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first skill | Reading By 9

Paper Tale

Putting out their own newspaper shows pupils reporting and writing can be fun, and gives the rest of the school a strong incentive to read. All it takes is a teacher with guts and a couple of other adults to help.


We already had a strong front page. There was the exclusive trend story, "Yo Yo Mania Sweeps Serra," which the adult mainstream papers would pick up later. A couple of other solid stories reported that a record class would be headed for middle school in the fall and how all the fifth-graders had liked outdoor camp.

But something was lacking. It was about Wednesday when we came up with the idea: a funny face contest. That's what we needed. The winner's photo would liven up the front page and give it that kid touch we needed to go along with the paper's simple title (The Newspaper) and our catchy slogan: "Some cover the country, some cover the county, but we cover the classroom."

All this was just a little more than two years ago. I had taken a week's vacation to help put out a single-edition school paper to be published by my son's fifth-grade class at Ventura's Junipero Serra Elementary School. It was my chance to play Lou Grant to a relatively noncritical audience.

For the kids, it was an opportunity to put their youthful writing skills to work and see their bylines in an actual newspaper. The chance, in short, to be a star.

I'm an advocate of grade school newspapers. And I'd like to plead the case that every elementary school should try to put together something like The Newspaper at least once a year. For the kids who get the chance to produce the paper, it's a time of discovering just how much fun writing and reporting can be. For everybody else in school, it's an incentive to read--maybe one of the strongest incentives many kids get.

That's what writing is, really, the flip side of reading. They go together like bread and butter, love and marriage, aches and pains. And for those with an early passion for writing, one of the greatest teaching tools can be the grade school paper.

I didn't come to this conclusion by accident. From the second grade, I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. In the fourth grade, I had a teacher who spotted that passion and started a class newspaper pretty much so I could write some stories.

Back then, we were talking a one-page mimeograph sheet, not the sort of stylish school papers that can be put out today in any classroom that has a mom or a teacher with laptop publishing skills. But it was still a thing of glory for me. And I even learned a lesson or two that went beyond the reading-writing arena.

Some poor student had been running down the hall and smashed into a plate-glass door, cutting his arm. As the fearless editor of the Fourth-Grade Gazette, I decided I needed to write an editorial blasting him for running in the halls. Rather heartless, I admit. Needless to say, my teacher kept it out of print, telling me that little Jimmy had probably already suffered enough without the local press corps coming down on him.

Grateful for that experience, I had determined that somewhere along the line in the grade school years, I would try to create an opportunity for my son, Paul, to be part of something similar. Fifth grade seemed best to me. I think kids have the skills they need by then. It also happened to be the last year of elementary school in this case. Sixth grade would work equally well somewhere else.

The first step was selling the idea to Paul's teacher, Lorraine Nelson, and her boss, Principal Tom Carmody. Next came a few visits to the classroom to talk about newspapers, carve up the 30-student class into groups of reporters, photographers, critics and cartoonists, and plan what would eventually turn into a 10-page newspaper, complete with news, features, opinion and sports sections.

To pull off a successful grade school paper, the key element is finding somebody, most likely a parent, with some sophistication in laptop publishing skills. We were lucky to have Cindy McDaniel, whose daughter, Kacie, wound up as one of our star reporters. With McDaniel, we were set to launch forth with what I humbly told the class would be the best fifth-grade newspaper in the United States.

It took a full week to put out our one and only edition of The Newspaper. Trust me on this: It can't be done in less time. And a couple of extra days wouldn't hurt.

The kids in the class were terrific. They jumped on their stories, contributed lots of good ideas to the process and were generally a little more receptive to what we call "the editing process" than some of their adult counterparts.

But some of the same rules apply to reporters of any age. They don't want to see an editor butchering their copy, for starters. Whether you are editing a fifth-grader or a top professional, you should go over all your copy changes with them and be prepared for some give and take. You should also figure a way to buy them pizza whenever possible.

All in all, the week I spent in Miss Nelson's fifth-grade class back in 1996 was one of the best vacations I've ever had. The students wrote great stories. They were excited. They worked together well. And when they were done, they could always look back on an unexpected bonus of their last year in grade school.

I wouldn't be surprised if one or two of them wind up in journalism. There were several standouts in the group. But whatever their skill levels, they were all given important jobs to do. They took those jobs seriously and did their very best.

Try it some time. All it takes is a teacher with a lot of guts and a couple of adults who are willing to help. Give the kids in any classroom a chance to pull together on something like this and you will be amazed at the results.

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