Below is the text of the address given by the 2008 Dow Jones News Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year Karl Grubaugh at the JEA/NSPA Fall Convention in St. Louis.
Let me start by offering my thanks to the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund, Rich Holden and Linda Shockley for sponsoring the awards program and for helping bring us together today.
My thanks to my friends and colleagues in the Roseville Joint Union High School District who have supported meaningful scholastic journalism on my campus for more than a decade; thanks to the many journalism advisers across the country who have lent me your listening ear over the years. You’re an inspiration. And thanks, also, to Listserve Nation! What a tremendous resource we are for one another.
And finally, to my wonderful wife, Tanya, who is here today and who has listened to my rants about knuckleheaded administrators, about kids who don’t meet deadlines, about lawsuit-happy readers and who, without fail, helps me take a step back and put things in perspective … and then helps me celebrate the successes my kids and I have enjoyed over the years – thank you, and I love you.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve gotten congratulatory notes and e-mails from dozens of people, including several of you, and I can’t tell you how nice it’s been to be acknowledged for what I do. Because, as you all know so well, we pretty much work in a vacuum in scholastic journalism. We’re on our own, and with the exception of perhaps a colleague who advises the campus publication that we don’t, no one really gets what we do.
So I’ve been reflecting on exactly why it is I’ve stuck with advising a high school newspaper for more than a decade now. It’s certainly not the money. And it’s not the schedule. So why do I do this?
I didn’t really start out my teaching career intending to be a publications adviser. I’d been on the yearbook staff for a year in high school, but I was a social science major in college, and I wanted to teach U.S. history and perhaps coach some swimming and water polo.
I’d been in the classroom fulltime for five or six years when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, and the last thing I could possibly see myself doing was studying for a master’s degree in education. I’d been picking up a few extra bucks working as a freelancer for the sports section of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a mid-sized daily that serves Santa Cruz County, and I was also advising the middle school newspaper and yearbook where I taught. So I figured, why not get a graduate degree in journalism? I could make the switch to full-time journalism if I wanted, or I could come back to teaching with an additional subject area added to my credential.
So, I applied to schools all over the country, I was about to commit to Stanford, and then the University of Missouri called. They were looking for an assistant sports editor/assistant instructor for the Columbia Missourian, the six-days-a-week community newspaper managed by the School of Journalism, and I had both sports writing and teaching experience. Would I be interested?
Two years later, I was returning to California with a newborn daughter and a not-quite-finished MA in journalism. It was the middle of a mini-recession, and newspapers weren’t hiring. So, I took a job teaching at a different middle school near Santa Cruz. The principal knew I’d advised a student newspaper and yearbook in my previous middle school job, and so I agreed to develop an elective class that would publish a new student newspaper, the Seahawk Sentinel.
The kids were amazingly engaged – funny how publishing stories with student bylines tends to increase motivation – and one of my seventh graders, Victor Diaz, actually won a third-place sports writing award sponsored by the San Jose Mercury News. This was a kid whose father drove a long-distance truck, whose mother cleaned houses, and both parents had come to the U.S. as agricultural workers from Mexico. Victor used to drive me completely crazy – he suffered from the worst case of testosterone poisoning, ADD/ADHD and adolescent mischievousness I’d ever experienced as a teacher. But when we went to the awards ceremony, he was a different kid – respectful, quiet, perhaps a little awed by the whole thing. When they called his name, he took off his ever-present baseball hat and, beaming, went up to retrieve his certificate. On the way home, we talked about high school, about some of his goals and hopes and dreams. When I dropped him off at his simple clapboard house, he thanked me, and then he ran inside, the screen door banging behind him, clutching his certificate and shouting for his mom to come and take a look.
A couple of years later, I moved to the Sacramento area and, after two years of teaching history, government and economics and coaching swimming at Oak Ridge High School, the principal asked me to take on the newspaper adviser’s role. I agreed, and I ended up with some of the best and brightest kids on the campus. They humored me while I taught them a bit of what I knew about how to do journalism well, and then they went out and did some absolutely terrific work.
A decade ago, I ended up at Granite Bay High School when the school’s newspaper adviser took a maternity leave. And I finally put my finger on one of the secrets that’s kept me in the newspaper advising business, off and on, for nearly 25 years – kids thrive when they’re asked to do professional work, judged by professional standards, that will be seen and read by thousands of people. And we advisers get to go along for the ride.
It’s been, for me, a wonderful ride.
Alicia Parlette, a former San Francisco Chronicle columnist who is battling cancer, was one of my co-editors-in-chief. Natalie Gulbis, the professional golfer, was a Granite Bay Gazette sports writer. Nick Viglietti works for Americorps in New Orleans. Ken Segna makes documentary movies in Los Angeles. Ali Wood is an elementary school teacher. Diana Jung owns a marketing and Web design firm in Phoenix. Emily Inouye is in law school. Ryan Lindow. Heather Thompson. Ashley Keneller. Brian Wong. Meegan Brooks. Dena Fehrenbacher. Kevin Shiiba. And recently I’ve enjoyed one of the sweetest relationships in my teaching career – Lauren Grubaugh, my oldest child, has been on my staff for two and a half years and is one of my co-editors-in-chief this year.
There have been hundreds of students involved in my journalism programs over the years, and they’ve all enriched my life. Because secret No. 2 is that high school journalism isn’t just about the finished product, it’s about the people. And talented, motivated high school students are some of the most engaging people I’ve ever spent time with.
You should see our Friday night deadline nights. They’re crazy and frenetic and even chaotic. We occasionally do theme nights – the last one was “Dress Like Someone Else on the Staff” night – tons of food shows up, obnoxious music plays until the old fart insists on something with a melody, kids bust out spontaneous dance moves. It’s nuts.
But somehow, the thing gets done. In four or five weeks, we go from blank screens to more than 40 finished pages. We do that eight times a year … and I still have a job!
Still, it’s sometimes hard to know if I’m really making any kind of a difference. I sometimes wonder, in my darker moments, if I made the right decision when I decided to become a teacher, if maybe I should have kept looking for a full-time journalism job when I moved back to California, if maybe I should have tried to leverage my occasional part-time and freelance journalism gigs into a full-time career and bid teaching farewell.
I keep a folder full of notes I’ve gotten from kids over the years. When those darker times come, when I’m especially peeved at some ridiculous demand made by a parent, or I’m especially frustrated by an odious requirement imposed from on high by the state educational bureaucracy, I’ll pull out the file and read a couple of notes from former students who’ve been on my newspaper staff.
Shweta Doshi wrote: “Dear Mr. Grubaugh: I remember joining the Gazette staff in 2006 and thinking how full of energy and passion you were. It is so clear to any student how much good journalism matters to you, and it was truly inspiring to have an adviser who cared so much about both the newspaper and his students. Being a part of the Gazette staff has been both an incredibly fun and eye-opening experience, and a lot of the reason behind that is you. You have managed to find a way to impart knowledge to students while not boring them – you taught us what matters.”
Rachel Koontz wrote: “Dear Mr. Grubaugh: I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am to have had you as a journalism adviser this year. … You are a huge part of the reason why I want to be a journalist, why I’m headed to Northwestern, why I know in my heart that I will always write. … Please never stop sharing your passion with students who really learn what it means to ‘go out and do good journalism’ with you as their guide … what you do in the classroom really does make a difference. Always remember that – I certainly will!”
Wow! Does it get any better than that?
Last spring, I heard L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke speak at the Anaheim convention, and he was wonderful, maybe the best keynote speaker I’ve heard in more than a decade of conventions. He told stories about his life and his career, about how what he does is a miracle, and he urged student journalists to be the miracle, to write the miracle.
Bill Plaschke helped me realize something that’s been terrifically encouraging ever since.
I am a miracle maker. You are a miracle maker. We are miracle makers.
We push, we prod, we encourage, we chastise, we counsel, we laugh, we cry. We stand back and watch. We jump in and participate. We make a thousand decisions a day. And, eventually, a finished newspaper – imperfect, sure, with typos and misspellings and blurry photos, perhaps, but a newspaper nonetheless – shows up at our back gate, we distribute it on our campuses and people read it and react to it and enjoy it. And then we do it again and again and again. We are miracle makers.
We help our students tell the stories on their campuses that no other media outlet has the time or inclination to tell – stories of triumph and trouble, of challenges met and obstacles overcome, of opportunities lost and relationships foregone. We make miracles.
Every fall, we usher a new staff into our journalism labs. We point out to the first-year rookies the plaques and certificates that hang on the wall, the awards we’ve won over the years. We tell our newest students they have a tremendous legacy to uphold, a long history of newspaper excellence and a commitment to the highest standards of journalism. We tell them they’re about to start an amazing adventure as a member of the newspaper staff, and that our job is to do whatever we can to help them be successful. We are miracle makers.
Every year, we learn tons of new stuff to help our students do good journalism. When I started doing this, my kids still did paste-up (I am awesome with a waxer and an exacto knife!) and had to produce halftones for photos. Just in the last decade, we’ve seen WYSIWYG on-screen page design, digital photography, computer illustrations, tons of new software, printing from PDFs, new media platforms like the Web and podcasting and blogs and Twitter … and these kinds of changes are coming at us faster and faster and faster. But we not only don’t complain, we jump into it with both feet, anxious to be early adopters so our kids won’t be left behind. We make miracles.
Every spring, we send a few of our best and brightest out into the world, where they eventually become doctors and lawyers and teachers and journalists and nurses and accountants and engineers and film makers and fire fighters and restaurant managers and police officers. Because of our work, they are better citizens, more aware of their rights for having exercised them as high school students. We are miracle makers.
So I hear you out there: Come on, Karl, really, why do you do this? And tell me it’s not just because you get to eat enormous amounts of junk food every fourth Friday night during the school year.
That’s true, but that’s not why I do this.
I do this because I get to hang with bright, talented students who are passionate about what they do; I do this because I get to be on the front lines helping students responsibly exercise their First Amendment rights; I do this because I get to see the tremendous pride students have when an issue of the newspaper they’ve just completed comes out; I do this because I get letters from students who tell me that what I do matters.
I do this because I get to make miracles.
Thank you, and may you be blessed this year as you make miracles happen on your campuses.