By Kristen Meriwether
When the school year began, teacher Wendy Pleak needed a long-term sustainable project for her gifted and talented fifth-grade class. The Rancho Sienna Elementary School teacher knew the students well, having taught them in previous years.
She recalled the students’ love for writing and the district’s willingness to develop creative writing. Give them a daring idea: how about creating a school newspaper?
She introduced it to her students and digital natives loved it. With Pleak’s help, the 10 and 11-year-olds took the idea from concept to reality, producing their first edition of the Rancho Times on October 21.
“They had fun doing it,” Pleak said. The independent. “It’s kind of what they do, just play and learn. But more importantly, to really learn journalism, to learn how fun writing can be.
The project is designed for fun, but the students take their responsibility very seriously. Every student has laminated press passes to go on a mission, thanks to 11-year-old Madeleine Heiderscheit, who is a feature film writer for The Rancho Times.
Everyone in the class is responsible for the paper. Some write articles, others produce profiles and child-friendly content for the entertainment section, like jokes or how to do fun science projects at home.
Pleak acknowledged that not all students were interested in writing, so she asked some students to become editors or photographers. Variety allows each student to highlight the talents they bring to the project.
Jacob Anderson, 10, is in the classroom with his twin sister Madeline and is the newspaper’s editor because of his excellent spelling skills.
“There was rarely a word I couldn’t spell,” Anderson said. “I wanted to be an editor so I could correct my twin.”
11-year-old Phoebe Johnson-Quaife brought her love of photography to the project, taking most of the photos in the first edition.
“It felt good to see that my photos were actually in there,” Johnson-Quaife said. “The whole school sees it.”
The Independent recently attended an editorial meeting for the second edition of the Rancho Times and found its process very similar to that of a professional newsroom. Editors submitted ideas and Pleak, who is the group’s editor, helped young journalists develop their ideas.
The class discussed and debated what the main story of the second edition would be. Options included an upcoming Veterans Day ceremony and the Healthy Habits Week storybook parade.
After the meeting, Heiderscheit, who is in charge of the front page article, was pecking his keyboard, working hard on the A1 story for the next month.
Aubrey Brand, 10, and Peyton Brown, 11, are in charge of the teachers’ section. After several years with the same teachers, the couple said they have a special bond with the staff. They both jumped at the chance to interview and spotlight teachers at their school.
The process helped these fifth graders learn a lesson almost every journalist learns: Going out on a mission is fun, but writing on time when you get back is the hardest part.
“The interview is pretty easy and fun,” Brand said. “But after you’ve done the interview you need to write a rough draft and figure out what you’re going to say and not make it sound weird.”
The pair managed to find what to write very well, producing six profiles and three award biographies for the first edition.
When completed, Pleak put the document together and produced a PDF which was included in the school newsletter and social media accounts. For many students, it was the first time they had created something that was seen beyond their family or class.
“I felt proud and excited that people could see what we did because not many people see what we do in GT (talented and talented),” said Brown.
Zoe Lorence, 10, who co-wrote an article on Hispanic Heritage Month for the first edition, agreed.
“I was delighted that someone read what me and my partners did,” Lorence said. “I think it’s really cool that people are doing this.”
Pleak hopes others will be able to read his students’ work in the future. At present, they do not have the funds to print a physical copy. But she hopes that will change.
“It’s the only thing we’re having trouble with,” Pleak said. “It would be nice if we could find a way to mass produce a paper so that every child can have one.”