Top of the class
Young journalists find Midtown to be a treasure trove of stories and images, and they're willing to share.
By RITA FARLOW
Published September 21, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - With titles like The Regulars from Shirley's Soul Food and Coming Soon at the site of the new Sweetbay Supermarket, the matted and framed color photographs that line the walls of the Studio@620 reveal stories about the Midtown area.
Collected by a group of elementary and middle school students, the photos are on display through Oct. 2 at the downtown studio.
The exhibit, "Midtown Through Our Eyes," shows off the efforts of 32 students from Melrose Elementary and John Hopkins Middle School who attended an 11-day journalism camp this summer. The program was funded by H. William Heller; University of South Florida St. Petersburg, College of Education; Loftsville; Wallace Welch and Willingham Inc.; and the Pinellas County School Board.
Erin McMahon, 11, who worked on the project as a reporter, said she enjoyed meeting so many new people who helped her look at the area from different perspectives. She co-wrote a profile on Wildwood Heights and a piece on the African-American history museum set to open this fall in that neighborhood.
Erin said the camp also helped her with her interviewing skills.
"I learned how to report better and how to get more confidence talking to people," she said.
A little tentative in asking questions at first, Erin said she learned to think of the process as a conversation and the person she interviewed "not as someone you're interviewing, just someone you're talking to."
Along with the photo presentation, the fourth- through eighth-graders produced a 28-page publication of articles and photos, called Midtown Magazine. The students learned about the technical aspects of news gathering and photojournalism, ethics and objectivity. Educators and journalist volunteers helped the kids brainstorm ideas and edit copy, but the student journalists wrote the articles and took the photos. "The magazine and the photos really speak for themselves. The kids learned a lot. They were very engaged. Not only did they learn a lot about journalism, but they also learned about their community," said Cynda Mort, journalism coordinator at Melrose.
Many at the exhibit's opening commented on the students' professionalism and the quality of their work.
"It's something that's so motivating when you see that these are children taking these pictures," said Gloria Howard, of St. Petersburg.
Howard was there to see the unveiling of the magazine, which features a picture of her 6-year-old granddaughter, Alana Howard, on the cover. Howard was joined by several family members who came out to support the project.
Several of the children said the title of the exhibit was appropriate because they got to see a different side of their community.
Linda Nhon, 14, said she gained an entirely new perspective of the area.
"I admit it. I used to stereotype Midtown. But I finally realized it's just like any other neighborhood," she said.
Being immersed in the community helped her relate to the people who live there, Linda said.
"By being a journalist, you kind of get an idea of how it is to live their lives. Your writing is a reflection of the people you're interviewing," she said.
Camp coordinators Mort and Kathleen Tobin, journalism coordinator at John Hopkins, modeled the camp after a working newsroom, covering news conferences and sending reporters out to gather news.
Each day began with a 9 a.m. news conference with representatives from the community, including Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, then-NAACP president Darryl Rouson and School Board Chairwoman Nancy Bostock.
Then the kids were broken into groups for a series of field trips. In all, they went to 32 sites in the Midtown area, from a summer camp at Wildwood Recreation Center to a Habitat for Humanity house under construction on 29th Avenue S.
The students learned about the 57-year history of the Royal Theater and interviewed Shirley Tigg, owner and operator of Shirley's Soul Food restaurant for 19 years. They also visited more obscure spots like the Piano Exchange, which houses 200 pianos, some from the 19th century, and the St. Petersburg Traffic Engineering Complex, where employees monitor the city's traffic lights.
The kids interviewed a patent attorney, local author Lee Irby and a pair of rodent control techs for a piece called On the Job. A series called At Home highlights Midtown neighborhoods such as Cromwell Heights, Perkins and Highland Oaks.
Camp coordinators rotated the groups to maximize the students' exposure to places in the community. While one remained at Melrose to work on writing and editing, another was sent out to do interviews and take pictures. Generally, the students worked in pairs.
Mort said it was important for the kids to have a broad understanding of the people and culture of their neighborhood.
"The community around them has a rich history, as well as the challenges. It's important that they understand their community, and the only way to do real, live journalism is to go out into the community," Mort said.
Alexa Volland, 14, said she enjoyed the opportunity to express herself through her writing.
"It's very important for our parents and our peers to understand what we think, because if you can't express yourself, you have nothing," she said.
Alexa said that she hopes the magazine and exhibit will help get the word out about Midtown, its unique history and the changes taking place there.
"One of the main things I hope is that people want to go visit Midtown because it's progressed so much over the years," she said.
IF YOU GO
"Midtown Through Our Eyes" can be seen at Studio@620 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday through Oct. 2. For information, call Cynda Mort, journalism coordinator at Melrose Elementary School, at 893-2175, or the studio at 895-6620.
[Last modified September 21, 2005, 00:24:18]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]