You might think the connection between a strong democracy and an equally muscular local press would be beyond the understanding of kids. If so, you have not had the pleasure of a virtual visit to the fifth-grade classrooms of Diane Siegel and Karen Stevenson at Ortega Elementary School.

Their students are deeply engrossed in that connection and so much more. Siegel said she is using the famed Teachers College playbook for grade-school journalism instruction. As the curriculum rightly notes, the practice of journalism exercises many learning muscles. It teaches strong, concise writing. It stirs kids’ natural curiosity. It begs questions that are necessary from good citizens living in a democracy. It reinforces ethical behavior. And these lessons in effective communication will follow students through their school years and beyond.

Journalism itself has been in the news in recent years, and the students at Ortega Elementary are learning about that too. As a guest in the virtual classroom, I spoke to the students about “fake news” and whether real journalists would ever simply make up stories. They asked important questions about bias — these are fifth-graders, mind you — and they wanted to know how we stay objective. Like the good reporters they are becoming, they asked all the right questions.

Beyond the chance to spread the gospel of journalism, Zooming into Ortega Elementary School is a reminder of the herculean effort required of public school teachers in 2021. On the day I visited class, Siegel and Stevenson taught some eager students in person while others visited the classroom remotely from home. They wrangled the technology and managed questions as they came in through the online platform. They had to be concerned about video and sound, students in front of them, and those in front of their screens.

They are hardly the only teachers finding a way all day, every day. We all worry about the lingering effects the last year will have on developing minds. But if their students miss out on anything, it won’t be because Siegel, Stevenson and dozens of Coastside colleagues aren’t trying harder than ever before to make it work.

In fact, that can-do spirit itself — the rapid adoption of new technology, the commitment to make it work, the good humor in the face of it all — is a prized trait in journalism.

The Ortega students hope to create their own newspaper as they learn to interview and craft stories. When they do, you can bet we will find a way to share their work.

— Clay Lambert

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