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Whats in the News goes to Washington|
Middle schoolers talk politics with President George W. Bush
By Celena E. Kusch
While youth interest in politics is reaching an all-time low, a Penn State Public Broadcasting program is bringing students into the heart of the democratic process and all the way to the White House. In the spring, eight student viewers from across the country met with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office to discuss the national issues that are most important to them.|
The third- through seventh-graders who spoke with the President were selected for the Dear Mr. President Write-In Activity sponsored by Whats in the News (WITN). WITN is a weekly current events program Penn State Public Broadcasting and the Universitys College of Education have produced for more than 35 years. Today, the program is made available to a third of all fourth- through seventh-grade classrooms nationwide 5.7 million students.
Every four years following its presidential campaign coverage, WITN invites student viewers to write letters to their newly elected president. The essay-writing activity is designed to encourage students to become active members in the democratic process.
The Write-In Activity motivates students to do further writing, because they see that their writing can have a result, said Dr. Murry R. Nelson, professor-in-charge of Social Studies Education and head of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Nelson serves as the content adviser for Whats in the News. He was one of the readers for the Write-In Activity.
The Write-In is not a contest, he explained, but a way for us to select examples of good and interesting writing reflective of many responses and highlight them on the air. The teachers like it, because it allows students to see the results of their writing and know that any one of them could appear on the show.
Penn State Public Broadcasting received nearly 1,500 entries for the 2001 Whats in the News Write-In. In previous years, presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, have sent acknowledgements and thanks for the student letters. This is the first year the letter writers have been invited to meet the President.
Katie OToole, producer/writer and host of Whats in the News, accompanied the students on their visit.
She noted, What was really important about this event was that it taught the students that their opinions are relevant and that someone is listening. For that someone to be the President of the United States was truly incredible. This was a tremendous opportunity for Whats in the News to help our youth see democracy in action. I just know these students will grow up to be active in the democratic process.
Beyond the tremendous personal impact the program has had on the eight featured writers, WITN has increased educational outcomes in classrooms throughout the nation through its application of sound education principles. Nelson, who has been involved with WITN for 26 years, has been instrumental in developing the program based on his understanding of how children learn, listen and process information. In return, he notes, the outreach experience has helped shape his teaching and research.
My work with WITN gave me an opportunity to see my research applied in a situation where I was not doing the talking, Nelson said. Through the show, we had a lot of interaction with teachers, and it was a great encouragement to have students respond to our programs. I have used this experience to gain another perspective on the principles I teach in my social studies education courses.
WITN even appears in his Social Studies Methods book in a chapter on the pedagogical use of television with children.
Whats in the News is an exemplar for what should be done to interact with teachers to extend student understanding of current events, Nelson added.
Teachers and administrators from Pennsylvania schools have agreed. Dr. Francis Grandinetti, superintendent of the Ridgway Area School District, commented, WPSX is truly on the cutting edge of fulfilling the educational mission and mandate of public broadcasting. WPSX is always trying to make educational materials more accessible to teachers. I am constantly getting feedback from teachers that they are showing Whats in the News and other WPSX programs and educational materials in their classrooms.
According to Nelson, WITN is deeply committed to providing teachers with support materials that go beyond the on-air content. WITN began by sending teachers packets of relevant blank maps for student use. With changes in technology, materials now include extensive on-line Web pages, with background information and suggestions for learning activities.
The effects of these efforts can be seen in the quality of the student response to the recent Write-In Activity. The students demonstrated great understanding of the current issues and events they learned about in class and on WITN. The featured letters discussed safe schools, poverty and homelessness, autism, quality of life on Native American reservations, and the protection of water quality and the environment, with a focus on actions and solutions.
I am asking that, as President, you take the lead in supporting laws that protect our environment, writes Erica Sunny Gerlach, sixth-grader at Hickory Hills School in Papillion, Neb. Together, with me as a student and you as the President, we can work to keep our environment clean for future generations.
Rajan Nayar, fourth-grader at Royal Oaks Elementary School in Woodbury, Minn., offered the President his plan to help the homeless with a job-training program. How about it, President Bush? Is this doable? his letter asks.
During the meeting in the Oval Office, the President offered a personal response to Nayar, saying, I understand it makes you sad to see a person on the streets looking for food; it makes me sad, too. He added that he plans to increase funding for mental health in his budget.
For Nayar, and for the other students, this give-and-take experience was one Ill never forget.
The students, along with Whats in the News on-air hosts OToole, Curtis Parker and Carmen Frost, as well as Penn State President Graham Spanier, hand delivered the letters to the President in the Oval Office and went for a walk in the White House rose garden.