PABLO — Just a few days into the new quarter, student reporters for Two Eagle River School’s news magazine gathered on Wednesday to plan the stories for their next issue and to receive expert advice from a team of national reporters on a cross-country road trip.
Rachel Cramer, a radio reporter, and Qainat Khan, a radio producer, from “Crossing the Divide” sat at the horseshoe table with teens from the alternative high school in Pablo on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
The duo visited the school as part of a collaboration between the nonprofit GroundTruth Project and Boston-based WGBH, which had earlier hosted a story slam event with The Moth in Missoula. The project includes visits to a local high school in each region to teach media literacy, take teens behind the scenes on their reporting, and to promote storytelling as a way to develop empathy and foster dialogue on tough issues.
Unlike in most other writing and English classes at the school, journalism students have the power to decide their own topics, a freedom many said they appreciate. The teens pitched articles about immigration, a history of street art, wildfires, poetry slams, and Gorillaz — an English virtual band — among others.
That day, history and journalism teacher Jaimie Stevenson asked students to write the first sentence, or "lede," of their stories, noting that Cramer and Khan would move around the room to help them craft the perfect opening.
“We only have to do one sentence?” checked 15-year-old Lawrence Mahkuk, who was writing about fur trapping ethics.
“Yes. The first sentence is very important,” Stevenson said. “Those of you who have done all your research are at the most difficult part: writing.”
Cramer and Khan are part of an eight-member team visiting five regions of the country for 10 days each — western Massachusetts, Kentucky, urban Minnesota, western Montana and the California Bay area — to write about “the issues that divide us and to find the places where we can all come together.” The team documents how their stories are made on a Tumblr blog that students and teachers can follow to demystify the processes and ethics of professional journalists.
Earlier this month, the reporters led a storytelling exchange with Two Eagle River students. They paired up to share personal experiences then reconvened as a larger group where each teen shared their partner’s story in the first person.
Nina Hernandez, 17, said the exchange gave her a better understanding of her peers.
“One of the things that surprised me is how little I knew about everybody I went to school with, because I went to school with everybody for years. Hearing all of their stories was so crazy because I didn’t know any of that about them. I learned a lot about them and how little I knew, actually,” she said, giving a shout-out to her partner, Adrian Littleboy, with whom she talked about gender identity, sexuality and their shared struggles.
“It made me feel more connected to everybody,” Hernandez said. “It made me more sympathetic about where they are in life. I thought it was really cool.”
Khan said the goal of the story exchange is to have students “walking in someone else’s shoes.” She and the reporters decided to participate in the exchange rather than just facilitate it as they’ve done elsewhere on their trip.
“This school is very different from the other schools we’ve visited,” she said. “It made sense to share in that vulnerability.”
For one, the classes are much smaller. Two Eagle River School is an alternative school for grades 8 and up with a little more than 100 students. It focuses heavily on incorporating Salish and Kootenai culture lessons into curriculum as a way to strengthen student identity and build teens’ confidence.
It is run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes with additional oversight from the federal Bureau of Indian Education, the Montana Office of Public Instruction and a national accrediting agency.
Most students are Native American, although not all are. Some are white, others are CSKT descendants rather than enrolled members, and some are members of other tribes. They are bused to the school from communities across the Flathead Indian Reservation, which spans about 75 miles from corner to corner.
Despite the differences, students from Two Eagle River School shared similar stories to teens at the High School of Commerce in Massachusetts, Floyd Central High School in Kentucky and St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota.
“It’s about relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends, it’s about relationships with their parents, it’s about loss of family, and opioids, and it’s about being a young person in America today,” Cramer said. “I think that has been helpful for us to be grounded and remember, ‘Oh, yes, even though this school is out near the Mission Mountains in Montana and the last school was in downtown Minneapolis, there are so many similarities.’”