What journalists — who also happen to be high school students — have to say about back-to-school plans

Though most said adults at their schools hadn’t surveyed their opinions, the young journalists offer a world of perspective, insight and access

July 27, 2020

Early during this year’s Poynter High School Journalism Program, I asked the participants if any adults from their schools had surveyed them about the impending back-to-school-during-a-pandemic plans. The answers immediately flooded the chat box of our virtual meeting room, and they were nearly unanimous.

No. Schools are not asking students what they think about a decision that will arguably impact them more than anyone else, save the faculty and staff who will be in the trenches with them. Only a few of the 41 program participants indicated that their schools asked for a student perspective.

But when it came time to talk about these issues, the students had plenty to say, from informed, data-driven views to wholly personal expressions of fear, apprehension and hope.

Journalists who happen to be students (let’s agree to avoid shoving them into the restrictive box of “student journalist”) are embedded in schools at a time when public health crises are unfolding in the hallways, where the roots of racist ideologies are being challenged in lunchrooms and lesson plans. They are spending their time outside of school in ways that look nothing like those of prior generations. Their lives don’t even look like those of teenagers six months ago.

Teens are witnessing, experiencing and participating in life at a historic time, and they will be the ones living with the outcomes of today’s decisions, tomorrow. They don’t just need a seat at the table. They need a stage and a full audience. Teen voices need amplification. Whether through individual internships, partnerships with schools or other creative solutions, we can find ways to give them a voice and to hear what they are saying.

Over the course of the two-week program, each student composes a personal essay. This year, most of them focused on the experience of spending high school in quarantine, only finally venturing out to challenge a world of injustice and racism in the streets of their cities. Here are just a few excerpts from their work.

Michelle Mairena is a senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center in Miami. She writes about her experience as a Nicaraguan teen, navigating the economics of a pandemic in two languages.

She kept coming in and out of the kitchen with a wooden spoon in hand, feeding me details about her past each time. I had cleaned the apartment earlier that day, and I wanted to tell her that the spoon she was holding was spilling red sauce on the floor. In the end, I didn’t say anything about it. I just continued asking her the questions on my screen and silently typing my translated version of her answers.

“Did you ever work at a retail store?” I asked in Spanish. “Sí,” she replied. Her answer then followed with a lengthy anecdote in her native language.

I sat on the sofa with my computer on my lap, paper and pen to my left. She would constantly step out of the kitchen to look at me while she answered the question, sauce-spilling spoon in hand. I tried not to think, just type. But I felt horrible the entire two hours that I sat there and looked at the red spills on the floor.

As weird as it sounds, I was thinking about celebrities. In the age of quarantine, social media had now become the lens through which I saw the world, and my mind kept circling around celebrities complaining about not being able to attend Coachella and how bored they were amid this global crisis.

I wasn’t living in a luxurious house, worrying how to pass time in my mansion. I was a 17-year-old filling out Walmart and Publix job applications for her mother, translating English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English in a two-bedroom rented apartment.

I was scared for her life. I didn’t want her to risk her health, and working at a place like Publix meant anything but social distancing. It didn’t matter what I thought, though. Her mind was set: Even though my stepfather was still working, two working parents during an economic downfall meant a better income. For her, it also meant being able to send more money to our family in Nicaragua.

David Min, a junior attending the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, struggled with taking his orchestra class online, but has ultimately discovered a new strength as a result.

During the first class of online orchestra, it became clear that playing as a 30-person ensemble was not feasible; I recall we gave it a valiant try, ending in vain. The various sources of audio were constantly unsynced as clips of sound sometimes sped forward or completely froze.

Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony was reduced to a clamor of sound.

To mitigate this issue, our conductor, Dr. Cless, proposed a solution: Orchestra members would record their individual parts at home, and then he would edit all the clips together to produce a high quality “performance.” This was easier said than done. During a group ensemble performance, the audience would never notice a small dynamic or intonation mistake, but in a recording, those mistakes were amplified.

After two months, the striving for perfection, the drive to adapt to online learning and the perseverance throughout all of virtual orchestra’s challenges led to the Orchestra & Chamber Concert via Zoom webinar.

The concert ended with a grand finale — Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.

The violins launched into a combination of fast-paced eighth notes and crescendoing whole notes, creating a feeling of increasing excitement and impetus. Unlike the clamor of dissonance I had noticed in the beginning of my online learning experience, all the moving parts, whether it be the strings, the woodwinds, or even timpani, acted together in harmony, keeping a fast, steady rhythm, clear intonation, and variation in dynamics.

The recording didn’t muffle the parts into one jumbled mess; rather, each section of the orchestra was distinguishable and unique, each having their own musical character.

I did not only make music virtually with my peers, but I conquered the daunting hardships and frustrations of online learning itself; I overcame my initial isolation and the challenges of online learning.

Despite the obstacles, life always finds a way to move forward.

Orchestra class certainly did.

Clara Kingsley Tripp is an eighth-grader at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, New York. After attending a protest sparked by the actions of a local business owner, Clara sees a deeper connection to the implications of racism in her town.

I slowly began to realize parents weren’t outraged because this man was a racist, but were offended because he had harassed and “scared” my friends. They weren’t boycotting the store because  a white male store owner yelled about reverse racism and made very clear that he was anti-Black Lives Matter. They were upset because their precious children were given the finger.

As soon as Donnie apologized, they would be there, buying their wine for book club once again. But Donnie was still a racist. The white, liberal, Black Lives Matter sign-holders were willing to continue giving money to a racist. THEY were racists.

In my community, protesting is easy. Fear of the cops? Zero. Until Donnie, dangerous confrontations? Zilch. Praising children for “pioneering work?” One hundred percent.

For white kids and adults in an all-white town, simply standing on the sidewalk with a sign is the easiest thing in the world and everyone was willing to do that. Yet, when it actually came time to be true allies and take real anti-racist action, such as boycotting a racist store owner, these “progressives” simply Could. Not. Do It.

And finally, Bridgette Adu-Wadier, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, and a contributor to several local news organizations, sums up the experience of being both a student and a journalist today, as she races the battery life of her phone to cover a protest.

During the 2-mile march, I didn’t walk or chant. I ran. My slow phone made me have to stop in the street and wait to take a decent shot. The rest of the crowd would continue on several feet ahead of me. I found myself alternating between two extremes — running at full speed to catch up to the front of the crowd and stopping to film and re-film, shoot and re-shoot. I was racing against the 5% battery left in my phone. The love-hate relationship with my phone fully developed. I kept myself from cursing the short battery life, knowing that it was my only source of footage.

Cars honked their support as they drove by, and parked police blocking off the intersections nodded their acknowledgment. The concern I felt going into this protest quelled, for the protest ended up being overwhelmingly peaceful. It was a total opposite from the hundreds of videos I watched online; rarely did they show community support for protests.

What pulled me toward covering protests was the need to restore the human element in journalism. Despite my fears of the pandemic and inward cringing at the lack of social distancing, I had to reclaim everything that was lost in months of low-quality Zoom interviews, remote producing and dreaded phone calls.

As a journalist and as a student, nothing beats writing the first drafts of history while being in the throes of it.

Sean Marcus directs Poynter’s High School Journalism Program and teaches journalism and English language and literature at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa, Florida. He has advised award-winning scholastic publications in the Tampa Bay area for 18 years. You can reach him at marcus.sean@gmail.com or on Twitter at @MrSeanMarcus.