John Vitti was only trying to help his then-elementary school-aged daughter with her essay. Write about your favorite day, the assignment demanded.
“A person of any age wants to be correct,” Vitti said. “The hard part about writing is there’s 85 different versions of correct.
“She didn’t know what to put in. You need some description, a lead, who, what, where, when. I realized I was talking about journalism. You’ve gotta come with a big bag of information and you have to cherry pick what you’re going to use. That’s hard.”
But it may not be so hard if she, or anyone else, had more practice at it, Vitti thought.
So, he approached the administration at Cunniff Elementary School, in Watertown, Mass., about starting a newspaper for the students, pre-K through fifth grade, in December 2007. Out of it came Cunniff Kids News, a platform for anyone interested in any topic to practice writing with a purpose. Their skill level didn’t matter. It would better prepare them for the future.
“If a kid wrote more, and then had their book report, college application, you don’t have to like it but you can lump it out and muscle through it,” Vitti said. “If we’re on a boat and all fall overboard in a lake, I don’t need you to be Michael Phelps, but I need you to be able to swim to shore. The more you do it, the better you are at it.
“If we had a paper, then that gives a kid a reason to write, an audience, a deadline, a format.”
Eleven years later, Vitti’s advising three separate student newspapers in the Boston area — Cunniff Kids News, Watertown Splash (Watertown Middle School), The Raider Times (Watertown High School) — the last of which, at the high school, he took over five years ago. He oversees about 275 kids pre-K through 12th grade.
He also recently earned his teaching certification, allowing him to teach a real journalism class daily at the high school, whereas his other two programs are extra-curriculars.
Plus, he continues to work as a copy editor and page designer at the Boston Globe, where he’s worked since 1999.
What he’s learned, especially with his youngest students, is that having a newspaper to write for has been big educationally.
“You have kids of all ages who can learn about things they’re interested in, with a real reason to,” Vitti said. “In a history class, you’re gonna learn about 1776, the Civil War, whatever, but you won’t have a reason to meet Hillary Clinton or the lady running for city council.
“You can if you’re in newspaper. You can write about food, movies, fashion, dress code, Black Lives Matter, whatever you want to write about.”
And having those newspapers online unlocks an even broader range of topics to write about because the audience could be so much larger.
“If I have a third-grader who really likes dogs, well, heck yeah, let’s do a poll on who’s got what pet, let’s do a story about the vet around the corner with an animal shelter, let’s do a story on Puppy Bowl,” Vitti said.
It’s teaching them, Vitti said, how to talk to people, how to present themselves, the value of different types of questions, of being nice, of spelling names correctly. It’s teaching them skills in editing, photography, design, writing and websites.
That seemed like all the right reasons to get into it in the first place.
“Because I could,” Vitti said, “and because it seemed ridiculously worthwhile.”