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Hometown Headlines contest winner covers pandemic from student perspective


Headshot of Willa Earnest BlumFor Los Angeles middle school student Willa Earnest-Blum, the jarring re-entry into the social landscape of in-person classes after pandemic restrictions ended inspired an idea that led to a news story.

A student at Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Los Angeles, Willa pitched her story idea about the difficult adjustment to the News Literacy Project’s first Hometown Headlines contest. To enter, students submitted a news story idea to NLP staff, who chose the best pitch to develop into an article.

Willa’s journalism teacher Jessica Valera encouraged her to enter the contest after she finished her Checkology® virtual classroom lessons ahead of schedule.

Her experiences at her school gave her the idea for the story, as she and her classmates were finding ordinary in-person interactions awkward. “It just came to mind,” she said. “I feel like it’s really evident right now at my school. My experiences day to day made me think of it.”

Yet, she and her friends didn’t talk about the issue, which made her recognize the need to tell the story. “It made it more important to me.”

She wrote:

 Teachers and students started questioning how a return to normal, in-person classroom settings — where one is seen constantly — has impacted those who for so long adapted to logging onto class from the comfort of home. 

Students were once behind a screen, free of other people’s eyes. Now every little mistake was amplified by being front and center.

Her mom, Rebecca Baron, said she didn’t even know Willa had entered the contest until Valera called to say she had won. “She really did it on her own. She was very independent in doing this, and I am really excited for her.”

Importance of multiple perspectives

Willa, 12, interviewed her teacher, a classmate and the school counselor. “I felt like it was important to cover all the bases of different perspectives. It taught me a lot talking to my counselor and my teacher and my classmate because I got to see their perspectives, which was sometimes different from mine.”

With the help of NLP staff —  Katie Aberbach, education marketing manager, and Kim Bowman, senior associate of user success — Willa created a Google Doc to organize her reporting, complete with checklists, names of sources and the information they provided. Aberbach then helped connect Willa with local reporter Brandon Pho, a journalist at Voice of OC in California  and a Report for America fellow. He helped Willa develop the story during a series of virtual meetings.

Her thoroughness immediately impressed Pho. “She organized her reporting better than I organize my notes out in the field,” Pho said. “We would go to that document and ask, ‘What is this story about? What are the voices? What do they have to say?’”

He asked her what stood out to her as the most interesting piece of information in her notes, and this sparked Willa’s idea for story’s opening:

Nearly 700 kids at Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) are a window into an issue affecting nearly 50 million public school students nationwide.

“That lede was entirely her idea,” Pho said, referring to the opening paragraph of a news story intended to entice the reader.

Connecting with the reader

Willa said Pho helped her find the heart of her story. “He really taught me how to take a small quote and something I thought would not be important and to give it a longer, deeper perspective.”

In working with him, Willa began to better understood her own feelings about the issue and was able to translate this into something the reader could connect to. And sometimes, she learned, this means leaving things out. “We talked about things that could take away from the overall message. You don’t need to say it all,” she noted.

Pho said he found the experience rewarding and gained insights into his work as he considered the basic concepts of journalism and shared them with Willa. In the end, he thought Willa’s article was a strong piece of journalism.

“As long as she has a story to tell, it doesn’t matter that she was a sixth grader. It wasn’t a good news story, it was a great news story,” he said.

Willa’s article:

Re-entering school life post pandemic made the familiar seem foreign

By Willa Earnest-Blum

The nearly 700 kids at Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) provide a window into an issue that has affected nearly 50 million public school students nationwide.

When schools reopened following pandemic shutdowns, they faced challenges in social settings that weren’t as prominent as before. A once-familiar routine of roll call and reading the day’s schedule on the whiteboard had suddenly become foreign.

Teachers and students started questioning how a return to normal, in-person classroom settings — where one is seen constantly — has impacted those who for so long adapted to logging onto class from the comfort of home.

Students were once behind a screen, free of other people’s eyes. Now every little mistake was amplified by being front and center.

“We started to transition back and forth without time to adapt,” said Kacie Magoski, who is the school counselor for the GALA, adding that it takes time after periods of change “to find a safe space.”

Magoski said that the pandemic lockdown’s “safety protocols” meant students were now “unable to make friends.” In the virtual setting, ideas of “boundaries,” low self-esteem, and beauty standards took the back seat.

But students have had to re-adjust to those factors all at once, Magoski said, meaning students need more support from parents and teachers.

It also has some teachers thinking about what they would have done differently.

“I would have gotten more counseling services for myself and for my daughter because I didn’t anticipate the impact distance learning lockdown isolation in the pandemic would have on us,” said Jessica Valera, a teacher at GALA.

It was personal for Valera, whose own daughter similarly struggled during the pandemic.

“Seeing the struggles of my daughter during distance learning made me more empathetic and understanding to my students and their difficulty learning online,” Valera said.

Yet there appear to be some positives.

Some students say the isolation has in and of itself taught them key lessons.

It taught Clementine Birnbaum to “appreciate” and “take advantage” of the “little things” that she took for granted before, such as the time with friends that school provided.

Birnbaum also said she enjoys social life more, if a little more germophobic — and that she’s more careful about other perspectives.

It also made her more conscious of her family’s safety, she said, taking daily precautions like wearing a mask, as the threat of COVID-19 still looms.

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