On a recent chilly but sunny Saturday, groups of kids filtered into Scarsdale Middle School during the early morning hours. Though it was a weekend, the school was alive with Scarsdale third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students, excited to put pen to paper.
The 25th annual Young Writers’ Workshop, hosted by the PT Council, organized by Carrie Park and Christy Gilbride, and featuring sessions run by groups of parent and community volunteers, drew more than 330 writing enthusiasts on Nov. 16.
The keynote speaker, author and illustrator Jerry Craft, spoke to the attendees about his career in writing and drawing graphic novels, including his most recent and well-known, “New Kid,” and encouraged them to find ways in which they can pursue writing and creating, even if it’s difficult.
Kids were then divided into groups and assigned to two separate 50-minute workshops on various topics of writing. From food criticism and novel writing to movie scripts and illustrations, writers and creators from all walks gathered to lead workshops for the young aspiring authors.
The Inquirer returned to lead a workshop as we do almost every year, taking on two classes of 13 kids, ages 8 to 11. Former editor-in-chief Linda Leavitt led the workshop with my assistance — a staff reporter and Arts and Leisure editor at the paper. Our class, titled “breaking news,” seemed to fly by each session, with the school kids engaged in a way that some cynics might not believe possible. Newspapers might be “old school,” but one young girl, who gaped in open-mouthed awe as I showed her the page full of articles I had written for that week’s paper, sure didn’t seem to know that.
Linda, dressed in black pants, white shirt and red sweater, puzzled the students with the question of “how she was dressed like a newspaper.” Somewhat to my surprise, at least one student in each class answered the old riddle correctly, shouting out “You’re white and black and read all over!” I was more easily identifiable as a newsperson in my white blouse adorned in newsprint.
So, what do you teach third-, fourth- and fifth-graders about news writing? Turns out, they can handle a lot.
In our first class, we presented the group with a scenario: It’s Halloween night, and a riot of 300 kids throwing eggs, toilet paper and shaving cream is happening. Police have responded, owners of affected houses are ready to talk, and even some perpetrators are around and willing to answer questions.
We asked the kids who they would talk to first to find out more information on the story, to which we received shouts of “the police,” “the kids’ parents,” “people with toilet paper on their houses.” At first, their questions were a little over the top. “Ask the police chief why the heck the police didn’t stop it faster!” “Ask what costumes all the kids were wearing!” “Ask the kid why he’s a bad kid!”
Eventually, however, and with some gentle prodding, they honed in, asking the police chief “John Law” how many kids were involved and how long the riot lasted, asking witnesses what they saw and what damage was done to their houses, asking a perpetrator what inspired him to throw eggs around the neighborhood.
The students were excellent at discerning news writing as factual and keeping speculation out of their questions and writing — perhaps more so than some adults. Of course, one or two young students had fun with speculation spilling over from their fiction writing workshops: “What if it was actually the mom of the egg thrower who did it but she’s covering for her son and the police chief is in on it because …”
The students aptly remembered numbers, quotes and other information we read to them from our scripts, weaving the facts into narratives they later shared with the class in writing not far off from real newspaper prose.
“The lawns were flooded with shaving cream,” described one student, while another recalled in her very first sentence not only how many rioters were involved but also the times things happened.
The next group of students was comprised of more fifth graders, which allowed us to use our second, more complex scenario in which a storm hits Scarsdale and leaves thousands of Con Ed customers without power. Inches of rain, the intensity of the wind, the number of customers without service all were details the student noted as we read our scripted characters, including “Hy Waters,” “John Law” and “Betty Boss.” Again, a few excited students eagerly raised their hands to ask questions, some incredibly detailed and some totally off the rails, but ultimately everyone paid rapt attention and took careful notes.
When it came time to share again, the students shared thoughtful pieces, handwritten on notebook paper, with leads that pulled us in and attention to detail that impressed us.
Clearly, these kids were excited about news. They didn’t look at the stack of newspapers we brought in and cringe: rather, they eagerly snapped up copies to take home. Though a few students seemed to be more interested in fiction writing than gathering just the facts (we’ve all been there), there was not one student who fell through the cracks, who stared at the clock without moving his pencil or who looked like he simply didn’t care. During each sharing session hands popped up when asked who wanted to read, and as the students left each workshop, they thanked us for a fun time.
It was heartening to see that newspapers are still a part of students’ lives, that they recognize the printed product and can emulate the syntax and answer questions about what makes a good newspaper story good. It was gratifying to see them look at us like we’re doing something really cool and grand, and they truly seemed to believe in the value of the news media, despite messages of the cynicism and mistrust coming from some in government.
It is said that what you decide you want to be by the age of 10 tends to stick. Lucky for all of us, the kids at the 25th annual Young Writers’ Workshop were riveted, talented, and you can bet more than one has already chosen to link his or her future to what some might call “a dying business.” Tell that to the next generation, pal.