It’s closing morning of the Journalism Education Association (JEA) Adviser’s Institute, and I am sitting in Starbucks, having a panic attack.
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 Kelly Furnas schools us on copyright law - another reminder of how much I still have to learn.
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.

Some #JEAai Highlights

Five important minutes
Valerie Kibler of Harrisburg High School in Virginia begins the first five minutes of her 90-minute block classes with “First Fives” – student-led presentations on skills and principles that the students determine are important to the staff’s development.
The idea is based on the principle that we learn something best when we are able to teach it effectively.
Each student-led lesson is comprised of a title, objective, slides, some sort of handout or guide, and a basic assessment agreed upon by the student and teacher. She asked us to brainstorm topics that might be covered in this sort of presentation. Some of my favorites from our group list included making eye contact in interviews, writing effective social media teases, writing professional emails, making professional and effective phone calls,and summaries of learning from conference sessions.
Kibler appreciates that her students have to practice both presentation and listening skills during these “First Fives.” “Students have access to every tech tool… But they are scared to death to talk to each other,” she said. “It’s almost like teaching humanity.”
The Editing Machine
More than any other session I attended, the presentation by Shari Adwers (@sadwers) of Grosse Pointe North High School in Michigan made me wish that a class supported our production schedule. Adwers’s tips on supporting peer feedback and building a culture of excellence in a journalism program were beyond inspiring.
Adwers makes constructive feedback part of her classes’ DNA by using and supporting it early and often. Early drafts are tacked up on the wall, and multiple revisions are expected as part of the process. Her staff uses a two-read system – the first read provides feedback on the angle, basic facts, sourcing, and questions; the second read analyzes the work to make it more reader-friendly by adjusting flow and content delivery. Could information be removed for clarity or brevity? Would some facts be more effective in an infographic, text box, image, caption, etc.?
Proofs are signed off by a minimum of three staffers. They create a list of common errors to look for, like cutlines, captions, and headlines. (On our staff, this would be any reason we’ve applied stickers in the last two years!)
Her staff does a lot of critique after each issue goes out. But first, they honor a 24-hour rule – meaning, after the publication has gone to press, no one can offer any constructive feedback for 24 hours. “Bask in your work,” she advised. “Celebrate it.” Once the feedback begins, her students use NING and/or Slack to post critiques that are shared (but stay) in-house. Each student is required to make three posts or responses that are constructive, solidly and professionally written, and timely. She showed some of these discussion threads on-screen, and I was really impressed by the seriousness and quality of her students’ feedback for each other. Of course, it’s assessed – but the quality of the critical work is beyond the basics of what is expected. It’s really designed for staffers to grow.
When her staff gets critique feedback or rubrics back from the contests, they read it aloud together. It sounds like a celebration, and this is definitely one of the ideas I’d like to bring back to our team. The feedback we’ve gotten from JEA, NSPA, and PSPA has been so helpful, but I know that some staff members have missed out due to busy schedules and timing. I’d like to make pro feedback into more of an occasion.
I have many more notes from Adwers’s presentation, and I’m thinking hard about ways I can build some of her great ideas into an extracurricular program.
Impossible and Realistic Dreams
Greg Cooper’s session, Publication Photo and Video on a Budget, was sort of a whim for me. Our publication has no budget for photo or video equipment, nor does this seem like an anticipated reality anytime soon. But Cooper discussed a few basic tools and tricks that might be easy (and cheap) for our staff to use.
Photography is one of my weakest links – so it’s consequently a weak link for our staff, too. At the end of this school year, I purchased a personal DSLR with intention to let responsible staff borrow the camera for special events and school day shoots. A few students experimented with the camera, and we were all a little dazzled by the results – especially in comparison to what they usually shoot with smartphones.
More DSLRs aren’t coming soon either, but Cooper believes that the best phone is still the one you have in your pocket. Here’s my short wish-list of tools that may help us to use our pocket-phones better based on his presentation.
I also learned what a shotgun microphone is, but that’s three figures and out of the question for now.
I’m almost embarrassed at how little I know about audio and video production – almost as little as I know about photography. But not quite embarrassed – because there was nothing in my formal education with this focus, and my informal time has been pretty booked.
It’s probably a much more realistic goal for me to try to learn as much about A/V as I can minus the dreamy equipment. You CAN get great results. Cooper shared examples of how Time magazine contracted a photographer to use an iPhone and Hipstamatic to shoot Superstorm Sandy, and how the recent indie movie Tangerine was filmed entirely on the iPhone.
I think I’d like to spend some time learning from advisers who teach and use the equipment in their programs, though. The high-quality equipment explains a lot about the high-quality photography I see in the yearbook Pacemakers, and the video broadcasts that look like they are out of pro studios. Instruction trumps equipment, but a lot of these programs have the best of both.
Getting Obsessed
What if more reporting was about answering meaningful questions, rather than just covering what happens? That’s the question that seems to drive Patrick Johnson of Sequoit Media (Antioch, Illinois) in his teaching.
He noted:
Beats provide institutional structures.
Obsessions are a human one.
Students are stretched thin.
How is the community being covered as humanly as possible? 
How can we teach students to feel?
Johnson asks his students to focus their reporting on a “wicked problem” as described by the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Rosen’s writing has a lot more substance and nuance, but basically, a wicked problem has no easy answers, multiple stakeholders, and many perspectives.
Johnson’s students identify a content problem for each term, and seek out an answer through strategic and innovative reporting. The media they use to tell their stories is what is best to get the message across – writing, Infographics, columns, video, multimedia, etc. – over a series of works that explore the problem in depth.
I love how his students get to these problems. According to Johnson, on staff retreat at the start of the year, he has them look in the eye and ask each other about the problems that matter most in their school and community.
His sample problem – which I could see working extraordinarily well with our staff:
What role does masculinity play in the high school experience?
Told through content focused on:
Organizational impact
Gendered sporting events, rituals
Fashion trends + styles
Opportunities + roadblocks
First-person narratives
Their magazine publication is stunning and I need to spend some time looking at it closely as we ramp up for the year. The simple exercise of asking each other about the problems that matter most is one that will definitely be part of our preparation for the year.

Pages full of notes on my iPad and in my notebook still to organize and apply...