I met an aspiring artist dabbling in journalism on my plane coming home from Montana last week. The 16-year-old is a local high school student starting on her school’s newspaper staff this year. I remember how badly I wished I had an older female mentor when I was on my high school’s newspaper staff so I’m trying to take her under my wing and mentor her as much as she’s interested in being mentored. Sure, there were older girls on staff but none had attended college yet or really been published professionally.
So for the 45 minute ride from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa, we talked about story topics for the upcoming school year. Her advisor asked each of the staffers to come up with 50 story ideas to bring to the table and flesh out. 50 sounds like quite a lot but there are so many aspects to high school that the ideas for articles are limitless. To give her a head start, I made a list of 20 ideas she could spring into.
1. Rising costs of school equipment/textbooks/supplies vs budget cuts
2. e-books and tablets- does your school use them in the classroom? How? If not, are there any plans to? What other schools in the county use them?
3. How has technology changed in high school over the past decade? Think computers, tablets, e-books, flash drives instead of floppy drives, school newspapers having websites, etc.
4. Compile a list of interesting events happening at your high school this year. Send a reporter to them and find an interesting angle.
5. A “big story, little person” idea- have the staff go through the day’s newspaper headlines to find national and local stories students can either relate to or give an opinion about. Localize it with the voices of students from your school.
6. Look back through old issues of your school paper. What stories can you cover again with a new angle and fresh perspective?
7. Profile a student each issue. Find students with interesting talents, who have won awards, etc. and write an article about them.
8. Devise a method for picking a student at random to tell a story about. Look into Steve Hartman’s and Les Rose’s “Everybody Has A Story” series. The point of their project is that you can pick anybody to talk to and they will have an interesting story to tell- you just have to find it.
9. Also read Brady Dennis’ “300 Words” series for the Tampa Bay Times. Find small, but interesting, topics that will allow you to write 300-word stories with a beginning, middle, and end.
10. Write a story about a nontraditional sport that students enjoy. i.e. hackey sack, skateboarding, etc.
11. Write a story about a traditional sport like football or basketball but from the perspective of a player. Don’t make the stories about which games were won or lost and what the scores were but instead about the players, or a specific player, even the coach.
12. Do a feature on oddball jobs your teachers had before they got into teaching. Maybe some students have some untraditional jobs, too.
13. Write an article on a school employee who is not a teacher or administrator, like a janitor or landscaper, or the school resource officer. You might be surprised what you find out about him or her.
14. Profile a student or teacher with an exotic pet i.e. snakes, skunks, etc.
15. Do a “behind-the-scenes” story on something that happens every year but that people don’t know much about how it comes together, like prom. How is a theme decided? How do you set up a location? Who decorates?
16. Follow students to a local comic/anime/sci-fi convention and do a story on how they made their costume and what they do there. Makes for great photos and video.
17. For a Halloween feature, see if you can get behind the scene with a student working at a nearby theme park or haunted house. In Tampa, Howl’O'Scream at Busch Gardens is where you can find students as scareactors, makeup artists, scene artists, etc.
18. Are there any new classes at your high school this year? Write a story on the process of adding new classes. Even better if the class is really weird or interesting, like forensics.
19. Profile a teacher with unconventional teaching methods. My high school physics teacher had us bowl down the school hallway to experiment with acceleration.
20. Make a holiday gift list for the Christmas issue (or Valentines, birthday, just-because). Choose presents that are good for students. Have a list of expensive tech like laptops or the iPad, and one more budget-friendly like student-friendly apps.
One of the activities my high school newspaper advisor did was take the staff on a tour around the school. We all brought pens and notebooks to make notes about observations and overhead conversations. We then turned those notes into story ideas. Why is there a stack of rusty student desks piled outside the building when some classes are lacking enough desks for students? Who are the artists behind the brilliant sketches and paintings posted outside the art room? What’s that neat music floating out of the band room? Are they really performing Bohemian Rhapsody for the football halftime show?
A couple years back, I taught a session at the Florida Scholastic Press Association state convention on finding stories and cultivating sources at your high school. Some of these were brainstormed from that and some from my personal experiences. The more thought I’ve given it since that session, the more I want to teach this again, this time really focusing on the story idea part and helping the students come up with ideas then and there to take back to their staffs.
I’d love to hear what kind of generic ideas you can come up with that a student can tweak to their specific school. Feel free to comment here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.