Op-Ed: Let Students Lead


Rhetoric about education can get muddy and complex, but one thing is clear—students absorb more when they are excited about learning. That is why more teachers are shaping traditional curriculum to invigorate their students.

One such example is student-led blogs.

From my own experience, I have seen many high schools adopt online newspapers — both as a complement to a print edition and as a standalone.

My alma mater, Palmer Trinity School, launched The Falconer during my junior year.

If an online newspaper exists as a complement to a print edition, it can be very easy for it to exist solely as a repository for print stories—not using any multimedia. It is vital to take advantage of the fantastic functionality that going online provides.

In January 2013, Martin Luther King III addressed the student body at Palmer Trinity. The Falconer’s coverage comprised traditional preview and follow-up articles, but our multimedia coverage took advantage of the online capabilities.

We featured a one-on-one interview that we taped in our studio, a photo slideshow, as well as a link to the full speech, which was streamed online by a student-only staff.

From my perspective, blogging online strengthened my journalistic skills. Firstly, posting on the Internet is inherently public. I put my name on an article, and it is attached to me. All of my peers and teachers can see what I write. It taught me to be extra careful with my reporting, as inaccuracies would be embarrassing and potentially damaging.

As well, The Falconer allowed me to experience video-making, photo-editing, podcast-recording, and much more. Much of the work I did in high school, I continue to do now at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. For students who are interested in journalism, an online school newspaper is crucial for fostering experience and skills.

Of course, it also has risks or drawbacks. If all students are allowed posting access, the quality of the website can deteriorate quickly. It is vital to have both a student and teacher on top of a hierarchical structure in the newsroom.

When I was editor-in-chief of The Falconer, Spin Education founder David Cutler served as my journalism adviser. We had a fantastic working relationship. I learned from him, and he learned from me. He and I were the only two people who could make articles public on the website. That system prevented grammatical mistakes as well as larger reporting flaws.

Many students in a high school newsroom do not have much experience reporting, so their “journalism IQ” is still developing. Students deserve a chance to write and report on their own, so that they gain their own skills. However, when it comes to publishing articles, there needs to be some sort of approval.

If student-reporters display consistent strength of reporting, publishing rights can be earned as a sort of incentive.

As I mentioned before, students must take responsibility for what they put online. But that responsibility is shared with the journalism adviser. You can bet that he or she would hear it from administrators if a student-reporter made a faux pas that embarrassed someone at the school.

Because of that, advisers are rightly cautious with publishing rights. To prevent problems from the top-down, administrators are also wary of the idea as a whole.

The older printed newspaper style was much easier to control, but things posted on the Internet can spread much faster than they could a decade or so ago.

In any case, the rewards student-reporters can reap from the responsibility of reporting, writing, and publishing are worth the risks. And to my knowledge, The Falconer never had any run-ins when I was a member of the staff.

Tips for teachers to be successful:

  • Let students decide what to cover. Allowing students to have a sense of propriety in their work is very important. Students will perform better when they have a sense of control over what they’re doing.
  • Publish things in new and interesting ways. It is very easy to write an article and throw in a couple of hyperlinks. But teachers would be remiss not to encourage their students to delve into 21st-century journalistic techniques like videos and photo slideshows. Sure, they may take longer and can be difficult for a teacher to learn, but the rewards are great. Many students can relate better to videos and photos now, so they can make more of a connection to their work.
  • Be constructive. Make the bar clear for what the quality of work should be. That way, students have a clearer picture of what they should be producing. As well, when students have reached that goal, it can be possible to allow them some publishing rights.
  • Let it be fun. The Internet is unbelievably multifaceted. There is no reason to confine a student-led blog to only serious coverage. Movie reviews, campus buzz, and informal talk shows make for interesting content as well as something students would want to be a part of.

This 2013 article, which originally appeared on Spin Education, is by Preston R. Michelson, a 2013 graduate of Palmer Trinity School and a former student of NSJA Director David Cutler. Follow Michelson on Twitter (@PrestonMich).