January 11, 2017 | 9 a.m.
By Jenny Hudalla ’15, content specialist
It’s 12:40 p.m. on Halloween, and a group of jittery fourth- and fifth-graders are watching the minutes tick by until the beginning of their class party. Five Bethel students smile as they pass out Nerds and Laffy Taffys for a game of Halloween Pictionary.
But they know they’re not at Maxfield Elementary in Frogtown to give handouts. That was the deal Assistant Journalism Professor Scott Winter struck with Principal Ryan Vernosh when Winter first proposed a partnership. “Our students don’t need saviors,” Vernosh told Winter before the semester started. “They need opportunities.”
On paper, the partnership was simple: Bethel students would help the fourth- and fifth-graders create a school newspaper in return for design content and hands-on experience. But in practice, the partnership became much more than that. Winter wanted his students to connect with a community without adopting a savior complex, and Vernosh wanted to introduce his students to opportunities with people who wouldn’t feel sorry for them.
A resident of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, Winter began looking for ways to bring his classroom off campus after several racially charged incidents took place just miles from Bethel's campus last summer. “I felt like we shouldn’t just talk about things—we should do something,” Winter says.
The Bethel students divided themselves into four teams—one to cover every fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Maxfield—and planned lessons to help the elementary students with interviewing, writing, and photography. While Winter’s class designed and printed the newspaper—democratically christened The Maxfield Times—most of its content comes from Maxfield students’ work.
Sophomore Kellie Lawless is on three of the teams—a commitment above and beyond what Winter’s class requires. She wants to be a journalism teacher, so the project has been a unique opportunity to affirm that she’s on the right path. “This experience has reminded me why I chose journalism,” Lawless says. “Seeing the kids light up while they’re taking a photo or writing a story has revived my own passion.”
With less than a half hour until the Halloween party, Lawless shepherds the kids to the front of the room while Winter tries to get them to sit still for a photo. “Look like you’re eating a taco! Pretend you saw an alien from outer space! Show me your best Halloween face!” Winter says, punctuating each sentence with a click of the shutter.
Among the smiling faces is fifth-grader Deshaine Metcalf, a self-proclaimed rule follower who wants to work in the footwear industry and shape the next generation of Nikes and Air Jordans. But he also thinks he might want to be a journalist. He says the Bethel students taught him how to take pictures and how to interview, but they’ve also taught him a little about life. “I learned how to be nice and be cool,” Metcalf says. “And I learned to listen to other people when they talk.”
Students like Metcalf are one of the reasons Vernosh loves working at Maxfield. While many students lack resources—93 percent qualified for free and reduced price lunch in 2016, according to Minnesota Report Card—Vernosh is determined to give them every opportunity available to students in wealthier districts. “I’ve seen our scholars at Maxfield incredibly engaged and excited to be working with the Bethel students,” Vernosh says. “People outside [of Maxfield] are investing time and resources into them, and they’re becoming better questioners and thinkers because of it.”
Winter is in the business of making better journalists, but—like Vernosh—he’s also in the business of making better people. The first assignment he gave his students was to eat a meal in the Frogtown neighborhood. It was extra credit, but more than half of them did it. “I think Bethel kids are great kids,” Winter says. “Sometimes they just need a little nudge. If they can get just a little bit out [of the bubble], who knows how far they can go?”
For junior Abby Petersen, the answer is about 615 miles. She wants to work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, telling stories beyond the narratives of alcoholism and poverty that have historically characterized Native American communities. A resident of the Frogtown neighborhood, Petersen was excited when she learned her community would become her classroom. “Ninety percent of journalism is just showing up,” Petersen says. “You learn the most by being there and experiencing things with other people. I’ve learned to let go, show up, and listen.”
Just before time is up, Maxfield students gather around Petersen on a large, multicolor rug at the front of the room. Petersen asks them, “What is a story?” The kids call out, “Fiction! Legend! Fairytales!”
“You’re right,” Petersen says. “The difference in journalism is, we tell stories that are true. Can anyone think of a true story that matters to people?”
A student’s hand shoots into the air. “Mine!” he says. Petersen gives him an encouraging nod. “You’re right,” she says again. “All of you have a story that matters.”
Seated cross-legged on the rug adjacent to her, Winter smiles.