Put a paw on print

By Lisa Schulz

By Molly Keith

Copy Editor

The coffee’s strong and the smell of tobacco lingers from the reporters’ recent smoke break. Inside an austere conference room, a group of writers surrounding a long table take turns pitching story ideas for the upcoming issue. Such a scenario is the normal staff meeting for a newspaper.

Shana Cooper’s newspaper staff is a bit younger than the average staff, though, and they meet in a classroom after school to pitch their ideas. As creator and editor of downtown Chicago’s Muchin College Prep’s student newspaper, The Pawprint, Cooper, 32, heads a different kind of reporting group than most editors, yet she believes it’s crucial for high school-age kids to partake in the reporting and writing scene.

“It’s essential for the kids to be connected with the world around them and to have a collective voice,” Cooper said of the students who write for the newspaper. “They are just becoming aware of their own beliefs and passions, and they should have a place to go with that aside from outside school or writing a poem for an assignment.”

Cooper founded the student newspaper in December 2009 when she was completing a teaching observation for her thesis as a fiction-writing graduate student at Columbia. When Cooper observed the school, she noticed there wasn’t much of an after-school program that wasn’t related to sports.

“I said [to the dean], ‘What kind of stuff do you have?’ The dean said, ‘Oh, we’ve got band, basketball, volleyball and cross-country. And in the spring, we have track.’ I said, ‘Is that it?’ and she said, ‘Yeah,’” Cooper said as her eyes widened while she recalled her bewilderment after hearing the school didn’t have a newspaper.

She inquired if the school was interested in having one, and the dean said yes, but there was no funding for a newspaper. It was then that Cooper decided to start the newspaper, she said.

After emailing fellow writers and administrators in Columbia’s Fiction Writing Department, Cooper put together an internship for students at Columbia to assist her with the production of the newspaper. As for the funding, Cooper wrote a grant application herself for The Weisman Grant Award, and won. The grant is used to cover printing costs, flash drives and website domain names, Cooper said.

“Shana’s ability to think on her feet is something I would definitely like to take from her,” said Aimee Goluszka, a fall 2010-spring 2012 intern at The Pawprint under Cooper’s supervision.

Goluszka said when dealing with the staff of four to six students in the age range of 14 to 16, Cooper kept calm and cool.

While she and the interns edit the final drafts of the articles, the students are solely responsible for coming up with story ideas and writing them themselves.

“Students do two to three drafts of a story,” she said. “I’m really strict about that. I think they need to see the evolution of a story and what impact their initial thoughts have on a group.”

Cooper added that in order to push the students to think of story ideas, she asks, “What makes your blood boil?” The students write about school news, world news and entertainment. They also construct opinion articles, she said.

After the students work on their stories, Cooper and the interns stay after the staff meeting to do additional editing.

“Our additional work came up when [we were] trying to figure out how to alter the lesson plan and how to make the project more effective for them or how to appeal to them more,” Goluszka said.

Cooper explained that many students who came in to work had problems with writing. The school contains writing and reading classes, but the two subjects are not taught together—something she finds disconcerting. She has, however, seen improvements in the staff writing.

“There was one kid who completely struggled with organizing his writing,” she said. “I sat down with him and said, ‘You know when you organize a closet, you put like things together? We’re going to find the like things here.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, I got it!’ After that, his writing definitely changed.”

Simone Mikolich, Muchin’s after-school events coordinator, believes the school having a student newspaper benefits its students. She agreed with Cooper that students’ voices need to be heard.

“The students are passionate about issues at school and in the world and need a place to talk about them,” Mikolich said. “[Cooper] is really passionate. It’s been a journey [working with a student staff], but she’s been really patient. She really wants to provide these kids with a good student newspaper.”

For Cooper, the most rewarding aspect of starting the newspaper has been observing the evolution of the students’ devotion to the publication. Once a few students consistently showed up to the staff meetings, others followed suit, she said.

Cooper hopes to found other student newspapers in Chicago, she said.

“Why shouldn’t students have that opportunity?” Cooper said. “It seems natural, like they should have it.”