JEA/NSPA supports Montana high school in first of two Partner Projects

JEA/NSPA supports Montana high school in first of two Partner Projects

[Garfield County District High School students work with elementary school kids to teach them photography and writing skills using smartphones]


Michelle Balmeo, MJE, of Oregon and Ellen Austin, MJE, of California travelled to Garfield County District High School in Jordan, Montana to meet with and provide training to Beth Lawrence and Katie Shawver, co-advisers of the yearbook and newly-started newspaper there, and the 36 students enrolled in grades 9-12, 26 of whom are enrolled in a newspaper or yearbook course. The first of two JEA/NSPA Partner Projects this year took place Aug. 15-17.

The first day of the Partner Project experience also happened to be Garfield’s first day of school, so Balmeo and Austin worked with all 36 high school students. They facilitated a story idea brainstorming session and then an observational writing activity. Students were able to walk downtown and report from a variety of locations, including the nursing home, grocery store, restaurant, cafeteria and elementary school playground.

Another standard feature of the experience was a lesson in press law led by Austin. In addition to emphasis on the First Amendment and press freedom, a staple of the Partner Project is developing story ideas that impact the school community. Students were able see the power of local journalism when they spoke with a local journalist.

“We had a surprise visit from the editor of the local community newspaper, The Jordan Tribune. We had connected with Janet Guptill the previous evening when she happened to be in the paper’s newsroom after dinner. She has been the editor of the paper since 1970, and she has no formal journalism training. She is in her 80s and is basically a one-woman operation. She spoke to the kids about why she has kept the paper going for so long, and why she thinks having a newspaper is important to their small town community,” Balmeo said.

Another important tenet of the Partner Project is live reporting. Day two focused on a press conference with the superintendent who is also the school’s principal. Students focused on new security measures the principal had announced the previous day and the link between national events and a push for greater security. Another emphasis of the day was photojournalism, and students again were able to practice what they learned.

Day three allowed the high schoolers to apply what they had learned by teaching elementary students some of the basics.

“The kids built marshmallow and toothpick towers together. Then the big kids taught the little kids about the basic composition techniques they learned the previous afternoon. After going over each technique (and letting the little kids shoot photos of the tower building process), they went outside to practice a little more, before heading in to work on captions. The older kids prompted the younger ones to provide the information needed and to write the caption for a photo they took. It was very, very cool to hear the kids using the language of photojournalism with these younger kids, and I have a feeling that having to teach it is definitely going to make it stick and up their photography and caption game this year,” Balmeo said.

One of the goals of the Partner Project begun by JEA/NSPA two years ago was to reach underserved populations around the country.

It was very satisfying for me to be part of a project that gave a small town group of kids this kind of experience and resources — given my own background in teaching a tiny school in a tiny town, the chance to give back meant a lot. Those kids worked super hard and did some amazing work in just those short days,” Austin said.

Partner Project instructors plan a program to meet the needs of the school’s journalism program based on multiple conversations with the adviser and principal prior to the experience. Balmeo organized the Montana event.

“Michelle did an excellent job planning a tailored agenda that addressed writing, photography, design, staffing ideas, converged coverage and press law — and that’s in addition to her guidance to Beth and the staff in jumpstarting the Sagebrush Saga SNO site. She’s amazing!” Austin said.

Participants said they felt enriched by the experience.

“[It] was an amazing experience for both the students and the advisers. After talking to the students, I think the greatest gain was that students who felt like they weren’t writers feel more empowered to write and know they have a story to tell the Garfield County District High School story. Our students showed the most excitement when they saw the new SNO website,” Lawrence said.

Another major goal of the Partner Project is connecting schools with ongoing resources JEA and NSPA offer.

“The greatest gain to us advisers is we feel we finally have made a connection to the journalism world. It also gave us as advisers a sense of direction, goals to work towards and an idea of what we want our program’s future to look like. We loved how it was tailored to our students at our school. Specifically, our high school staff is focusing on improving our writing skills (in fact, that is why our school paper was brought back into the classroom), so the instructors made sure to make that their focus also,” Lawrence said.

The second of two Partner Project visits for the 2018-18 school year will take place Sept. 6-8 at St. Cloud (Florida) High School with a free Saturday workshop for local participants.  Additional information, including the application for future Partner Project visits, is available here.

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