Hope for Future from 10-year-olds

Students were Gazette editors, but not this Gazette ...

When I went to a school called “Sacred Heart,” we had to wear blue shirts and blue bow ties.

The students at Sacred Heart in Monticello don’t have uniforms, a fact that is mildly surprising to Mrs. Kent, their teacher.

That’s a pretty small difference between “then” and “now,” and there are larger differences. I went to Monticello Wednesday to do a news activity with the 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes at Sacred Heart, and noticed a lot has changed in the 42 years since I was in 4th grade.

The classroom itself is probably about the size of the room I had 4th grade in.

The “look” and feel of the room, however, are totally different. When I was in 4th grade at Sacred Heart in Clinton, Iowa, the desks stood in rigid attention, all lined up for a military parade, all facing a black (actually, green) slate board that covered most of one wall, with a bit of space on either side for a bulletin board.

The only “flair” in the room was those bulletin boards. Otherwise, the room had the charm, feel and look of a POW barracks from a WWII movie, if the POWs had slept on small desks rather than bunk beds.

Mrs. Kent’s room featured a desk area where the students face each other, and other “zones,” including a cozy looking area with pillows for sprawling and reading.

I know that not all changes in education in the past 4 decades have been good, and there is something to say for the order and structure of the “old” days, but darn. I really missed out on 4th grade. Mrs. Kent’s room seemed like a much more relaxed, friendly place.

Not an unruly place. The children were all diligently working at their desks, and when Mrs. Kent had to direct them as a group or individually, they seemed to give her instant, instinctive obedience. There is an art to controlling a set of unruly mammals, and Mrs. Kent has it. I can praise Mrs. Kent freely, because not only is she a great 4th grade teacher, she is also my daughter, Theresa.

And, to be honest, I really didn’t care for school in the good old days. I was a 4.0 student in high school and college, but not in elementary school, where I got a fair number of Ds. Elementary school seemed like sheer tedium and torture to me.

How did the visit and activity go? Very well. The children were interested in what I had to say, and, although a few asked off-the-wall questions that I didn’t always understand, by and large we got along and communicated nicely.

It gives me some hope for the future of journalism. Newspapers have not found the way forward in an on-line world, and our democracy only functions when the nooks and crannies of government are exposed to the light by journalists. Without newspapers, there would have been no Watergate scandal. An occasional exposé and scandal are important checks on the darker instincts of the powerful.

The 4th graders seemed to show they still hunger for news. There is some comfort in that.

Mrs. Kent had her students inscribe some thank-you cards. One student noted that “no offense,” but he still plans to be a scientists, composer and artist, although he did say he was more interested in journalism as a result of my talk. (No offense taken. Good luck with the techno science beats and blots). A girl in the classes noted that “Mrs. Kent teaches us she is the best teacher.” I suppose she intended to state that “Mrs. Kent teaches us, and she is the best teacher,” but the line is cuter without the punctuation or conjunction. It sounds like Mrs. Kent is indoctrinating followers.

What was the exercise? It was a “budget meeting,” the daily session held at every city newspaper where editors decide what news to feature in their paper.

I wrote up a little budget summary and told the 9 to 12 year olds that they were editors of the Gazette and they had to choose four of the following stories to be on the front page:

1) Iran Announces it has Atomic Bomb (nuclear test confirmed)
2) Winter Storm Strands Thousands in Britain (Heathrow closed by 6-inches of snow)
3) Cap’n Crunch Quaker Oats Plant to Add 600 Jobs (my favorite cereal rescues CR economy)
4) Xavier Girls Win State Basketball Title (includes picture of lead scorer hugging her coach/father while holding title trophy)
5) Ex-President Breaks Leg in Cedar Rapids Spill (Jimmy Carter was working on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house)
6) Obama’s Daughters Successfully Lobby for First Cat (Sasha adopts a stray)

A cat but not news

Photo of a cat. Cute, but probably not front-page news ...

They had more information (including notes on photos) for each story. They were were in about six groups and each had a “managing editor” who reported back on what the group had decided. A few picks were eclectic—one group selected the cat story, which was clearly on the list to not be selected–but the classes overall were able to apply news criteria and did come up with what I had considered the “main” news stories (numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 with the dominant news story being the Iran A-bomb.)

The kids heard and applied the traditional news criteria—timeliness, impact, proximity, conflict, human interest, novelty—and referred to them in their thank-you notes. One student noted that “I didn’t know all those words existed.”

Well, they do. With your help, kid, I hope they continue to exist and shape news budget meetings for a long time.

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