2017-12-07 / Front Page

Class assignment sparks teen to pen letters to newspapers

BY RYAN GIBBS


Lucas O’Reilly in front of the letters to the editor that have been published in newspapers across the country as part of teacher David Avedesian’s current-affairs class in the last decade. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Lucas O’Reilly in front of the letters to the editor that have been published in newspapers across the country as part of teacher David Avedesian’s current-affairs class in the last decade. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Lucas O’Reilly didn’t have to look — or smell — very far to find the subject for a letter to the editor published in his hometown newspaper last month.

The 16-year-old junior at North Kingstown High School is required to write a monthly letter to a newspaper for his class on current affairs. During the summer, he noticed a rise in the skunk population while riding his bicycle from work to his Clinton Avenue home. After his dog had a few fateful encounters with the pungent mammal, he decided to submit a letter to The Jamestown Press to raise awareness of their increased presence.

“It was just kind of crazy to me that skunks were the animal I was seeing the most, out of squirrels or anything like that,” he said. “I had a couple close calls, and it was less of a nuisance until my dog started getting sprayed pretty frequently. I decided to address an issue that was prevalent to me and my life. Even though it was an assignment, it was something I wanted to do anyway.”


Students in David Avedesian’s class on current affairs Monday scour newspapers for articles that interest them. Once they identify an article, they write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Students in David Avedesian’s class on current affairs Monday scour newspapers for articles that interest them. Once they identify an article, they write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN His letter asked several questions. What steps could the town take to solve this problem? Was a cull necessary? He wanted his letter to be a catalyst for further discussion amongst his neighbors and the town councilors.

Despite O’Reilly’s strong feelings, his teacher, David Avedesian, was skeptical. He believed the problems raised in the letter were overblown by his student.

“I kept telling him his letter stinks in more ways than one,” Avedesian quipped. “I honestly didn’t take the letter seriously at all.”

Nonetheless, O’Reilly chose to submit the letter as his assignment for the month. Indeed, it was published in the Nov. 9 edition.

“He was so pumped up that it got published,” Avedesian said. “He couldn’t wait to run in and stick it in my face.”

Avedesian said he was unaware about the skunk issue; he thought his student’s concerns were solitary. O’Reilly, however, said he simply followed Avedesian’s advice to write a letter that would start a dialogue. He was certain other townspeople noticed the rise of skunk sightings on the island.

Not alone in his concern

Despite the publication of O’Reilly’s letter, Avedesian still was not completely convinced about the seriousness of the issue — until he noticed a letter in the Nov. 22 issue of the Press. The piece was written by Narragansett Avenue resident Chris Tanner, who corroborated O’Reilly’s story and described his own frequent sightings of skunks around town at all hours of the day.

“That was the moment he realized that it wasn’t just random,” O’Reilly said, “five minutes before class.”

The class, a half-year elective course, requires students to write at least four letters before the winter break. When the class meets, they will typically read and discuss stories from three local papers — The Jamestown Press, The Independent and the Providence Journal — along with segments from that week’s episode of “60 Minutes.” Because it is a history course, Avedesian also may include the historical context of a story during class discussions.

The class differs from the journalism course that North Kingstown offers. That class is an English course that publishes the school’s newspaper and its classroom discussions center more on how a story is written. Avedesian’s class, meanwhile, focuses on current issues.

Avedesian, who has been a history teacher at North Kingstown for 15 years, has been teaching current affairs for the past decade. He introduced the monthly assignment shortly after he took over the class. It became particularly popular once the students started to be published.

“I decided to include it because it’s an elective,” he said. “You get a lot more flexibility with some of the assignments. You have to be a little more creative at times because they don’t necessarily need the class to graduate.”

The students select the topics for their letters based on whatever news stories catch their eyes that month. Or, in O’Reilly’s case, their personal experiences. They are required to submit a rough draft to Avedesian for edits before sending it off to a newspaper editor.

“Sometimes they’ll write something and I’m like, ‘You got no shot on getting published,’ and they’ll send it anyway,” Avedesian said. “As long as it’s properly formatted, it’s factual and they’re not personally attacking anyone, they get credit for it.”

The students also get to choose which newspapers they will send their letter to. Although most students submit to the three papers they read in class, some have loftier goals and choose larger papers, such as the Boston Globe or USA Today. Avedesian has saved every letter by his students that have been published. They hang on his classroom wall.

“There’s hundreds hanging up in my room,” he said. “The kids always ask me, ‘How do I write one and what should I include?’ I just tell them to go read some.”

Sparked more letters

Avedesian said it’s intriguing to see problems reappearing in the newspapers. Some concerns that were the topic of conversation eight years ago are now the topic of letters in this year’s class.

“It’s always interesting to see how history repeats,” he said.

As for O’Reilly’s letter, the teen said he was excited to open the newspaper and see his work.

“I’d never been published before,” he said. “It was something really cool to see my own writing and see my name in the paper. I think a lot of classmates who have done this assignment also feel similarly.”

Following the success of his skunk letter, O’Reilly submitted two pieces to two different newspapers for his November assignment.

The first letter was another submission to The Jamestown Press about vandalism on the rocks and cliffs around Fort Wetherill State Park. O’Reilly had regularly visited the park with his friends this summer and became concerned about the graffiti that shrouds the historic bunkers.

“It’s destroying the natural beauty of the rocks,” he said. “I just thought that was ridiculous. I know there’s no solutions to idiotic people doing that kind of thing, but what’s the possibility of getting it removed?”

His second letter was sent to the Providence Journal and focused on media consumption through headlines seen on smartphone notifications. That letter was published in the Nov. 25 edition of the Journal.

Avedesian has yet to see the final draft of O’Reilly’s letter about Fort Wetherill, which was sent to both him and the newspaper’s editor last Thursday. However, he was not surprised that a Jamestown student had written another piece about life on the island.

“Jamestown kids are usually pretty concerned about not letting Jamestown slip away,” he said. “They don’t want the peaceful island community to go the way of Newport or Narragansett. I always give them a hard time that there needs to be a Walmart on the island. They go nuts when I say that.”

Don’t disrespect park with graffiti

To the editor:

Every day, I realize how blessed I am to live in a place with as much natural beauty as Jamestown.

The coastline surrounding the island always has new secluded inlets and beautiful beaches to discover. One of the more popular waterfront attractions is Fort Wetherill.

I have lived in Jamestown for two years and visited the fort many times to explore and swim. When exploring the old battery defenses, it easily can be seen that there is lots of graffiti, ranging from beautiful and creative street art work to obscene images. The graffiti on the cement buildings is not ideal but does not pose as much of a shock as many state parks are vandalized.

Toward the end of the summer I started noticing more and more graffiti on the beautiful cliffs overlooking the water. Even though the illegality of the graffiti does not change with its location, it does greater damage to one of Jamestown’s more beautiful areas when the graffiti is clearly marking up rocks and disrupting the view of the bay. It is sad to see such blatant disrespect of natural beauty.

I think I speak for other Jamestowners when I say this. Fort Wetherill means a lot to the town, so I call on anyone who feels similarly to contact Rhode Island’s Division of Parks and Recreation and share their thoughts and ideas on how we, as Jamestowners, can work to solve this issue.

Lucas O’Reilly
Clinton Avenue

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