Just the facts: Journalism starts early for Hburg elementary students

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Bluestone elementary students were among the city’s children who have the opportunity to learn the basics of reporting, photography, and social media from Harrisonburg High School newspaper and yearbook staff. (Photos by Randi B. Hagi)

The interviews began with some unorthodox questions. 

“Who’s your grandma?”

“How old are you?”

“Do you have a boyfriend?” The interviewers giggle.

“Are you trying to get a boyfriend?” More giggles.

The interviewers are three students at Bluestone Elementary School. The interviewees are their high school mentors. 

The younger students were enrolled in a journalism workshop organized by the student newspaper and yearbook staff of Harrisonburg High School. 

The newspaper staff, under the direction of teacher Valerie Kibler, have hosted workshops with middle schoolers for about 10 years, but just launched the elementary-level program this January.

At a time when journalism is rapidly changing, the high schoolers who help run the sessions are not only teaching them about what it means to interview and report and the importance of communicating factual information — but also how skills like following one’s curiosity and interacting with people can translate to all parts of life.  

An elementary student comes up with interview questions with which to grill high school mentor Mallory Knupp.

“The younger kids are so much fun to be around, and when leading these workshops, you never know what to expect,” Sophia Sallah, one of the high school journalists wrote in an email to The Citizen. The young journalists have also held workshops at Stone Spring Elementary School and another starts Wednesday at Smithland Elementary and runs through Friday. 

The main challenge in adapting the material for 2nd-through-5th-graders, they said, is factoring in the attention spans of younger children.

“We try to talk less and do more since we don’t want them sitting around as much,” Sallah wrote. 

“It is important to switch activities often so the students don’t lose their focus,” agreed Jane Thompson, a senior yearbook editor.

High school page editor Rachel Phengsitthy leading an icebreaker game at Bluestone Elementary. “The most challenging thing about teaching the elementary kids is having to get everyone to listen and stay on task,” she said.

After the school day at Bluestone on Jan. 29, the workshop began with a game of “trainwreck” for the 18 grade schoolers and their eight teenage instructors. In trainwreck, everyone stands in a circle and removes one shoe. One person in the middle says their name and something they like.

“I’m Rachel, and I like chicken nuggets!” a page editor begins. Everyone who likes chicken nuggets then runs, musical-chairs style, to find the spare shoe of another person who abdicated their spot, and whoever finds themselves stuck in the middle gives the next prompt.

The reporter acolytes rush to find the spare shoe of another student who shares their love of chicken nuggets.

The game serves as both an icebreaker and a way for the high schoolers to quickly learn their charges’ names, Kibler said. Then, they break out into groups of two or three children, tasked with interviewing a high school student. 

After about 20 minutes, they report back to the group the facts they’ve learned, straining to remember their subjects’ favorite videos on the mobile app TikTok, pets’ names, and harrowing stories of broken bones.

A team of young interviewers ask their mentor about her age, family, and interests.

“What I find most enjoyable is seeing the kids really get excited about the different aspects of journalism, and really begin to get an understanding of what it really is,” Mallory Knupp, one of the other high school journalists wrote. “… how amazing it is that I get to plant the journalism seed with these kids.”

The elementary school workshops run for an hour, three days in a row, covering the basics of interviewing, reporting, photography, and social media. It’s helpful for the high schoolers to review, too.

The philosophy, Kibler explained, is, “if they had to teach something, it might stick more in their heads, too.”

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.

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