Youths get the scoop on working world

Published April 26, 2007

Student reporters - sporting press badges, but no fedoras - gathered in a Fox Chapel Middle School language arts classroom last week for a mock news conference.

The students are learning how to write news stories and publish a newspaper for the school.

The project, says seventh-grade language arts teacher Steve Haberlin, will provide the term grades for six of his classes. Each class has been assigned to manage, write and produce a section of the electronic newspaper, which will likely be published on the school's Web site.

The class attending the news conference broke into five groups of five students each. Each had a role to play: reporter, graphic artist, photographer, editor or copy editor.

Students had to apply for their job of choice, submit an application and portfolio, and be interviewed by Haberlin. They will carry their roles through the rest of the school year, gathering and producing news on campus.

Haberlin's role at the news conference was that of sheriff, describing a fictitious middle-of-the-night theft of all school mascot memorabilia from Fox Chapel. He told the reporters that the perpetrator wore a clown mask and dark clothes and was of average build.

Then the reporters competed for his attention with their questions and scribbled notes, which they used to compose their stories under a tight, 20-minute deadline.

Jessica Ridner grilled the acting sheriff about methods and escape routes. Other reporters wanted to know if there were witnesses and if the school building would go on lock-down.

Graphics students and photographers scrambled for the media center to retrieve and print artist sketches of the perpetrator. Copy editors red-penned typos. Editors kept assigned tasks rolling smoothly.

Derek Kito, an editor, said: "My reporters paid attention and got good detail. My job is to keep everything straight."

The exercise looked and sounded close to a real-world newsroom, and that's what Haberlin, who was an education reporter in Ocala for five years, aims for.

"You get their attention," he said, "with activities they can equate to their lives. We've used their language arts skills - interviewing, writing, proofing - trying to identify each person's strengths."

A first-year teacher, Haberlin creates lesson plans that encourage kids to cooperate, learn practical lessons and get out of their chairs to explore concepts.

They recently ended the role-play for this project and began working on the real deal. Armed with pens, notebooks, digital cameras and hall passes, Haberlin's newshounds rove the campus.

As part of a schoolwide incentive program, the jobs are "paid" professions. Bosses make more than subordinates. Responsibility increases, too. They're paid by a sort of punch-card system, where teachers mark squares on paper chits, indicating "money" earned. When a card is filled, the student can exchange it for privileges or rewards.

Some newspaper staffers will observe events, talk to people and follow up on tips. Some will plan assignments, polish copy and produce visuals.

One complete newspaper - with entertainment, sports, news and feature sections all posted online - will be considered a successful outcome. Grades will depend on participation, Haberlin said.

"The process is more important than the product," he said. "They'll learn a lot from the experience and have a good time doing it."