Taylor Brown comes running across the room with a pink binder in her hands. Inside are pages of fashion photographs and covers from Vogue magazine. Gleefully, she points out the cuts of the dresses, the use of see-through materials and the advantages of certain color schemes. She is intrigued by the idea of simplicity in fashion, so she’s starting a column that addresses the question of when it’s “OK to be plain.”
Taylor is neither a magazine writer nor a blogger. She is a sixth-grader at Claremont Middle School, and a student in the school’s brand-new journalism program.
The journalism class is part of an effort to incorporate new electives into the school’s curriculum. Claremont Middle now offers 3-D Animation, Ethnic Studies, and Design Thinking courses.
In both the classroom and a Media Lab full of Apple desktop computers, students work together to plan and write stories that they plan to eventually publish as a newspaper.
While one group discusses potential interview subjects for a piece on the unjust brevity of their lunch period – their eyes full of fear as they decide who will talk to the lunch lady – another group ponders the reasoning behind assigning homework.
Some of the stories focus on weightier topics. Sixth-grader Omari Brown is researching the recently-signed state law, AB1266, which allows transgender students to decide which bathroom they use. “I want to interview a transgender person [to see] if they like the law or not,” Omari says. He calls Governor Jerry Brown’s office for comment.
Elizabeth Humphries, the teacher of the course, believes that although middle school is a time often rife with angst and defensive behavior, it is “actually a perfect [time] for a journalism class.”
“They want to be making choices for themselves,” she says of her students. “The opportunity to have a class where they’re really put in this position of having to take on the professionalism and the choices, the responsibility over a story, the choice over the content…it really suits their age.”
Humphries is trained as a history teacher, but this year Claremont Middle didn’t think it had enough students to employ two history teachers. So Humphries, who has “no background whatsoever in journalism,” but enjoys teaching writing, decided to tackle the new course instead of switching from 6th grade history to another grade.
The class has five broad teaching goals: interviewing and interpersonal skills, enabling creativity, practicing professional writing skills, adhering to deadlines, and making students aware of the “equity and fairness” inherent in the craft of journalism.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Humphries’ classroom had the feel of both a working newsroom and a study hall. While some students focused on writing assignments, others had trouble settling down and starting their work for the day. In the media room, some students made lists of interview contacts while others played music on the Internet or mused over their desktop background pictures.
Humphries encourages her students to “discipline [themselves] so no one else has to.” She said she tries to avoid issuing detentions, or having students leave the classroom.
“I personally really get bummed out trying to control people…I feel way better about having a lot of conversations with kids about why they’re doing what they’re doing, or how it might affect the class,” she says, acknowledging that her approach is much more time-consuming than simply turning her back on challenging students.
Above all, Humphries wants her students to believe that they can be professionals. Although her approach isn’t going to resonate with all of them, she is offering them something exceptional: when her students step into her classroom, they are no longer-middle schoolers: they are journalists — even if it’s only for an hour a day.