Lorette Vacchiano

All the healthy news that’s fit to print

If there is any concern about the future of journalism, the 110 students who participated in the Healthy Times program provide 110 reasons to be optimistic. Beyond sharing their discoveries about health and wellness, students at seven Norristown Area District schools stretched to deal with tough social issues such as bullying.  Along the way they discovered the joys of research, problem solving, and collaboration.

The students in Norristown, Penn. were not only inspired to become better writers, they assumed the role of professional reporters. While polishing their interview techniques, these cub reporters fought for truth, justice, and the healthy way. “We published 25 newspapers, expanded involvement by both teachers and students and exceeded the activities that were outlined in our grant proposal,” said teacher Lorette Vacchiano. “In the process, we have laid the groundwork for sustainability of the program.”

The Teachers
Norristown first teamed up with Healthy NewsWorks (then called Healthy Times) during the 2006-2007 school year. In 2009, with support from a grant from the NEA Foundation, the program was expanded to seven elementary and middle schools. Each school developed its own health-focused newspaper with such names as Stewart Healthy Times, Marshall Street Healthy Bulletin, and Eisenhower Healthy Panther.

Vacchiano described the grant submission and review process as providing constant support. “The NEA Foundation referred the right person at the right time.  Any questions were answered immediately.” The NEA Foundation funding also covered stipends (for teachers and journalists), newspaper notebooks, reference materials, language translation, and printing costs.

Vacchiano quickly recognized the value in activating a vibrant school newspaper as an innovative teaching and learning tool.  Despite her initial concerns about the investment of time to create and manage a successful program, she saw the potential to engage a wide range of students by weaving journalism into the curriculum. Teaching colleagues were recruited for the planning of the healthy newspapers. As a result, a valuable and positive growth cycle was seeded through this effort.

In some schools, the newspaper has been integrated into the school curriculum to teach journalism. The momentum created teacher dialogue, which spawned a monthly study group to develop strategies. As word got out, the study group attracted new teachers. Vacchiano and her colleagues, Marian Uhlman, director of Healthy NewsWorks, and Cheryl Levine, a teacher in the Norristown School District, also found innovative ways to engage classroom teachers. One music teacher shared his prodigious salsa skills for the spring concert, inspiring a student reporter to interview him about the benefits of dance as exercise.

The Students
Students were invited to submit newspaper stories focusing on health, safety, nutrition and fitness. “It makes me feel good when I see my story in the newspaper and I love that the whole school gets to see my work,” wrote one fourth grade student.

Participating students became more confident writers. “Ever since I was asked to be on the newspaper, I have improved in all my writing skills. Now I’m getting all A’s in my writing,” wrote one fourth grader. Another wrote that his teachers “knew I could do a lot of extra stuff and you pushed me to go the extra mile.”

The Results

One student paper, The Cole Manor Healthy Comet, was translated into Spanish. “We thought it would provide an ideal invitation for students who are learning English as a second language to join their classmates on an assignment,” said Vacchiano.

Based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), writing skills improved. Students also gained important life skills. “Student reporters learned how to interview school staff and guests with professional ease,” she said. “They became more responsible by preparing their questions for interviews in advance and carrying their reporters’ notebooks on interviews.” Teachers noticed students becoming more poised and mature as they led conversations with peers and adults. They also learned how to collaborate.

The program has attracted the support of nationally known journalists and organizations. A March journalism workshop with former New York Times correspondent and Philadelphia Inquirer editor, Doug Robinson, was a full house. In May, Tony Auth, editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was a featured guest at a year-end luncheon attended by nearly 100 student journalists from seven schools. Five student reporters from Stewart Middle School attended the CDC Conference on health and obesity in Washington, D.C., and submitted stories for the Norristown healthy newspapers.

“Across the schools, teachers read student features as a source of information and use the papers as a teaching tool,” Vacchiano said. “This is really a big deal for us here. We are so proud.” 

Read the April 2011 issue of the Cole Manor Healthy Comet.