My daughter’s fourth grade class is studying news. As a former daily newspaper reporter I figured I ought to step up to the plate and offer my services. Yes, the news about news is dreary. I, for one, rode the Rocky Mountain News into its untimely grave. But it dawns on me that it may very well be these kids who figure out how to make news viable again.

Yesterday I visited her classroom to do a little proselytizing about the importance of a robust Fourth Estate to the health of a democracy. I just said it in a slightly different way.

What is news?

“News is all the things happening around us every day that help us understand our world, our nation, our community and our school.”

I gave some examples of hard news…what if there was a rash of bike thefts at this school? When would that be newsworthy? And I even cited the importance of covering boring ol’ school board meetings. What if the school board voted to do away with recess and no reporter was there to document the decision and report the complete story to the community? What if school officials used your lunch money to take a personal trip to Tahiti? Far-fetched, yes, but you have to get the point across.

I even talked about the recent investigation by EdNews Colorado into online schools in Colorado and how they’re not cutting the mustard and yet we’re sinking millions of dollars into them.

I was heartened to see about seven of 27 sets of hands shoot up to say their families actually still subscribed to newspapers that are hurled onto their driveways every morning.  The comics, by far and away, dominate the hearts and minds of these kids, seconded by sports. A few read the weather.

I then set up a mock news conference with the teacher as the subject of a profile story. Turns out my daughter’s teacher is truly fascinating.  Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t reveal his life story here. I also let the kids mess around with my Flip video camera, filming me and other students in class as the question-and-answer session ensued. The questions were incredible. The video will need some editing, unless close-up nostril shots are what we’re going for.

Beautiful kids’ brains

Here is a sample of their questions for their teacher:

  • What do you do for fun?
  • Do you drink coffee?
  • If you wanted to build something what would it be?
  • Where do you go for family vacations?
  • Why did you choose to teach fourth grade?
  • How long have you had that hair color?
  • How many sweet foods or drinks do you have every week? (Clearly an investigative reporter in the making…)
  • Why did you become a teacher?
  • Would you create life if you could? (To this question, this very patient and cooperative teacher said, why yes, he did create life when he had children. The girl who asked the question scoffed… “No, not that kind of life. Like a monster!”

The next step is for me to return to the classroom and help the kids weave all their notes into a story about their teacher. Other groups may write about things that make their particular fourth grade classroom different from the others. For instance, one-third of the children wear glasses; they routinely make zucchini bread in a solar oven; they play recorders in a circle every morning; and the teacher keeps a “June drawer,” which contains items students should not have brought to school – confiscated items that will be returned at the end of the school year. The teacher claims that one year a student found himself in the June drawer and it was indeed a tight squeeze.

Lessons learned

A few things learned from this experience: Children are sponges and so filled with creativity. We need to do everything we can do as a community to nurture their natural gifts and not squelch them. How is it that a bunch of fourth-graders offer up more thought-provoking questions during a faux news conference than the college students I teach who are majoring in journalism? I think it’s because the older students are more worried about asking the wrong question or of embarrassing themselves, or they’ve simply become disengaged.

The second thing this experience reminded me of is how important it is to get to know the kids in your child’s classes and spend time with them in the classroom. I am not regularly volunteering this year, but I have every other year so I know most of these kids. I have to think they get something out of their interactions with parents who help them learn. (I guess I’ll have to wait and see whether I get invited back).

Now, it’s off to campus for me. As for you, what expertise do you have that you could share with kids at school? We all have gifts and knowledge to share from serving more years on earth. This younger generation can learn a lot from our lives, our mistakes and our passions. Think about your own experiences, and if they happen to tie into your school’s curriculum – or even if they don’t – contact the teacher and ask to pay a visit.

Let us know how it goes.