Turning Your Child Into a Writer

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 2, 2005; 9:54 AM

Once a week during the school year I start my day by driving through the District of Columbia -- past the embassies on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, past the busy shops on H Street Northeast -- and pull up in front of Spingarn High School just off of Benning Road.

This is an inner city school. There are no big student parking lots where it is hard to find a space. I leave my car on the street, go through the metal detector at the front entrance and climb up a flight of stairs to Sandra Chriss' academy for young journalists in room 205.

Chriss is training writers in a way too few schools do. I think many more teachers, with the encouragement of parents, could follow her example if they, like she, tapped a potentially willing supply of experts in their communities. Many of us at The Washington Post have gotten into this, but we usually see the effort from our very selfish perspective. I think more non-journalists ought to know what we are up to.

Sandra Chriss is an English teacher at Spingarn, teaching analytical reading, critical thinking and clear writing to teenagers who have rarely been asked to do very much at school. She and several other teachers in the District are helping transform writing instruction by starting school newspapers and inviting Washington Post staffers such as me to come in and help.

My 90-minute editing and advising sessions with the staff of the Spingarn Sentinel are a joy for me. My children, including the one who became a journalist, treated my suggestions when they wrote for their school papers with the same respect they gave my comments on the latest music. Now, at last, I have a captive audience at Spingarn, and they seem to be happy to let me help them improve their stories, since I am not their parent and thus much more credible.

The hard work of creating the Sentinel and several other student newspapers in the District was not done by me. Let me quote the person most responsible, former Post columnist Dorothy Butler Gilliam. This is what she found when she started the Young Journalists Development Program in 1997.

"High school journalism was dead in the nation's capital," Gilliam said. "Not a single city high school had regularly published a newspaper that school year. Computers were broken or missing. Cameras and copiers were nonexistent. Instructors with experience teaching journalism were few, and journalism classes didn't even make it to the elective subject list."

The Post's deputy managing editor, Milton Coleman, had the idea of reaching out to schools. He, like the rest of us at The Post, was acting out of our deepest self-interest. He wanted to encourage more students, particularly minorities, to consider journalism as a career so that we would have a bright new generation to keep the paper going. And we all wanted to do something to reverse what was to us the frightening trend of young people not caring about newspapers at all. If they didn't have one at their school reporting things they cared about, how would they ever get in the habit of reading a paper when they grew up?

Coleman knew of Gilliam's managerial talents. She had been president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). She took the job, and then got very busy, with results that still amaze me: partnerships with 24 high schools in the Washington area, an undergraduate scholarship, graduate fellowship and a one-credit course for upper-level undergraduate and graduate students at four area universities, among other projects. Seven of The Post's former scholarship and fellowship winners are working as professional journalists, including Krissah Williams, whom The Post hired in 2002 as a business reporter, and who will soon receive the NABJ's Emerging Journalist of the Year award.

For the many of us who volunteered to work as advisers to the new D.C. school papers, seeing Gilliam in action was a treat. I remember the high school principal who locked up all copies of the student paper because he did not like a story about students using cell phones and pagers, which were against the rules. Gilliam spoke to him. I don't know exactly what she said, but as a columnist she was a master at explaining how power worked in the District. The papers were soon freed from captivity and distributed to students.

Gilliam has retired, but her successor Athelia Knight, one of The Post's most experienced reporters, has kept the program humming, with training sessions for students and teachers, meetings at The Post, and continual support for the school papers. At Spingarn I see each week the excitement of teenagers diving into the reporting of a story and coming back to write it. They may need a lot of practice, but they have genuine talent, and seeing their stories in print is a powerful motivator to write more.

Wherever you live, there are likely some high schools that do not provide this kind of learning by doing. The Quill and Scroll Society estimates that 20 percent of public high schools have no newspaper at all, and many of the papers that do exist do not appear to have much help from adults who know how to write news.

Which is why I think it might be time for more educators and parents to reach out to their local journalists for help. I don't know any community that does not have some sort of local paper. It is often a weekly, but the editors and reporters on small papers are sometimes the ones that most appreciate the needs of their local schools, and would be most flattered to be asked for help. We big city papers also have reporters with some spare time. We can help high schoolers put together a story in a way that teaches writing without the annoyance of interpreting 19th century novels, the usual way we teach writing in school. When I was in high school, I hated literary interpretation, and didn't really develop much as a writer until I discovered student journalism in college.

I know. This sounds like a very ambitious project, calling up the editor of the local paper and asking if he or his staff might help advise, or even fund, a high school paper. But there is a very useful guidebook for this which you can get for free. My colleague Lisa Frazier Page has written the ultimate primer for news organizations, including radio and TV, who might be willing to get involved in schools. It is "Reaching the Next Generation: A News Media Guide to Creating Successful High School Partnerships." If you want a copy, just write to Athelia Knight, Director, Young Journalists Development Program, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20071. Or you can e-mail her at knighta@washpost.com.

The book has 133 pages of information and advice from news people all over the country who are doing this kind of volunteer work, and finding money to support it. It includes personal accounts by several journalists who recall what their student news experience meant to them. People like me who have been doing this for 40 years find it startling to be reminded, when a 16-year-old starts talking in Ms. Chriss' class at Spingarn, how excited we felt the first time we realized that we were going to be able to take something that was important to us and our friends, something that had nothing to do with the Revolutionary War or Dickens' view of the English legal system, and have it published under our names.

Send this column to people you think might like to know about this. Why should I have all the fun?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company