New York State School Boards Association

Student journalism seen as a form of character education

by Alan Wechsler

On Board Online • April 23, 2018

By Alan Wechsler
Special Correspondent

At Plaza Elementary School on Long Island, young students are developing a nose for news. And, according to administrators in the Baldwin Public Schools, it's making them better people.

Six years ago the school launched Team ORCHID - it's a complicated acronym integrating such words as outstanding, courageous, helpful and dedicated - traits that the school wants to instill in these students.

A major component of that effort is the Good News Cafe, a place that cooks up stories instead of meals.

Student journalists - they're in grades 3 through 5 - interview fellow students, write about assemblies, cover events and pursue other story ideas they develop themselves.

Students turn their notes, photos and videos into Google slide shows that are available online. Many give up recess to develop multimedia presentations in a "newsroom" located in a former basement reading room.

More than 75 students involved in the program aren't advanced enough to study such journalistic conventions as "A.P. style" (the reason this newspaper capitalizes Legislature but not governor - unless it's right before his name, in which case it's abbreviated: Gov. Andrew Cuomo). But the students have come to understand the basics of interviewing, writing a lead (or "lede," as some spell it), and how to structure a news story.

Last year, the news team posted 65 stories, and this year reporters have published more than 120 stories.

It's a way to deliver character education, according to Mark Gray, principal of the 450-student school.

"When you do character education programs, we tell the kids 'you have to be respectful' and we read about being respectful," he said. Instead of talking about it, he decided, why not have the students practice it themselves? By promoting interactions, he said, "we're giving kids the opportunity to be activists, to be engaged with other kids' lives and interests."

It helps that many Team ORCHID programs include service projects in the community. This year that included:

  • A Halloween candy drive; trick-or-treat candy was donated to local veterans.
  • A campaign to gather supply donations for hurricane victims in Texas and Puerto Rico.
  • A coin drive for victims of last fall's California wildfires.

Students have launched their own initiatives. For instance, one student set up a lemonade stand to raise money for children in Africa. And students came up with the idea of welcoming new students to the school by giving them homemade friendship bracelets.

All became stories covered by the student journalists.

The journalism program helped win the school a 2017 Program of Excellence Award from the New York State English Council, a group dedicated to "improving language arts education" through professional development and related programs. Plaza was also named a 2018 "School of Character," one of four schools named in New York, by the organization Character.org.

Character education holds potential to help school improve their cultures, according to an article by a teacher that appeared in The Atlantic magazine in 2013. "At a time when parents and teachers are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work," the article said.

It can also help academics, according to the author: "From a practical perspective, it's simply easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence, even when they would rather be playing outside."

Gray says ORCHID has helped reduce disciplinary actions. The school went from 22 suspensions six years ago to seven last year and zero so far this year, he said. "I've never had that in my entire career. It's definitely translating onto the bigger picture," he said.

Jaclyn Graham, assistant principal and advisor to Good News Cafe, said the program has also helped to thwart bullying. "It really turned into a program where students focus more on the good things that are happening at the school." "It helps us to build the character of the building, and students have learned how to be activists and to be respectful and responsible citizens."

Students taking part also show improvement in reading and writing skills, according to school officials.

Reporters begin by discussing potential stories, such as covering a spelling bee or finding out which Super Bowl team was the favorite among students. Another staple: a profile of a faculty member or student.

A reporter borrows one of six Motorola phones from a teacher, which can only be used for taking photographs and uploading to a cloud storage site. After covering the event, reporters spend recess turning the photos into slide shows with captions and graphics. Some work on stories at home as well.

Articles are usually a team effort, with one student taking pictures or shooting videos and others asking questions.

"It's a whole team effort," said Asia Dowe, a fifth grader. She said she takes notes on a sheet of paper on a clipboard. She writes down questions ahead of time, but sometimes asks spontaneous ones too. Her favorite piece so far was covering a cultural arts assembly, where the team photographed Native American speakers.

"It's fun. We learn how to work with others and we get to use new devices," she said. "You get to write stories that are happening around the school."

This year, students from other districts are even coming to Plaza to learn how to be journalists. Plaza kids give up part of a Saturday to teach other students how to report on and post a story. So far, students from five other districts have taken part.

"We all do it because we like to show kids how to do things," said reporter and fourth-grade student, Gabriel Sookdeo. He said he first got involved with the Cafe‚ because his friends were doing it, and he liked the way they were meeting new friends and working as a team. His favorite story involved meeting the district superintendent for a story celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Right now it's really fun doing it," he said. "For us to even be showing other kids how to do it, we're kind of setting a trend."


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