Philly School Media Network Creates Authentic Platforms for Philadelphia Youth

September 05, 2018
By Tim McIntyre

The Philly School Media Network, a 2017 LRNG Innovators Challenge grantee, is building partnerships with local teachers and journalists to infuse journalistic practices into classroom writing, and to create authentic platforms for students to make their voices heard.

“As Xiomara walked through the stage to receive her high school diploma, she looked at the crowd and saw that her biggest, most important supporter was missing- her mother.” So begins “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: How We Suffer Too,” a powerful commentary by Philadelphia high school student Argelis Minaya-Bravo that interweaves personal stories and academic studies.

The commentary is one result of the Philly School Media Network, a 2017 LRNG Innovators Challenge project spearheaded by Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP) teacher-consultants Dina Portnoy and Mike Mannix, as well as members of PhilWP’s Advisory Council.

Born out of a concern that financial instability and other education policy trends have resulted in fewer opportunities for students to speak publically and participate in civic discourse about pressing issues in their lives, the project aims to build a long-term structure of experiences, resources, and supports to nurture journalistic inquiry and writing in and across a range of public schools in Philadelphia.

The LRNG Innovators Challenge grants are the result of a partnership between LRNG, powered by Collective Shift, the National Writing Project, and John Legend’s Show Me Campaign. The grants support educators and projects that are expanding the time and space for connected learning, a theory of learning that aims to connect school work to students’ passions, peers, and out-of-school worlds.

In its first year, the Network has nurtured the growth of journalistic writing in classrooms at Henry C. Lea Elementary School, George Washington Carver High School, a public science and engineering high school, The U-School, an innovative, competency-based public high school, and YouthBuild, an alternative charter high school. At Carver, this support has resulted in the creation of The Carver Times, a new monthly student newspaper.

The Carver Times is part of a broader push to create space for students to bring more of themselves to school and to create opportunities for greater student voice, explains Christina Puntel, one of the teachers supporting the youth behind the paper.

The paper is intended to provide an outlet for students to speak publicly on issues that matter to them, with topics ranging from school issues, to personal stories from students and teachers, to national political commentary. It has a paper as well as an online presence and is distributed monthly.

It is a project of passions, unconnected to a class or club, and comes together in students’ and teachers’ spare time. While this presents certain challenges, it has also resulted in an extremely committed team that has begun to weave the paper into the fabric of the school in a way that may not have happened had it been started as a discrete class or club. In the coming school year, the Times will add a dedicated class, in addition to this existing out of class time.

Writing for an audience of their peers, students have developed a strong sense of authorial voice and an understanding of audience and accountability, says Geoff Winokur, the Times’ other teacher lead. “They’re not writing for a grade, but they understand that their work will be public, and that therefore it has to be taken seriously.”

More than anything else, writing for the Times has changed the way students relate to their teachers and school community. “What stood out to Geoff and I about the paper is that it was a place where they were both teaching us, and teaching the larger school community, and then learning as well,” says Puntel. “They see themselves as writers, and as really important to the fabric of the school, as newsmakers and as writers. It’s been really special.”

It is exactly this sort of work that the Philly School Media Network is aiming to facilitate at schools all over the city: opportunities for students to hone their writing craft and public voice, while contributing their stories and perspectives to conversations about their schools, communities, and daily lives.

As the Network aims to keep spreading these values throughout the city, it has established programs aimed at directly reaching both students and educators.

Starting last summer, Portnoy and Mannix organized a one-week journalism summer institute for students in partnership with the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a local nonprofit media outlet covering education in the city. Over the course of the five-day experience, students were introduced to key principles of journalistic inquiry and composition, studying mentor texts, learning to conduct interviews and other forms of research, and workshopping their writing, all with journalists from the Notebook and WHYY, Philadelphia’s public media network.

The PhilWP team has also worked to forge partnerships and collect resources, creating a network of connections and supports for teachers to use and adapt to their own contexts. In addition to the partnerships with the Public Schools Notebook and other local journalists, the project has connected with media literacy experts at The News Literacy Project and The Pulitzer Center.

They have worked to spread these resources, presenting at teacher conferences around the region and working through the Writing Project’s existing networks.

Finally, the Philly School Media Network recently launched a brand new website where students from all over Philadelphia can publish their work for a citywide, and worldwide, audience.

With this new platform, and with continued efforts to reach and support the city’s students and teachers, the Philly School Media Network is poised to build on the success at Carver High School and continue expanding opportunities for journalistic inquiry and student voice across the city.

By Tim McIntyre