A Perfect Match: PBS and Student Journalism

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Few academic courses cater to teaching 21st-century skills better than journalism. In the student newsroom, teens engage in reporting, writing, editing, video production, and live broadcasting.

I speak from experience. I advise The Falconer, the student news site of Palmer Trinity School, and each day I see students cultivate confidence in asking and finding answers to their own questions. In this self-directed learning environment, relevant and lasting growth happens.

For all of those reasons, I can’t overstate my support of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab, which “connects high school students to local PBS stations and news professionals in their community to produce original, student-generated video reports.”

Last week at SXSWedu, I heard Managing Editor Leah Clapman, who directs the Lab, speak about what she and PBS are doing to help students produce high-quality journalism—and in so doing, also learn about problem solving, information gathering, information synthesizing, and teamwork, essential skills no matter what profession students ultimately pursue.

Curious to learn more about the program, I reached out to Clapman.

“Our goal is really not to encourage students to become broadcast journalists, per se,” she says. “It’s really for them to become digitally literate citizens, citizens who understand what good information is and what bad information is, and are able to produce stories from the student perspective, from the young person perspective.”

Whenever possible, Clapman says, she matches students in reporting labs with public media journalists. In this respect, I was happy to learn that in Miami, where I teach, Clapman is interested in starting a mentorship program, pairing journalism students with seasoned veterans.

Even PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan is involved in the program. In the wake of last year’s school shooting in Connecticut, he has spoken with students about gun violence via Google+ Hangout.

Any school can apply to the program, but success is largely dependent upon how much a teacher is “willing to bite off,” Clapman says, adding that face-to-face instruction time is important, at least two hours a week. Schools must also have the necessary production equipment, but PBS provides some funding for Title I schools.

PBS also provides teachers with a free detailed curriculum, covering anything and everything to do with what makes effective broadcast journalism, and how to do it well.

I’m especially fond of the “Copyright & Fair Use” lesson, which includes an excellent warm-up activity.

“Ask students to put their heads down on their desks and close their eyes. With their eyes still closed, ask students to raise their hands if they have ever downloaded a book, pictures, or music illegally,” the lesson reads. “Make sure to tell them that you are only using this information for the purpose of today’s lesson and the results will not leave the classroom. Have students put their hands down and report the results back to the class (probably everybody).”

I admire how PBS believes so strongly in its curriculum, that the news company assigns students to cover a wide variety of stories.  Clapman tells me, “We’ve asked students to go out and record interviews about, ‘What do you think the big issues are in education?’ For the anniversary of the March on Washington, we did, ‘If Martin Luther King came back today, how would he feel about the dream that he laid out?’”

Students also investigate stories relevant to their local communities, which Clapman does her best to showcase on the Student Reporting Lab site. I enjoyed a segment by students at South Carolina’s Fort Mill High School, titled, “Are new concussion rules really protecting young players?”

From engaging footage to probing interviews, quality reporting, and stellar overall production, this a professional broadcast. The students who produced this segment also cover an important topic, relevant to their age group. Much to their credit, they allot 2:54 minutes to telling it, much more time than any major news outlet would likely consider.

If a student-produced package is “super good,” Clapman says, she also does her best to have it aired during the PBS NewsHour broadcast. “The PBS NewsHour goes out to a million people a night,” she says. “A million people watch the show. That’s huge for a high school journalist. They’re really excited.”

In November, for example, Sreenivasan used coverage from reporting labs around the country in a short but powerful segment on the struggles military children face.

I’m glad that PBS doesn’t stop with educating just students. “Once there’s a formal relationship with the school and with the station, we will bring the teacher here for two‑and‑a‑half days of intensive training,” Clapman says. “It’s so much fun, because the teachers are all really creative and invested in this project. They learn so much from each other.”

The PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Science Foundation. I’m grateful for such generosity, and for PBS’s mission to help teach students communication skills.

I can’t wait to apply. If you’re a journalism teacher, I hope you consider doing the same.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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