When Lori Cristol was about the age of the sixth graders she now teaches, she hoped to become a journalist someday.
“For my 18th birthday I received a subscription to The New York Times,” Cristol said recently. “And I’ve had one ever since.”
Today, as a language arts teacher at Henderson Middle School, Cristol serves as co-sponsor of Paw Prints, the student newspaper which appears–alas!–just twice each year.
The paper receives only enough funding from the school’s Parent-Teacher Student Association to produce December and May issues. But the school’s Newspaper Club meets weekly, every Wednesday at 7:45am, with attendance ranging from 12 to 20. Building on the students’ interests in social issues and school events, Cristol guides the development and assignment of stories.
The 12-page fall 2010 issue featured articles about cyber-bullying, profiles of teachers, a book review, sports coverage, and an advice column called “Ask Bob/Ask Alice.”
“Some of the students do hope to become journalists,” said Robbie Barber, Henderson Middle’s creative writing teacher and co-librarian who edits and lays out the paper. She also organizes its publication and distribution.
When Barber began teaching at Henderson Middle last fall she also assumed sponsorship of WHMS Morning, a five-minute daily news update aired school wide on closed circuit television. Produced by 8th graders, the show starts the day with information about upcoming events like the prom along with random greetings from students and teachers.
It is “student driven,” Barber said.
She and Cristol stressed the significance of those types of activities.
“So much in education is prescribed today,” Cristol said. “School newspapers represent an authentic opportunity for students to explore issues and experiences and to express their opinions. They exercise choice in the stories they write.”
Once upon a time American educators largely agreed that student publications held great value in the process of teaching and learning.
“Every article must be condensed and meaty. At the same time the paper should breathe the spirit of the school,” the principal of a Detroit junior high school said of a high school newspaper in 1922. “To write the paper becomes an interesting project in which young aspirants try for reportorial honors. The Forerunner is a democratic little paper. It is real and interesting to the students."
The junior high school was founded on principles of exploration and vocational education, as I noted in an earlier column. Consequently, extra-curricular activities were considered to be especially important in the seventh and eighth grades because they fostered self-expression, as the editor of the widely-read Junior High School Clearinghouse noted in 1923.
As early as 1900, school newspapers proliferated among large high schools. Often they were produced by students in a particular English class but also grew out of newspaper clubs and–yes–journalism courses.
In the pages of education journals and at conferences, school administrators debated the place of journalism in junior and senior high schools. Should there be a new curriculum category called “vocational English” that would include journalism, library methods, creative writing, and public speaking? Or should journalism be considered a “commercial subject” along with bookkeeping, stenography, typewriting and office practices?
Dissenters emerged: “Professional journalism in the secondary schools will never do,” one observer said. In 1919, an article entitled “High Schools Can’t Train Newspaper Men” appeared in the widely read English Journal.
Yet through the 1920s, teachers consulted an array of guides to manage high school publications, and The Scholastic Editor, “a magazine devoted to the interests and problems of school publications,” started up.
By 1926, there were 14,000 high school publications nationwide and secondary schools combined offered more than 300 courses in journalism.
School administrators perennially discussed the extent to which students should maintain editorial control.
“There is no student organization independent of oversight by the faculty in which there is not a tendency to degenerate,” declared the New York state superintendent in his 1907 annual report.
Nonetheless, students largely retained editorial control over their publications–of course, high school students tended to be more circumspect even through the 1960s–until 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, allowed school administrators to censor articles on teen pregnancy and divorce. Since then, however, other court cases have imposed limitations on school censorship.
Free spirits prevail in the pages of Portfolio, Henderson Middle’s literary magazine, which appears annually under the direction of seventh grade language arts teacher Linda Fowler.
Portfolio publishes poetry, essays and short stories. This year, for the first time, the magazine will include artwork and a story written in Spanish.
“Most students see the importance of poetry,” said Fowler, stealing a few moments from her class which was busy studying a poem by Shel Silverstein.
“It’s so important to find ways of expression,” she added.
In print and on video, Henderson Middle takes that commitment seriously.