Questions for Beth Black, Faculty Advisor to The Piedmont Highlander





This year, each edition of the Spotlight on Student Learning will include a profile of a teacher in the District.  In keeping with this month’s theme of communications, we decided to profile Beth Black.

We sat down with Ms. Black, the adviser of the Piedmont Highlander, at lunch in her classroom and talked with her about student journalism.  This is the first of many conversations that the Spotlight will bring to the community this year in hopes of giving you an inside look into the world of our educators.

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Beth Black has been teaching journalism at PHS and advising the student newspaper, The Piedmont Highlander, for over 16 years.  A graduate of the University of Toledo with a Bachelors of Education, she completed graduate work at The Ohio State University and has worked at USA Today and other newspapers.  Ms. Black brings practical experience to the classroom, and has been teaching journalism for more than 25 years.

The Piedmont Highlander (TPH), which has a print and online edition, is produced and run by students.  The print edition comes out every three weeks during the school year.  The online edition ( is updated more frequently.

What are some of the skills students learn by working on TPH?

They learn to write concisely, recognize bias, and question whether something is newsworthy.  Producers and consumers of news should have these skills.  They learn to handle deadline pressure and the public reaction to their work.  They learn the power of words and how they can impact others.  They also learn to always have a Plan B — in case they can’t get the source, or can’t get the photo.  They need to have a back-up plan because there’s always a deadline to meet.

What does it mean that TPH is student-produced and student-run?

Each year, the students decide what kind of publication TPH will be.  Will the primary purpose be to inform, persuade, or entertain?  Will TPH be the news of record, an outlet for student expression, or a marketplace of ideas?

This year, the students decided the primary purpose of TPH will be to inform, then entertain, then persuade.  This decision will guide all editorial decisions for the year.  When issues and possible stories come up, the students will decide how to they can inform the reader.  They take this very seriously.

How has student journalism at PHS changed over the last 16 years?

I can tell you what hasn’t changed-  student dedication to the finished product.  The high level of student dedication was here before I started, and it’s been constant.  The students have always appreciated the value of good journalism and they work hard to have a good finished product.

What has changed is the level of content.  Students now tackle more serious issues.  They go after stories they’re not even sure they can write out, and I help them consider whether and how they can write about them responsibly and ethically.  They are real journalists.

What do you mean by writing “ethically?”

There have been times when students wanted to run with a story, when they knew they had the facts, but they had to consider the implications.  They had to think about the importance of the information, and their willingness to take on the consequences of reporting.  The class can be idealistic — they don’t have to worry about advertisers, and they don’t have to worry that the school will pull the story.  In California, student journalists have freedom of expression.  The school administration does not have the right to read stories in advance or pull stories from the paper.

I help students consider the ethical and legal issues, and they decide what to do with a story.  They have a lot of freedom, and they work hard to do what they think is right.  They are thoughtful, responsible, and trustworthy.

TPH does not shy away from difficult issues such as school culture, drug and alcohol use, and sexual identity.  How are these stories developed?

Sensitive issues come up every year, and the students think about what kind of story they might do.  An example is the controversy over the “Fantasy Sex League,” or FSL.  The students knew the facts but they had to decide what to do about it.  The story was breaking in the media, and the students decided to take the time to do interviews and write a careful story.  They chose to be accurate rather than fast and reactionary.

Why did TPH decide to create an online edition?

This decision to create the online edition was driven by the students.  Three students came to me in 2012 with a typed proposal, so I learned the legal implications and we moved forward.  The web platform is more than just an online version, and this raises questions about how to use it.

For the print edition, we are on a three-week print cycle.  News can get stale in three weeks, so the students focus more on features than news.  But the web platform allows for reporting in real time, allowing for even live coverage of news.  The students need to decide questions about what and when to update the site.  We’ve added Facebook posts, notifications, Twitter for football games and other sports and school events.  We want to use live links and add more resources.  We want to grow the website to be more interactive.

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The Piedmont Highlander is produced by students in Beth Black’s Journalism course.  The online publication can be found at  The Journalism course is offered in collaboration with the Contra Costa Office of Education Regional Occupational Program, or “ROP.”  ROP courses are state-funded programs to help students gain knowledge and skills for future careers.  In addition to the Journalism course, the District offers ROP courses in Culinary Arts, Sports Medicine, Biotech, Music Theory, and Environmental Studies.

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