For the first time ever, the Cyrus Peirce Middle School (CPS) has started its own student newspaper, The Whalers’ Watch.
CPS Principal, Dr. Peter Cohen, said the newspaper class stemmed out of a discussion with administrators concerning the lack of opportunities for driven students at CPS: “We asked ourselves, ‘what do we do for students who are struggling, and what do we do for students who are excelling?’ Out of this discussion, we realized that while we do a lot to help kids that struggle, we lack opportunities to push the students that excel. Out of that came this newspaper class, which pushes students to do more writing.”
CPS language arts teacher Becky Hickman, teaches the class, which is open to seventh and eighth graders. The total staff size is 24 students. Each grade meets with Hickman twice a week for one hour. However, because of the way the schedule is structured, the grades never meet at the same time. The class was designed to be an in-school activity so that students who play sports and participate in other after school activities could still participate.
Because the entire staff never meets as a whole, communication has been a challenge for the students. As a result, Hickman and a high school student volunteer, senior KD Tornovish, have had to act as “middlemen” between the two grades and be more involved in the production of the paper than was initially planned. The scheduling challenge is further exacerbated by the newspaper software chosen to produce the paper, makemynewspaper.com, which allows only a single user to make edits to the paper at any given time. This limits student exposure to the layout process and the advisors have been forced to do most of the layout. Meeting deadlines is another challenge the paper has faced. However, Hickman had foreseen that would be an issue, given the young age of the staff. Learning a different style of writing and how to interview individuals for articles can be difficult at first, she noted. Dr. Cohen acknowledged that he has “been interviewed once or twice by students and some skills have not yet been developed.” However, overall, he sees many of these challenges as areas for potential growth for the students, saying that “perhaps this class will help develop student interview skills. Another nice thing about creating this class extension is that it exposes students to a different kind of writing.”
The challenge of meeting deadlines may have something to do with student’s lack of motivation. The class is currently being offered as a half year elective and may attract students looking solely to fill their schedules. Cohen sees this as a concern. “I like to see there be a club component to it,” he said. “I don't want this program to be a schedule filler. I want it to be more student driven than directed by Mrs. Hickman. I think right now, while most students are happy to participate, there may be some students who don’t have a genuine interest. Perhaps this program could become an effective stepping stone for Veritas. Pursuit of high school students helping middle school students is something that we should tap into more.”
During a recent survey of the 18 seventh graders on the newspaper staff, 11 claimed to have taken the class out of “genuine interest,” while the remaining seven students reported to have taken the class because it was their “only option” or because they “liked the teacher.” However, most of the staff was excited to have the opportunity and six students said that they plan to join the Veritas staff next year. Staff writer Margaret Culkins was particularly excited about the paper and said that she signed up because “I had fun working on my newspaper project last year and after that one I wanted to write another and another.” Her peer, Emma Davis, had similar feelings about the paper, and expressed hope for increased student involvement in coming years. “A lot of people don’t know about this,” she said.
Another area of potential growth for the paper is on the business end, namely advertising. Although the first issue was only published online, the young staff hopes to print actual copies for its second issue (no official press date yet). At present, the paper is being funded by the school budget, and since it is a class, the students are not able to obtain advertisers. However, Cohen says that may change. “If this class becomes an after-school activity next year, perhaps we can take advertisers.”
Currently, the newspaper has no mandated length or number of issues. Cohen explained that he wants to “leave it up to Mrs. Hickman and the kids,” although he expects to see two or three issues this year.
So far, he is excited about the program and sees it as a way to “showcase what our students do in school to the community. Whether it is photography or another kind of artwork, I think this newspaper is a great vehicle to showcase talent.” There has not been significant feedback yet from the community, and Cohen attributes that to the fact that not “enough has happened yet with this program that the community would know about it. We haven’t shared information about it as much as we could or should.” Ultimately, though, he is optimistic and focused on the long term goals of the program. He suggested that it could become a feeder for Veritas and summed it up nicely, saying, “The key is that we’re starting small, but we’re committed to make it work. Being on the road toward ‘Veritas Junior’ would be a good thing.”