Mayfield’s student journalists learn the tools of their trade and create “pods for a cause”

The Digital Media room—one of the spaces on campus that didn’t exist before the recent Strub Capital Campaign—is humming this March afternoon. Journalism students sit around a large square table, laptops open. They have a deadline coming up: an 8-minute podcast submission for the NPR High School Podcast Challenge. Everyone is working on their own projects, at their own speed, some in pairs, some working solo. Many have their headphones on, deep inside their editing software. Others are focused inside of their text documents, rewriting script elements and cutting out old content. But whenever instructor Kimberly Gomez cues up something on the central screen, everyone looks up to review the artwork or audio content for whatever feedback is required.
Ms. Gomez—who has a background as a professional journalist for both print and television— calls this productive space “part classroom, part newsroom.” And the characterization feels right. The students are given free reign to decide what kind of topics they want to explore for this podcasting project, focusing on many different causes.

“Latinos in Film,” discusses reasons behind the lack of Latino representation within the film industry and the repercussions of this exclusion. “That's So Wasian,” is a conversation between two highschoolers exploring the struggles and joys of being half-white and half-Asian (i.e. W-Asian). In “That's What You Need to Know,” the co-hosts focus on the conflict in Ukraine in hopes that the younger generation will get more involved and educate themselves on the complexity.

Each podcast exerts its own area of expertise, whether it be highlighting the pressures of high school experiences during a pandemic, or relishing the connections between food and media, or exploring friendships and shifting relationships. Grace Sandman and Grace Gannon specifically decided to embark on a podcast which they are calling: “Exposing Text Lingo, with Gracie².” Grace Sandman ’22 is one of the most seasoned students in the classroom when it comes to journalism. “As Editor-in-Chief of the Mayfield Crier, I write and edit stories all the time,” says Grace. And although Grace Sandman has distinguished herself as an award-winning reporter tackling social justice issues, when she and her peer Grace Gannon “dipped (their) toes into podcasting” they were interested in exploring something ostensibly more ordinary: text messaging. They saw a lot of complexity and potential humor in this topic that touched so many people. “We knew there were unsaid rules about texting in today’s age,” says Grace. “Many of these unsaid texting ‘rules’ were completely unknown amongst the adults in our lives, so we knew we wanted to talk about that and share some funny stories in our podcast.”

Podcasting is only one element of the larger syllabus inside this Journalism course. There are Advanced and Beginning journalism classes being conducted in the exact same space concurrently—both UC-accredited courses—with Ms. Gomez realizing that each grade can only absorb so much of this information. “This is my second time taking this elective’ says Marina Muradian ‘23, explaining that she has learned a lot both times, in an environment that allows “the independence to brainstorm our ideas.” Ms. Gomez is attentive to the individual writing interests of the students and does her best to tailor their specific goals, while elevating them to a higher professional level.

Ms. Gomez considers the raison d'être of this Journalism class as basically “writing for publication.” And the class does cover journalistic writing in what might be considered the traditional sense. In this elective, Ms. Gomez is careful to give a historical overview of the profession, from 1st amendment rights to journalistic ethics. She introduces the distinctions between breaking news, enterprise stories and team reporting. But she also understands the zeitgeist—even the way the term “publication” has changed dramatically in a short amount of time. Publication can now encompass everything from Twitter journalism to photojournalism essays to newspaper-sponsored podcasts. And she wants her students to get a sense of it all.

Something that distinguishes this class from many others at Mayfield is its emphasis on submitting material outside the school.“You must submit, that has always been a focus,” says Ms. Gomez. It’s an important habit being built in all of Ms. Gomez’s classes—be it journalism, yearbook, creative writing or newspaper. She isn’t insensitive about the anxieties associated with students submitting their materials outside the nurturing walls of 500 Bellefontaine though. “Let’s face it, writing is pretty vulnerable,” says Ms. Gomez, adding that is why “most people are afraid to do it.” Once inside the routine of submitting, it makes the process less precious and/or perilous. It cultivates a you-win-some, you-lose-some sensibility. Perhaps it helps take the sting out of rejections a bit too. But if you submit more, you win more. And there have been a lot of accolades to spread around. 

2021 was the first year Mayfield entered the NPR High School Podcast Challenge, and in spite of more than 4,000 submissions, two Mayfield students received honorable mentions (Mariana Trujillo ‘21 and Ashley Ahn ‘21). Grace Sandman ‘22 got “Best in Show” recognitions for “Editorial Leadership” and “Social Justice Reporting” from the Journalism Educators Association / National Scholastic Press Association (JEA/NSPA). Madison Rojas ‘23 submitted a review of a Harry Styles concert that got another honorable mention, this one from the New York Times. And the list goes on and on, with Mayfield students receiving the highest honors from organizations like Scholastic Art and Writing Awards or Student News Online (SNO). Since Ms. Gomez arrived at Mayfield in 2014-2015, her students have won literally hundreds of writing awards in every possible discipline. 

Different students choose to take this Journalism elective for different reasons. Drew Valentino ‘22, known in the Mayfield community as a dancer of the highest caliber, wanted to broaden her horizons in different fields too. “This course has pushed me to write in so many different ways,” says Drew, explaining, “It has been a very engaging class and has developed my way of thinking.” Le Anh Metzger ‘22 knew she already wanted to major in Communications and Media Studies in college, and “thought that Journalism would help introduce me to new methods of communications,” adding “this class has helped me improve my writing skills and has taught me how to disseminate information effectively.”

Perhaps the way this classroom most resembles a newsroom is the sense of camaraderie between students across grade levels. They are taking risks together, trying new things, succeeding in some arenas, stumbling in others, but always learning from each other along the way. Ms. Gomez calls them all “courageous” and with a significant amount of revisions and rejections simply built into this course, this doesn’t feel like an overstatement. This courage seems a bit contagious too. Watching the success of one student helps inspire the other students, who suddenly know that kind of success is not totally out of their reach. Ms. Gomez explains the buoying sentiment shared between students when they see a classmate win a prize or accolade: ”If she can do something like this,” they think, “maybe I can too.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.