UCLA Community School teacher Laura Cometa oversees and advises the production of “Bruin’s Roar.”
While writing for a student newspaper is a common experience among many suburban students across the nation, a most uncommon transformation is taking place in the Journalism Seminar class at UCLA Community School.
The K-12 school, which serves the Pico-Union and Koreatown neighborhoods of Los Angeles, is made up of a largely bilingual student population, whose first language is either Spanish or Korean. Rather than being produced by students who excel at English and language arts, Bruin’s Roar is reported and written by students who initially have had difficulty with English, and edited by students who have more facility with the language. Through the efforts of their teacher Laura Cometa, a former journalist, and the collaborative “real-world” newsroom setting of the class, these students have not only improved their writing and English skills, but have come to know the empowerment that can only be derived from seeing one’s name in print.
“Some of us didn’t know we actually loved writing until we printed our first issue,” said eighth-grader Alesa Menor, who serves as a section editor. “It was amazing to see how much work we could get done. You make friends and everybody works together … through the articles and the chaos. But in the end, it pays off, because seeing our names on the articles is amazing.”
Added eighth-grader Isaac Kim: “[Working] on a newspaper, you can learn a lot of things. It teaches you patience and study habits. Deadlines are really important. It teaches me how to work [on a team], and that’s more important than anything.”
The Journalism Seminar class was established last fall semester by Cometa, to provide more support for a number of students who were not performing well in English classes. A former staff member on the daily student newspaper at Columbia University, she uses writing for a newspaper the way that other teachers use worksheets and regular assignments. The result is that language skills are reinforced by the empowering experience for students of producing a publication that will be read by their fellow students, teachers and administrators.
“About half the class did not choose to be [here],” Cometa said. “They were put in this class way back in August because their scores were low in English. We try to make the class fun … and made it a newspaper so that students would have something interesting to do while they were improving their writing.”
Cometa, who teaches the seminar class with assistance from Briana Bejarano, a Los Angeles Unified School District Title 3 Instructional Coach, who oversees the improvements of English language learners at UCLA Community School, said that the class has been almost too successful. When the class was overflowing with 40 students this spring, she had to ask some students to enroll in other electives, leaving the class at a more manageable 25,
“A lot of them passed the class, but they didn’t want to leave,” Cometa noted. “This is their Seminar period. They can take a seminar in American sign language, nutrition, robotics, or environmental science. I told some of them, ‘You have to try something else — the class is just too big.’ We’re now left with the students who really need help.”
Each student is responsible for one article per issue of Bruin’s Roar, which they produce by exercising interviewing, research and writing skills. Production of each issue is overseen by Cometa and a corps of editors, some of whom are high school students. There are also special assignments for students, such as designing ads, creating games, or writing features and advice columns. The discipline of journalism also provides the students with many personal skills that have enhanced their other classes and prepared them for working collaboratively. Seventh grader Eli Islas, who is a reporter, says that the class has given him a lot of confidence.
“With the first issue, a lot of us were shy to go up to people and interview them,” Islas said. “Throughout the semester, we have gained the confidence to just go up to people and ask them [questions].”
Yasmin Colop, a section editor who is in the eighth grade, said that, “[Meeting] deadlines helps us with responsibility, not only in this class but in other classes, to turn in our homework on time. Our editors push us to do our work and not get distracted.”
The editors have also gained a lot of eye-opening experience in leading the production of Bruin’s Roar.
“I feel like the experience of working with middle school students is helping me with my social and people skills,” said 11th-grader Brandon Song, editor-in-chief. “In the future, I might become a doctor and I feel like this class is an exploration into fulfilling my goals there.”
Cometa said that this class is really different from the journalism classes she's taught in the past. “Normally, I teach high school journalism, and usually those kids all choose to be in the class. This was a whole different set-up, but the kids don’t necessarily know that. They have nothing to compare it to — this is the first newspaper for them.
“It makes it a lot harder for the editors. They have to be leaders and motivators,” she continued. They’re not necessarily working with students who want to do this. But I think they’ve succeeded.”
Topics featured in Bruin’s Roar range from proposing that the seventh grade class should have an end-of-the-year field trip — just like the 8th grade class — to reporting on more off-campus subjects such as global warming, the National Security Agency and abortion. Cometa said that Principal Leyda Garcia gives the students free rein — although she does offer her congratulations after reading each issue — in contrast to the administrative censorship that she has faced at other schools where she has taught journalism.
“I think the fact that we get to choose what we want to write about lets us write with more heart,” Kim said.
“It’s a challenge for us, the students, to speak not only for our class, but for the whole school, and say what we want to see changed,” said eighth-grader Brenda Benitez, who serves as an editor.
Most importantly, working on Bruin’s Roar bolsters UCLA Community School’s mission of turning students into self-directed, passionate learners who are active and critical participants in society. As an example of the school’s success, the class of 2014 included 80 seniors, of which an unprecedented 95 percent are headed to college at the University of California, Cal States or other institutions.
Tenth-grader Brandon Bae said that being an editor for the newspaper has provided him with the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity and refine his thinking processes. He also says that the experience has taught invaluable skills for him and his classmates to take out into adulthood and the job market.
“When we go out into society, most of the time, we’re going to be alone,” Bae said. “[This class] has given us the solid fact that everything boils down to [making] choices. This helps us to work on ourselves and become better people. This will really help many people to work independently and become successful.”
This story first appeared in Ampersand, the magazine of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.