CHARLIE MITCHELL: Oxford's Fitts says students rise to challenge

Mississippi should be proud of Beth Fitts.

She teaches high school in Oxford, is adviser to the student newspaper there – and has just been honored as the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund's National Journalism Teacher of the Year.

Radio personality Paul Harvey calls it “partly personal” when his comments are on a topic in which he has a vested interest. This column is partly personal for me since, as a newsroom manager, I'd like to see more and more people interested in journalism careers.

But Fitts makes the point – eloquently – that having strong high school publications programs is not about indoctrinating a new generation of reporters. It's about building better people, period.

“To help each student find talents that will link him to the future is essential,” is how she worded it in a newsletter to other advisers across the nation. “Our mission is to mold students' minds, chisel their character and inspire their spirits.”

More than books

She's right. School needs to be about learning math, learning history, learning grammar and regurgitating it on standardized tests to make the Legislature happy. But it also needs to be about developing what the experts call “life skills” and nonexperts (me) call the ability to think for themselves.

A football field is a good place to learn life skills. Kids can learn a lot on a softball team, too – or as a member of the band. In these venues, as much or more than in classroom work, they learn to push themselves, to become organized, to work in concert with others, to fall flat on their faces in full view of their peers, to be picked up when they do – and they learn to help others who are struggling.

While there should be nothing extra about extracurricular activities, those that don't involve athletic prowess, including yearbooks and newspapers, often get short shrift in Mississippi. But think about this:

Almost every time there's a problem kid who does something stupid on a campus, words such as “loner” and “doesn't associate much with other students” seem to be spoken.

Student publications get especially little attention in this state.

Finding the courage

Principals see them as a problem, as magnets for controversy which principals seek desperately to avoid. Also, too many advisers see themselves as “saddled with extra duty.” And worse, expectations are often low for what students can do.

Fitts knows all that. She even starts her message to her colleagues with, “Most of you are too busy to read this.” It's not a statement she takes lightly, but then she exhorts other teachers to let their students dazzle them.

“Courage is what we need to inspire the students we teach,” she wrote.

And then to the nitty-gritty of having a student paper worth reading:

“It takes courage to live life in today's world, and to report on it takes even more courage.”

By working carefully with her youthful staff, challenging them to show maturity in thought and expression, the Oxford High Charger has explored such issues as cheating, alcohol and drug use in the school and the effects of all that testing associated with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Yes, they've reported on student elections and promoted the cheerleaders' car wash, but they also sent students five years too young to buy liquor downtown to try. And when they wrote about their rate of success, law enforcement took note.

Domestic violence? A fellow student and her brother “huddled in the bathroom, crying as they clung to each other for comfort” as their father mercilessly beat their mother? The Oxford Charger wrote about that, too.

Some of these are unpleasant topics, not fun to think about. But you've got to take your hat off to this teacher and these students who are learning the validity of an adage that can guide their lives: The truth will set you free.

I've met Beth Fitts. She is a quiet, dedicated Christian woman – the complete opposite of a rabble-rouser. There's absolutely nothing easy about what she coaches students to do. But their insight amazes her, as do their abilities.

While more good journalists are certainly needed in Mississippi, the skills associated with the craft – gathering factual information, condensing it and relating it in useful form, attention to detail and so many other talents – transfer well to many careers. In fact, there's just no way anyone can be a leader at anything without learning to communicate clearly with others.

It's really great to know America's absolute best high school journalism teacher is working in Mississippi. It's even better to know that what she's guiding her students to learn will serve them well for years to come.

Charlie Mitchell is managing editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at P.O. Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail post@vicksburg.com.