Student journalists document life during the pandemic

Producing articles and videos helps students "through this roller coaster ride of a time."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Kaitlyn Bradley, 27, an English Language Arts teacher at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering & Science, stumbled into teaching journalism as a “happy accident.” Her principal asked whether she would be interested in taking over a journalism class this school year for 9th- through 12th-grade students, and she decided to give it a try.

Now she and other teachers and students in the District are determined to keep student journalism alive while schools are out for the rest of the semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Once we were out of school for a week or so, I was thinking of a way I could keep connected with students,” Bradley said. “Since we already had the Carver Times website set up and ready to go, I figured it would be an easy way to hear from students and allow them to hear from each other.”

On the Carver Times website, Bradley set up the Carver Corona Blog, where each week she posts submissions from students, teachers, and community members. She said, “Students are sending in videos, pictures, and writing. I put pretty much everything in the post.”

Each weekly post is centered on a question that is updated on the Carver Learning Guide, where it can be accessed by students, parents, and staff. Bradley says the prompt for week four has generated her favorite responses so far: “During this quarantine … What have you learned about yourself? What have you learned about the world?”

From the Carver Corona blog

“I received several responses from students who are looking into the environmental impact of quarantine. There are students learning about that and reading about that on our own. There is a 7th grader who is creating his own video game, so he showed us a little bit of that. That was so sweet. There was a senior who has a business and shared her take on what it’s like to have a small business and what it takes to make it through something like this.”

Bradley said she came up with the question because “I keep hearing people talking about the deficit of this situation […] but I think it is important to hear from students what they are learning outside of school.”

She challenged this stereotype: “So many people think, ‘Well, students aren’t in school, so they can’t learn.’ [Students] are learning and researching and trying new things on their own. It’s not all video games and TikTok.”

“Teenagers need to hear that if they are doing the research, if they are fact-checking, if they are being ethical in their work, then whatever they are creating is as valid and important as what professionals are creating.”

Journalism is a way to do that. Students learn persistence when they reach out to sources and contacts for information “who may not want to talk to a 15-year-old,” she said. And they learn they have a place in this discussion.

“They have opinions. They have thoughts. They have ideas. But they aren’t always empowered to share those in a way that is respected.”

She added that she thought the blog is important not only for the students participating, but also for the students who are reading or watching. Above all, Bradley emphasized that the goal of the Carver Corona Blog is to maintain community and keep students from feeling so alone during this time.

Maintaining community is also at the center of the now-virtual newsroom of the Flash, a student newspaper club revived by students at Franklin Learning Center four years ago. Colin Chrestay, 34, an English and journalism teacher at FLC, is the club’s adviser.

Chrestay reported that since the District’s closure of schools, “We have definitely had to become more creative about our workflow.”

The Flash’s website features articles about the virus written by students in March – before the closure – and this week the staff launched Flash from Home, a blog similar in style to the Carver Corona Blog.

Ace Ludwig, a 9th-grade student at FLC who holds the title of club ombudsman, has covered the coronavirus extensively for the Flash with articles such as “COVID-19 myths debunked” and “How not to lose your last brain cell while quarantined at home.” Ludwig also recently conducted an interview with a nurse who is an alumnus of FLC and recovered from a case of COVID-19.

Ludwig said via email: “I feel that student journalism is really important during this time because it shines light on a perspective you wouldn’t normally hear from. Just because we’re students doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice about what’s going on in the world.”

Deja Dawkins, a 12th-grade FLC student and video editor at the Flash, said similarly via email: “Student journalism is so important in order to keep our student body, and potentially staff as well, informed on information regarding schooling, as well as COVID-19 in general.”

Dawkins reported, “During the COVID-19 quarantine, I have been helping create videos to showcase student opinion, boost morale in the student body, and show off teacher and student lives while starting online classes.”

However, being apart from their peers has made the club members’ online transition difficult. Ludwig noted, “Communication has been a struggle. I have kept in touch with people on the editorial board and a few reporters that I’m close with outside of the Flash, but I haven’t heard from some members since school closed.”

Dawkins said, “Being at home can drain a lot of motivation from a person due to comfort level. On top of that, I have lost a family member during this already difficult time. … However, the Flash has aided me in doing something positive and helping me through this roller coaster ride of a time.”

Chrestay is very aware of the struggles his students are facing.“Hearing stories about students who have lost relatives and them being willing to share that has been a big deal,” he said. “We have, as a club, gotten more vulnerable. We start and end every meeting just making sure everyone is OK.”

Despite frustrations in trying to find a time for biweekly video meetings that works for everyone and their new quarantine sleeping schedules, Chrestay noted, “Something that struck me in the last month of being out of school is that I have hundreds of students that I am connected with as a teacher, but there is nothing that creates as strong of a bond as working on a story together. … I am hearing from the journalism kids, and I’m not necessarily hearing from all my students.”

This is not the first rough patch the Flash has hit this school year. In December 2019, FLC had to close suddenly just before winter break due to asbestos in their building. The Flash editors had to reach out and stay connected with their teams during less than ideal circumstances and learned from that experience.

This time, Chrestay said, “In March, when it was becoming kind of clear to us that we were going to have a break from school, all the editors had a meeting and made sure they got accurate contact information, which was a problem in December.”

Reflecting on the past year, Chrestay said, “FLC has gone through two major disruptions this year. … When students learn to be journalists, they learn empathy. They learn to look at the world through others’ eyes. I became an English teacher because I wanted to teach empathy, and I became a journalism teacher because I really liked journalism. I don’t think I realized journalism may actually be a better way to teach empathy.”

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