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Friday, 04 December 2015 11:08

Janesville students build skills at school newspaper

Written by  Dennis Hines
Emma Perry, a seventh-grade student at Franklin Middle School, discusses her article with Kathy Murray, adviser for the Janesville Free Press. Perry is one of 13 students who is a member of the online student newspaper. Emma Perry, a seventh-grade student at Franklin Middle School, discusses her article with Kathy Murray, adviser for the Janesville Free Press. Perry is one of 13 students who is a member of the online student newspaper. Dennis Hines

JANESVILLE MESSENGER -- Amanda Eaton recently had the enjoyable task of researching the origins of pizza.

The Franklin Middle School eighth-grader chose the topic for her Janesville Free Press article. Eaton, 14, said she decided to become involved with the online school newspaper because of her interest in writing and in interacting with other students.

“I’ve liked everything about it,” Eaton said. “It’s a really fun way to meet other writers and improve my writing.”

(Download the Janesville Free Press HERE.)

The Janesville Free Press, which recently published its second edition, includes articles about current event issues and topics that would be interesting to the student-writers’ peers.

Hannah Aegerter, a Franklin seventh-grader, said she enjoys researching topics and writing articles. She’s working on an article about how the predicted El Nino for this winter could affect the California drought.

(Like the Janesville Free Press on Facebook HERE.)

“I like how I get to do complicated topics and research them, break them down and talk about it,” said Aegerter, 12. “I basically go to a lot of trusted sites, like news sites and government sites. I naturally like writing, so I signed up and interviewed.”

The online newspaper is published once a month. Teacher Kathy Murray, Janesville Free Press adviser, said the newspaper may be expanded to include opinion columns and reviews.

“It’s hard for them because they want to do opinions and (the newspaper) is informational,” Murray said. “We’ll move into book reviews and maybe a column or two, but most of it is informational.”

About 13 students are currently involved with the newspaper. Students must complete an application and be interviewed by Murray and Principal Charlie Urness in order to join.

“It’s an involved application. They also have to include three pieces of writing when they turn in the application,” Murray said. “Dr. (Charlie) Urness and I interview them with five interview questions and then the decision is made whether they are hired. So, they get a little practice with the interviewing process.”

Murray said they are looking to add more students to the newspaper staff after the holidays. Applications will be available in the main office.

“Right now, I have really good eighth-graders who will be leaving. We only have a handful of seventh- and sixth-graders, so we need to get more sixth- and seventh-graders on board so it can continue next year,” Murray said. “Right now, I think some kids are a little nervous because it’s writing, and writing can be a little intimidating.

“But I think once we get the publication out a little bit more and (the students) can see what they can do, we’ll get more students.”

The newspaper staff meets from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; however students aren’t required to attend each session.

“They don’t have to be here every night, because we don’t want to limit them being involved with other clubs or sports,” Murray said. “We know they also have things outside of school. We try to get them to come at least twice a week if they can because the value of the program is when they sit down with an adult adviser and they help them with improving their writing skills, so that’s a big value piece for us. Some of them will work from home, because I’ll get a little notification that they were working on their piece through email.”

During the after-school meetings, students often come up with ideas for upcoming issues, Murray said.

“We brainstorm as a group for topics. ... We’ve had a couple of ideas where we’ve had to say probably not, because some of them were a little too controversial for a middle school newspaper right now,” Murray said. “I’m trying to introduce ‘This Month in History.’ I think someone might be writing about Pearl Harbor this month. Sam (Knopes, eighth-grader) is working on something about the Titanic. I had to remind him it has to be informational, not ‘Titanic’ the movie.”

The newspaper program was started by former state Sen. Tim Cullen. Murray said Cullen wanted to start an online student newspaper program in Janesville after visiting the Simpson Street Free Press in Dane County, after which The Janesville Free Press is modeled.

“(Tim Cullen) is really the driving force behind this and he’s supporting it financially as well,” Murray said. “The students receive a stipend if their article is published, and funding is through Senator Cullen’s foundation. That’s one thing that makes it a little more unique than it just being a school newspaper. (The students) are getting paid.”

Cullen said the program helps students develop skills they can use in the classroom.

“I think it’s once of the best after-school programs I’ve seen,” Cullen said. “It helps them (students) work on research, writing and grammar skills.”

Grace Williams, eighth-grade student, said she decided to become involved with the newspaper after learning about the program through a school announcement.

“I like to be involved in extracurricular activities,” Williams, 13, said. “I thought it would be good to get involved.”

Murray said she hopes other schools will become involved with the program in the future.

“Edison Middle School is in the process of getting their (newspaper) program started. The idea would be to expand it to include Marshall Middle School,” Murray said. “I would even like to see the high schools come on board. Amanda (Eaton) is an eighth-grader and going to Parker next year. It would be nice to have her come back and either do some editing or continue doing some writing ...”

The newspaper not only helps the students improve their writing skills but also helps them learn how to handle constructive criticism, Murray said.

“It builds on their skills as writers. They have to be willing to accept critical feedback,” Murray said. “For (Williams), her article went in a different direction, so we chopped it up pretty good and she handled it really well. So, it teaches them some perseverance, too.

“I think it improves their writing skills, research skills and I think it also builds some confidence.”

Murray said the program also helps the students become interested in news writing.

“It’s kind of an exciting program in that printed news is kind of becoming a lost art, so it’s exciting to see them be interested in it,” Murray said. “We’re starting slow, but I could see where this could really become big.

“I think the intention and the hope is that it won’t only be in Janesville but throughout Rock County, Beloit and other places.”

The Janesville Free Press can be viewed by going to Janesville.k12.wi.us/Janesville-free-press or simpsonstreetfreepress.org. Printed copies also are available at Franklin Middle School.

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