterns and trivialities that drive you nuts. If you don’t understand something, ask about it. If people seem to be speaking in code, pay attention to that. Save all your tape. If you cover the same beat long enough, your old tape will be useful to you later.

A task that seems boring and intimidating at first is to keep up with all the meetings. Find out when the agendas are published and review every one.  Ask your editor to help you prioritize, and don’t be discouraged that you can’t go to everything. Even if you miss a meeting, check the agenda (or the minutes, after they’re approved; some bodies release very detailed minutes, plus audio and video). Something in there might ring a bell. If you develop a system to track all those bells that need to be rung, that might serve you better than your memory (which I relied on in this case).

Check municipal, county, and federal courts for lawsuits that name the people and organizations you cover. If you’re on the beat long enough, cases you report on will make their way through the appeals system. Find out when those opinions are released.

Fletcher also turned to her Twitter and radio followers to help her report on education policies.

Fletcher: As you develop your beat, be confident that others will find what you do useful, and that they’ll be grateful for it. And don’t be discouraged when you get scooped. Learn from it, if you can. Next time, it’ll be your turn. But you have to lay the groundwork first — with all those tasks that seem thankless until, suddenly, they’re not.

Interestingly, the Seattle Area School System Superintendent, Susan Enfield, is a former journalism teacher. KUOW’s follow-up report Monday included this passage:

Teresa Wippel is a spokesperson for Superintendent Susan Enfield.

Wippel: “She felt strongly that it’s important that we give our students a chance to fully understand the rights and responsibilities that come along with freedom of the press, and that we needed to have a policy that reflected that.”

Given that statement, it is still unclear how the superintendent’s staff could have inserted the language into the policy that would have removed student press freedom.

Resource: Student Press Law Center Read more


Seattle School Board proposal allows principals ‘to pretty much censor at will’

Seattle Times
The proposed policy would give Seattle principals the authority to review high school papers before they’re published and would allow them to stop publication if they deem material to be libelous, obscene or “not in keeping with the school’s instructional mission and values,” among other criteria, reports Brian M. Rosenthal. Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, tells him that the proposal opens the door for administrators to pretty much censor at will. “It’s just sort of, if you don’t like the way something sounds or you think it’s going to cause a phone call or something, then all of a sudden it doesn’t keep with the values of the school” in the principal’s judgment. The board will vote on the proposal Dec. 7. || Related from KUOW: “Stop the presses, let the principal check them first” || “The district’s statement about why this is OK is classic doublespeak.” Read more


High school journalists kept Vargas’ secret for six weeks

Mountain View Patch
Jose Antonio Vargas met with the Mountain View High School newspaper staff on May 11, and told the 35 teen journalists, “I’m an undocumented immigrant.” He told them that only a few people knew, and asked that they keep it secret for a while.

For the next six weeks not a murmur, whisper, tweet or status update suggested the teenagers guarded privileged information for Vargas, 30, a former Oracle editor-in-chief and a 2000 graduate of MVHS.

Kevin Troxell, a 17-year-old entertainment editor at the Oracle, says he saw the shock on Vargas’ face after he told the teens that he was undocumented. “He seemed surprised to tell us. He kind of put his hand over his mouth as if to say ‘what did I just say?’ …Oracle is a tight knit group and we are all friends. He’s a friend and an Oracle, and that was the reason we wanted to keep his secret.”
Vargas’s revelations may be a victory for immigration advocates, but not for journalism
Los Altos High School student paper posts video of Vargas Q&A Read more