Destiny Beck and Christopher Barnes
Destiny Beck and Christopher Barnes

577. Keystone Student Journalism Coalition transforms digital natives into eager young journalists

High school students might be digital natives, connecting with their friends and the world around them through devices since the time they were very young, but they still appreciate the rush of seeing their names, and their work in print (and the delicious smell of fresh ink). 

Christopher Barnes and Destiny Beck met by happenstance, two high school teachers in Pennsylvania who attended the same online conference for yearbook advisors. Barnes, a former newspaper reporter and editor who became a teacher later in his career, was new to yearbook; Beck had a background in yearbook but was new to teaching journalism and writing. 

Both shared what Barnes calls a “palpable” enthusiasm for what is the foundation of their classroom work: Showing students how journalism works, instilling in their students an excitement in interviewing people, collecting information and making sure their articles are as truthful and accurate as possible, and sharing with them the thrill of seeing their work in print, knowing people outside the walls of their schools will read it with great interest. 

It might not have started off that way in Barnes’ classroom at Northern Lehigh High School in Slatington, Pennsylvania.

“The hunger was mine to continue my former career in school,” he says. “They felt my excitement about wanting to tell stories, wanting to gather facts and interview people and ask questions and find things out, to take great pictures that can tell stories by themselves … then put them on newsprint and deliver them to all these different schools in the district and businesses in town.” 

The more the news has focused on schools and education in the world outside the classroom, the more students have understood that they have a voice that can be used to make change happen, according to Beck, at Parkland High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“My newspaper students, they start class every day talking about what’s going on,” she says. “They apply it to themselves, what’s important in the world going on today and how can we convert it to our voices in the schools. … They’re really interested in making sure what they write is accurate and it’s responsible and ethical.” 

Inspired by their initial collaboration, Barnes and Beck wondered if they could help other students and teachers build on their enthusiasm for school newspapers. Last fall, they convened a small conference with about a dozen other advisers and teachers from nearby districts to form the Keystone Student Journalism Coalition.

“With the same palpable feeling our students get from us, these teachers and advisers felt this almost obnoxious enthusiasm — These two wackos want to put together a conference for student journalism?” Barnes says. “A few months later, here we are, standing in this huge auditorium at Kutztown University, where I graduated from, with more than 200 students from 13 different districts.” 

Speakers included local news anchors and reporters, staff from the Washington Post and others; the Saving Journalism Summit was a one-day event that resulted in energized students eager to build on what they learned and teachers who now had a steady supply of curriculum ideas for their newspaper classes. 

“We were in awe that so many people wanted to attend and to learn. So many people valued their time to give to us to help  these kids learn,” Barnes says. “It was no longer about us getting together, it was teaching these students about what is out there with the integrity of this profession.” 

Surveys sent out after the conference indicated the instructors and speakers got as much out of the event as the students.

“Many of the presenters filled out the survey and they were just profoundly impressed with the number of students that were so interested and the questions the  students asked during the sessions were mentioned by every single participant,” Beck says. “They were amazed by the depth of questions the students asked and how eager they were to learn. Some of the students requested contact information so they could keep in touch with the presenters. Now they have this person, this lifeline into the world of journalism. I’m imagining some of these connections will last for years.”

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