Forest Lake students getting their start in journalism

Digital newspaper reveals hidden talents

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Three dozen fourth- and fifth-graders at Forest Lake Elementary School in Wantagh buzz around the computer lab each week, giving up their recesses to create the school’s digital newspaper, the Forester Focus.

The sound of excited chatter, quick-paced fingers on keyboards and dry-erase markers squeaking on a white board are evidence of creative minds at work.

“I think what I love the most is that . . . you have some kids who don’t know where they fit in, and this is where they fit in [using] their creative side,” said Katina Sullivan, a fifth-grade teacher and the paper’s co-editor in chief.

The newspaper is published online using Google Slides, which incorporates text, photos and video into the articles. In the future, the newspaper club may incorporate blogging, as well as more video.

The students decide what they want to write about and how to put story “packages” together, explained Erin Moody, a fourth-grade teacher and the other co-editor in chief. They work together, collaborating and sharing ideas.

The articles the students produce, Moody said, are all theirs. “Other than getting approval [for the ideas] and getting editing help,” she said, “they’re doing it all on their own.”

Some students have written five articles since the newspaper program began last November “because they can’t get enough of it,” Sullivan said.

The children can focus on different aspects of producing the paper, depending on their interests. Some, more social than others, love the interviewing process, while others love editing the articles’ Google Slides. “They all find their niche in here,” Moody said.

The students write profiles of teachers and school clubs, cover current events and author how-tos on topics like creating origami. One sports-minded student, Brody Meyers, is writing a series about minor sports that don’t get much media attention, including lacrosse and table tennis. When they finish the articles, Sullivan and Moody look them over before the newspaper’s publisher, Principal Anthony Ciuffo, posts them on the school’s website, Twitter and the Forester Focus Facebook page.

In the fall of 2017, Sullivan approached Ciuffo about starting a newspaper. “I was really just thinking paper and pencil,” she said. “Not a big deal, just getting the kids together.”

Ciuffo suggested that the school start a digital newspaper instead. He got the idea from Mark Gray, the principal of Plaza Elementary School in Baldwin, at a “Share and Steal” meeting that occurs every few months, when a group of local principals share ideas about what’s going on in their schools. “Right away, I heard ‘newspaper,’ and the light bulb went off,” Ciuffo said.

Ciuffo visited the newspaper club at Plaza last October with a group of principals to see how its newsroom was structured and organized. He used the Plaza program as a model for Forest Lake. The students came up with a couple of names for the paper, but Forester Focus stuck.

The club started out in November with 20 students and grew into its current size of 35. “We were just learning how to [head the club] ourselves,” Moody said.

At the first couple of meetings, the students learned the basics of news writing, how to use Chromebooks, how to be good reporters and how to put together a story. “Now the articles are fantastic,” Moody said.

One Thursday morning each month, the group has a mandatory staff meeting, at which Moody and Sullivan help the students with writing problems and discuss the development of their stories. Eventually, the co-editors hope to invite professional journalists to speak to the club.

Moody and Sullivan are available to the students on Tuesdays and Fridays in the computer lab, Moody said. The lab is open on other days as well, during recess, with a teacher in the room, for the students to come and work. “It’s never empty,” she said. “There’s always students here working on [the paper]. It shows the dedication they have and the drive that they have. They’re very proud of their work, and they should be.”

The longer they take part, the more enthusiastic about the newspaper they often become. “We have a student who is involved who is a very reluctant writer,” Moody said, “and yet this somehow has brought out a different avenue for him to express his writing, and he’s loving it.”

Fifth-grader Brady Wolken wrote about the school’s chess club. “My favorite part about being in the newspaper club is being able to publish articles for people to see all around the school,” he said.

Danny Donahue, 11, said that being in the club allows him and his fellow cub journalists to show readers what is happening around the school and in the local community.

Fifth-grader Michaila Jung said her best article was called “The Miracle of Art.” She enjoys art, her favorite form being cartoons.