Upper elementary students run their own multi-media news outlet. Students report on issues of importance to their community, and learn journalistic and technology skills to create multi-media materials, such as a monthly print newspaper, podcasts, and video news reports.
“My name is Lilah, and I’m a reporter for The HDS Press,” a student said when called on by a member of the band, The Knights, after they performed a concert at the school; some of the songs were played with the student band, Klez Kids. “Do you mind if I take notes?” Also in attendance was a journalist and photographer from MLive, the region’s major media outlet.
This is a typical moment when it comes to the student reporters at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. They no longer passively watch the events around them — they evaluate them for newsworthiness, take notes on them, and capture photos and videos for later use in the next issue of The HDS Press.
The band generously agreed to stay after their concert in order to answer questions from student reporters. The MLive reporter stays too, and gets a few questions in.
When the issue was published later that month, students were able to see their work side-by-side with coverage by MLive, which lent even more authenticity and importance to their efforts.
Another example of this was coverage of a fire at the school building. Student reporters started observing and taking mental notes the moment they understood that the fire alarm was not a drill. Once safety was ensured, the reporters hatched a plan for getting the scoop of the fire story. Again, they had the local newspaper to compete with.
[Photo of HDS Press reporter Livnat interviewing the security guard after the fire took place.]
The HDS Press is a local, community-focused student-run newspaper in which students are at the forefront of the issues that matter most to them, to their school community, to the local (and wider) Jewish community, and to the Ann Arbor community. This multi-media news outlet is led by a student editor and an editorial team of copy-editors, fact-checkers, a podcast director, video directors, and a team of reporters. (As their faculty advisor, I take the layout, determined by the editor, and create the newspaper using InDesign, a software with which I have extensive training.) This group of around 18 students is constantly looking at the world around them with a new perspective–they are continually thinking about the importance and impact of the events and issues surrounding them.
I have had the pleasure of serving as the faculty advisor for this incredible group of students. (I am a trained journalist and worked as a writer for many years; my work has appeared in various publications under my maiden name, Laura Rheinheimer, such as the San Jose Mercury News, The Jerusalem Post, National Geographic School Publishing and more.) I have several years’ experience working with students on newspapers. We use principles of journalism to push the students to write stories that would be of interest to their readership, consider multiple viewpoints, seek reputable sources, fact-check information, and importantly, never spell anyone’s name incorrectly.
Student newspapers have a long-standing tradition at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor and this one was reignited as an entirely student-run publication in 2015 (after a several-year hiatus) when students read a book about the First Amendment and school newspapers called The Landry News. After incredible interest, the endeavor was transformed into an after-school club.
What is unique about The HDS Press, however, is that it is completely student-run. Students are interacting with their everyday experiences in a new way; they are interpreting them in a broader context and doing so with curiosity and professionalism rarely seen in elementary school students. They volunteer their time to attend a weekly after-school club and manage their own assignments. What they create is a real product that they disseminate to their community. They are continually looking for ways to engage their audience and create relevant and exciting multi-media content.
For The HDS Press, students create stories ranging from a fire at their school, to writing opinion pieces about their experience encountering gender stereotypes. Other examples of stories focus on local philanthropy efforts, arts and culture, and Jewish events and holidays.
My passion for this project stems from my belief in the importance of writing as a lifelong tool for communication and as a mechanism for teaching students how to think critically. Applying pedagogical principles, the newspaper serves a multitude of outcomes: it provides an authentic, relevant goal for the students to use their writing skills, which can serve as an enormous motivating factor for students who might otherwise resist writing. The paper also builds community, especially among girls. Current research shows that an effective way to help girls develop positive social interactions is to provide a setting in which they can collaborate on a project or goal.
Students are currently working on increasing the reach of the paper, such as distributing it to synagogues and other Jewish establishments, and including an electronic version in various online newsletters. We also wish to purchase genuine publishing software, to distribute the paper electronically and physically to the school’s supporters, to tap into social media, and to better utilize multimedia features such as “green screen” technology and podcasting. Our tech-savvy kids realize that distributing news solely on paper is not reflective of today’s news environment, and have already been hard at work training themselves on creating video and audio features.
Collaboration is a highly sought-after skill in the business world, yet students are often asked to write in a setting that is antithetical to current workplace practices — by themselves. This project provides students with an opportunity to hone their communication skills while teaching them to work together. Students are explicitly taught how to work in teams to revise, edit, brainstorm, and write together, and put this into practice week after week.
What do these young Jewish girls and boys learn from working on The HDS Press? They learn about fact-checking, finding reputable sources of information, composing opinion writing, storytelling, and investigative reporting. Students write in a style that fits the purpose of the given assignment. They learn about deadlines and journalistic integrity, about writing mechanics and formatting. They also learn that they have access to an authentic audience, eager to read and engage with their ideas.
For Jewish schools to be relevant and to continue to attract students, we need to provide signature opportunities that distinguish what goes on in our schools from what goes on in our competing schools. This project serves as one of those unique opportunities that can become a hallmark of our school. The HDS Press is currently focusing on its multi-media features that fit more succinctly into a modern student newspaper that better reflects the world in which these children live.
For our local Jewish young people, this program provides a unique opportunity to grow as writers and communicators, to develop lifelong skills, and to support and enrich our Jewish community in southeast Michigan.
What better way to promote real-world learning than for students to see things they wrote published for a broader audience? Two HDS Press reporters had just this experience when their story was published in the local Jewish community newspaper: Washtenaw Jewish News (see page 14: “Former gubernatorial candidate talks to students about politics”). When a ten-year-old sees her name in print for the first time, she realizes that what she has to say can really matter, and the experience is unforgettable.
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It is imperative that teachers strive to teach children to succeed in the world in which they live. We need to serve these students by continually reevaluating what skills students need to succeed in the 21st Century. We must move past rote memorization and students working on inauthentic assignments in a vacuum. We need to embrace a progressive model of Jewish education that prioritizes collaboration, critical thinking and creative innovation. While it is labor-intensive to help facilitate a student-led school newspaper and multi-media features, the rewards are worth the effort.
This type of project requires sustained effort from a dedicated group of teachers, staff, and administrators. For example, the school’s marketing director helps the student photographers take pictures at school events, and the office manager works with the editor to print copies of each issue. The fifth-grade teacher supports the student reporters by giving them class time to work on newspaper projects or hold a lunch meeting.
Another challenge involved in this project was about how to proactively teach students to work together in a positive environment. Girls, in particular, may be prone to unhealthy social interactions, but I have found that when they work on a shared goal, they are better able to work together well and build each other up.
Elementary newspapers are often overlooked. However, after working on two school newspapers at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital and at Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor, I have concluded that this real-world writing product is among the best ways to teach writing as a communication tool when students are young and can develop good writing habits. Too often, students write essays and stories as a class assignment, yet nothing happens with the writing. Writing instruction needs to have as much authenticity as possible to prepare students for the world in which they will live. The answer? Content creation with a purpose. Students create stories and features that are read by others and receive feedback about their work in the most authentic way possible: from their readers.
Laura Pasek has been an educator in Jewish education for 8 years, where she taught second through fifth grades. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brandeis University, focusing on Jewish education (Dayschool Leadership Through Teaching program, or DeLeT). She is currently participating in the Teacher Leadership Fellowship at Brandeis University. Before becoming an educator, Laura worked as a journalist, writing for publications such as The Jerusalem Post, Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, and more. Her professional interests include experiential learning, simulation design, authentic writing products, and teacher leadership.