Democracy starts in the classroom — a parent’s dive into elementary school journalism


When my daughter, Isabel, was 8, she gripped my hand as we walked to the car after school.

“Mommy,” she said, “I volunteered you to teach journalism at my school.”

Among the things I felt — excitement, opportunity, flattery — was fear.

It felt like a heavy request. Across the country K-12 school journalism is important. It is elementary schools where students first form an inkling of the word “media,” so often used as a catch-all for everything from a local radio station to a national advertisement for a corporation.

That early request from my daughter led me down an unexpected path. I began to direct the National Elementary Schools Press Association, which has a membership of about 800 schools representing 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands. (I left a year ago to take another position.) Elementary schoolers and journalism — not to be confused with media literacy, which is an overused, and often misused, educational buzzword — are woefully understudied while high school and college journalism educators know plenty of stats about those groups.

When my daughter volunteered me to teach her class, it was 2010 and the media landscape was different than it is today. What is the same is fear. I am a Gen X parent, and we were the first to raise a generation with AI and cell phones in their hands from an early age. We had no playbook or guideposts.

I, too, was a scared parent.

It was not a surprise, then, when more recently I heard from elementary school teachers who wanted to teach journalism in the classroom but were unable to because of fear from parents and administrators that journalism would be “indoctrinating” particular political bias in classrooms. Yet these students are on the front lines of democracy and are not-too-distant future voters.

It is a sad day for our democracy and the First Amendment when teachers, even those of elementary schoolers, must fear teaching students how to be good citizens of the world, how to ask good questions and seek out answers.

Beyond sad, it is dangerous.

It says a lot about our country, which has traveled from freely teaching these skills since the Greatest Generation to shutting them down.

At my daughter’s school, I dove in. I was a reporter and editor for 25 years before transitioning into freelance journalism and academia and, while I knew how to do the job and teach it to college students, I did not know how to teach elementary school students. This led me to seek out resources and learn through students’ eyes, eventually teaching not only her class, but dozens of others. It was immensely rewarding and enlightening.

Teaching journalism to students at a young age — fourth grade is the ideal grade to begin — can help foster a healthy democracy. Elementary schoolers can learn anything about the basics of journalism when taught at an age-appropriate level. When elementary students learn journalism, it reinforces what they already learn.

Every generation learns these things, even as curricula have changed: how to locate and cite primary sources, how to tell fact from fiction, and such basics as how to structure a sentence and paragraph. By doing those things, they learn about democracy and systems at work.

As one of my students told The Tuscaloosa News, “We’re in the fourth grade and we’re cooped up in a room all day. We don’t get to explore very much so it’s been fun going out and learning more about the school.”

I was delighted and surprised at what my young students were able to achieve. One boy, 9, wanted to interview an NBA basketball star. He learned and then understood how to go about emailing a star, through a press representative. Though the player declined the interview, I could see the student’s pride for trying and receiving an email response.

A girl I taught as a 10-year-old ended up in my college multimedia class ready to tackle beat reporting, but as a child in my class she wanted to write about the most popular Halloween costume in school. She learned to conduct a survey and present her results in writing; she was doing data journalism at its most elementary level.

Elementary school journalism also teaches skills beyond writing, taking pictures and video. It fosters a healthy democracy by asking students to care about their communities, whether that is a school, neighborhood or country. It teaches students how to interact with others. It teaches them empathy.

One of the ways I reach young people on their level is to ask them to imagine what their teachers do outside of school. This blows their minds. One of my fourth-grade students decided to interview the principal to see what she was like “as a person,” not a principal. We practiced the questions she might ask together.

She interviewed the principal who later told me that she had never seen that student look someone in the eye, and shake their hand before, much less speak with them in more than one sentence. That student learned to ask questions and seek thoughtful responses. She learned that she had some control over her environment and could seek to understand the people in it. That is democracy in its purest form.

The truth is, if journalism, which is almost never part of the spelled-out curricula at schools, became absent from elementary schools, students would learn many of those skills separately through various subjects. Yet a critical component of democracy and journalism would be missing — fact checking and presenting information by synthesizing it in context.

My daughter — the one who started my love of this peewee journalism crowd — is now 21 and graduated college a year ago, winning awards for her college journalism. She and I watch as Gen Z and Gen Alpha take journalism tools and AI to a new level. The tools of democracy are expanding through the filter of good, and sometimes bad, journalism.

Elementary school students are in a position of prominence. Don’t we, as a nation, want students to have the skills to advance and protect our democracy? If so, we need to support student journalists and support student journalism.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and teaching assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University and serves on the Society of Professional Journalists Education Committee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You need to agree with the terms to proceed
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
Fill out this field

Explore the blog

Explore The Blog



Newsletter signup

I would like to receive updates from Meredith Cummings. My email will not be shared with any third-party.

Hang on tight...

Thank you for signing up: I'll get in touch shortly!

Close this menu