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November 1, 2013

Thank You, David Finkel: NWS Guest and Pulitzer Prize Winning News Editor and Bestselling Author Visits Award Winning Black & Gold Student Newspaper

by Doug Stanton

What makes a great high school student newspaper?

When John Gerhardt was the advisor for the Black & Gold--the student newspaper--at Traverse City Central High School, I walked into his classroom each day with a great deal of trepidation and curiosity. Could I learn how to write a news story? What was journalism? I knew nothing. He was the first person to show me how (and I wasn't so great at it, at first) to write non-fiction. If I remember right, the newsroom was located at the far end of the school's cafeteria, behind a wall that is no longer there. When I'm on campus, I still walk by that place and I still imagine myself at that time in my life, walking through the now imaginary door, so eager to find a way, not just to write, but to belong.

Recently, during Washington Post reporter and editor David Finkel's visit to the high school, I sat in Missi Yeomans' Black & Gold classroom, filled with today's student staff-young people thinking of how to make their way. David was in Traverse City as a National Writers Series guest, and he was visiting the class to answer the students' questions about their future. Yeomans is the Black & Gold's academic advisor, and under her stewardship the Black & Gold has grown to be one of the state's winning-est student newspapers. The Black & Gold has been named a "Spartan Award" winner, an honor given by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association to a very small number of high schools each year in Michigan. This year, the Black & Gold won MIPA awards in 24 categories. Year after year, this is a major accomplishment. Put it this way: if this were a high school football team, they'd be in the state play-offs all the time.  

How does this happen? Among other things, it's Yeoman's teaching style and the way she conducts the class with the same sense of seriousness as my Black and Gold mentor John Gerhardt. This is to say, the paper practices journalism in a real-world way-in a way that will later lead directly to employment in this field, if the student chooses. The Black & Gold is also an award winner at the state level because the students treat their jobs seriously. The paper is not under the reviewing thumb of school administrators, which would, as far as professional journalists believe, infantilize the paper, erode its educational experience, and seriously call into question its credibility. The MIPA judges, when making their award decisions, ask schools if their student newspapers have been subject to "prior review." In other words, is the paper an example of a free press, or of special interests (people, staff, school boards) and their personal agendas re-shaping the news for personal or political reasons? That the Black & Gold operates the way it does is a testament to the professionalism of the students and TCAP's forward-thinking administration. And the dynamic has paid off, given the accolades the paper receives. The Black & Gold student newspaper is one of the academic offerings that attracts people to enroll in Traverse City Central High School.

When David Finkel recently sat for a press conference with the Black & Gold student staff, he told the students that they were creating an impressive newspaper concerned with real news. David had read some back issues and liked what he saw. He pointed out a story about millage rates on one of the front pages. "A story about millage in a student newspaper? Unbelievable!" This was not faint praise, as David is the bestselling author of the recent "Thank You For Your Service," a Pulitzer Prize winner, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius award, and the National editor at the Washington Post. He is one of the most respected reporters in the United States. The students asked serious questions of him and he came back with serious, real world advice about being a reporter. Two TV stations showed up and filmed his visit, and a half-million people saw the words "Black & Gold" and "David Finkel" and "Washington Post" all in the same moment. In the back of the classroom, I noticed, sat one of the old light tables I had used in John Gerhardt's class. For a moment, I saw myself back in the room, way back then.

Being in John Gerhardt's class, and being taking seriously at a young age, as Missi Yeomans does today with her students, made all the difference for me. And I think the students also saw some of this same seriousness with David's visit-and for that we thank him. I think connecting our students with the world outside is of one our jobs as parents and teachers. And who knows-or, rather I do know: someday one of these students is going to end up working on a paper like the Washington Post, and they're going to come back and teach this same kind of class.

Now, that will be fun.  

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