Originally published in The Age (print and online December 6, 2015)
It looks like the typical morning meeting of any newsroom – the day’s papers spread out, notepads waiting beside elbows and ideas tumbling over each other.
Only no one sitting around this table is more than 11 years old.
Meet the year 5 news team at Templeton Primary School in Wantirna. For the past fortnight, all 96 students in the year have been hard at work putting together their own newspaper – with eight sections covering everything from world news to fashion. And, this morning, the paper’s 10 student editors have a lot to talk about.
Their deadline is looming ahead with the school bell, but there are still reporters to chase, stories to edit and formatting to fix. USB sticks rattle around in pencil cases.
According to year 5 co-ordinator Aidan Schanssema, it’s all going exactly to plan.
“We’ve deliberately given them a pressure cooker situation,” he says. “It’s almost more about how they worked through the challenges than us trying to make it perfect.”
So committed are Schanssema and his fellow teachers to the project being “student-driven” that they’ve even relinquished all editorial control.
Decisions about what to report – from floods in Bolivia to Taylor Swift’s lawsuits – have now fallen directly to this handpicked team of 10.
“It’s fun to have power,” says Rachel, the politics editor.
Like the rest of the team, she’s overseeing the work of around a dozen of her classmates – fixing spelling mistakes, addressing structural issues and adding eye-catching headlines.
Right now, Rachel has her head full of stories about the GST and Tony Abbott’s recent job change.
While Schanssema admits these are not common topics for a 10-year-old, he says understanding the news is a “life skill”.
“It opens the door for parents to have the discussion with their child about what’s going on in the world,” he says.
After the recent Paris attacks, that discussion seems more important than ever.
“They’re exposed to it and it’s almost our job to make sure they work their way through it in a safe environment where they can ask questions,” Schanssema says.
Fellow teacher Alice Gordon says the change in student attitudes to news has been “incredible” since they began studying journalism at the start of term.
“We did a show of hands to see who actually reads the newspaper,” she says. “And there might have been three hands then but now all of them are up, whether it’s online or the paper on the weekend, sitting down with mums and dads.”
“They’re bringing stuff from home,” Schanssema says. “They’re telling us the news!”
To encourage independent work, the project has mostly been conducted as homework, with some parents reporting their children staying up later than usual to get stories ready.
“We just hope they’re not developing coffee addictions!” Schanssema says.
So how are students coping with the challenge? Like almost any editorial team in the world, these year 5s have their gripes.
Travel editor Sanjay says one of the toughest parts of the job is getting a team that’s “bursting with ideas” to listen.
“I always get bossed around because I’m so small,” he says. “Like in soccer they always send me to be goalie, but now I am the leader so I made them sit in a circle and speak one at a time.”
“How do teachers do it?” exclaims Wilson, the editor of the technology section. “It’s such a new experience managing a large group.”
All part of the challenge, according to Schanssema.
“We weren’t just looking for strong literacy skills, we were looking for kids who could lead,” he says. “And they’ve been really good working with the kids who struggle in their writing, giving feedback without putting them down.”
That form of collaborative learning was a key driver behind the initial idea for the project.
“Kids get a lot more out of peer feedback and listening to their editors as opposed to if we just told them what to change,” Schanssema says.
For students like Angelo, who edits world news, this is the first time in his life he has ever been given a leadership role.
“It’s all totally new for me,” he says. “But it’s going well. I’m writing on the Iraq war myself because I’m a bit of a historian and I wanted a challenge.”
Fashion editor Gemma insists she’s “not a girly girl” but has enjoyed working with her friends to put together stories.
“Knowing that the teachers can trust us to be in charge of a big group and help people feels really good,” she says. “I had to sit down with one of the girls in our second meeting because I could tell she was struggling and she got so much better.”
And yet allegations of bias are already rocking Gemma’s fashion section after her teacher, Alice Gordon, won the hotly contested Best Dressed Teacher Competition.
“I was very disappointed,” Schanssema laughs. “Alice is mentoring Gemma in fashion so it looks suspicious.”
Also in the running were teachers Veronica Lay and Melissa Forster.
Lay says she takes consolation in the success of the newspaper so far.
“It’s different, it’s relevant and kids are really taking off with it,” she says. “I’m seeing students who don’t normally engage with writing now so eager to participate and that’s been really empowering for them.”
Even the year’s champion speller, Corey, has found the experience of editing his classmate’s work instructive.
“As editors you learn a lot,” he says. “You don’t realise how much until you go home that night.”
Schanssema says the students, who have been following news writing techniques “straight out of university”, will be well prepared for secondary school after this “real world” training. And talk is already turning to a second edition.
Over in politics, Rachel now has her sights set on an interview with local federal MP, Alan Tudge.
“I always see his signs up around my neighbourhood,” she says. “I would love to ask him some questions, that’s for sure!”
Words and photography by Sherryn Groch