Sweepin’ the ‘stakes

This week my newspaper and yearbook staffs attended Spring Media Monday at the University of Oklahoma. It was a really sweet trip, for a number of reasons.

No. 1: I geeked out when I learned that Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, was the keynote speaker. Of course, that was a month ago, and I’d been looking forward to it ever since. He didn’t let me down.

I went to introduce myself to him before the program started and was surprised he seemed to recognize my name. Could have been that I’ve subscribed to, and been a fan of, the SPLC Report Magazine for years (it’s my favorite) or it could be that I’ve been in contact with the SPLC a couple of times over the years with student press ethical or legal issues I wasn’t sure how we should handle. Or it could have been that I tweeted a couple times in the previous weeks about how excited I was that he was speaking. He favorited my tweets.

LoMonte spoke inspiringly on student rights, how the Tinker and then Hazelwood cases have affected those rights over the years and the work being done now on behalf of students, state by state, to solidify press rights at both high school and college level. Inspiring.

No. 2: Students and I attended learning sessions on everything from graphic design to writing headlines and cutlines to creating documentaries and copy editing. The kids reported they had learned some cool stuff. So did I.

No. 3: The best part is always the awards ceremony at the end of the day. First director Melanie Wilderman very, very quickly announced the winners of individual submissions in the three Oklahoma divisions. It’s rapid fire. I was poised with the notebook and pencil, ready to scribble down our placings as others did the clapping and cheering. We racked up eight first places, two staffers grabbing two each, and one pair of designers sharing for an awesome Star Wars spread. There were seconds, thirds and honorable mentions in between.

Then we settled in a little tighter, gripped our chair edges and leaned forward just a bit. The overall newspaper (and online and magazine) ratings go like this: merit, honors, highest honors. The slide appeared above for our division, displaying those with merit, then honors – I never understand the cheering for this level of ratings. I guess if you’re a struggling publication, learning your way, but we’re darn close to professional. In my nine years, we’ve never had less than highest honors, because we understand how to report, use AP Style and basically design news. We always have room for improvement, but we know the basics well. Then comes the slide for highest honors, and there we are with a few Oklahoma peers.

Next up: Of those with highest honors, two or three are selected for All-Oklahoman. Again, the Demon Pitchfork has always been awarded this honor, so it was no surprise to see our name on the slide. But then it was time for a little breath-holding – in rapid-fire fashion.

The last point of interest is when one paper is selected from those ranked All-Oklahoman to be the Sweepstakes winner, and this is what we fight for every year. As we are struggling to pull together stories and meet deadlines, we ask ourselves if the story is good enough for Sweepstakes. When we get to Late Night, that once a month evening of pizza, party and procrastination, we are supposed to get the pages all designed and work out the bugs. But we realize belatedly that no one got art for three stories, so we lament that we’ll lose our opportunity for Sweepstakes. At the day-after press deadline meeting when the editors talk about what went well and what didn’t, the elephant in the room is Sweepstakes. Will that text-heavy page 3 ruin our chances? Will the blurry sports photo on page 9 kill us? And what about the misspelling in the opinion page headline? We’re doomed.

But not on this day. This day we celebrated that we did more good than goof. The Demon Pitchfork won Sweepstakes.

The importance of this accomplishment was summed up by one of the co-managing editors the next morning (the other had a vocal music competition elsewhere – why are these kids so busy?!), when he told his staff that the last time the Pitchfork won Sweepstakes was when he was a freshman, the year before he joined staff. It was a major goal, one he’d been able to help the rest of the staff realize. There was lots of pride, but there was still work to be done. He read off some of the judges’ specific ratings and suggestions for improvement.

I love Media Mondays, not only for what the kids get to participate in and the accomplishments we get to celebrate in our work, but for getting to connect with people from around the state who do what I do. Most schools have only one journalism teacher – a singleton. These are my opportunities to share stories, ask advice and just connect.

If you are a journalism adviser and have not connected to your state organization, you should really do so. Scrounge up the funds from somewhere, and find a way to make that connection, go to those conventions. Those are your connection and they are memories your students will have for the rest of their lives.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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