In past years, participants in the ELi Summer Youth Journalism Program gathered in the East Lansing Public Library for three hours daily over the course of one to two weeks. But the pandemic changed that process.
To adhere to public health guidelines, this year’s participants sat at home, participating over Zoom for one hour a day for three weeks.
As in the past, Cody Harrell, a journalism teacher at East Lansing High School, taught the program, which is divided into two sections: Tier One and Tier Two. In Tier One, participants learned the basics of journalism, and in Tier Two, participants dove into investigative journalism.
Tier One: Learning the Ropes One Step at a Time
The Tier One cohort consisted of three sophomores from ELHS, who learned about the First Amendment, law and ethics, interviewing skills and etiquette, feature writing, news writing, and the Freedom of Information Act.
Elke Schrenk signed up to prepare to be on the ELHS yearbook staff in the fall semester, but writing for ELi turned out to be different than for the yearbook.
“I feel like writing for ELi is different than writing for a school yearbook, and I feel like I can really apply what I learned in a job or just in all my classes,” Schrenk said.
When teaching the class this year, Harrell had to adapt the curriculum to the new virtual environment, which includes conducting interviews with sources virtually.
“I had to modify a lot of my lessons to really think about what the online world is looking for,” Harrell said. “I know my students this year were not interviewing in person, they were interviewing on Zoom. That has a different dynamic, there’s a different comfort level, but also a different challenge.”
Tier One participant Evie Wittrock, a sophomore at ELHS and a member of the high school’s yearbook staff, felt that the online format helped with organization and assigning work.
But using online platforms did change several parts of the program, including writing and revising participants’ stories.
“Since you weren’t there in a physical presence, it’s harder to discuss work because it has to be over notes on Google Docs or on a Zoom,” Wittrock said. “But it’s not the same as talking in person or revising a draft in person.”
The new format meant less screen time, but it reduced instructional time from 30 hours to only 15.
“It’s easy to be in the classroom for a long time,” Harrell said. “It’s still kind of draining, but when you’re interacting with people, talking with them, get up, move, walk around, it’s easier to be there for three hours than it is to sit in front of a computer screen for just one hour.”
Classes were also smaller this year. In past years, five to 10 students participated in each tier, but this summer, Tier One had three students and Tier Two four. But this allowed Harrell to better serve the participants.
“Because the classes were smaller, I could really engage with everyone,” Harrell said. “It wasn’t awkward with just four people on the Zoom call the same way my classes [at ELHS] now have 30 people in a Zoom call.”
Tier Two: A Deeper Dive
Tier Two of the program was organized as a case study. Participants brought story ideas and then delved into investigative journalism with Harrell.
Participants, like ELHS senior Alex Hosey, learned new ways of interviewing and writing and applied those to the topic that interested them.
“Some [students] are better at speaking with others. Others are better researchers,” Alex Hosey said. “But with the program it feels like [instructors] are trying to build on top of individual skills with the other skills to make a cohesive writer.”
Tier Two took place over five weekdays in past years. This year, Tier 2 ran for 10 days with one hour of instruction each day.
Even with less instruction time, participants still learned various new skills. One participant in Tier Two was Amalia Medina, who participated in Tier One in 2018. Medina, now a senior at ELHS, continues to write for ELi and is one of four editors-in-chief of the high school’s yearbook.
Medina is thinking of going to Michigan State University to study journalism and appreciated what she learned about investigative journalism in Tier Two, calling it “a really good opportunity to expand my knowledge in something I’m really interested in.”
Participants also had the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of guest speakers, including a local investigative journalist and a public official.
Each speaker addressed a topic covered in the program, according to Harrell. Harrell prefers to bring in East Lansing-based speakers because of their respective local impacts.
“I’m not teaching them how to be a journalist in New York City, or even a journalist in Detroit; I’m teaching these kids how to be a journalist in East Lansing,” Harrell said.
“I like to bring in local guest speakers who can speak to their expertise but also be inspirational and really relate to these kids who are just here to advance their skill sets and be more valuable,” he continued
For Anupreksha Jain, a graduate of Cornell University’s biosciences program who moved to East Lansing in Jan. 2020, learning to be a journalist in East Lansing provided a way to get introduced to the city.
“Like for me personally, because I was so new to East Lansing, I got to learn a lot about the city by participating in this workshop,” Jain said.
Participants who have been in the community longer also benefited from the program. Tier Two participant Sophie Strasburg, a senior at ELHS and yearbook staff member, was surprised about how people see and think about different topics.
“I think, after my first year especially, it made me more aware of other people and their stories. I feel like all of us can get so caught up in our own lives, in our little bubble,” Strasburg said. “But getting to interview different people about a certain topic shifts your perspective.”
And for Harrell, the program also lets him connect to the community by doing the thing he loves.
“People always wonder how can I make an impact in my community, and journalism and transparency is like the best way to do it, and so for me, it’s a dream come true to teach these students,” Harrell said. “And to even teach my own high school students, the impact of the work they do, and the impact that they can make in the community by just doing their due diligence as a citizen.”
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