Sto-Rox sixth-graders give ‘Voice’ to student newspaper – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Viking Voice staff meets at 2:30 p.m. on the first Friday of each month, fueled by pies from Fox’s Pizza Den and the enthusiasm of teacher Chris Scarnati. Fifteen sixth-graders at the Sto-Rox Upper Elementary School line up for cheese or pepperoni, grab a beverage and settle into their desks with copies of the latest edition.

“What can we do better next time?” asked Mr. Scarnati. This led to a discussion about typos — a missing “to,” “off” for “of,” a misspelled name. “We’re getting better, folks,” he said. “And how about these ads, huh? It looks like a real newspaper.”

Never mind that they aren’t paid ads or that the product is six pages of copy paper stapled together. What’s real is that the newspaper produced by these sixth graders — guided by a pro in the principles of journalism — circulates through the school and into the real worlds of McKees Rocks and Stowe.

One of the paper’s goals is to encourage students to interact with their communities.

“Think about your audience,” Mr. Scarnati said at the meeting for the March edition. “We need to ask ‘Why does this matter?’ ”

Before he went into teaching, he worked for a small daily newspaper in Louisiana and as a correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He has freelanced for ESPN Magazine and Sports Illustrated and remains a part-time freelancer.

A native of Wexford from a family of teachers, he said teaching has always been a calling.

Principal Lori Sims seized on his idea of a student newspaper when she interviewed him last summer for the social studies and reading job. The newspaper is an extracurricular club.

“Writing is a focus here, and who better to present those skills than someone who has written for a living?” said Ms. Sims.

Heather Johnston, the school’s head teacher, said the paper also serves as a source of school news for parents.

“So it’s more than a flyer the kids take home,” said Mr. Scarnati, who arranges the articles on the pages. “Our students get to flex their creative muscles.”

February’s Voice includes Bria Owens’ column about the next solar eclipse. The building’s head of security, Shawn Robinson, is February’s “Rox Star” — a Q&A feature.

The news pages relate school events, including Haley Corcoran’s story about a Valentine’s Day dinner dance. Sports editor Dior Devers reports on the new girls basketball team, and columnist Coltan Castelli reflects on the Steelers season.

Mr. Scarnati turns each month’s planning meeting over to editors Kaitlynn George and Natalie Moore. They stand at a whiteboard, one tall, one little, writing ideas as they’re called out: cell-phone survey, gossip column, local musician feature, Sto-Rox baseball team.

Mr. Scarnati recruited his scribes from his own classes and asked other teachers to recommend students who write well.

“Mr. S said, ‘You’re a good writer, do you want to be on the paper?’ ’’ Natalie said. “I like that I get to sometimes put my opinion” in a column. “It’s one of my favorite times in school.”

“I like writing and Mr. S is my favorite teacher,” said Dior. “He said he wanted me on the paper. I like the people in here” — his newspaper classmates. “They’re good.”

“They’re taking ownership,” Mr. Scarnati said. “This is a precocious group. They’re inquisitive, driven and hungry to make deadline. I’m really enjoying my time with them.”

He reminded his young reporters to seek multiple sources for the stories they write, to avoid conflicts of interest and to use good taste. He also pitches ideas.

“Who was that fifth-grader who played [Jimi] Hendrix at the Christmas party?” he asked. “That was very cool. We should do a feature on him.”

When he asked who wanted to do the story, hands shot up.

“Danyel, do you have a cartoon idea?” he asked Danyel Nicholas. Her February cartoon was a heart with hair and the words “Love is real.” “The cartoons are good,” he said, “but the ideas are always about a season. You know, we can get a little edgy.”

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.


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