Today’s world can feel out of control for teenagers. The COVID-19 pandemic took a tremendous toll on their mental health, and the interruptions in education they experienced contributed to lower rates of college-readiness. At the same time, they’re living through remarkable changes in technology and the workforce, a widening political divide, social upheaval, racism, and violence.
One way to give teens a sense of agency is to let their own interest and curiosity guide their learning — and student journalism is a powerful vehicle for that. Journalism helps students engage with their community, analyze the world, and see the important function of a free press in society. Studies show that journalism programs can also improve student reading and writing.
But these opportunities for meaningful, engaged learning aren’t available to all U.S. students. Less than two-thirds of public high schools offered students an opportunity to write for a school newspaper, according to a 2011 study by the Kent State Center for Scholastic Journalism. Resources aren’t equitably distributed. Some schools have state-of-the-art media centers, while others rely on a committed teacher to keep a newspaper or magazine going.
To give more students an opportunity to learn by reporting on important issues in their communities, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL), in partnership with WETA Well Beings campaign, teamed up with the XQ Institute to launch a nationwide journalism challenge for teens in the fall of 2022. Student Reporting Labs conducted the challenge, drawing on its vast experience working with student journalists, including a Well Beings series on mental health during the pandemic. XQ sponsored the challenge because its mission—to redesign high schools so all students graduate ready for college and careers—relies heavily on giving students a greater voice in their education.
The challenge’s theme was “My Education, My Future,” because we wanted students ages 13-18 to be recognized for their experiences and perspectives about the state of education in America at this critical time. We received 165 submissions: 68 print articles, 16 audio pieces, and 81 video entries. Student Reporting Labs and XQ were committed to an outside judging process by journalism teachers and professionals to ensure neither party had any input. Entries were recruited from every region of the country and from schools that are not already part of Student Reporting Labs, or XQ partners. You can see the full list of winners here.
Reporting From Students, for Students
By giving students the opportunity to report on what is happening in their schools and communities, we learned a lot about what’s on the minds of teenagers in America. For instance, several winning entries showed how students want more relevant and engaging learning experiences in school. Alexis and Briana Schmidt, 12th grade twins at the Frederick V. Pankow Center in Clinton Township, Michigan, reported on Career and Technical Education programs in their town that allow students to get hands-on, real job experiences while still in high school. Their high school has prior experience with video journalism, and Student Reporting Labs.
Students at Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, Tennessee, picked up two awards. The students at this XQ school had two teams working in audio and video that dove into different questions about their school: why the building doesn’t have any windows and why some of their classes feel unengaging and boring. Elizabethton High School (EHS) prioritizes student-led, project-based learning experiences, and EHS students were among the winners of the first NPR Student Podcast Challenge in 2019.
Other themes emerged from the winning entries. We learned that students are still grappling with the consequences of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Precious Foreman, a 9th grade student who attends online homeschool in Waldorf, Maryland, looked at how schools adapted to remote learning and what schools could do to build on lessons from the pandemic.
Students also expressed a desire to join larger conversations. “Teenagers had to bear the brunt of this global pandemic,” said Sriya Tallapragada, a 10th-grade winner from the Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. In her op-ed, Sriya wrote about the teen mental health crisis and called for a more open discussion about the pressures teens face. “I felt like as a teenager, it was important for me to have a voice in this conversation,” she explained.
Twelfth grader Isabella Caruso wanted to use her platform to amplify conversations in her town she found important. Her winning article was about a string of racist and antisemitic vandalism incidents at her high school in Pelham, New York. “I get really inspired when members of my community speak on something that they’re inspired by,” Isabella shared. “I like to write about that and to give those people a voice in my town.”
Inspiring Future Journalists and Building Civic Activists
The Student Journalism Challenge provided a way for students to learn and grow as thinkers and journalists. For instance, Alexis and Briana in Clinton Township learned how to determine that video was the best medium for telling their story. “I feel like you wouldn’t be able to grasp our story as much if it was just audio or print because there’s just so much to see,” Brianna explained. Alexis added: “It’s such a visual story where you can actually see the impact and the opportunities of this classroom.”
For Sriya in Basking Ridge, her reporting experience also led to insights into how political change works. “I want to be writing so that I can encourage more young people to have a voice in this conversation and inspire real change,” she said. Shaylee Mathes, one of the winners at Elizabethton High School, is also looking for change. She worked on the podcast about why some classes don’t feel interesting. “I hope that the teachers that hear [the podcast] take it into consideration and go, ‘“Hey, maybe my class is asleep because I’m not doing what I need to be doing,’” she said.
Finally, by focusing on schools, the winners of this challenge revealed what so many students are yearning for at this moment: experiences that foster curiosity, lead to deep inquiry and mastery of topics, teach them to engage generously with others, and inspire them to see the future as something they can shape. Research shows these learner outcomes are how to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. All learning should be interdisciplinary, relevant and exciting. This is how to rethink high school, so all students are ready for college and careers. Student journalism is one great place to start. There are certainly enough stories and issues for students to cover.
Written by Hana Beach. Edited by Dr. Hansa Bhargava.
The Forbes.com Well Beings Blog is a series that addresses critical topics around the health, mental health, and well-being of America’s youth and adults. The blog launched in 2020 as a companion to the Well Beings Youth Mental Health Project and Ken Burns Presents Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness, A Film by Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers (PBS.org/plainsight |WellBeings.org/plainsight), which is now streaming on the PBS app. #WellBeings #WellBeingsLive
The current series of articles addresses creativity, resilience, and well-being among America’s youth. It is part of the Student Journalism Challenge produced by PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs and powered by the XQ Institute. The challenge celebrates young people’s creative expression, encouraging students ages 13-18 to tell their own stories of their communities and their education by contributing print, video, and audio pieces on the theme, “My Education, My Future.” Submissions will be evaluated by a diverse roster of professional journalists.
The Forbes.com Well Beings Blog “Student Journalism Challenge” series will feature winning articles and honorable mentions in the print category. All winners will be announced and published by early March 2023.