The big day — getting started

I know some of you have already been in school for a while, but today is the first day back for me. How am I going to approach news meetings?  Slowly.  Are we going to jump right into a debate about Confederate monuments or analyze the Virginia march and  presidential reaction?  Not if all goes according to my plan.  Why? Because that is far too much to handle right now (though it won’t be soon).  You need to build a foundation first.

How does that look? First, start your subscription for delivery of an actual, physical newspaper (not a digital subscription).  I suggest the New York Times or the Washington Post or another strong national newspaper and, if your budget allows it, a subscription to your local newspaper as well.  Next, get a copy of the newspaper to show to your class.  We’re going to go through it section by section in just a minute.

But while preparing, you also might want to make copies of one or both of these stories to hand out to your students.  They’re examples of good starting-point stories for class news discussions, and it’s a good idea to start with one easier article to go through together rather than having a wider-ranging conversation on this first day.

I love these particular stories because they’re engaging, reasonably easy to read, and fun to discuss as a class.  The first is from about two years ago from the Washington Post. It’s about zoos and “panda privilege,” or how the large, furry zoo animals get all the attention and money, while the hard-working and diligent but not-so-cuddly creatures like invertebrates end up getting their budgets cut.  Here’s a link:

The other is from the New York Times, also two years ago, about a farmer growing “pumkinsteins.” It took him 27 varieties of pumpkins and several hundred thousand dollars to get the mold just right, but now he grows pumpkins that look like Frankenstein.  Part of the reason they’re so successful is because people spend a LOT more on Halloween than they used to, and so are willing to pay $100 for a pumpkin!

We’ll come back to discussing the actual stories in a minute, but really, the first thing you need to do today is help your students understand how to even read a newspaper. Familiarize yourself first.

Here are the things I try to explain:

  • Starting on the front page, at the top: The name of the newspaper is in the masthead.  Here, you can also find the date that particular issue was published.
  • The front page consists of the most important and sometimes the catchiest or most readable stories of the day.  Each story has a headline, that sums up the story in about eight to ten words.  The byline, or the name of the reporter who wrote the story, comes at the top.  And the story itself will usually be preceded by a dateline, or the name of the city and state where the story took place (if the reporter traveled to that place to write the story).
  • The story the editors consider the most important will usually be in the upper-left hand corner of the front page because that’s the place your eye will naturally go first.  Any story that’s “above the fold” (or literally on the top half of the newspaper, above where it folds in half) is important and one the editors want you to see.  This is because newspapers used to be sold mainly in newspaper boxes along the street, so people walking by would catch the headline and hopefully decide to buy that day’s newspaper to know what’s going on.
  • Usually, a story that’s not as heavy but is appealing and readable will be somewhere on the lower-half of the page. These are usually stories that are great for class discussion, but please don’t limit yourself to stories on the front page.  You’ll find an index on either the front page or on the next inside page; if you’re short on time and need to find something to talk about quickly, usually something good will be here.
  • Something important to know and point out to your students as you go through the front-page section: Usually the very two last inside pages will be the newspaper’s editorial pages. The editorial pages are NOT news stories.  They’re not reported and written objectively by reporters.  The editorial pages are where the newspaper’s editorial board gets to write their opinions about what’s going on in the world.  These are called editorials, and they’re usually along the left-hand column of the left-hand page, with headlines but without bylines.  *Everything* on the editorial page is an opinion, but only these opinions are the “official” opinion of the newspaper.
  • Still on the editorial pages: anything with a byline is the opinion of that particular writer, as opposed to the newspaper’s editorial board.  If it’s accompanied by a picture, often that person is a columnist, someone writing opinion with a unique voice, usually someone the community gets to know and appreciate (or despise).   The editorial pages also often include letters to the editor. These, too, express opinions, but they’re written by readers of the newspaper who sent them in hoping they’d be published. So: editorial pages are opinion!
  • Run through the sections next: There will usually be a local news section (often somewhere within the front page section), a business section, a sports section, sometimes a lifestyle section.  The New York Times runs through its special sections on a weekly basis, and I guarantee you that Tuesdays are about to become your favorite day of the week.  That’s Science section day, and you’re going to find so much there you’ll want to save.
  • I also want to point out that, usually somewhere near the back of the front-page section, often just before the editorials, you will find obituaries.  I am not a morbid person, but again I can promise you that you’re going to find great stories to discuss with your class here.  Poets and musicians, scientists, actors, athletes, video game creators  … amazing people are dying every day and you have the chance to talk with your class about some of the contributions they made to the world.  It’s remarkable.

This discussion will probably take about ten minutes; afterwards you can let students look through the newspaper on their own.  Or you may instead want to hand out the stories I mentioned above (or another story you’ve found to discuss as a class).

If you have it, now’s the time to talk about the fact that newspaper writing is a different style of writing than most of the things your students have been reading. That’s because people read newspapers for information, and they’re often limited on time (or newspapers are limited on space) and so they want the most important information first. For this reason, many (but not all) news stories are written in what’s called “inverted pyramid” style.  This means that the most important information comes right at the top, and the less important details come further down. Ideally, a news story written in this way could be “cut” from the bottom by an editor who needed more space for another story, and you wouldn’t lose the most important details. The bad news is: it’s not at all how we talk, so it can be hard to get used to.

You do want to teach your students how to read a news story, but it’s not easy.  News articles really can be difficult to understand and follow, especially for elementary school students. I’ve found it’s best to practice together, which is why I suggested making copies of the news articles you want to discuss on your first day.  This way, your students can read them, summarize them and come ready to discuss the details. But I have to tell you, even when I’m giving students articles to read and summarize, I’ll usually first summarize them out loud to the class. Usually, I’ll include a few details about someone mentioned in the story and what they said.  I want the students to be interested enough to stick with this unfamiliar style of writing and know it will be worth it.

So I might start something like this: “Here’s a story about zoos and how whenever people go to the zoo they want to go and see something like the adorable baby panda bear. They stand around and coo over how cute it is and watch all the sweet things it does.  But what about the poor invertebrates? Did you know a batch of awesome baby cuttlefish emerged from their eggs at a Washington zoo a few years ago and practically no one even noticed?  And that zoo ended up closing its invertebrate exhibit!  The exhibit cost $1 million and they decided that was way too much even though those pandas at the same zoo cost $3.5 million a year.  This story is about what one researcher calls ‘panda privilege.’  What do you think that means? I want you to read the article and mark the parts that you think are  important. Remember that news stories are different reading than what we’re used to. So take your time and don’t worry if you have to go back up to the top and start all over again.  Just find a few parts that you understand and like, and we’ll talk about those.”

Any questions?

Okay, I know I threw a lot at you.  Tomorrow, I want to talk about building the type of classroom community where you can eventually have those discussions about Confederate monuments. Maybe I’ll also add a post about the jobs of reporters and the role of newspapers.

Good luck today, and let me know how it goes.



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