Blog: The Educated Reporter

Teacher, Student Voices in Back-to-School Spotlight

It’s easy to get cynical about back-to-school stories – especially when you’ve been an education reporter for many years. But it’s important to remember that for many children and their families – one of the prime audiences for such reporting – this might be the first time they’ve gone through the experience.

Jennifer Johnson of the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota followed a kindergartener (and her parents) through the first-day ritual, and weaved in some vivid descriptions of the scene:

Some parents and students grew slightly emotional as they walked into the school. Most students were smiling, some were tentative and others clearly didn’t see what the fuss was about. Several parents asked children to pose for photos in front of the school before walking in.

“Are you ready for this?” one parent asked another.

In several cities, reporters invited students to offer advice to their younger peers and made videos highlighting the results. In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s video, one newly minted sixth grader offered this guidance to incoming fifth graders: If you try to always take the easy way out, “it’s going to be a long grade.” One first-grader told the Aurora Beacon-News (a suburban paper of the Chicago Tribune) his sage wisdom for the incoming kindergarteners: You can’t climb the walls like Spiderman.

I’m always glad to hear student voices. But that’s not something that should be reserved solely for back-to-school stories. If you’re uncertain how to find more opportunities to talk to students, EWA’s Reporter Guide to Interviewing Children is a good place to start.

Of course, teacher voices matter as well. In Portland, Maine, reporter Noel Gallagher of the Press Herald asked the state’s past “Teacher of the Year” recipients to offer tips to fellow educators,, as well as students and parents.

Pond Cove Elementary School teacher Talya Edlund, a finalist for the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year, had this advice for students: “They don’t have to be perfect. Their job is to figure out how to work with the challenges and talents they have.”

What I especially liked about the Press Herald project is that it also involved engaging with readers. The teachers were photographed holding signs with short inspirational messages and the hashtag “#back2schoolme”. Those images were used to spur conversation on Twitter, and to encourage other people to offer their own advice, as well. (Another hashtag to remember for back-to-school stories is “#bts15”, launched by education blogger Alexander Russo.)

Education reporter Kara Newhouse shared the experience and perspective of two teachers – one rookie and one veteran – in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for a back-to-school story last week. Brand-new hire Clayon Blose describes having to quickly change course when a computer glitch disrupts a high school math assessment. From Lancaster Online:

“For a few moments, I went, ‘Ohhh gosh,’ and then I sort of bopped myself on the head and said, ‘You went to school for this. You can handle this.’ ” he says.

Thinking on his feet, Blose assigned the class to research what kind of math they would need to do in their desired careers.

While the exercise didn’t tell him about students’ existing math skills, Blose says it had its own value: it helped students see the purpose of what they’ll learn this year.

If you’re looking for crossover stories that encompass both K-12 and higher education issues, consider looking at dual-credit programs at your local high schools. (The Oregonian’s story on teens tackling college is here). At our recent National Seminar, Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jascik provided a rock-solid list of “10 Higher Ed Stories You Should Be Covering.” And PBS’ Frontline put together a list of five documentaries to watch in preparation for the new academic year. 

Another smart addition to your reporter’s toolbox: The Journalist’s Resource, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Denise Ordway, a veteran education journalist and now an editor for the site, put together a terrific list of back-to-school story ideas with accompanying research to help you dig deeper and write smarter.

For more back-to-school story ideas, check out our recent webinar, with smart tips from veteran journalists Beth Hawkins of the MinnPost (an online news site) and Steve Drummond, the editor of NPR’s Education team. You can also find background, the latest research, and story ideas on a wealth of education issues – both K-12 and higher ed – with the EWA Topics Pages.