Like teachers around the country, I enjoy setting up those special events and activities that make kids want to come to school, and I’ve found that it’s hard to run clubs, conduct sports tournaments, and host talent shows out of my den–turned–the virtual classroom. It hasn’t been easy telling the students over Zoom that many of these won’t happen. But how could I tell my amazing fifth-grade journalists that the Dolphin Splash Newspaper Club had to take a break too?
Fortunately, I discovered that I could keep my school newspaper running safely and easily, and the results have been awesome.
AN ADAPTABLE MEDIUM—WITH MANY BENEFITS
Our virtual newspaper became an accessible online location for students to publish their writing—and read work by their peers. It gave them a chance to have their voices heard on topics they really wanted to discuss in a way that felt very much like our physical school newspaper. It also allowed students with various passions and learning styles a chance to shine.
For example, one student wanted to continue her commitment to others, so she began an advice column. Liliana needed an outlet to share her feelings about quarantine, so she wrote op-eds about wearing masks and staying safe. Mauricio, from my colleague’s class, updated a popular column called “Random Facts.”
The virtual newspaper helped me teach my students literacy in a more practical way, too. I was able to change settings to approve comments, teach the concept of audience, and even create a how-to guide for readers and writers. And because the students were engaging authentically with their friends, they were motivated to learn editing skills.
IMPORTANT DOS AND DON’TS FOR A VIRTUAL NEWSPAPER
Nothing on a computer these days feels entirely without risk, especially for teachers and students. However, I learned a few things that helped me feel comfortable with the process.
Meet weekly with your student writers and editors. Our club usually meets for 30 minutes to discuss ideas. I have found that the more agency kids feel over their choice of content, the more it was read. Most contributions to the newspaper begin as class writing projects, so there is minimal extra editing on my part.
You can also extend invitations to students and teachers outside your grade. This helps make the newspaper feel like a part of the school community.
Check the site’s controls to make sure your filters are working in regard to unwelcome comments, etc. This may seem off-putting at first, but remember to get a little help from your friends. I have a group of four trustworthy student editors with eyesight better than an eagle’s. Once our tailored digital literacy guide made the expectations clear, I noticed that student comments were very encouraging.
Make certain that you have administrator approval and that your school has a universal permission form for internet usage and content. If not, make certain that all submissions have been vetted by the student’s teacher for permission.
Allow comments without approval or keep the platform public. Remember that if you publish the newspaper on a website, it will be accessible as a URL, and that may feel a bit scary at first. Keep in mind, though, that you control the site and who can comment.
Use students’ last names or profile pictures in case the site is found through a secondary link by someone you are not familiar with.
For me, the biggest safety issue was resolved by allowing students to discuss and access the paper through links I made available only to their teachers.
HOW TO GET YOUR NEWSPAPER UP AND RUNNING
I’m sure there are a lot of ways you could tailor a virtual newspaper to your virtual class. Many colleagues I know to use platforms like Padlet. I wanted something a bit more suited to our ongoing themes, so I started with a blog-based platform. I recommend WordPress and Wix for their ease and safety controls.
All in all, I found these platforms about as easy to use as Google Classroom. If you aren’t sure how to get started, there are many tutorial videos on YouTube (such as this one for WordPress). You may be surprised by how much fun it can be—and how quickly you’ll learn.
Once you pick the platform you wish to use:
1. Choose a template or design, and set your controls.
2. Work with students to design it. (Trust me, this is the fun part) Most templates will allow you to create pages for different types of posts or categories of articles.
3. Post work and share links with other classes.
4. Send invitations to the weekly meeting, and solicit work from writers and teachers in different classrooms. You’ll be able to give multiple editor permissions if other educators want to help.
By Thomas Courtney