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The Power of the Press

The press badges on two junior high reporters caught the president’s eye at the steps of Air Force One. “Oh, I see you’re starting early,” Richard Nixon told the students as he stepped forward to shake their hands. The two student reporters, wearing the same press credentials as the half dozen professional reporters also at the aircraft, were the only ones who got to talk with the president. He was in Rockford, Illinois, to deliver a campaign speech. It was one of countless journalism adventures that tapped the skills and honed the judgments of students from Johnsburg School District 12, which serves a small community in northern Illinois. Two and a half years later, three other reporters for the Johnsburg Journal student newspaper attended a White House press briefing that was dominated by Watergate questions. Afterwards, they saw President Nixon in the Oval Office. In Johnsburg, even junior high students were empowered to practice authentic journalism’without the threat of arbitrary censorship or the practice of prior review by administrators. I taught journalism and advised the newspaper staffs in Johnsburg for 34 years, including my last 25 years advising the Johnsburg Weekly News after we became a high school district. I

The students had a real audience, a real purpose and a real voice.

Journalism was the most authentic writing experience my students every enjoyed and the best teaching I have ever done. My journalism students at Title One, urban schools in Southern California were almost all the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. We always had at least three different primary languages on staff; one year we had seven, yet they regularly won prizes for quality of their paper. The students had a real audience, a real purpose and a real voice. They came into my classroom before 7 a.m. for a zero period class. They worked on the paper after school and on Saturdays. Sometimes I forced them out at 9 p.m. I taught them about research and writing, and about the First Amendment and the responsibilities of the press, but they lived those principles while they made editorial decisions, almost always mature and responsible decisions. My demure young business manager, the child of an elderly refugee, told me one morning that her father had pointed to a Vietnamese woman digging for recyclables at curb as he drove her through the winter darkness. “See her. She is why I want you to study journalism. You must tell her story.” My first principals,

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