by Jade Sanchez-Ventura, BFS High School Advisor
Every year all of the students at Brooklyn Free School study one broad topic together, and conclude that study with a school wide LARP, aka Live Action Role Play. This year our focus was on class, with an emphasis on The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The spring activities varied widely; some of our youngest students were put to work in a candy factory, some of our oldest studied budgeting and personal finance. All of our students looked at immigration policy, and questions of worker’s rights. In the high school, our students had asked for a journalism class. To tie our journalism class to the spring study, I chose the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire as the event for which they would write a breaking news story.
Choosing a historical event was useful in that it would provide all the students with the same pool of information, including primary source quotations, from which to frame their “breaking news.” It also gave the students a chance to see how one event could be reported many different ways. For this assignment, students studied journalism ethics; conducted a news study of various media outlets; studied the “inverted pyramid” structure of a breaking news article, with special attention paid to writing a convincing lead; learned research methods for gathering background information; and studied passive vs. active voice sentence construction.
When the day of the LARP rolled around, all of the above areas had been covered.
I made the art room into our newsroom because of its central location in the school. I wore a blazer and a visor, and brought in index cards and safety pins to make press passes on the spot. I also made a basic interview template, and brought in a stack of clipboards. I can’t emphasize this enough: we did not have elaborate costumes or props, what was key was my complete and total commitment to the role of news editor. Not even the teens could resist the play aspect of a fully in-character teacher.
Three or four high school journalism students were convinced to take part in the newsroom, and the rest of the students ranged in age from six to thirteen. As soon as they arrived, press passes were made, and I began discussing the rumors of strike I’d heard throughout the building. Word was that the candy factory workers (the three to six year olds) were preparing to strike, also word that the bagel factory workers (the five to eight year olds) were trying to unionize. There were also suspicions that an agitator was in town (a fellow teacher), and what was up with the immigration police (a teacher and high school students) asking to see everyone’s ID’s? Students were armed with clipboards, some went without, to investigate. Myself and the older students wrote their reports onto large sheets of paper taped to the walls. Each reporter was asked to come back with at least one direct quotation, and
sometimes I sent them back out into the school to get the exact wording. They ran to and from the newsroom to the events around the school, gathering information and checking with multiple sources to confirm events and information. In the midst of this, the owner of the newspaper appeared-another teacher with whom I had pre-arranged this surprise visit. She owned the candy and bagel factory, as well as the newspaper, and forbid us from printing any story on the strike, lest we lose our jobs. The students independently decided that we would print one article for her viewing on the immigration police, since she had not explicitly forbidden this, and write a secret article on the strike.
At this point the excitement was at full pitch. One student turned traitor, and tipped the owner off, who then returned to inspect our “typewriters”, which we managed to hide. Another student snuck into the union negotiations with the bosses, running back and forth to provide on the spot updates. Three high school students sat down to write the decoy article, while I wrote the strike article with two elementary age students dictating and editing my sentences. Finally, both articles were written, the decoy was printed, and we waited for the final word from the negotiations so as to write our last line and go to press on the strike article. When word was given that the bosses had given into worker demands, I wrote the last line, checked it with my co-writers, and sent the students running off to print. Our newsboy distributed the decoy while the students printed the second article and secretly passed it out.
The day ended with union songs in the community room, and my formal resignation submitted to the owner: Myself and the students were going to formally launch our own paper, The Brooklyn Free Press.
One of the best, and surprise outcomes, from the LARP was that it motivated all of us in the high school journalism class, even the ones who didn’t join in the LARP, to put together a newspaper for our final project, to do it in a week’s time, and to complete it during one of the students’ busiest times of the year. I know that the experience of writing two articles in an hour and half gave us all the confidence to tackle a whole paper in a week. Yes, the paper was imperfect, with an op-ed submitted as a breaking news story, and some tricky formatting challenges, but that paper was put together entirely by students. And there are now a number of students who want to begin a formal school paper starting in September. When that happens, there will be a number of younger students who have already taken part in the reporting and drafting process, who will understand what that newspaper is about in an intimate and familiar way, and who may be ready to partner with our high school editors to report and write for that new paper, which they named, what else?, The Brooklyn Free Press.