by Jane Graves
LAWRENCE — The Leaven staff better look to its laurels.
The next generation of Catholic journalists is already hard at work spreading the good news.
They’re even sacrificing their afternoon recess to do it!
But fifth-grader Joo-Young Lee, one of some 30 Gazette staff members, has no regrets.
“It’s worth it,” said Lee. “You get to learn a lot of stuff that you didn’t know.”
When the first edition of the monthly St. John Gazette was published this fall, the 9- to 12-year-old journalists had no idea they might be publishing one of the very few online elementary school newspapers in the nation.
John Milburn, school parent and writer for the Associated Press, said this status couldn’t be 100 percent verified, but that it had been difficult to find other examples of elementary newspapers online.
“There were some junior high, lots of high schools, and college newspapers that were online, but as far as an elementary school, we believe we’re one of the very few around, and that’s something we’re kind of proud of,” he said.
Milburn, whose own interest in journalism grew out of his experience on a school paper in the fourth grade, was instrumental in getting the paper up and running.
He started with school principal Pat Newton. He wanted, Milburn told her, to create for children at St. John the type of opportunity that had meant so much to him as a kid — that had literally sparked his eventual career. Newton was quick to agree.
“The church talks about our time, our talent, and our treasure. My talent is writing, my passion for writing and communicating,” Milburn said. “I also saw it as a way that we could tell the good news of what’s going on at St. John.”
Next, language arts teacher Michelle Powell was brought on board as the faculty adviser. When school started in the fall, the student staff began meeting every Thursday during afternoon recess. Powell, who had studied journalism before seeking a teaching degree, and Milburn proceeded to teach the students the basics of publishing a newspaper.
“He and Mrs. Powell really taught us everything that we know about writing, explained fifth-grader Maddie Hill, “besides what we just already knew about writing, like, a regular story.”
To help organize their writing, Powell instructed her students to first complete a worksheet on each story, detailing the subject of the article and answering the traditional questions of a basic news story — who, what, when, where, why, and how.
“In that way they do their own homework first,” said Powell, “and gather as much information as they can before they go to a source, which is usually a teacher.”
The next step is to teach the young writers how much is too much.
“I learned about what details you have to put in,” Lee said. “You don’t have to put in every single detail, but you have to put in the most important details.”
Hill, who has written three articles for the Gazette, said that so far reporting is her favorite job on the newspaper staff.
“I just really love writing and asking people questions,” she said.
Lee, who is assigned to the sports beat, said she preferred photography and the technical aspects of publication.
Which is fortunate, said Powell, since she and technology teacher Karen Dixon are now ready to turn over layout and design responsibilities to the students as well.
Despite the time commitment involved on the part of both students and faculty, said Powell, the online newspaper is a valuable addition to St. John School.
“There’s a whole lot of kids that are getting experience [in journalism] that wouldn’t have otherwise, and at such a young age,” Powell said. “They should feel proud of what they produce, because it looks great.”
The principal concurs.
“It just came together so beautifully,” said Newton. “It’s a lot of hard work — but John Milburn having the good idea, and Michelle Powell stepping forward as the teacher, and all the enthusiasm of the kids . . .
“It was amazing how many children wanted to participate in this, knowing that it was going to be extra, all extra. And then, to have it actually work, and work again, and again.
“It’s such a great tribute to the education of children because it puts into motion all the skills that they learn throughout the day — all those writing skills, spelling, English, awareness of their environment. It’s great. It really is. I’m very proud of them.”