Reporter Maggie Astor spoke to students in Jan Macha’s language arts classes at Soehl Middle School to kick off a project where they all write their own news articles. 

Maggie Astor posing with Soehl students  Maggie Astor speaking to a student in class

By Gary Miller

BREAKING NEWS: About 80 Soehl Middle School students are taking on the role of reporter in a real-world lesson about journalism inspired by a reporter’s visit.

The project is being overseen by language arts teacher Jan Macha, who is guiding his eighth-grade students through the process of writing a news story, from the first seed of an idea, up through writing, editing, and designing a newspaper.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “This project has more steps and is more challenging, but at the end of the day it is authentic. It feels like real world.

“We’re covering the curriculum while we’re building something big.”

The journalism project was kicked off by a recent visit by reporter Maggie Astor, who talked the students through the steps that go into writing a news article, complete with some examples of her own work.

“Journalism informs people of what’s going on around them so that they can form opinions and make decisions based on a good solid basis of information,” Astor told the students during her visit to their class. “And that’s a job that you guys are going to be taking on for the next month.”

Macha added: “Pretty important job, don’t you think? You’re going to be making this world a better place.”

The students’ first assignment was to come up with three possible ideas for a story. Astor told them they should think about what they care about or what they’ve always wanted to know.

She gave the example of an article she wrote after a dear friend died after being hit by a bus.

“As time passed and I grappled with it, I came to realize this is not an isolated problem in New York,” Astor said. “Hundreds of people are killed by cars and buses every year. Many intersections in New York are designed poorly, and many cars don’t follow the rules, and the rules are not enforced. All of these things contribute.

“This personal experience led me to a much broader topic.”

This led her to discuss how she used her friend’s story as the “lead” or “hook” to her article. She started it with her friend’s story, then went into the statistics and complexities of the issue.

“You want to humanize it,” Astor told the students. “So you get this horrific story, and then you go into how in New York this happens all the time.”

Macha’s students have narrowed their three initial ideas down to one and are in the research stage now. They are required to have five online sources, then will have to interview people around the school – from their peers, to their teachers, right up to administrators.

“I love the authenticity of this project,” said Superintendent Danny Robertozzi. “I think it is especially appropriate for our students to learn the standards of journalism right now, as we hear so much about ‘fake news’ in today’s media.”

maggie astor speaking to soehl students

Maggis Astor used examples of her own work to teach Soehl eighth-graders what goes into a news article.

The topics that students are focusing on tend to be about things that directly affect them. Some include: How does sleep play a role in education? How does sports impact a student? And how does technology impact students?

Once the students have finished their research, they will be given “press” badges and go around the school interviewing the appropriate people for their article.

“You’re not going to be running around the school talking to anyone you see,” Astor told them. “You’re going to leave the classroom with a plan of who you need to talk to, and do the interviews in an efficient way.”

All four of Macha’s eighth-grade classes – with students of varying abilities – are taking part.

“I want everyone to experience it,” he said. “This year matters a lot. I call eighth-grade ‘the intersection.’ This is when they realize ‘Wow, I’m going to high school. My childhood is slowly ending and I’ve got to get serious.’ So me being here for them at this point is extremely crucial. I feel like I’m literally standing at the intersection of their life and saying, ‘Hey, that way makes sense.’”

After writing their articles, students will edit one another’s work.

“It is not as exciting or glamorous as reporting and writing, but it’s equally as important,” Astor said. “At the Times, every article goes through multiple editors. Part of the reason the Times is what it is, is the rigor of the editing process.

“Even the best writers need editors.”

Astor, who grew up in Montclair and graduated from Columbia University in 2011, also stressed to the students the need for their article to be objective and for them to leave their opinions out.

“Everyone has opinions,” she said. “Journalism is not about not having opinions; it’s about keeping those opinions out of the article that you write, and presenting the news in an objective way that is fair to all sides. You can know what you believe, but people reading the article shouldn’t be able to tell from it what you believe.”

Macha said Astor’s experience is invaluable to the project and helps inspire the students. He joked with his class that once Astor left, they would be stuck with him.

“I would never do this without Maggie,” he said. “It sets the expectation and the authenticity right from the start. It’s an exciting project.”

Teacher Jan Macha speaking to his class

Soehl Middle School teacher Jan Macha walking his language arts students through the steps of writing a news article.