It’s 11:30 on a Monday morning, and most of the kids at Lincoln Elementary School are in the cafeteria, eating lunch.
But a small group of fourth- and fifth-graders are taking their midday meal in Dana Monroe’s classroom — because they’ve got a job to do.
Meet the staff of El Lincoln Log, the school’s student newspaper. Once a week, they give up 30 minutes of their precious lunchtime recess to work on the publication.
On this particular Monday, they’re proofreading advance copies of the latest edition before it goes to print and brainstorming story ideas for the next one.
“Who wants to write about the World Peace Games?” Monroe asks. Two hands go up, and Monroe types the names into a computer spreadsheet she has projected on the wall.
Soon the students are pitching their own story ideas, and Monroe is assigning reporters and photographers for articles on a variety of topics, from the maker kits available in the school library to the correct way to compost.
“Who wants to take a picture of compost?” she asks. “Corbin, you want to do it?”
Corbin Rodgers-Wu, still chewing, gives her a thumb’s-up sign.
Monroe teaches kindergarten through fifth grade at Lincoln, but she also has a background in journalism – her first job out of college was working as a newspaper photographer, and she spent a couple of years as a high school yearbook adviser.
She started the paper this school year after getting multiple requests from students.
“They would kind of randomly keep asking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have our own newspaper?’” she said.
With funding from the school’s parent-teacher association, the first edition came out in December. The second one, dated January, came out early this month, and the next one is slated to appear in April.
Each edition of El Lincoln Log consists of four 8½-by-11-inch pages, folded over once, like a tabloid. The press run is 450 copies, enough to distribute to all the students and staff at the school, and the publication is written in a mix of English and Spanish in keeping with the school’s dual-immersion status.
The January edition features a front-page story on the Nerdy Narwhals 2.0, a group of students who won the school’s reading competition and are heading to the regional round of the Oregon Battle of the Books contest, with a photo of the victorious team.
Also on Page One is a list of Top 10 student new year’s resolutions (Joseph, age 4, vows to play video games all day long; Maggie, 10, says she’s going to eat 10 burritos in a row; and Annie, age 5, pledges to “help doggies, like if they are stuck on cliffs”).
The back page has feature stories on two class field trips and a geography game, and inside are articles about the Chinese New Year, the school’s leadership class and a student’s trip to Thailand. There’s also a crossword puzzle, a riddle and a clever bilingual joke about how to write the word “nose” in English (N-o-s-e spells “nose” in English, but in Spanish it can be read “no se,” meaning “I don’t know”).
The kids use their school-issued iPads to write stories, take photos and lay out pages, Monroe said.
“And they have little press badges they can wear at assemblies,” she added. “They really love the honor.”
Working on the school paper is a voluntary activity, not a class assignment, and it requires a lot of effort.
So why do it?
Different students have different answers to that question.
Fifth-grader Roan Peterson, 11, wanted to see for himself what newspapering was all about.
“I like to be involved in a lot of fun school stuff,” he said. “I just wanted to try it out because I’ve never done it before.”
Fourth-grade photographer Marcos Flores, 10, enjoys his role on the staff.
“I like taking pictures and working with a team,” he said.
Desmond Brown, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, likes laying out the pages and deciding how to play the stories.
“We rank them by importance, and we put them on the page,” he said. “It requires a lot of thinking.”
Sometimes, he added, the students have to make decisions about which stories to run and which to hold off on.
“If we put every single article that’s thought of in it,” Desmond explained, “it gets super scrunched-up and hard to read.”
And fourth-grader Cosette Torres-Torres is already an industry veteran, even though she’s only 9 years old: She started her own newspaper at home, calling it the Bi-Monthly House.
“I did the first edition, but it just didn’t work out,” she said. “Right now I’m making another edition of it.”
And what’s the biggest difference between the House and El Lincoln Log? Circulation.
“When I did my own newspaper,” Cosette noted, “only five people saw it.”
Monroe thinks her students benefit from the real-world experience of producing a newspaper.
“It’s a good lesson in work ethic and responsibility and workload. It’s a lot of process versus product,” she said.
“I actually think some of them like the pressure of it,” she added. “They like having a deadline, they like the responsibility of it.”
Even more than that, though, Monroe thinks the kids benefit from the fundamental processes of journalism itself: thinking about the issues that matter to them, deciding what questions to ask, telling stories about what’s going on in their school, their lives, their world.
“The most important thing is that they are part of the community,” she said, “and I want them to feel that.”