Presented by Ellen J. Austin, 2012 Dow Jones News Fund Journalism Teacher of the Year, at the Journalism Education Association/National Scholastic Press Association Fall Convention, San Antonio, Nov. 17, 2012
Thank you to Dow Jones News Fund, especially Rich Holden and Linda Shockley, and to Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the Poynter Institute.
Thank you, JEA and National Scholastic Press Association, for a great convention here in San Antonio.
Thanks to all who have sent kind greetings; to my colleagues at Palo Alto High School, and former colleagues at St. Paul Academy and Cannon Falls High School; and to the Viking magazine and INfocus broadcast staffs, as well as past staffs of the Lantern and Rubicon. You create the images and you tell the stories. You’re why I’m here and why I do this work.
It is a great and humbling honor to be addressing you today. I would like to talk this afternoon about leaps of faith.
I teach English and journalism at Palo Alto High School. We have a journalism fleet at Paly, where I work with some astonishing colleagues: Paul Kandell, a good friend, outstanding teacher and my anchor; and colleagues Mike McNulty, Esther Wojcicki and Margo Wixsom.
About 20 to 25 percent of Paly’s 2300 students pass through the doors of our journalism programs.
We are building a bond-funded media arts building, with doors slated to open next fall. That building represents tangible support from our parent community, who are willing to take another bite in taxes because they understand that our schools are our futures.
Let me paint a picture of what it looked like yesterday in Viking’s classroom as editors staffed up weekend coverage for the football playoff game: video and DSLR cameras being checked out, sideline reporter’s passes getting picked up and distributed; editors organizing the timeline expectation for the game recap and photos — by midnight? 1 a.m.? Friday night. A crisp discussion of how tweets, real-time game photos and videos, and Facebook posts would flow and converge together throughout the evening to create a hybridized stream of coverage from kickoff through final buzzer.
If I could read minds, I’m pretty sure a Tumblr meme floating in the air right now might read, “Sweet: living in California’s wonderland of student free expression, with a new building and rooms full of students singing ‘KumBahYah’ and then writing and posting all weekend long.”
So I’d like to tell you, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story….”
I live my life by several mantras that drive me: “Leap, and the net will appear” is the primary one.
I grew up in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln; moved to Europe in my 20s; spent two decades in Minnesota; and moved six years ago to the nation’s hub of innovation and entrepreneurship, Silicon Valley. But as writer and academic JRR Tolkien put it well: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Neither of my parents were writers or journalists. My dad, a mechanical engineer and weekend pilot, passed away eight years ago. I am thankful for his gifts: He taught me how to take a photo and to fly an airplane, and always to take leaps of faith.
My mother is here today and has been a teacher since 1957 — and still teaches today. That you still are a teacher at 77 in a career that has gone for more than half a century is a wonder.
She is the inspiration, support, and template of much that I do in my classroom and my life.
And Mom — I hope you’ll help me enter a stack of quiz grades back at the hotel after we finish up here.
My path to journalism advising started with a camera.
I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. In 1976, when I was a seventh grader, the Rockford government, facing a budget crisis, proposed a property tax referendum, much like Paly’s.
It failed. Our K-12 schools were stripped of all sports, music, orchestras, choirs, bands, all journalism, all art. Over 400 teachers lost their jobs. Including my mom, whose position as a music teacher was eliminated.
There were two impacts on my life of that failed referendum: first, I vowed never ever, ever to become a teacher; secondly, I picked up a camera and fell in love.
My dad, an amateur photographer, built a darkroom in our basement to give me something to do. I took to the chemistry, sequence and magic of photography with joy. I found my voice — with film.
Although my AP Lit seniors wouldn’t believe it if they heard me right now, my heroes are not Jane Austen (unless it’s that one, right there — yes, it’s the family punch line) and Shakespeare — whose birthday I share.
My heroes were legendary midcentury photojournalists: Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange.
Their lenses were courageous, creating a dialogue about social issues with images that leveraged change that needed to come.
I was 6 months old when JFK was assassinated, 4 years old when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, in first grade when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
What would our collective memory be without the iconic photographs of those moments?
After finishing up at the University of Illinois, including stints as a photographer on the Daily Illini campus paper and the “Illio” yearbook, I spent time living in Europe teaching English as a foreign language, then moving to Minnesota, where I set up a small photo studio in a warehouse in St. Paul.
Somewhere along the way, bowing to family pressure, I also got my teaching certification —“just in case.”
My camera has traveled into Kentucky coal country to document the proud but poverty-laden lives there; I’ve run from mobs in South Africa when I visited that nation in the last days of apartheid and turned my lens on the villages in the homelands which were looking towards a coming freedom.
What has traveled from photography into my life as a teacher is an emphasis on capturing strong visuals in our stories.
I coach my students to think with their eyes as much as their ears, using the mantra from early photojournalist Cartier-Bresson: “The decisive moment.”
Viking decided early to be a photography-forward magazine because images are integral to the “story” of sports. Photos also reach members of our community for whom printed words are hard to access. Visual journalism is a tool of inclusion.
The verse my Kentucky grandmother taught me from the New Testament provides the second mantra by which I live: “Knock, and the door shall be opened.”
I’d add: if it doesn’t open, you may need to kick it [gently]. Because change often means pushing against the status quo.
Back to that young girl, the photographer.
I thought it would be nifty to take pictures for the school paper when we finally got electives back two years later. One day in the fall of freshman year, I went to the “Pub Room,” to meet longtime newspaper adviser, Joan Schmelzle, and asked to join the newspaper staff.
She looked me up and down, and said, “I don’t take girls as photographers.”
I’d heard about glass plate negatives. I didn’t realize I’d just met a glass ceiling for a freshman girl.
I walked up to the school counselor’s office to ask if that sounded right to him. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but suddenly I was on the staff — as a photographer. And a girl.
That experience of someone trying to shut a door stays with me as a teacher.
Who are we missing on our staffs right now? Who are we missing out there in the world of our audience? How do we [kick] open those doors and invite those kids in?
Alan Lamarque, current Viking co-editor, entered Paly journalism through an alternate summer journalism internship program based in East Palo Alto and started by Paul Kandell five years ago. East Palo Alto (or EPA) borders Palo Alto. EPA has historically been black, Hispanic and economically struggling.
Alan, who’s Mexican-American, completed the summer EPA program, joining Viking as a sophomore, the youngest staff member ever. He has won awards for his writing, was named managing editor his junior year, and this year, as a senior, is one of the three co-editors in chief.
Alan says, “I wasn’t even on this path to being where I am now, but I can’t imagine what it would be like if I hadn’t been here. I’m the first Latino editor on Viking. To be standing up in front of people telling them what we’ve done, much of the time the students are Asian or white and they don’t usually look much like me. It makes me proud to be Latino.”
Film also matters more to inclusion and connections. Maryssa Sklaroff, co-executive producer of INfocus, Paly’s broadcast program, says, “The capabilities of film are extraordinary. Film is accessible to everybody, the Internet is accessible to every high school student. If you have access to that, it doesn’t matter what cultural background you come from, what languages you speak or how far apart you are.”
But back to the story.
Becoming a teacher took a leap of faith. And a well-timed phone call.
In 1999, a photo client and school board member in the small town of Cannon Falls, about an hour away from Minneapolis, pitched me a job: They needed an AP Comp teacher for a year, and I needed health insurance. I took the job.
The story of the subsequent creation and success of the Cannon Falls Lantern is a “Friday Night Lights” tale of kids without resources creating a legacy; but it’s equally a tale of professional journalism advocates making the net appear in mid-air for those newspaper kids when they leapt.
Those advocates were integral to a beginning program staying alive: Ann Akers, then at NSPA, provided constant support and advice; Sandy Woodcock from NAA Foundation awarded two NAA grants.
And Lynda McDonnell, of Minneapolis’ Journalism ThreeSixty, wrapped my poor rural kids into her program centered around urban kids of color: in its lack of access to resources, poverty is its own color.
Separately, ASNE’s fellowship in 2003 at Ball State was transformative, giving me the training and tools a new adviser needs to do and keep the job.
Emily Banks, former co-editor-in-chief of The Lantern, said: “Ellen learned along with the rest of us.”
Emily ended up majoring in print journalism at the University of Minnesota. As of last month, she is the Managing Editor at the rapidly-expanding social media company Mashable.com in New York.
I had thought the “teaching thing” would be doable — for a year or two. But somewhere along the way, the courage of kids, the energy of young minds at work, and the intellectual challenge of the classroom turned me into a career teacher.
After five years, I took a job at a small private school in St. Paul, closer to my Minneapolis home.
Generous private school teachers on the Listserve, like Tracy Anne Sena from San Francisco, became long-distance mentors. Tracy reminded me that private schools exist without the same First Amendment-protected rights, and also live under the realities of an “at will” employment contract.
In late winter 2007, I took the leap which has led — here.
At this point, I need to thank the two “godfathers” of scholastic journalism from Northern California who are dear to me and so many other advisers here, Steve O’Donohue and Nick Ferentinos.
Steve O. sent me an email in March, sternly writing I should give up frigid Minne-SNOW-ta and head west to ever-sunny Palo Alto.
I’d heard about Paul’s cutting-edge work with the PalyVoice site, even though I knew him only from reading Voice online.
I’m probably not the first teacher to put a “For Sale” sign on a house, pack up a car and drive cross-country for a guy she’s only met online.
What I took with me from Minnesota to California was the continuing friendship of a tight group of advisers there whose generosity and kindness embody the “aw shucks” ethos of Minnesota culture. Laurie Hansen, Liz Keeling, Lori Keekly, Kathryn Campbell — I’m looking at you.
I also packed along a fervent belief in student free expression, having seen firsthand the challenges posed by prior review and challenges in Minnesota, a Hazelwood state.
When I arrived, I was welcomed and included by JEA Northern California’s board of colleagues and rock star advisers: Sarah Nichols, Michelle Balmeo, Tracy, Don Bott, Karl Grubaugh, Randy Hamm and the other great people on that board.
I also got my new assignment at Paly: the school decided to add a regularly-published, all-sports print magazine.
Paly produces world-class athletes on a regular basis, like 49ers football coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford soccer star Teresa Noyola, and NBA point guard phenomenon Jeremy Lin.
Me? A pre-Title IX girl, I have never played a sport formally.
But the young men and women on Viking (and later INfocus) let me in, welcomed me and taught me about sportsmanship, stats, spirit. They taught me about dedication — and why “team” equals “family.” A door that could have slammed on me, they instead … opened.
Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated columnist, told my class a couple of years ago, “Start with sports and use it as a jumping-off point into social issues.”
And we have. From the beginning, the Viking has used its platform of sports to include pieces on race, HIV/Aids, concussions, Title IX and gender discrimination, cancer, the murder of a Paly Olympian, dangerous diet practices of athletes, drug use and recovery, the money of high school sports.
This is the second issue cover of The Viking, October 2007, which featured a big story on hazing in sports at Paly. I wondered how likely (or not likely) it would be for me to keep my post as a “probational” teacher. This story would kick at a lot of doors.
We got the 5Ws and an H. Our administrators supported our right to publish (thank you, California Educational Code 48907), and we vetted our story with SPLC and Logan Aimone, executive director of NSPA.
The hazing story became news in the professional media in our community and the Bay Area and led to a school policy that tightened anti-hazing regulations.
I’m proud of the editors who produced that piece, Noah Sneider and Peter Johnson, two varsity athletes who received the Courage in Journalism Award from JEA in spring 2008 for taking a stand.
Knock on the door, or kick it open. But let people — and important issues that matter — into your publications.
I repeat this next phrase often to myself and to my students. I borrowed it from Facebook, a saying on the walls at their corporate office: “Go fast — and break things.”
Trying new things is a core part of Viking’s culture, even if new things don’t always work smoothly, or well.
Viking began augmenting its print offering in 2010 with social media, adding Twitter as a way to provide instant sports scores. Soon we added a Facebook account, Tumblr, Instagram.
The next spring, Viking leadership decided that it was time to take a bigger leap and build a 24/7 all-sports website. We went live — two weeks later — in March 2011.
Money isn’t the barrier to going after a 24/7 presence in publications. It’s handling the change, the uncertainty, the chance that it might “break” and need fixing.
Viking co-editor Kevin Dukovic says the key to leading a publication invested in this approach means “feeling a little uncomfortable on a nearly daily basis.”
While my Paly students may sound more amped up in approach, what they do is now attainable almost anywhere in this country where kids are willing to take a shot at it, whether a tech hub like Palo Alto or a tiny town like Cannon Falls.
Talking about the “what could be” as advisers, though, is immaterial if we don’t talk right now about climate change. I’m not talking about glaciers: I’m talking about the great chill on student free expression that we’ve lived with for the past 25 years: “Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.”
If we could collectively go fast and break something together, I’d like to see us break Hazelwood. Soon. Let’s help Frank LoMonte and the SPLC: Hazelwood is a cancer, and we need to get rid of it and find the cure.
I guess I belong to the church of journalism. Perhaps the Founding Fathers also recognized the close relationship of the core values of the country they were building, including religious beliefs and the rights of a free press and free expression next to each other in the same 45 words.
My sister Beth, who had a long career as a journalist and writer before taking the leap into the political world as a speechwriter, sent me this in an email the day that she heard I had received this award and would be making a speech here today. This comes from the Book of Common Prayer:
For those who Influence Public Opinion
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous ….
I don’t have a charter or a punch list for you today. Just go home and do one thing — one thing — that makes you a “little uncomfortable.”
It can be a small leap — you don’t have to sell your house, hitch up the covered wagon with your trusty dog, and drive over the Great Salt Flats on your way to the promised land of journalism.
As Alan says, “You have to take innovation small steps at a time. Take the steps that you can with what you have.”
And if you’ve already taken that leap of faith, mentor someone who hasn’t.
What’s in it for us? I’ll leave you with this visual metaphor from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, from An American Childhood, writing about learning to play football:
“It was all or nothing … you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive.”
Don’t be afraid to leap.
Thank you, and have a great year.