New advisers Erik Farrar (business teacher) and Elizabeth Miller (English teacher) work together as they learn how to start up a student newspaper during a media advising class at the summer workshop of the Kettle Moraine Press Association last summer. The Belleville (Wis.)High School staff and advisers are supported by JEA mentor, Dave Wallner. Photo by Linda Barrington.

New advisers Erik Farrar (business teacher) and Elizabeth Miller (English teacher) work together as they learn how to start up a student newspaper during a media advising class at the summer workshop of the Kettle Moraine Press Association last summer. The Belleville (Wis.) High School staff and advisers are supported by JEA mentor, Dave Wallner. Photo by Linda Barrington.

By Elizabeth Miller

Today is March 5. Issue 5 of The Prowl goes to print this Thursday. It’s truly incredible that alongside 18 students, we’ve designed something that didn’t exist six months ago.

Now we’re busy promoting our crosslisted newspaper production class (English and business and marketing departments) ahead of Belleville High School’s scheduling day in mid-March, and we just returned from a professionally invigorating Kettle Moraine Press Association (KEMPA) Winter Advisers’ Seminar that featured sessions by JEA vice-president Sarah Nichols on data journalism, a skills-based newsroom and design.

As we head into mid-March, even the memory of KEMPA’s Summer Journalism Workshop seems distant. Milwaukee in July. The Marquette University campus was seething with a strong pulse that now feels feeble and slow halfway through the doldrums of “Farch,” that stretch of the year most dreaded among educators. As I look back on my notes from Linda Barrington’s three-day crash course in media advising, certain lines strike me with new meaning now that we’ve survived four (almost five) production cycles.

“Reserve the right to change. You will have to be flexible and realistic.” We know that in news our challenges are always changing. So far, our fledgling publication has dealt with the challenges of starting with absolutely no funding, maintaining a strong relationship with an unreliable printer, building a student leadership team mid-year and simply discovering who we are as a team and who we want to grow to be.

It has been quite liberating to take this piece of advice to heart. To expect change, to feed off of change, to constantly demand change. Last summer, I would’ve expected that by our fifth issue we would have our late-night (the night before we send the digital file to our printer) routine nailed down. The truth is, we’re still making changes with each issue, still trying to find a system that works best for us, and still striving for the first issue where all eighteen staff members meet their writing deadlines. Choosing to value change as a right instead of fearing change because it feels like failure keeps pushing us forward.

“Get to the heart of school life, the heart of people in the school.”

When our students pitch stories for an upcoming issue, we always press them to articulate their angle. “What’s your angle on this?” we ask. The better question has always seemed to be “Who is your angle?”  Our best pieces — the ones we’re most proud of and the ones students are asked about in the hallways and over lunch by classmates and teachers — have been the stories that answer the questions “Who?”, “Why?”, and “Why not?” One student’s story is about what it feels like to attend a school and live in a community where you represent a racial minority.

Another student’s story is about her battle through addiction and recovery, and there’s another story by our editor about tattoos and how they serve as a way for people to make their stories visible. When we’ve done our best to make the stories of those we learn with and from visible to the community we all share, we contribute to making the heart of our school fuller and stronger.

“Always focus on people rather than things.” This note was meant as a directive for story ideas, but it now means so much more in the context of our staff, our co-teaching relationship and the larger team we’ve had supporting us from the beginning. It’s been about relationships from Day One.

In February 2016, we gathered around a conference room table with our principal, Nate Perry, the school’s guidance counselor, Melanie Norton, and our district’s superintendent, Pam Yoder, to discuss the opportunity to offer the first class of its kind to students at Belleville High School. The decision was an easy one for all of us.

District administrators eagerly supported another channel of communication with the community. As educators, we were excited for the chance to synthesize our expertise in language, design and business and to model a successful, symbiotic co-teaching relationship for our students.

Everyone at the table was thrilled to offer our students a new opportunity to practice skills that will prepare them for 21st century higher education, work and civic engagement. We all saw the unique potential of journalism to prepare students to be skilled communicators, collaborators, creative and critical thinkers, and as Sarah Nichols cited in one of her sessions, the essential fifth “C” of 21st century skills: curiosity.

One relationship has been the cornerstone of our new program. Dave Wallner, our JEA mentor, has guided us in building and nurturing the unique relationship with our students that a newsroom creates, he’s fostered new relationships for us within our local network of advisers, and he’s been a bridge to the national network of support the JEA provides. He’s talked us through funding challenges; he’s helped us problem-solve around how to structure our new course in terms of leadership positions, grading and curriculum; and he even worked 1:1 with one of our editors in revising a profound personal narrative to be published in our upcoming issue.

We’ve talked with our students a lot this year about the opportunity they have to build a legacy, to build something special, something tangible that will last long after they’ve moved on to their post-high school endeavors.

When we get too caught up in the daily grind of production or the contrived weight of setting high standards and building a legacy, one thing Dave said last year still resonates with us and keeps us grounded: we need to “get kids excited about journalism.”

We think one of journalism’s most exciting aspects is its inherent potential to build relationships within communities. What continually inspires us is its ability to build relationships within our own staff community, within our small group of students who have had to resolve interpersonal conflict, face uncomfortable situations and advocate for each other when confronted with criticism.

Starting from scratch has not been an easy task, but with Dave’s help, we’re proud of everything our students have accomplished so far. We’ve got big plans for The Prowl’s second year in print, and we look forward to building on the foundation we’ve created with returning juniors and seniors, an experienced editorial board, and advisers (us) who feel not quite as novice.

Belleville H.S. newspaper advisers Elizabeth Miller (back row, left) and Erik Farrar back row, third from right) stand proudly with the inaugural staff of The Prowl after KEMPA’s 2016 Fall Conference held at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater last October. See The Prowl at http://
Photo submittd by Elizabeth Miller