Middle school students share their take on topics through new school newspaper, podcast

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MFL MarMac eighth graders are sharing their unique perspectives on district events through a new digital newspaper and regular “Dawg Cast” podcasts. Pictured with teacher Brandon Burke are group members Tristen Koehn (front, left to right), Chylie Feuerhelm; (back) Aedan Whitney, Mason Kishman, Amelya Weigand, Mindy Keehner and Ruby Koeller. Not pictured is Abe Hanson. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

MFL MarMac middle school students are sharing their unique perspectives on district events through a new digital newspaper and regular podcasts.

Teacher Brandon Burke organized the extra curricular activity this fall, hoping to spark student interest in the journalism field.

“I appreciate the coverage we get in our community both by the North Iowa Times and The Outlook. I read The Gazette every day as well,” he said. “I think there are some kids who are interested in that field, but don’t really know they are, and this exposes the kids to something they don’t see every day in their regular classes. I want to inspire the kids to be journalists, to see another career in their communities that’s out there for them.”

It’s also another way to showcase school news, Burke added.

“I think it’s cool to let everybody share their perspective, and in a way that hasn’t been done,” he said.

The group of seven or eight students meets twice a week for 40 minutes, often giving up gym time and study halls to work. They even bring their lunch to sessions.

“Everyone who’s in here has really made a commitment,” said Burke. “They’ve put their time into it.”

The students are all eighth graders, a group Burke, now in his second year at MFL MarMac, has gotten to know well.

“I have really built some strong relationships with them, and I’m pretty familiar with their skills, their abilities,” he remarked.

Tristen Koehn and Aedan Whitney said they were drawn to the newspaper because it seemed fun, while Mason Kishman looked forward to an opportunity to write about sports. Mindy Keehner and Chylie Feuerhelm thought it would be a good way to explore their interests.

“I wanted to try out journalism,” Keehner shared.

“I’ve always liked writing,” added Feuerhelm. “I think it’s an easy way to express yourself.”

So far, the young journalists have covered a lot of sports, focusing on both the middle and high school levels. They also highlighted Red Ribbon Week, for drug and alcohol awareness, and have planned monthly features on teachers, athletes and fine arts students. They’ll showcase concerts, plays and other activities too.

The articles will be featured on a website, which Burke hopes to update monthly. The students’ podcast, dubbed the “Dawg Cast,” is updated weekly and will address “anything and everything.” It’s available online at Spotify, Anchor and Apple Podcast, as well as on Facebook. Student Abe Hanson has been the most involved, meeting with Burke nearly every day to discuss which stories to include.

“We’ve already got three podcasts published, and we’re almost to 500 views, which is kind of cool,” said Burke. “Hopefully, as time goes on, it builds and builds.”

Burke leaves it up to the students what stories they’d like to pursue.

“We had our first meeting and I said, ‘What do you guys think we should write about?’ and we came up with a list,” he said.

The great thing about journalism, he noted, is that, based on the seasons of life and sports, there’s never a shortage of topics. Eventually, he’d like to see the students focus outside school events and write opinion pieces based around their other interests.

“It’s another way to show your abilities,” he said. “You can learn how to write professionally, while attacking deep issues.”

Whitney said being involved with the school newspaper has upped his writing skills, and Kishman has noticed an improvement in his typing. The biggest benefit, though, has been in how the students communicate.

“This helps with quick thinking,” shared Ruby Koeller.

Koehn agreed: “With the people who have the gift of gab, you can work with that and, instead of going directly with the [prepared] question, you can freehand conversation and build on that.”

The students develop interview questions themselves, with feedback from Burke.

“That makes you feel more confident,” Koeller confided.

“If you ask high quality questions, you have that confidence in your work,” Koehn added.

It helps, explained Kishman, that MFL MarMac isn’t a big school. The kids know most of their interview subjects, and feel less nervous having to speak with them, whether it’s in person, via Skype or through email.

They’ve felt the frustration, though, of having interview inquiries unreturned. And they’ve learned, said Feuerhelm, that some people just don’t make for good interviews.

“The more mature the students are, the easier it usually is for them to be social,” Keehner explained.

“We found out the hard way that some of the questions weren’t open ended,” Burke acknowledged, “so you get ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, and you have to reevaluate where you’re at. It’s a lot more work than you think when you’re trying to write articles.”

The young journalists hope their articles and podcasts will be a go-to news source for not just fellow students, but parents and other community members as well.

“It’s a good way to let everyone know what’s going on in school,” said Amelya Weigand.

“It can get parents more involved with the school,” Kishman stated.

And, said Koeller, it shows them that students are interested in news and current events.

“Even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, we do pay attention,” she quipped.

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