Ask A Pro
The journalism future is here and now in our classrooms
Kandell is the 2009 National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year, sponsored by Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.
The following is the prepared text of a speech he gave at the Saturday, Nov. 14, JEA/NSPA awards luncheon.
My dear colleagues, let me begin by saying thanks to the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and the Columbia Scholastic Press Association for co-sponsoring this award; to JEA and NSPA for this fabulous convention; and to Herff-Jones for underwriting this luncheon.
My thanks also:
- to my listserv friends, and my fellow NorCal journalism advisers who have called, emailed, Facebooked, texted, and tweeted congratulations in the past two months; (What a fabulous group you are. I am truly humbled to represent you.)
- to my own journalism teachers, from UC Berkeley to the Columbia Missourian, from Newsweek editors to my master teachers in San Francisco public schools;
- to my fellow teachers and administrative and parent supporters in the Palo Alto Unified School District; particularly those in the English department and members of the media arts team at Paly, and especially Esther Wojcicki, adviser of the The Campanile newspaper and the matriarch of our journalism program, and Ellen Austin, JEA regional chair, adviser to the Viking sportsmagazine, who is blazing a trail of her own four doors away from me;
- to my current and former students, from The Paly Voice and Verde magazine, and from a decade ago, The Lowell and The Lowell on the Web;
- and finally, to my family -- my dear wife Jacqui; my kids, Maya and Evan; my parents -- all of whom are here in the audience.
I am committed to representing you honorably in the coming year.
I often find myself saying, at the end of a day, “I love my job.” On a day like today, when I am with all of you celebrating the work that we do jointly, I have to say I love it all the more.
Scholastic journalism California-style
I come to you today from the great state of California,
- home of the Free Speech Movement, which began at my alma mater;
- home of the strongest student press laws in the country;
- home of 1994 Journalism Teacher of the Year Nick Ferrentinos, who, with his students, on Day 1 of the Hazelwood era, courageously and successfully used Education Code 48907 to block Hazelwood from California schools;
- home of the ground-breaking Journalism Teacher Protection Act, brought forward by our legislative champion, State Sen. Leland Yee;
- Home of the one-man institution we know as Steve O’Donoghue, our 36th Journalism Teacher of the Year, who, after three decades of advising, is still giving to scholastic journalism, organizing adviser retention and mentoring programs and collective publishing opportunities for students;
- home of Silicon Valley, which in turn is home to Palo Alto High School, where — between a newsmagazine; a sportsmagazine; a broadsheet newspaper; a daily broadcast show; yearbook, photography and video production programs; a journalism Web site — I and my colleagues teach and advise some 300 journalism students a year, 500 if you add in the rest of our media arts program.
That’s 500 a day — and I think we’ve still got room to grow. Indeed I think that across the country our programs all have room to grow, and that at a time when our professional media and — as a result — our very democracy are in crisis, we have a responsibility to grow them.
More on that soon, but first I want to share with you a story focusing on some very small people, and some very big ones.
A Bigfoot moment
It was two summers ago when I read this headline in the Palo Alto Weekly: “Researchers claim to have found “Bigfoot” body.”
In the end, the quotation marks should have been around the word “Researchers” more than “Bigfoot.” It was, after all, a hoax. But I didn’t care at the moment. What I cared about was that someone claiming to have found a Sasquatch was going to hold a press conference – right down the street from me.
I’ve always been a sucker for the idea that journalism is a front-row seat on life. Never more so than in that moment. I wanted that seat.
I emailed my students, hoping I could get one of them to attend — with me tagging along as chaperone. No dice. It was short notice, and in the heart of summer.
I cast around. My gaze fell on my then-9-year-old daughter, Maya. Hmmm ... maybe, just maybe. I found an organization in New York that worked with kid reporters. Would they publish her story if I helped her write it? Yes they would! I fired up my laptop, whipped up a press pass in InDesign, and — voila — we were in.
It was a journalism carnival. Two hundred reporters from around the world. Cameras clicked. Pens scribbled. The guy in the Chewbacca suit shouted out questions.
And, Maya, she was amazing. She wrote the story. Sure, I helped a lot, talking her through it, but she did it. And Scholastic Kidspress published it. And I found myself reconnected to basic truths about the work we do:
- that journalism can turn on the lights in a young mind like nothing else.
- that if we can bring a 9-year-old to the alter, why are some of us limiting this opportunity to upperclassmen who get A’s in English.
I found myself reconnecting to the idea that we can and should be getting more students into that front-seat on life. More on that soon.
It turns out that my kids — Maya’s brother, Evan, is another writer in the making and just conducted his first interview for a school project last week — have more than a little journalism blood running in their veins.
Their grandfather, my dad, was:
- an award-winning high school journalist.
- A reporter and editor of his college newspaper.
- An air force public information specialist working in print and radio
- an award-winning professional journalist with the Herald-Examiner in Southern California.
- a public relations consultant for two decades, a career capped by his work in creating resident-run newspapers for low income, minority communities in the LA city and Chicago housing authorities — truly awesome undertakings.
- In retirement, an editor of a nonprofit newsletter in Eugene, Ore.
He taught me the basics that I teach my own children and that I apply in my classroom today:
- Tell the truth
- Fight for justice
- Insist on equality for all
- Nothing worth doing comes easily
The face of censorship
My kids also have a journalism connection on their mother’s side of the family. Their uncle, whose name I can't tell you and whose face I won't show you, was a photojournalist working internationally when he snapped a photo at the wrong time, before the wrong group of soldiers.
Brace yourself. This photo of his back after the beating doesn’t meet the breakfast table test; nor, really, the luncheon test.
I remember the first time I saw the photo. I was teaching Orwell's 1984. We had been talking about censorship. I was at the lectern, checking my email while my students worked. Wham. There he was, welts from the beating emblazoned across his back, fairly or unfairly, seared into my brain as the embodiment of Winston Smith, the face – if you will – of censorship.
This is to me what censorship looks like at its worst. Our students, thank goodness, face nothing this extreme in the course of their work, but they do get it in a thousand lesser – but still reprehensible – ways. And every time I hear about one of those cases, I’m back with my brother-in-law, with Winston Smith, full of fury at the tyranny of dictators large and small.
I think about him when I hear of:
- Of security guards who confiscate student reporters’ cameras;
- of principals who delay or outright destroy copies of student publications;
- who refuse to rehire new teachers because their students exercised their constitutionally protected 1st amendment rights;
- Of superintendents who knuckle under to vocal mobs of parents and impose prior review;
- Of state attorneys who try to scare off college reporters by subpoena-ing private email and Facebook messages
- Of Supreme Court justices who give license to school officials to behave as petty tyrants.
I’m here to tell you all that in California, we don’t live by Hazelwood. Our students can write about whatever they please, provided their advisers help them do so professionally. They can write about sex. They can write about drugs. They can write print images of piercings and other body art. They can challenge taboos and authority.
And, you know what? The sky does not fall in. Life goes on. Learning goes on. Students are enlivened by their classrooms. Communities are enriched by student media that engage in and reflect the full spectrum of student life.
Let’s pause for a moment to thank administrators — like mine — who don’t behave as dictators, who don’t treat their schools as if they were operating under martial law, who rightly allow dissent and criticism. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for standing up for the First Amendment. We need more role models like you.
To students and advisers in Hazelwood states, I say, don’t accept the status quo. Find some allies. Build a network. Get support from the Student Press Law Center. Fight to overturn Hazelwood in your state.
Before you dismiss this as just some revolutionary talk from a Berkeley radical, consider that some of the other states that have said no to Hazelwood — Kansas, Arkansas and Iowa — aren’t exactly bastions of liberalism. Let’s build more non-Hazelwood-free states. We all should be non-Hazelwood states.
That’s something the Kandells, from the smallest to the largest will stand for.
Aside from fighting against censorship at every opportunity, I come back to this: How can we get more students into journalism classrooms? What can we do to give more students the publications experience, to get more of them in the front-row seat?
Here are three ideas for bringing more journalism education to the nation’s students:
A new approach on minority outreach
First, if we’re going to get more students into those front-row seats, we need to focus on outreach, to address our terrible lack of diversity, a lack of diversity seen in professional journalism, in JEA and NSPA – just look around our convention – and in our schools, where white and Asian students and their parents have figured out that journalism is one of the most potent enrichment programs out there; their Latino, African-American and Pacific Islander counterparts for the most part aren’t taking part.
At Paly, we’ve tried special invites, conversations with La Raza and the Black student Union, even a diversity-in-journalism club. Over time, the problem only got worse. Last year, out of hundreds of students in beginning and advanced journalism courses at Paly, none were on the free- or reduced-lunch list, none were from East Palo Alto, our sister community a few miles away that has a vastly lower socio-economic profile.
We had to do something.
So this is what we did: We held a two-week summer workshop away from the school, in the community where our minority kids live; we offered students $8 an hour for 40 hours to take a basic Beginning Journalism class, and we got them a paid six-week internship, and, finally, we said, if you can do all of that, you can skip Beginning Journalism – something we never do – and let you move right onto a journalism publication.
Our efforts have met limited, but promising success so far. To these kids, I say we want you with us; we need you for us to be whole.
Inoculating all students with journalism values
I’m proud of our summer program, and we’re looking for funding to do an expanded version this year. But I also realize it’s not enough. We need to think bigger. We all need to think bigger.
How can we inoculate all students:
- with 1st Amendment values?
- With the journalism brand of critical thinking and writing?
- With 21st century communication and Web literacy skills?
At Paly, our answer — think of it as our version of “No Child Left Behind” — is to try to embed a high tech beginning journalism curriculum into our required 9th and 10th grade English classes. That way all students will get the enrichment, all students will get qualified to work on a publication. You want 21st century citizens. This is where to start.
My colleague, Esther Wojcicki, goes so far as say “Journalism is the 21st Century English.” I’ve long ago learned not to doubt Esther, even when she’s being audacious. It’s not every teacher who can successfully moonlight as the chair of the board of directors for Creative Commons. When Esther asks, could this approach to journalism education be scaled at a national level, I’m all ears. Listen carefully and I think you’ll hear that our national educational leadership is arriving at the same conclusion. My advice is: stay tuned. Prepare to be audacious.
Creating digital journalists
As a prelude to my final point, let me tell you what’s been happening in the past month in Paly journalism. For years, a login and password for the paly voice was something you could only get if you were one of 30 or so members of the Web staff. This year, the voice staffers, sick of the hours of uploading and marketing the work of our print publications, said No More. Do it yourself. We’ll teach you how.
And so they started passing out passwords.
And then a funny thing started happening.
- Does this mean we can upload stories between issues, one kid asked. Yep.
- Does this mean I can post postcasts of me reading my print column? Yep.
- Does this mean we can publish stories and even video clips of the football game the same night it’s played? Sure does.
- Can we announce our stories on our own Facebook and Twitter pages? Yep.
The enthusiasm was palpable. Although we hadn’t intended it as such, we had, in the simple act of giving passwords to 130 or so print journalism students, created 130 digital journalists, including Verde magazine editor-in-chief Caroline Wang, who is here with us today representing Paly journalism.
Caroline and her staff members, who adore their print product, also realize that they can no longer afford to be just print journalists. Those jobs no longer exist and aren’t coming back. From this point forward, we need to stop producing print-only journalists. Doing otherwise would be a disservice to our students. And that means that our teaching force needs retraining, not clunker style, Tesla style.
I’ve been doing digital journalism with students since 1996, when at a national convention in San Francisco we set up one room for students to produce and upload stories and another — like a little news museum — for them to see what had been produced in the first room.
Since then, my students have won many awards for their online work. And time and time again advisers and students from other schools have said, how can we do what you do? My answer for 13 of the 14 years of my advising career has been a diplomatically phrased version of, “You can’t.” My students were operating in the stratosphere — I had no idea how to do what they did.
No more of the same — get on the Web
But all that has finally changed. For the first time in my career, I’m am happy to be able to say, “You can do what my students are doing.” In the last year, the technology has finally become accessible.
There are lots of places to start.
- I, for one, am a fan of JEA’s Digital Media Page, maintained by Aaron Manful. The message of the site is clear: No more of the same. Get on the Web.
- And I’m a fan of Tracy Anne Sena who joined me in throwing out our same-old, same-old summer adviser training program and said -- no more of the same – we need to get these advisers on the Web.
- And I’m a fan of Journalism Education Association of Northern California, whose leaders got it right when they threw out the template for their tired old state conventions and pivoted, completely, to say -- no more of the same – our convention needs to be about digital journalism.
- And I’m a fan, too, of JEA and NSPA for producing a national convention that also gets it. No more of the same. It’s about the Web.
- But we can go farther. Let’s get a clue from the Poynter Institute and offer distance learning for students who have trouble making it to national conventions. Why isn’t this speech also a Webinar? Why aren’t all the presentations at this convention? No more of the same -- we need to get our practice the Web.
- And if first-person contact is needed, in addition to conventions where 6,000 people fly to a central place, let’s also find a way to fly trainers out to students and advisers? I’m a fan of my colleague, Ellen Austin, who has suggested sending advisers out to the hinterlands of scholastic journalism to conduct the digital equivalent of barn raisings. No more of the same — get these kids on the web.
The future of digital media
What does the future of digital media look like? I don’t know, but I think my students got close to it a few weeks ago when their assistant principal brought a Spirit Week rally to a halt by announcing that 100-200 upperclassmen would be suspended for up to five days for participating in an egg fight at our sister school.
- Ticker and tweet bulletins and a short story with the news were up in 15 minutes.
- A video of his announcement – with a transcript — in an hour.
- The story posted later that day drew more than 4,000 visitors, many of them drawn through alumni Facebook networks
- More than 50 user comments appeared in 48 hours And
more still in response to stories in the next few days:
- A story about a student sit-in the following morning
- the photo essay showing the damage from the fight
- text, soundslide and video stories covering the resumption of spirit week and the eventual rescinding of all but a dozen suspensions
- editorials so far from three separate publication staffs
- All in all, the site pulled in more than 50,000 unique visitors in October
These were exhilarating moments, but at its core this is not about technology — That is just the latest vehicle. It’s about values. When I see our summer program in EPA bearing fruit, when I see my students engaging in great storytelling, in getting that rush from delivering breaking news, when I see them exercising their rights to fight for what they believe, I am drawn back to those Kandell family values.
- Tell the truth
- Fight for justice
- Insist on equality for all
- Nothing worth doing comes easily
Those aren’t just family values. Those are American values. And quality journalism education is, for me — and I know, for you — the greatest way to pass them on.