Founder’s Note: What we’re looking forward to in 2021

By Leah Clapman, SRL Founder & Managing Editor of Education for the PBS NewsHour

What we’re looking forward to in 2021

2021 should be about learning from our mistakes, so to break my long-standing habit of burying the lede, I’ll start right off the top with what I’m most looking forward to in the new year:

  • SRL’s first podcast, focusing on teen mental health

  • Series of broadcast specials modeled after the Face the Facts election town hall spotlighting new talent, Gen Z reporting and analysis of the top issues facing the country

  • New public-facing prompts to facilitate more youth voice, key media literacy skills, science and evidence-based reporting and student-enriched local journalism

  • Curriculum project tool that integrates with multiple Learning Management Systems to scale the number of students producing video journalism

  • Afterschool partnership to bring SRL project-based journalism to networks in all 50 states

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, how have the experiences of this extraordinarily challenging year shaped SRL’s vision for the future?

SRL’s 2020 and what we learned
In 2020, SRL students were thrown into the global pandemic with their storytelling tools to document their piece of history. Our first series, Coronavirus Stories, captured the loss of normalcy and, of course, missing rights of passage—sporting events, prom, Senior Night, and graduation—but also highlighted this generation’s humor, resilience, empathy and creativity.

When our summer Student Academy morphed from a week at the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University to ten weeks virtually, SRL Fellows produced poignant and personal stories about the impact of the pandemic on their local economies and communities. Our first virtual showcase set a path of testing different event formats and platforms for a new kind of live event. But even more important, we experienced what educators across the country were facing: trying to forge human connections across technology with each student facing their own set of personal difficulties.

And 2020 continued its exhausting pace: SRL’s western schools experienced the deadly wildfires; students storytellers documented local reaction to the death of George Floyd, protests for racial justice; our network processed the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and then covered an election like none other.

I’m incredibly proud of all the educators, students and of course the producers who lifted these original stories to the PBS NewsHour, enriching the nightly broadcast and reaching millions of viewers, in addition to the NewsHour Extra team who turned them into lesson plans for hundreds of thousands of teachers.

What the pandemic taught us about education

The students and educators who make up our vibrant SRL community were going through so much, and we’re grateful to everyone who shared their experiences with us.

“I am struggling to have my students work through the large scale assignments and get it done right … We have had a lot of issues with lack of equipment at home for my students and generally their overall time management is a struggle at home,” wrote in one teacher, who suggested rolling deadlines with smaller, regular check-ins.

“Our school is about to change schedules for the fourth time this semester,” shared another.  “I have *so* appreciated the supportive ‘always there’ presence of [my Youth Media Producer] and the flexibility/understanding of our circumstances.”

New priorities emerged from text messages with students, teacher Zoom listening sessions, and the stark realities of working from home. Because SRL is not beholden to commercial interests, we could be nimble and because we are public media, we had to be scrappy. So we experimented with mobile production and formats, checked in more frequently and less formally, and tried to meet students and teachers where they were, physically and emotionally.

Now looking ahead, one of the key topics in my sights for 2021: education. The statistics about students failing and dropping out are staggering and raise critical questions about what school is for and how students learn. SRL’s “School Diaries” curriculum is collecting hundreds of stories of struggle and endurance. NewsHour Extra’s extraordinary series of Zoom conversations with educators and support staff is creating a unique community that will help shed light on what schools are up against. And my own household continues to give me tiny glimpses of how different personalities experience remote learning: our organized middle schooler thrives in the calm and control, while our son struggles with motivation, connection to teachers and an overwhelming sense of “what does this really matter?”

Looking back with gratitude and forward with determination 

The brave and compassionate SRL staff tackled 2020’s difficulties as mentors, friends and also parents—many have young children at home and Briget and Emily welcomed two SRL babies this year! I am infinitely grateful to the entire team for banding together in such trying times, bringing their A-games to #MoraleFriday and sharing both the buds and the thorns.

I’m also grateful for the public media legends who have influenced, informed, and celebrated SRL, like Jim Lehrer, who passed in January 2020. Jim’s supportive emails always ended with the Marine order: “Onward!”

Another guiding light, former NewsHour executive producer Les Crystal, died in June. He used to stop by my office when he was in town for an update—family first, and then SRL. “That’s wonderful, that’s just wonderful, and very much the spirit of the NewsHour,” he wrote.

As the vaccine rolls out in 2021, life will not go back to “normal,” but reemerge as something else, and while I’m loathe to make predictions, I know that Student Reporting Labs is stronger from our shared experience and ready for whatever comes next.

From all of us to you, we cheers to the new year!

Leah Clapman created Student Reporting Labs in 2009 as an experiment to engage middle and high school students with current events and reimagine public media for tweens and teens. Under her leadership, SRL has grown from 6 pilot sites to 165 schools in 48 states with partnerships extending from major media and online platforms to international education and youth initiatives.