‘Good morning, grade school’
Neophyte newshounds broadcast to peers
Forget morning announcements droning over a crackling intercom. This generation of school kids is techno- and media-savvy.
At Emma Wilson Elementary School, Laurie DeBock’s sixth graders work through lunch, recess and after school in pursuit of their ultimate goal: being like what they call the “real news.”
Each Monday, at 8:30 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., News 4 EWE is broadcast to Emma Wilson classrooms via closed-circuit television. It’s produced solely by the students.
“We’re trying to make it more and more like the real news,” says Sarah Otell, 12, one of a six-student team coordinating the June 1 edition. Year-round school is ending in late June, and the broadcasting students want to go out with a bang. “By the end of the year it’s going to be just as good.”
At News 4 EWE’s weekly planning meeting, which takes place on Tuesdays, DeBock draws a “storyboard” as students decide in what order to show the already-videotaped pieces, and which reporter should be assigned to each.
With eight stories on tap, this promises to be the longest News 4 EWE episode ever, running more than six minutes.
“It’s really cool because you know that you did that work and you’ve accomplished that goal of showing students what you did all week,” Sarah says.
After the story meeting, the students split up to write the copy. Using 48-point type so it’s easy for the anchors to read, they write a page worth of commentary, along with transitions that will carry one story to the next.
They haven’t done any controversial stories—yet. No one’s told them not to; it’s just that nothing has really come up, other than a spate of vandalism in the school garden that turned out to be someone picking berries before they were ripe.
That’s not to say the censors aren’t watching.
“I told a joke about a horse walks into a bar and I had to change it to an ice cream store,” says Davis Rich, 12.
The story ideas come from teachers, random “news tips” dropped off in DeBock’s Room 5, and from the students themselves.
Sarah said it isn’t hard to find a week’s worth of stories in a school of 700 students. “There’s usually something going on all the time,” she says.
The students often face the same dilemma as career journalists: how to tell viewers what they need to know, even when it’s something dry like the completion of standardized testing.
“It’s really hard to make something so boring fun,” Sarah admits.
During the story meeting, someone hits on the idea of inserting a chorus of “Hallelujah” into the middle of the testing piece.
For homework, DeBock tells the students, “I suggest watching the news again tonight.”
The majority of the week is devoted to filming.
The camera staff shows up at fund-raisers, in P.E. classes and at choir recitals. Sometimes, they’ll even go off campus to film, like when second graders took a field trip to sing to elderly people.
By Wednesday, all the stories have been filmed and it’s time for the anchors to do their thing.
During lunch, the team gathers in a corner of Room 5 in front of a fabric store-purchased backdrop and small table.
Lately, the producers have decided to start off each broadcast with video of the anchors chatting with one another as the theme music plays.
“Have you seen NCN, like with Debbie Cobb?” Bailey Jorgeson, 11, asks. “It’s like that.”
A sign taped to the classroom window warns: “Shh… filming in progress.”
It’s the first time in the anchor chair for Keri Piluso, 12. Her co-anchor, Eddie Liersch, 11, has done this before but he’s still a little nervous. He’s piled three textbooks on his chair so he and Keri are the same height.
“You’re going to do fine,” DeBock assures both young anchors. “The camera is just an extra piece of furniture in the classroom. On the real news they make mistakes all the time. It doesn’t have to be flawless.”
To add an air of authenticity, the students hit upon the idea of adding empty coffee mugs to the set. Editor Davis would like to see the anchors in clothes that are “a little more fancy,” but so far they’re content to turn T-shirts around so the logos don’t distract viewers.
“On the news they always wear those nice coats,” he laments.
Davis directs the anchors: “Say that with enthusiasm. Ar-tic-u-late.”
Bailey, behind the camera, counts out: “Quiet on the set. Rolling, 3, 2…”
Davis said it hasn’t been awkward to boss around one’s peers while in the editor’s role. “Usually they respect our position,” he said. “We’re like kings.”
It takes a good hour to record six minutes that satisfies the students. The rest of the week is devoted to editing.
Josh Crane, 11, has risen to the top of the group in computer editing and now trains rookie editors.
“It was really hard at first but now it’s the simplest thing in the world,” says Josh as he matches up digitalized recordings of text, video and sound. Using a program called ULEAD Media Studio Pro, the student editors are able to mimic many of the features of TV news, including the little “picture in picture” that runs in the corner while an anchor offers commentary.
The editors have mellowed since getting used to the equipment, DeBock says. At first, “they wanted to use all of the fancy transitions like in music videos.” Now, they get away with downloading music clips like “Taking Care of Business” and various guitar rock anthems.
When the students are done editing, DeBock will look the product over and transfer the computer files to video tape. On Monday, a couple of students take it down to a room off the staff area where the closed-circuit system is located.
DeBock came up with the idea of a broadcast component to her class while at a technology conference. Last year, using a model called The Director in the Classroom, she launched News 4 EWE.
She’s amazed, DeBock says, “when you look at the very first show compared to what the show’s like now. All of that really has been coming from the kids.”
Students can choose from anchor, editor or camera work and two weeks later they shift. They work in groups of six or seven, and as the year wears on, some students show more interest than others. It’s all voluntary.
Some quickly learn their forte.
“One time I was an anchor and it took me 15 times to get it because I was so giggly,” Sarah says. “I’m better at the camera.”
Of course, there are some inevitable differences from a traditional newsroom. Students on the News 4 EWE staff raise their hands when they want to speak. And one student has employed the tried-and-true method of pre-teen appointment-keeping: writing on the back of her hand with a purple marking pen.
And they’re working against a deadline not commonly faced by their “real news” counterparts: Their parents are coming to pick them up in 45 minutes.
“It’s sort of like working overtime,” Bailey says. “But it’s fun.”
Watching the broadcast the following week, Bruce Luchessa’s K-3 class is glued to the television screen. The joke of the day bombs, but the “hallelujah” insert gets a big laugh.
The students are satisfied, but another week of reporting and editing is already underway.
Will this turn into a career for some of them?
“Maybe," said Davis, who plans to take a broadcasting class in junior high. "I have five things to narrow it down to."