Fit to print: CHS media classes adapt along with changing industry

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L to R: Colchester High School seniors Landon Cayia, Matt Whitham and Everett Simkins collaborate on a broadcast journalism project in class last Friday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

When Dennis McCannell began teaching media literacy and journalism classes at Colchester High School 17 years ago, his students got their news from printed newspapers and nightly television broadcasts.

In the classroom on Friday morning, a quick survey revealed a radical change of course. Kids said they usually receive updates from social media platforms, like Snapchat, or news aggregate applications that compile a feed of the day’s top stories.

“I don’t intentionally hunt the news,” senior Landon Cayia said. “If it comes to me, I’ll see it.”

The heart of McCannell’s for-credit journalism class is production of the school’s newspaper, The Lakeside Voice, which usually comes out twice a semester. Kids are responsible for everything from photography to layout and generally distribute about 250 copies through the school.

But in between deadlines, pupils have lessons in video editing, philosophy and ethics, computer technology and current events, among other topics.

“It’s completely changed now,” McCannell said. “It’s not just, ‘write for a paper.’”

On Friday, the 20-plus juniors and seniors enrolled in the class watched clips of local and international newscasts before breaking into groups to tackle their first project: a broadcast package.

Cayia collaborated with fellow seniors Matt Whitham and Everett Simkins, the trio excitedly discussing the prospect of reviving the Colchester Middle School’s “Cougar News” show format for this assignment.

“We want to create that with the same theme and intro that we did back then,” Cayia explained.

“The whole school would view it,” Simkins remembered, listing off his favorite segments.

Whitham said he catches bits of traditional local and national evening news shows if his parents are watching. Simkins said he actively avoids the broadcasts. And while none of the boys have any plans to pursue careers in reporting, each said they enjoyed producing videos on their own time.

That’s a trend McCannell sees increasing. Though cameras and MacBooks with editing software are available for checkout, McCannell said every student opted to just use their personal phones during last semester’s class.

Teacher Dennis McCannell reads The Lakeside Voice, the school’s student newspaper. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Even he was surprised to learn that each member of his current 22-person class had experience editing videos, a skill he said was much less common even two years ago.

“I go back to days when editing was a very cumbersome thing to do,” he said. “But it does engage them, all of this stuff. You can see the way they’re talking about their stories, and they’re ready to go now.”

Those shifting skills and attitudes are directly reflected in McCannell’s curricula. Asked whether The Lakeside Voice will still put out a print edition in five years, McCannell didn’t hesitate.

“No. It’s a learning tool … But I think you could have the same learning tool online,” he said, noting a news website could allow students to post stories and updates in real time, rather than holding out for the infrequent paper.

Many of the stories produced in this broadcast unit will later be adapted for the Voice, McCannell said. He tries to let students pick topics in their areas of interest, knowing the result will be a much more engaged cohort.

Past stories have included spotlights on personalized learning, the one-to-one student to technology ratio, snow day protocols and “the influence of fake news.” Lighter stories populate the pages, too, like a roundup of students’ New Year’s resolutions and the best “late excuses” kids have offered up.

From year to year, McCannell said he consistently emphasizes media literacy, a course he thinks should be mandatory for all high school students. The emphasis has become even more important as the volume of available content grows rapidly.

“There’s so much out there, it’s just confusing for them — it’s confusing for adults,” McCannell said. “What do you watch? What do you believe? It’s kind of a double-edged sword — there’s just too much out there.”