When 17-year-old Bobbie Wright was in the eighth grade, she didn’t know she was going to fall in love with journalism. Last week, in a room full of student journalists, she was an elder statesman — the features editor for Spartan News Network, Lakewood High School’s newspaper, and creator of its “I Tried It” column, which has launched student investigations into sushi, yoga at the Dalí Museum, and the feasibility of eating 50 Hooters hot wings in 30 minutes.
After accepting a compliment for her own photography — richly textured street photos of downtown St. Pete that include a shot of a sign encrusted with stickers — she turned the conversation to the work of others.
“I love with this whole thing that you can see what the kids are seeing,” Wright said.
All around us were photographs, texts, and stacks of newspapers representing the achievements of about 150 Pinellas County students who participate in the Journeys in Journalism program at Melrose Elementary, John Hopkins Middle School and Lakewood. Their work remains on view through Sunday at the Studio@620 in the 11th annual exhibition Through Our Eyes: Midtown and Beyond, following an opening reception for the exhibition held last Friday. Along with a heart-filling glimpse of young talent, the exhibition offers a look into a school program that teaches life skills and catalyzes big dreams for students in and around Midtown, the economically depressed neighborhood south of downtown that is the city’s historic seat of African-American culture.
The program stretches across the three schools under the direction of Cynda Mort, a former Tampa Bay Times editor, who created it in 2002 at the instigation of a Melrose parent. (The Times donates the printing of each school’s newspaper and additional resources.) In the face of a changing industry, Mort was looking for an opportunity to hang on to the “save the world” idealism that got her into 30 years of newspaper editing. Her experience didn’t prepare her for 5-year-olds.
“I was too stupid to know how hard it would be,” Mort says.
The curriculum she developed revolves around teaching students to cultivate four characteristics — curious, observant, accurate, fair — through developmentally appropriate assignments. Kindergarteners start by photographing each other and composing a single sentence about what makes them special; fourth and fifth graders write brief stories about their families. From the fourth grade on, students interview for their jobs in each school’s newsroom, gradually taking on more complex assignments related to what they see going on around them.
A recent issue of Lakewood’s paper included a survey of opinion about the school’s new dress code, while John Hopkins middle schoolers wrote candid editorials about graduating and the school’s poor reputation in the JHop Times. This year, the latter publication is a finalist for a National Scholastic Press Award that recognizes the best middle school newspaper in the U.S.
“It has just sort of magically flowed,” Mort says of the program.
Tom Zucco, a former sports columnist, business reporter and Times alum, teaches reporting at John Hopkins. He says middle school students make good journalists because many of them are naturally fearless when it comes to asking questions.
“They don’t have the same filters on them that we do,” Zucco says.
Other skills require a more studious approach. To Mort’s list, Zucco adds “the art of listening,” which he teaches by having students watch television interviews to dissect the process.
“It’s like bunting in baseball — not too many people do it anymore,” Zucco says.
Last week’s reception put on display some of the self-confidence that students acquire through the program. Seventh-grader Sophie Ojdanic alternately teared up and beamed with pride while talking to the crowd at the Studio@620 about her role as photo editor at the JHop Times. She’s exhibiting “What Makes Me Happy,” a series of photographs documenting her pets: 17 lizards, three dogs and “too many fish to count.” Ojdanic explained that Journeys In Journalism has helped her move toward the goal of becoming an author that she first announced at her kindergarten graduation.
“I hope to be a famous journalist,” Ojdanic says.
As for Wright, the Lakewood senior with an eye for downtown street scenes, she has her eye on becoming a film producer down the road. (“The movie industry right now sucks, to be blunt,” Wright says.) She’ll use the skills the program has taught her to write scripts, manage a production team, and network her way to crafting movies with a message, like the kind people see at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I want to make a lot of connections,” Wright says. “Do you have a business card, by the way?”