I have spent the last four days in a vibrant learning community of journalism teachers from all over the country. I have attended sessions on everything from structuring an “editing machine” to teaching copyright law to advice on how to choose photography and video equipment on a budget. My tablet is loaded with detailed notes, links to slide presentations, and shared folders of assignments and resources.
I am consistently impressed with the generosity and support of JEA members. It’s a warm community. So many of us are the sole journalism teacher at our schools – high standards stretched thin. When we get together, we exchange stories and resources like excited tweens (or adults, these days) exchanging Pokemon
. It’s a little like nerd camp, and I think everyone would fully accept the label.
In one session, an adviser describes how her staff updates their website eight times or more each day. In another, I learn that a $499 DLSR camera can do work that is comparable to models that cost double that, and the definition of a shotgun microphone, although I’m embarrassed to admit this was new to me. A session leader tells me that every student in her class is required to make a FOIA request, so they get the experience of going through the process. One adviser has 95 students on staff; another teaches journalism all day long. I see meticulously-procured yearbooks that look like high-end oversized coffee table books, bi-weekly 20-page papers, and student-produced glossy magazines that rival what I browsed on stands at the airport.
- JEA’s outgoing Executive Director schools us on copyright law – another reminder of how much I still have to learn.
The backdrop for the institute was Las Vegas, a city I’d never visited before. I am completely overwhelmed by every artifice: the towering casinos, the spiky high heels, the odd piped-in scent that barely hides cigarette smoke, the men I see at the blackjack tables at 6 AM. Because I am attending on a peanut-butter-and-jelly budget, I spend much of my down time in the hotel. So the backdrop to Vegas itself – for me – is CNN, where it’s nonstop predictions about the upcoming party conventions and vice presidential picks. The most common phrase I hear in one hour of the Cable News Network is “I think” with the word “speculation” a close second. When it all starts to give me a headache, I turned down the volume and read Hunter S. Thompson.
The agenda suggested that we bring publication samples to exchange. Mine are still in my backpack. I am intensely proud of the work my students produce. But as far as I can tell, I am the only person here who advises a publication that is extracurricular. There is no comparison between the depth of what students can explore, learn and design as part of prioritized class time, and what we manage to put together in homeroom and whenever else we can scrape together volunteer time.
The conundrum is why I’ve easily spent more than $500 out of pocket on donuts
in the last year. Our staff volunteers time to interview, write, design, ask hard questions, debate ethics, and often take tough feedback. Teachers in my institute sessions discuss grading, rubrics, and how their students excel academically. Our staff has gradually started to earn a few awards
, and the students tell me it’s a “rush” to see their stories in print. And, of course, my JEA colleagues are incredibly articulate about the valuable hard and soft skills students learn through deep practice in student journalism. But I wonder how this all compares to anything my students see on their transcripts. It might seem trite, but the least I can do for the team is to put some sprinkles on all of the hard work.
I don’t know how we’ve done it. I don’t know how we will continue to do it. But my last-morning panic is driven by feeling like it’s urgent to teach these principles. Because without at least some inquiry and preferably some practice in journalism and media literacy, I’m not sure how today’s students learn to discern what the talking heads on CNN “speculate,” from the political rants grown-ups post on Facebook, from the real-world facts that affect their lives.
It’s true that what felt like a panic was probably more a result of the Starbucks being open 24-hours, plus me never shifting from east coast time. But the urgency feels very real. I’m finishing this up in the airport, with a browser scrolling tweets full of speculation, sadness, and hate after yet another attack. The consequences of being unable to discern reality feel dire.
Maybe panic is okay, if panic can drive determination.