From Newspapers to Websites, Student Journalism at SRHS Has Evolved Over Decades
May 19, 2023
Danna Pasos, a 2022 graduate of San Rafael High School, recounted the impacts that the Journalism class she took senior year had on her.
“I was tired of reading [books by] people to whom I could not [relate],” she said. “We spend a lot of time in English classes exploring white classical literature and that disconnect made me seek Journalism.” Pasos mentioned how she liked the class being relaxed but controlled at the same time, and how Andrew Simmons, the creator and teacher of this year-long core alternative to Lit 12, treated the class as people who were capable of keeping up with deadlines and understanding the importance of doing work.
“While Journalism promotes a more individual approach to work, I believe it allowed me to be curious about my other classmates, their work, and what they valued,” she said.
In the class, Pasos was able to amplify previously unheard BIPOC voices. “Our school tends to consult student opinion and expect vulnerability from impacted students but do nothing about it,” Pasos said. “I wanted to highlight the people working to help our school and the students who needed more than a ‘thank you for sharing your story.”
From the outside, Journalism looks like any other English class.
As the bell rings at the end of advisory, all of the students in the school begin to shuffle towards their second period classes. The students in Andrew Simmons’ Journalism class are greeted at the door of the second floor classroom by the murmur of students talking, Simmons’ iconic flannel shirts, and music in the background. He often stands at the door saying “Good morning” to every student as they come in.
Then, as soon as the second bell rings, he tells everyone to quiet down and put their laptops and phones away, so he can take roll. The classroom layout varies from class to class, sometimes rows, sometimes groups, and sometimes seemingly random arrangements of desks and chairs. After Simmons takes roll in just a few quick moments–by this point in the year he has memorized where everyone sits–he jumps straight into the material for the day, which is always displayed on the projector screen in simple Arial font on a blank white slide, with important items highlighted in vibrant colors.
Class often begins with a discussion on an article students were assigned to read before class. The articles range from 20-page investigative pieces to brief opinion pieces, and their topics range from somber issues facing the country to incredible events to reports on phenomena so ridiculous that the article feels like a script for a comedy sketch.
Following the article discussion is instructional time, where Simmons talks in depth about the details of writing articles. The topics are centered around the current assignment, whether that be opinion pieces, profiles of community members, or investigative pieces. Simmons focuses on the obstacles that he sees students facing, or important factors he sees students missing in their writing. He explains in detail the obstacles or missing pieces, and how students can adjust their reporting or writing to work around difficulties or account for missing details.
These lessons are very valuable. At first, they may seem like a long lecture on a single detail, but when all of those details are combined, they give students a strong foundation that they can use when writing articles. All of these details are woven together like a piece of fabric, each individual thread isn’t very substantial, but together they form a cohesive final product.
After discussion and instruction, students spend the remaining class time working on their articles, interviewing, reporting, researching, writing, and proofreading. This represents a standard class in Journalism at San Rafael High School. All of these components are focused around supporting students as they report and write pieces for the class’ online publication, Off The Leash.
Glenn Dennis, previous SRHS principal and current Director of Secondary Education for the district, said, “Off the Leash is not only for students but for the community in Marin and what they care about. Their articles are not covered in any local news paper, it’s specifically related to San Rafael.”
Just like Off th Leash, the previous SRHS publication, the Red ‘n’ White, was a publication for the school community. The Red ‘n’ White began in the 1930s. It was a student publication, run by a class that students could sign up for. Unlike the current publication, it was a print newspaper, releasing paper issues multiple times a year that community members could purchase. Similarly to Off The Leash, the Red ‘n’ White class wrote about school events, sport victories, national politics and events, other high schools in the county, and occasionally school gossip. Unlike the current Journalism class, they also included comics, advertisements, and senior wills where graduating students could gift items, property, or anything else they wish, to a lower-classmen.
The Red ‘n’ White served a similar role in the community as Off The Leash, but it had some important differences. While Journalism focuses on articles that are related to school, city and community, the students do write about broader global or national issues that have an impact on the community. In contrast, the Red ‘n’ White had a sharper focus on school events and news. The newspaper was geared towards an audience of individuals in the school, whereas Off The Leash aims to provide articles that interest both students and community members.
Ginny Daws, one of the teachers of the Journalism class, came to SR as an English teacher shortly after the publication began. When she began teaching the class, the paper was just an 8×11 piece of paper, but her vision was to expand it to the size of the Chronicle. She took a class at SF State to expand her knowledge on the subject, and as soon as she began teaching the class, she fell in love with teaching Journalism. Initially, the Journalism class was only for juniors, but later it was split into two classes to include seniors.
Because the article topics needed to be interesting to students, like Off the Leash, the topics had to come from the students, and as a result, the class was very student-driven. Daws explains that before she arrived, “everything was very teacher driven and Journalism can’t be like that.” She added, “It’s only taught down in the sense that there was a deadline, but it had to come organically from within. The freedom of thinking is essentially the key to the core of Journalism.”
One of those students was Ron Epstein, who was a sports editor for the Red ‘n’ White and has sent his own children to SRHS. According to Epstein, the current City Attorney of San Rafael, “the teacher was a resource for students, and encouraged students to run the newspaper themselves.” While he was at the paper, they published articles “about stuff going on at school like the school play and radio, features of staff,” and a gossip column about “who was going out with who[sic].”
Off The Leash has many similarities to the publication that came almost a century before it. However, before the current Journalism class at SRHS came into existence, Simmons had to go through the process of creating the class, and making it an English credit course.
When Simmons first began teaching at SRHS, he wanted to create a unique class. Ms. Thurston, a current English teacher, then the Department Head, was an inspiration for Simmons as she helped him along the way.
“When I came here, Ms. Thurston told me to find a way to put my mark on the school, like finding the thing that is mine and starting something new.”
And Simmons did just that. The first step was submitting a pitch to the curriculum counselor. Once the counselor reviewed the pitch it went to the board. The board then reviewed and marked recommendations. They also checked to see if the course already existed somewhere in the district. “If the course already exists in the district, all of this process could [be skipped],” mentioned Mr. Dennis. “Mr. Simmons was a grabbing force when making sure that everything was completed to have this class approved.” After the class was approved, the rest is history.
Simmons began his class in 2018 with twenty-four students. As the years went by, Simmons made sure to take notes on any adjustments necessary for everything to run smoothly in the following year. “I pile sticky notes on my desk with things to change every class, unit, or lesson, and then I would write comments on slideshows or papers,” said Simmons. With each annotation he makes, the Journalism class improves.
This improvement means that the Journalism class has a great impact on the students that take it. Talking to recent alumni of the class, it is clear the appreciation that they have for what the learned from taking Journalism.
“I wanted to interact with the world around us and participate in productive conversations,” said Cadence Ayoubpour, a recent graduate from SRHS. The Journalism class holds a special place in Ayoubpour’s heart as she remembers the way that the community was closer than any CP English class.
When it came to writing, Cadence had the opportunity to gain more knowledge about the world and was able to interact with the community. “I felt very empowered when writing, especially since I wrote things that I cared about, knew the community cared about, and gave a way to advocate for them.” Cadence also mentioned the way that Mr. Simmons was very supportive, especially during her second semester of high school when she had to spend a few months in the hospital due to medical reasons.
For others, the class taught valuable lessons.
Kyan Baker, a 2021-2022 Journalism student, said, “Through participating in Broadcast and Mock trials, Journalism taught me how to have lots of confidence, especially with people in positions of power.” Baker mentioned that Journalism taught him the skills to identify reliable and unreliable news “especially in writing.” He said, “We can’t please everyone and eventually your thoughts or ideas on something might cause someone to disagree with you.”
Izzy Allen, a current junior at the University of Oxford-Tennessee, said that Journalism helped her with her major by teaching her skills that were applicable in everyday life. Already knowing how to go out and talk to people for a job, classes, or research paper is a valuable skill to have when graduating high school and attending college.
Many also mentioned how Journalism became more than a class. Elisabeth Fox recalled numerous times when her classmates would support her with an idea for an article topic or peer editing her writing. She enjoyed writing about “something important…rather than something about Jane Eyre.”
Savannah Summer, another writer for Off the Leash in 2021-2022, said that “she has taken lots of normal English classes before,” and she was excited to write about something different. Summer explained that the skills she learned in Journalism were applicable to real life, including college writing assignments. She took the class because had Simmons as a teacher in freshman year, and felt he was a “great teacher.” While the work wasn’t easy, “the final product was definitely worth it” because it had real impacts and helped voices in the community be heard.
Both the Red ‘n’ White, and Off the Leash, were started by teachers that were new to SRHS and had a passion for Journalism. They both were and are student driven publications writing about the local community. While they have different scopes, topics, and publication methods, much still remains the same between the two classes despite being separated by almost a century.
Journalism plays an essential role in shaping the world around us. Students learn how to write, analyze information, and evaluate sources. Most importantly, students learn about different issues that affect people’s lives and understand the importance of being a journalist and the impact their work can have on a community.