Most NYC high schools don’t have a student newspaper. Teachers can help change that.

With no reporting background, I agreed to teach a high school journalism class. Here’s what I learned.

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At the start of seventh period each day, student journalists noisily enter my classroom — many of them still finishing half-eaten lunches. They grab laptops and get to work trying to produce stories for our newspaper.

Some leave class to find people to interview for stories; some decide that the story they pitched isn’t going to work out after all; some ask me questions about our school for stories they’re writing; some read student journalism from elsewhere in the city or from around the country.

This is not my most organized or efficient class, but figuring out how to teach it for the past two years has been some of the most fun I’ve had in my 10 years working as a teacher here in New York City.

A man with brown hair and a beard sits in a classroom with a laptop computer in front of him.
John Downes-Angus (Courtesy of John Downes-Angus)

I’m still not great at it, but I’m trying — and other teachers should try it, too. As of 2022, 73% of New York City high schools didn’t have a newspaper. This is a serious problem, and we can be part of the solution.

There are several reasons why so few schools have a paper. Teachers and kids are busy, developing new programming can be difficult, our schools are small, turnover is high, budgets are tight, and the state doesn’t incentivize this kind of learning by making journalism a required class. But cobbling together a journalism program has taught me that any high school teacher committed to trying this out can probably do it. Thankfully, support is popping up.

I was hired to teach AP English Language to juniors and English to seniors. About a month after I was offered this job, though, my principal asked me if I’d teach a year-long journalism class.

At the time, she was running our then-fledgling media team, which oversaw our school’s social media pages. The year before, that team managed to put together two print papers and start a website — resurrecting a school publication that had existed over a decade ago — but my principal wanted us to have “a more robust school newspaper.”

I said yes without knowing what a “nut graf” is or whether or not an Oxford comma is AP Style. (It isn’t.) But I’ve learned a glossary of journalistic practices and lingo over the past year and a half, and so have my students. The person who’s taught me most is the current editor-in-chief, who moved to New York from Georgia, where she attended a large high school with a journalism major and a teacher who’d worked as a journalist. That teacher sent me a folder of curricular materials, including slideshows about topics such as interviewing sources, AP Style, and journalistic ethics.

I’ve seen students go from feeling too shy to talk even to me to wandering the school, notebook in hand, ready to conduct interviews and take notes.

This changed our publication from a home for student essays about whatever interested them (“You have a Taylor Swift problem,” my student told me politely after reading an issue with several stories about the musician) into a news organization.

They can still write opinion pieces, but first, they need to write a news article. That means generating relevant story ideas, conducting interviews with people they don’t necessarily know or agree with, and writing in an unfamiliar style with the goal of reflecting and informing the school community.

There are clear and compelling reasons why knowledge of journalism is essential for high school students as they prepare to participate in a democracy. This is especially true at a time when social media is flooded with misinformation and disinformation.

Because of this work, students are writing in our paper about everything from student leadership to standardized testing to ear piercings. I’ve seen students go from feeling too shy to talk even to me to wandering the school, notebook in hand, ready to conduct interviews and take notes. I’ve seen kids who were uncertain how to write anything but a conventional academic essay morph into confident young journalists.

Getting this started at your school is not as hard as you might think, thanks to burgeoning support. Geanne Belton, a professor of journalism at Baruch College and the director of the High School Journalism Program there, organizes a yearly conference for high school journalism teachers and students.

At this year’s conference, young writers, including my students, learned from working journalists about writing ledes, conducting interviews, becoming better editors, and much more. One highlight of the gathering is The Newsies, an awards ceremony recognizing exceptional New York City high school journalism.

While at the conference, I met other journalism teachers whose programs and publications ranged from just starting out to long-established. All seemed to be driven by the belief that what they were doing was interesting and valuable, even if they all had different degrees of participation and success.

Organizations such as the NYC Youth Journalism Coalition and Press Pass NYC, are doing the important work of calling for more journalism programs in our city. CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, a coalition member, is developing a year-long course that will be available for free to New York public schools. Katina Paron, a journalism educator (and a writing coach for Chalkbeat’s Student Voices Fellowship program), is working to create the curriculum.

Not all teens exposed to journalism will be miraculously transformed into enthusiastic reporters. Your students will miss deadlines and some of them will take a month to finish a 500-word piece. Your principal might not approve a journalism elective, so you may need to make this a club. Students will skip meetings, and sometimes, you’ll need to cancel them because you’re too busy.

But it’s worth giving this a shot. New York City students deserve school newspapers — real ones that invite them to craft stories about their classroom and communities. Newspapers that show them how to think critically about the news they read and that give them the opportunity to become more effective and confident readers and writers.

Teachers who believe in student journalism — even those like me who don’t have a background in reporting — can help make that happen.

John Downes-Angus is an English teacher at Baruch College Campus High School in New York City. This is his 10th year teaching English and his second year teaching journalism.