One year ago, while covering a Westfield Education to Business Alliance meeting, I learned about the Adopt-a-Classroom program.
Several city businesses – mostly banks and bigger companies – adopted classrooms throughout the city to share knowledge and skills and offer advice to students. Most of these students were in middle and high school and as I listened to their firsthand accounts, I thought, The Westfield News should do this. I walked out of the meeting with Mary Keane, coordinator of the initiative, and mentioned I was interested. And although a project on journalism seemed suited to older students, I had the idea to team up with Kathy Knapik, a second-grade teacher who is a big supporter of local newspapers.
One of the main reasons I thought of partnering with young students was because I had worked part-time as a paraprofessional and grew to love my students and realized that despite their age, these students were more than capable, and they had skills. They’re intelligent, curious and very aware of the world around them. This was made clear to me when I was volunteering in a classroom last spring and a student – a second grader – asked me if I wrote fake news.
I was amused and horrified at the same time but also realized 8-year-olds are great observers and while they may not listen to their parents’ advice, they certainly listen to every other thing they say.
Keane said if I had an established relationship with a teacher, I should pursue it. I emailed Kathy that day asking if she knew of anyone who would like their class adopted (yes, I knew she would say yes). The immediate response was “Me, me!” and the very next day she sent me an outline of her vision.
Most Adopt-a-Classroom partnerships are conducted in a day or two. We decided this should be a year-long adventure. And it was.
My first foray into the classroom was filled with excitement and nervous talking – and the kids were excited too! I was their first interview subject and Kathy had prepped them ahead of time and each student asked me a question. They then took notes on a worksheet and together we brainstormed headlines and ledes. They were creative and imaginative and loved honing in on any unusual facts – just ask their next interview subject, Jayne Mulligan, whose claim to fame at Paper Mill is now an incident involving an emu.
Students also interviewed then-state Rep. John Velis and then-state Sen. Don Humason.
Each interview session started with a few tips from me on note taking, what questions to ask and how to listen to the person being interviewed, and was followed by more brainstorming. One day the class and I even ate lunch together in the classroom to talk about their stories.
Once school buildings were closed due to the pandemic, I stressed to the students that the news never stops, but how we gather it and report it changes. So, we shifted our sessions to zoom meetings and continued our partnership. These kids are champs! They rolled with the punches in so many ways. Our last zoom session was on editorial writing and I stressed the importance of having a personal connection to the topic, conducting research and fact-finding and having a call to action.
They knocked it out of the park and their editorials appear in today’s paper. These young voices will forever be a part of history. They and others will look back at the COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of second grade students and I am honored to have been a small part of this.
In sticking with my own advice, I now issue a call of action to our readers to get involved with the Westfield to Education Business Alliance and find out how YOU can adopt a classroom. Trust me, the rewards are many. For me, the experience was about engaging students to become newspaper readers, to get their facts and know that the vast majority of news organizations do NOT “report” fake news. Local newspapers, in particular, remain an objective resource for the communities they serve.
I am in awe of the talent these young journalists possess and their eagerness to learn and share. Their writing is beyond the expectations of most children their age and I believe there are some great writers among them.
I urge you to contact the Westfield Public Schools or Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce to learn how you can adopt a classroom.