Students learning that journalism matters, and so do they

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I wear many hats at the Winters Express… managing editor, plain old garden variety editor, reporter, photographer, page designer, front desk receptionist, complaint department and whatever random duties pop up. I’m a human Swiss army knife.

Of all my duties, my favorite is working with the Wolfskill High School students on their school newspaper, the Wolfskill News & Review. Not a “duty,” really. Pure joy!

Those of you who’ve been playing along know that I’ve been serving as a mentor for the WN&R the last two years, and how impressed I was with the quality of the students’ writing — both passionate opinion pieces and actual hard news that resulted in change.

When journalism initiates discussion and, ultimately, change, it doesn’t get any better than that. Particularly for Wolfskill students, who’ve been stigmatized as the “problem kids” in our community for years. One of the most valuable things they’ve learned is that their opinions not only matter, but have power. Some of their stories resulted in repairs being made to their sagging campus and lines of communication opening up between the police department and the student body.

This year, the WN&R is continuing its track record of impactful journalism that makes change. Columnist Stephanye Martinez wrote about the lack of variety in their school lunches — week after week, the same old stuff, and most saliently, that for some students, those school lunches are sometimes all they get to eat that day.

Yes. Hunger. It’s real, and it’s right here.

Reading Stephanye’s column, it occurred to me that something was surely amiss — I’ve been covering and supporting our amazing Winters Farm to School program for years, because I believe in the power of good nutrition. Children learn better when they have healthy, nutritious food, and the sooner they’re introduced to fresh veggies and fruits, the better, because they’ll acquire a taste for leafy greens and root vegetables rather than developing a lifelong preference for processed sugar.

So, I wondered — could it be that Wolfskill students aren’t getting the wonderful salad bars offered at every other campus? That seemed unlikely… probably just a case of finicky pizza-loving teenagers turning up their noses at anything green. And so, I checked it out.

I called up the school district’s food program manager, Cathy Olsen, and asked her what was up. Surely our school district wouldn’t be excluding the Wolfskill students from one of its gem programs.

But it was!

But: not for lack of caring. Cathy explained that Wolfskill doesn’t have salad bar equipment like the other campuses do, mainly because there’s nowhere to store it, and also because there’s no refrigerator there, which makes it very difficult to keep things crisp and fresh. She also told me her staff was really upset about Stephanye’s column, because they’re all so dedicated to providing healthy meals for our students and work their tails off each day making it happen.

But, her response to them was that, bottom line, it was the truth: Wolfskill students (once again) were not being treated equally with students on all the other campuses. Rather than making excuses or taking offense, Cathy embraced this situation as a problem-solving opportunity. In times when people (particularly certain ones) are quick to make excuses or blame others for their problems, it was refreshing and encouraging to talk with someone who views a problem as merely an opportunity for a solution.

Wow… there may be hope for humanity yet!

Cathy plans to visit the Wolfskill students and do some brainstorming, and principal/journalism teacher Matt Moran (my WN&R partner in crime) was also inspired to figure out how to make change happen rather than collapsing into sad, tired “Here’s why we can’t do it” mode.

Oh man — give me people with enthusiasm and gumption, sprinkle it heavily with some creative thinking, and it’s like throwing Kitty in the catnip bin. I’m squirming with glee!

Positive thinkers aren’t all that has me feeling gleeful: I can see the students starting to “click.” One key difference this year is that Matt welcomed me into his journalism classroom for an hour each week. In the past, I tried to be as hands-off as possible, but I came to realize that this project will be infinitely easier if I’m there every week, coaching the class along, rather than hoping they’ll fumble their way in the right direction.

On the first day I came into the classroom, the students all had that “beaten up by life” energy, and stared at me (in my favorite purple tie-dye T-shirt with an oversized rainbow cat’s head) like, “Who is this whacko, and is school over yet?” If you’ve ever been around a teenager, you know the look: “You’re making me die of boredom.” But I kept coming back anyway, employing all my best cheerleading coach skills, and slowly the wheels of change began to turn. For starters, I convinced Matt to rearrange the desks into a circle rather than rows, so no one could slink behind someone else to avoid me. What a magic charm that proved to be! Interaction went up a thousand percent immediately because everyone was automatically included.

A few weeks in, and I’m seeing smiles… laughter… true engagement in conversations… thoughtful, pertinent responses and — great writing. I leave that classroom dancing on air every week and wondering if I missed my true calling. Nothing feels as good as seeing a disenchanted young person spark up with interest. Nothing. It’s crack. It’s the best hour of the whole week. (Please don’t tell my horse.)

Maybe this is how we survive “all that”… immerse ourselves into showing others that they matter; spreading hope, light and encouragement. It sure beats curling into a fetal position until 2020.

To everyone who purchased Express subscriptions for Wolkskill students as a teaching tool, and the Winters Rotary Club, which sponsors the WN&R’s publication costs, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re also spreading hope, light and encouragement.

Feels great, doesn’t it?

 

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