What Does a First-Grade Journalist Look Like?

BY April Brown  May 16, 2012 at 3:15 PM EDT

First-grade journalists in Florida
The journalism classroom at Melrose Elementary.

When my colleague Mike Fritz and I headed down to St. Petersburg, Fla., recently, we knew we were going to see young journalists at work. It’s not too hard to imagine that middle school students with a bit of training can write for a newspaper or even shoot video; plenty of kids have cellphones with cameras these days. But birthing journalists from first grade? I couldn’t imagine how it was done — until we arrived at Melrose Elementary, a journalism magnet school.

On a cool April morning the first graders from Teresa Scott’s class silently make their way into a multimedia classroom where they gather once a week. The question “What is a reporter?” was written on the white board in the front of the room. Most seemed already to have the answer.

First up on the agenda: a bit of review. Journalism teachers Carol Blair and Cynthia Vickers began by reinforcing an earlier lesson. In unison, as if they were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the students and teachers said: “A good journalist uses their brain, eyes, ears, nose and mouth to ask the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why.”

The class was working on how to take a survey. They decided what their survey question would be weeks ago, so now it was time for a practice run. Volunteers eagerly raised their hands. Those who were chosen hopped up, stood in front of the class and rehearsed what they would say to their fellow students.

Politely and shyly, John Riggins III addressed his classmate Rachod Whitehead: “Hello, my name is John, and I’m with the Manatee Messenger. Can I ask you a question?”

Pretty basic — but very important. And you’ve got to start somewhere.

He then asked the survey question: “What is your favorite thing to do on Saturday? Sleep, play or go to Busch Gardens?”

“Go to Busch Gardens,” Whitehead responded. It was a popular choice.

Riggins thanked Whitehead for answering, and after a quick reminder, the boys sat down.

First-grade journalists
First grader John Riggins III, left, asks classmate Rachod Whitehead the day’s survey question.

A few more pairs stood up to practice, and then it was time to do it for real.

Joshua Westervelt and Whitehead headed out as a team. Blair helped them recruit some student volunteers, and they all headed to the lunchroom. As professionally as they did in the classroom, the pair took turns asking their survey question and recording the answers.

First-grade journalists
Joshua Westervelt, center, and Rachod Whitehead, right, ask fellow Melrose Elementary kindergartener Hayden Pritt their survey question.

After the morning’s reporting exercise, we saw how the first graders learned other skills, including photography, videography and the crafting of questions. The Melrose fourth graders even interviewed us after we were done filming their younger schoolmates. And you’ll soon be able to “read all about it” in their school newspaper, the Manatee Messenger.

For us it was a day back at school, and in addition to reporting on education, we were the ones learning about some inquisitive reporters with lots of room to grow.

All photos and video by Mike Fritz.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.