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Chapel Hill HS "Proconian" Publishes PSF-Funded Series

A 2019 Public School Foundation (PSF) grant awarded to Chapel Hill High School (CHHS) journalism and English teacher, Stephen Head, serves as a perfect example of the flexibility and patience required for so many projects impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Head wrote the grant application to bring a professional journalist into his class as a guest teacher during 2020, with the goal of writing a series of "Proconian" stories  about the lives of the workers constructing the new buildings at CHHS. More than a year after the original project got underway, the series, "COVID-19 Stories," became one about how the coronavirus pandemic affected various individuals—from only children to healthcare workers to daycare employees to video gamers.  

The original plan to share the stories of the workers at CHHS had to be abandoned when it turned out the construction company was unwilling to grant permission to its employees to be interviewed by high school students. The next plan was to create a series telling the stories of first generation college students, but during the spring of 2020, the project was put on hold.

When Head and his journalism students returned to remote learning this school year, they decided to develop the series around a diverse collection of local residents, exploring how the pandemic impacted their lives. 

Jared Weber, the journalist who had been contracted to work with the class, created nine presentations on interviewing techniques, enterprise reporting and effective sequencing of information and interview quotations. He also worked with students to study and write examples of long form journalism, an area Head had not covered in his own classes. As a CHHS student, Weber spent three years in the journalism class, finally serving as editor of the Proconian his senior year. A prize-winning graduate of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism, Weber has worked with USA Today and other media outlets.

"The students have done an outstanding job with these stories,” Weber said. “It’s been so cool to see how quickly they’ve latched onto the material and reported such thoughtful, well-written articles. I’m so thankful to Mr. Head for asking me to lead this series, and for all the advice he’s given me throughout.”

“The project was intended to teach students how to conceptualize, report and write long-form, in-depth stories with a human interest angle,” Head said. “Students were to thoroughly research their assigned topic using public records, interviews and investigative reporting techniques and write an in-depth article.”

CHHS senior, Evren Centeno, said, “I wrote my story on Deborah Gilgor, who runs her own independent daycare within her home. At first, I was expecting to need multiple sources to give my story intrigue, making it more about how the daycare industry was functioning during COVID, but I found her story to be so interesting-- and for her to be such a great character. I ended up just telling her story. Writing the piece opened my mind to how wide the scope of the pandemic was: it affected every individual, each in a drastically different way. It had tremendous power and influence over our country and its inhabitants, all of them.”

Head continued, “It has been a long time since I have done any formal journalistic work aside from teaching, so it was great to work with Jared, who is a gifted journalist because he is a very empathetic listener and an outgoing person. But he also brought to the table a number of tips about digital reporting -- from recommending interview transcription software platforms to helping students use social media to promote their work. One of the project's difficulties was simply doing all of the reporting remotely, so a lot of the tips that Jared shared about in-person interviews or gathering information students weren't able to put into practice fully, but I'm confident that those who are taking the course again next year will be able to build upon the advice that Jared offered.  It was obvious that students had a much better understanding of how to use anecdotes effectively in the storytelling process, and the leads they wrote for the project -- and for subsequent stories -- were much improved and more specific to the individual stories they were telling and the angles they took on those stories.”

Mackie Motley, a CHHS junior, said, “This year working on the Proconian has been so much fun, and very informative. This year was my first year taking journalism, and It’s definitely something I want to continue learning more about through college. The COVID project we worked on with Jared was one of my favorite pieces to work on due to the fact that we were getting guidance from someone who had been in our shoes in previous years, and has now gone on to continue it in a professional field.”

Centeno said, “These stories, I feel, will help bring people closer together, as we all have struggles to empathize with despite the large political and economic divides experienced in the US. Everyone will remember the coronavirus pandemic, and everyone will have a unique story to tell from their experience living through it. These stories are only a glimpse of the struggles endured and strides made.”