As passionate writers with an interest in current events, we are always looking for new opportunities to expand our perspectives and continue developing our skills as student journalists. One way we have been able to gain valuable real-world journalism experience is through our roles as student ambassadors for News Decoder, a global educational news service for young people that partners with schools around the world. As Hewitt’s News Decoder student ambassadors, we encourage our classmates to learn about writing, reporting, and editing from News Decoder’s faculty of experienced journalists. Each year, we are also responsible for working with the student ambassadors from a partner school to develop and co-lead a news webinar on a topic of our choosing. Reflecting on Hewitt’s partnership with News Decoder, our faculty advisor and Assistant Head of School for Learning and Innovation Dr. Maureen Burgess, notes, “News Decoder guides students to seek out reliable sources to interview for each and every piece, which can be difficult at first for student journalists, but is an essential skill for real-world journalism. Founder Nelson Graves and his team hold our students to the same standards as professional journalists covering current events and issues so that their pieces, when published, rightly can stand alongside those written by established writers.”
At Hewitt, we have learned that being aware of national and global issues is important to our progress as students and responsible citizens. After learning about News Decoder and the student ambassador program from our history teachers, we were interested in the opportunity to enhance our journalistic skills while working with many students and faculty from across the world. Our experiences at Hewitt have helped prepare us to be successful student ambassadors in a few important ways. First, Hewitt has taught us to be confident leaders who use our voices to speak up for what we believe in and share important stories of others. Additionally, our English and history classes have given us the tools we need to successfully research and produce a long-term project, including how to find reliable sources of information and conduct interviews. Through our classes at Hewitt and our work with News Decoder, we have seen how exploring different global perspectives helps us develop empathy and understanding for people whose experiences are different than our own and allows us to make connections with people outside our immediate community.
This year we worked with the student ambassadors at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa, to lead a spring webinar for students at ALA and Hewitt. In collaboration with our ALA peers, we chose to focus our webinar on the impact of Covid-19 on healthcare in the U.S. and South Africa. The goal of planning the spring webinar was to better understand how to report news, conduct interviews, and format journalistic articles. Over several months, the Hewitt webinar team worked with mentors at News Decoder to conduct research and interviews exploring the impact of the pandemic. During the webinar, we presented what we learned about how the pandemic affected our city’s art and cultural institutions and prison system, revealed problems with healthcare in the U.S., and offered lessons on how to better prepare for future health crises. In addition to presenting our findings, the webinar also gave Hewitt and ALA students an opportunity to ask each other questions and engage in conversation about our research.
Highlights from this spring's News Decoder webinar
Hewitt’s partnership with News Decoder is a unique opportunity to interact with people outside of our immediate community, and our understanding of global issues has become more expansive through our collaborations with students in other countries. Working with students from different parts of the world around a shared interest or, in the case of the pandemic, a shared global experience, has expanded how we think about what we are learning in school, reading in the news, and talking about with our peers. Last year we were partnered with the News Decoder team from Herlufsholm, a school near Copenhagen, Denmark, and our webinar theme focused on the impact of immigration in our communities. Like our current partnership with ALA, that experience also taught us about the importance of being informed about issues not just on a national scale but on a global level. As News Decoder student journalists, we are getting the opportunity to learn about issues of shared concern, such as immigration, race relationships, and healthcare, with peers around the globe.
Participating in the webinar team is just one way for Hewitt students to get involved with News Decoder. We also encourage our peers to pitch articles to the site, which is a great opportunity for high school students to investigate issues that they are personally passionate about, work with professional journalists to improve their own writing, and share their work with a larger audience. News Decoder requires all student writers to follow a specific publishing process that includes pitching, reporting, drafting, and revising (PRDR), which is similar to the writing, editing, and revising process we follow in our classes or for student-run publications like our school paper, The Hewitt Times. All upper school students are invited to submit 50-100 word pitches to News Decoder capturing their story idea and research and reporting strategies. A pitch might outline the student’s plans to conduct an interview or provide an overview of the themes they want to investigate and explore in their article. Story ideas can be connected to a student’s studies at school or to a personal area of interest.
Once a student’s pitch has been approved by News Decoder, they are paired with one of the professional journalists on the News Decoder faculty. These journalists offer guidance about how the student can strengthen their story and share suggestions for people they might interview. In the past two years, Hewitt high school students have pitched and published several pieces on the News Decoder website. We published a podcast interview with one of our classmates about her experiences immigrating from Colombia to New York City, a junior created a video about how New York City has been shaped and influenced by Chinese immigration, and most recently, a senior won second place in News Decoder’s storytelling competition for her article about how better census data can help improve Nigeria’s healthcare system.
In addition to mentoring student journalists and publishing their writing, News Decoder also provides us with opportunities to learn from industry experts. Ahead of Inauguration Day 2020, the Hewitt community tuned into “The U.S. Presidency — Past and Future,” an exclusive panel discussion hosted by News Decoder. During the panel, student ambassadors got to ask Gene Gibbons, a White House correspondent who has covered six U.S. presidents, and Mark Weinberg, a former spokesperson and speech writer for President Ronald Reagan, questions about their careers and the recent election. Attendees learned from these expert panelists about the January attacks on the capitol and how the Covid-19 pandemic and dire economic circumstances impacted the 2020 election. As student journalists, webinars like these are great opportunities for us to interact with media professionals and hear new student perspectives.
Our experiences with News Decoder have taught us that collaboration and communication are key leadership skills. During our time as student ambassadors, we have learned how to engage our classmates by sharing information at upper school town hall meetings, sending email announcements, and speaking to whole classes and small groups of high school students about submitting their writing, podcasts, or photography to News Decoder. Because of the pandemic, all of our communication this year has been over email or Zoom, and we have noticed that it has been difficult to keep everyone engaged when the in-person connection has been lacking. This was especially challenging for our webinar team, but we learned that clear and direct communication was key to maintaining the organization and direction of our research. Scheduling regular weekly meetings was beneficial for all of us and provided reliable, consistent opportunities to keep one another up to date on our progress and clarify any confusion or misunderstandings. Beyond the pandemic, we know that the online communication and collaboration skills we developed this year will be helpful as we continue to work with students around the world.
Our work with News Decoder has been one of the most significant extracurriculars of our high school careers. It has enabled us to engage with people from different areas of the world on broad, real-world topics that affect our immediate and extended community. As Hewitt’s News Decoder student ambassadors, we have developed skills that we will be able to use in college and if we decide to pursue careers in journalism, and we have grown as writers, reporters, investigators, and global citizens.