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How old news people can help schools

Last week I promised to start a conversation, with at least myself, about how to bring more non-fiction into our schools. I like story time as much as any granddad, but what students read and write has wandered too far into the fiction side of the world of words. I would like to pull it back a bit toward reality. There are many advocates of this who have influenced me. How do we make it happen?

I spoke to a former journalist, a friend of a friend, a couple of days ago about her desire to switch to teaching. It is something many newspaper people are doing now that our jobs are drying up. I always thought journalism was close to teaching, just not as hard. Both educators and reporters are trying to pass on useful information. If you look at K-through-college salary scales, we are pretty much on the same level, or at least were before the Internet made many of us journalists obsolete. Teachers and professors, thank goodness, have not yet had that problem.

I suggested to the former reporter that she volunteer at a local high school to get to know the environment and make friends on the faculty. Why not help the student newspaper? The faculty advisor would love to have a seasoned pro to guide students through their reporting, and help edit their stories. I volunteered for several years at a D.C. public high school with a small student paper. It was amazing to me how excited those students were to be able to write about their school, rather than analyze a novel. It seems to me that more writing for publication at more schools would produce more good writers. We can never have too many of those.

Many high schools don't have student publications of any kind, except what teachers with unusual amounts of energy manage to create in their classes. That kind of educator power is precious, and difficult to find since the regular teaching day takes so much out of you. But it seems to me we have another resource we could tap---the millions of retiring baby boomers.

I am not technically part of that group. I was born in Long Beach, Calif., on April 5, 1945, when the war was still on. But my wife and most of our friends are boomers, and many of them write well---not just the journalists but the lawyers, educators, scientists and government and non-profit officials. They are going to have some time on their hands. Why not volunteer in high schools?

That is my plan, once we move back to California and I become mostly a blogger and book writer, no longer tied to the demands of daily newspapering. I sense that the schools may need to adjust their traditions and rules for student publications to make full use of this new supply of free labor. They will have to know how to convince the volunteers not to take over the publication, but let the students and the faculty advisor run it. They will have to remove any barriers to student participation. Some schools only allow a certain number of kids to work on these publications, when the idea should be to open the door wide so everyone who wants to work on their writing can do so.

The costs of publication, which have caused some schools to cut back or close papers, can be eased by making these student journals online only. That's where they and their friends do most of their reading anyway.

Schools are often uncomfortable letting in outsiders who are not related to their students. I am perfectly happy to undergo a criminal background check. I can explain my time in the State Street Jail in Chicago in August 1968. It was my journalist wife's fault. She could have been friendlier to that police officer during the riot on Michigan Avenue.

School can often be boring. Doing journalism rarely is. Let's give more students a chance to try it out. Maybe they won't pick it as a career. My wife is still recommending our journalist son go to med school. But it will help them in any future enterprise they choose. And it will certainly make our schools better.

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By Jay Mathews  | February 16, 2010; 6:52 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  baby boomer volunteers, publications, open student newspapers to all, using student publications to improve writing  
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Jay Mathews thinks the concerted efforts of involved parents cannot improve a school--only teachers and principals can do that. But he thinks a bunch of used-up journalistic hacks can improve a school's student writing abilities.

Posted by: Trulee | February 17, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

Great topic and you are so on target with this; of course I am biased because I took journalism for two years in my high school and was the theater critic for the newspaper.

I loved it! The students loved our paper and the school news.....there are so many lessons to be learned from good journalistic writing and the teamwork that goes with producing a paper or magazine.

The volunteer idea is great for the boomers, but schools may need something ($$)to cover printing expenses.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 17, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Schools are struggling to find adequate funding to supply PAPER for instruction, ink for duplication machines, heck, MODERN duplication machines for classroom needs.

Jay, you really need to visit schools WAY MORE then you do. A student newspaper would be a wonderful method to circulate communication relating to school activities.

but there's funding for such luxuries.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 17, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse


but there's NO funding for such luxuries.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 17, 2010 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Trulee -- thanks for making me laugh. Laughs about education issues don't come easily these days.

Jay - I think journalists would make terrible teachers in today's educational environment. They're way to inquisitive, creative and challenging of authority.

Posted by: efavorite | February 17, 2010 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Make that "TOO inquisitive...." And add "too analytical" to the list of negative traits.

Journalists are good spellers, though, and that's a skill that is always prized in schools.

Posted by: efavorite | February 18, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

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