Little journalists: first graders produce a newspaper at St. Barnabas Elementary School

Dina Younis \
October 03, 2019

It’s a Wednesday morning and I’m sitting in the back of the room observing a group of about 40 young reporters gathered together in front of a large, green interactive board. They’re here to brainstorm and pitch ideas for their next publication. Hands begin flying in the air and people start talking over one another. I’m familiar with their recent work so I’m anxious to hear their new ideas.

“Valentine’s Day!” I hear several voices exclaim.

“The weather!” adds another voice from the front of the room.

“Tips on how to make Valentine’s Day a great one!” We’re back to Valentine’s Day.

“Valentine’s Day cupcakes!” A logical follow-up.

Now there’s even talk of a taste test for the food column. They react as any foodie would, chanting, “Taste test! Taste test!”

These young reporters are six and seven-year-old students, and the publication, First Edition is a quarterly print and digital newspaper written entirely by the first-grade class at St. Barnabas Elementary School in Northfield.

With support from GAR Foundation’s Educator Initiative Grant program, first-grade teachers Shelly Travaglianti and Wendy Dragmen created the program as a way for children to improve their communication skills using writing techniques that call for collaboration, critical thinking, and outside research. Much like actual journalists, the first-graders work in groups to brainstorm ideas, produce the articles, discuss the layout, and publish the newspaper.

Wendy Dragmen & Shelly Travaglianti

First Edition is designed like a traditional print newspaper. Young student authors write with a specific purpose for their audience, practicing writing in a variety of styles including non-fiction, opinion, persuasive, and narrative pieces. The children interview students, teachers, and school staff to gain information necessary to write articles, allowing them to think critically and interact with other subjects outside of their classrooms.

Travaglianti and Dragmen recognized a need to provide their students with an outlet to expand their outlook and reach beyond telling a story from their own experience to writing for the real-world. By having them choose article topics that are of interest to others, the first-graders are encouraged to move beyond their own narrative.

The task of inspiring new first-graders to come up with topics and write about them at the beginning of the school year did not come without challenges. To prepare for this new undertaking, Dragmen and Travaglianti made professional development a priority. They began by preparing over the summer with an in-depth video series from Dr. Ruth Culham that focused on specific parts of the writing process for students such as organization, word choice, sentence fluency and writing conventions.   Expert coaching from both a professor of journalism at Kent State University and a past editor of the Akron Beacon Journal helped the teachers make the newspaper a more realistic experience for the students while providing them with a framework to get their ideas into print.

After producing two issues this past fall and winter Dragmen and Travaglianti were encouraged by the children’s ability to take their ideas from the drawing board to finished product. The newspaper has taken the school by storm and sparked enthusiasm among parents, teachers, and students. In fact, a group of fourth-grade students were so inspired by First Edition they started a paper of their own which they develop during their free time. Read that again slowly: during their free time. The teachers are eager to see the paper grow beyond the walls of the classroom and distribute First Edition to local hot-spots such as libraries, local businesses, and medical waiting rooms.

Back at the drawing board on that Wednesday morning, Travaglianti helped the students prioritize the pitches and Dragmen assigned the students into small writing and editorial teams to begin producing sections of the paper. Between Catholic Schools Week, Lent, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, letters to the editor, comics, and a notable interview with the school principal, these young reporters have their work cut out for them this quarter.

Before my departure, one question remained unanswered. This wasn’t just any question. It’s The Burning Question. A reader favorite, students assigned to this editorial team pose a profound question to teachers and students for a chance to be published in the paper. After much brainstorming, the group voted on the top three:

What’s your favorite candy?

What’s your favorite animal?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Sure, the latter question received the loudest claps, but the ultimate decision lies with The Burning Question editorial team. Now all we can do is wait until spring, when these budding reporters publish their next paper.

Click here to read First Edition

Click here for more information about the Educator Initiative Grant program