Anxiety ran high when 18 high school students from Oregon and southwest Washington came together a week ago in Corvallis to spend seven days with each other learning the fundamentals of journalism with the help of adult mentors.
Even scarier, thrown together largely as strangers, they’d be sharing rooms in college dorms, taking all their meals together, and working long hours each day to improve their reporting, writing, photography and multimedia skills.
Anxiety ran high, too, among the professional journalists who would be working with students at the High School Journalism Institute, a collaboration of The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon State University.
Although most came from the same newsroom in Portland, few had worked directly with each other, several were volunteering for the first time, and some wondered how they’d do as teachers.
As everyone scattered to return home today [Saturday, June 25], it was clear all that anxiety had melted away, buried under a foundation of new connections and unlikely friendships, fortified by mutual respect, and leavened by an appreciation for what a diverse, tech-savvy newsroom staff can accomplish.
As the final hours ticked away Friday, I asked my colleagues to describe the program in a single word.
Among the responses: Inspiring. Rewarding. “Fetch,” meaning cool or awesome, in teenspeak.
Also: Invigorating. Immersive. Incredible.
To those I would add one more: Growth.
The summer journalism program has been around for more than 20 years.
During that time, it’s given hundreds of students of color, as well as those with disabilities or from low-income backgrounds, a chance to learn the basics. Equally important, the students leave better equipped to tell stories reflecting their own diverse experiences and of individuals and communities overlooked by mainsteam media.
During a 30-year career at The Oregonian/OregonLive, I participated in several similar projects involving college students but hadn’t worked extensively with high school journalists. So, as one of the rookie mentors this year, I had my own doubts about how well I’d mesh with a younger demographic.
I needn’t have worried.
Each of us was paired with two students. I had the good fortune to work with Toli Tate, a rising sophomore at Portland’s Grant High School, and Kyler Kaykeo, a senior-to-be at Fort Vancouver High School.
Toli brought some experience as a reporter for the award-winning student magazine at Grant, working under the guidance of David Austin, a former institute director who’s now communications director for Multnomah County. Kyler came in as green as they come, owing to the lack of a journalism program at his high school.
For him, every single thing was new — interviewing, note-taking, pulling direct quotes, attributing facts, asking follow-up questions.
It was a similar story with other pairs of students and their mentors. A few who’d written essays in their English class. Others who’d worked on a school yearbook. A handful with limited experience on their school newspaper.
In other words, how do you teach?
If it took this much focus and effort to guide two students through two blog posts, two profile stories and one news story in a single week, how does a single high school teacher do it week after week with 18 or more students? Especially with all the administrative tasks and testing requirements that come along with being a full-time educator.
I wasn’t the only one who wondered. Nor was I alone in expressing appreciation for the guidance and encouragement received all those years ago from a high school journalism adviser.
Trudging back to our hotel rooms after a long day in the newsroom, we’d trade stories and share our doubts about whether we were having an impact.
By Friday evening, after deadlines had been met and final production details left to the trio of pros who would design this year’s newspaper, it was obvious the lessons had taken hold.
These 18 talented students — sons and daughters of immigrants, straight and gay, rural and urban, and speakers of multiple languages — bonded and blossomed before our eyes. One after another said they’d overcome their fears of not fitting in and had learned more than they imagined possible.
In turn, the professionals declared they had learned just as much from the students and each other.
All of us in the program would be returning to our homes, our schools, our newsrooms, reinvigorated and eager to apply new skills and insights.
Whether personal or professional, that’s what growth looks like to me.
— George Rede is a former editor, reporter and newsroom recruitment director at The Oregonian/OregonLive. This article originally appeared on the Oregon Teens blog, where you can read more about the 2016 High School Journalism Institute.