Jim Streisel was recently honored with the Dow Jones Adviser of the Year award at the JEA Convention in Boston.
Also, find his speech below or download it by clicking here.
Be a Journalism Rock Star
Jim Streisel, MJE
HiLite adviser and communications teacher
Carmel (IN) High School
I wasn’t always going to be a journalism teacher. In high school, I wasn’t a member of my school’s newspaper or yearbook staff. Instead, I participated on the speech team. I was in the show choir. I performed in musicals. I was a class officer.
Bottom line, I loved to perform. I loved the feeling I got from being on stage in front of an audience. I loved the energy. I loved the satisfaction I felt from working on something and seeing it come to fruition.
Fast-forward about 25 years…
This is me today. A mild-mannered journalism teacher for the past 19 years at the same school in the conservative Midwest. I’ve been working with the HiLite staff and its subsequent offshoots for most of those 19 years, and I expect that journey to continue at least into the foreseeable future, unless, of course, I win the lottery, in which case, there will be a job opening soon.
But there’s a side of me – a creative side – that never really left ever since those performance days of yesteryear. Some of you know this side of me, some of you…well…
…I’m in a band, technically, a musical duo. We call ourselves The Dead Squirrels and we play cover tunes from artists like Jason Mraz to Tom Petty to John Mayer. We’ve got a growing list of original tunes, too.
Feel free to read about us at TheDeadSquirrels.com or, better yet, like us on Facebook. Really. You should.
We play all over the Indianapolis area from bars and night clubs to American Legion posts to restaurants and festivals. Along the way, we’ve met some pretty interesting people.
And for me, I guess my love of performing never left. Playing music is an outlet for me, a creative path. It’s a hobby. Some people collect stamps – my dad, for example. Some people build model airplanes. I do this.
But today’s presentation isn’t really about me. It’s about us here in the journalism education community…and I’m here today to talk to you about being a journalism rock star. And what’s more, I’m here to tell you how you can be a journalism rock star, too.
Step 1: Know your material.
Any good musician spends hours, days, weeks, years practicing his craft. A great musician realizes that that learning never stops, and rather than being satisfied with what he’s already created, he agonizes over where he needs to improve.
Journalism rock stars need to know their craft as well. It’s important for journalism educators to be well-versed, not only in the field of journalism, but also in journalism curriculum, in state and national standards, in data gathering, in best practices. And while these areas don’t necessarily make you a better teacher, they are the catch phrases of our industry, and we need to be experts in what we do. We need to know like the back of our hands what we’re asked to teach our students. We need to be able to justify, using our shared language of curriculum, what it is that we want our students to achieve.
Step 2. Do it for the music
But despite what legislators would have us believe, knowledge of that curriculum isn’t enough. It’s a starting point, to be sure, much like learning chord progressions on a guitar is a starting point. But just like knowledge of chords isn’t necessarily music, knowledge of journalism standards isn’t necessarily teaching. That’s why we need to do it for the music. In other words, once we know what to teach, we need to know why we teach it.
My oldest son is 13 years old and he plays the saxophone. When he started playing three years ago, he wasn’t very good. He knew about three notes, and half of those were squeaky, off-key or non-existent. But he practiced. He learned through his band class how to read music. He started playing better. Two years ago, he moved to first chair where he has remained. Last year, he joined the jazz band. He got even better. Just this year, he has started to perform improvisational solos during his jazz band concerts.
In just three years, my son has learned how to take what he has learned, absorb it and turn that knowledge into something personal. Before my very eyes, he is becoming more than just a music player; he is becoming a musician with his own sound, his own voice. His teacher has helped to foster that growth.
Like my son’s band teacher, we need to understand what we’re trying to accomplish with our students. The Oct. 7 issue of TIME Magazine featured an article that discussed the supposed shortcomings of education today. Namely, author Jon Meacham said that rather than just ask students what they know, it’s better to ask what they know how to do.
While that’s an admirable statement, I think it doesn’t go far enough.
For me, the even better questions are these: Do our graduates know how to ask the right questions? Do they know where to go to find those answers? Do they know how to apply those answers to their daily lives?
These are the very questions we ask our journalism students to demonstrate every day. We don’t teach journalism; we teach transferable skills. Life skills. To use the vernacular of the day: 21st Century Skills. We just happen to use the common language of journalism to hone those skills. And like the band teacher who realizes when a student has moved beyond the curriculum – a student who has mastered the notes and the chords and the meter – it is our job as educators to nurture our students beyond the curriculum, to challenge them, to help them see the deeper meaning behind what they do and why they do it.
Step 3: Act the part
It’s not enough any more for rock stars to just make great music. You’ve got to stand out in today’s music scene. You’ve got to make your voice shine above all the others.
Like musical rock stars, it’s important for journalism rock stars to do the same. Today’s educational environment is tough, to the say the least. It’s not enough anymore for teachers simply to be great in the classroom. Luckily, we have lots of opportunities to show our professionalism. If you haven’t already been recognized as a CJE or MJE, the time to do that is now. Additionally, take advantage of the many committees we have through the NSPA or the JEA or the ones available through your local and state organizations, and get involved. Be a leader in your school.
And once you’ve done that, share that information. Harry Wong, in his book The First Days of School, instructs teachers to post their credentials in a prominent spot in their classroom. Doctors do this. Lawyers, too. Rock stars post gold and platinum records in their studios. And in addition to your walls, add your credentials to your email signatures and other correspondence. You are a professional. It’s time to start acting like one. Stop being humble, and start acting amazing because you are.
Step 4: Enjoy the performance
Let’s face it; you didn’t get into this job because you love data. You didn’t do this because you absolutely adore going to meetings. You didn’t do this because you love attending luncheons at national conventions with bearded, charismatic speakers. You do it because you love working with students. You do it because you are passionate about what your students are able to do.
Truth is, in the scheme of things, your time with students is very limited. Just like a musician spends hours behind the scenes working on his craft, perfecting it, working out the nuances, good teachers spend hours behind the scenes working on their craft, planning lessons, grading papers, going to meetings. I only get to see my students once every other day for an hour and a half each time. That’s my performance. I need to make it mean something. I need to make that time memorable so my students will be excited to come back again to see what’s next. Savor these times. Make them count.
Step 5: Find your voice
New musicians are just trying to learn the basics. They find other musicians they admire and they try to emulate that sound. With enough practice, though, they start to develop their own sound and, given enough time, they morph into something else.
Like those new musicians, new journalism teachers are just trying to keep their heads above water. This job can be overwhelming. Thankfully, though, we have our own set of journalism rock stars to follow. Here’s a sampling of a few I admire. Each of these people has a unique voice in the field. They’ve spent their careers developing that voice and then sharing it with others. Add those voices together, and you have an amazing community of rock stars.
But these rock stars all started somewhere. They learned through trial and error, they relied on their own set of veteran journalism rock stars to help them move forward. They created their own sound. And then they gave back.
How do you develop that voice? Think about what makes you and your program special. What unique circumstances do you have that you’ve had to overcome? How do you stand out among the cookie-cutter programs in the rest of your school? Find those circumstances, overcome them, and then share. Pretty soon, you’ll be the next generation of journalism rock stars and you’ll have your own set of fans trying to emulate you.
Step 6: Reinvent yourself
Step 6 really focuses on the fact that the field of journalism is constantly changing and journalism curriculum needs to change with it. Certain musicians have been able to change with the times and stay relevant. Journalism teachers need to do the same. I’ve been doing this gig for 19 years, and I’ve changed quite a bit over that time. Not only do I look a lot different, I also teach a lot different. But change doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a slow, often grueling process. And year to year, unless you do something drastic (like, say, lose your hair), you may not notice that change.
But look at yourself over time, and those changes become more evident. Little steps turn into big steps, which turn into positive change for your program.
Our products need to continue to change to meet the needs of our readers. When you’re young and energetic, it’s easier to make changes. You have no frame of reference, nothing to compare yourself to. But as you get older, that change becomes more difficult.
But we have to continue to change to stay relevant. The Beatles were great at this – experimenting with all sorts of different instruments and sounds to help share their music and push it forward. But at their core, the Beatles never lost what they knew – their basic ability to write songs with meaning and to stay true to that core value.
When I graduated college in 1995, I had no idea what the future would bring. Websites and tweets and Facebook posts barely existed, if they existed at all. But I adapted. I recognized that what I did know – namely, journalism and journalistic storytelling – would never change; the rest of these items were just tools to help us tell those stories in different ways. Journalism is changing, perhaps more so than any other area of study, and we can either decide to avoid those changes and become irrelevant very quickly – become a one-hit-wonder – or we can choose to embrace those changes and adapt them for our own needs.
Step 7: Party
This step shouldn’t be too difficult for many of you but it bears mention here.
It’s so important to celebrate what you do with your students and with your teaching community. Celebrate everything. While we don’t do this job for awards, we all know how difficult they are to earn. Enjoy them. Celebrate milestones: The first deadline. The last deadline. An awesome interview. A new feature on your website. Give paper plate awards. Sing happy birthday as loud and obnoxiously as you can. Or just give some deserving kid a pat on the back and a heartfelt congratulations for a job well-done.
Because what your students will remember, the thing they will take away from your class, is not that great story they wrote or that amazing interview. They won’t recall how they coded the heck out of that web post or how they agonized over editing that one sentence just so.
No, what they will remember is the experience. So Step Number 8 is for you to remember why you’re here…
Step 8: Do it for the fans
You’re here for the fans. Your students.
I’ve been to many concerts over the years. And I couldn’t tell you about individual guitar solos or drum breaks. I couldn’t even tell you what songs those groups played with any kind of certainty.
But I could tell you if I enjoyed the concert. I could tell you if I left feeling happy or inspired or thoughtful.
Your students won’t remember the specifics of your class. But they’ll remember the experience. They’ll remember the camaraderie. They’ll remember feeling like they were part of something worthwhile.
They’ll remember you and the way you treated them day in and day out.
On that note, on Nov. 3, I was reminded of my own advice, when one of my journalism rock star friends, Grosse Point South adviser Jeff Nardone, was taken from our ranks far too soon. One of his former students published a touching tribute to his former teacher. In it, he said, “One of the reasons I respected Mr. Nardone so much was because he never once tried to silence me or turn me into something I’m not…Instead, he told me to keep writing and to never lose my passion for issues that were important to me. He told me to let him worry about the would-be censors.”
These are powerful words that encapsulate the very selfless essence of what we do. That’s why Jeff was one of the best.
And that’s why I’ve got a Bonus Tip for you today. It’s a tip that I hope you’ll take with you after you leave here. It’s a tip that Jeff Nardone definitely understood. Just like those bands I spoke of, you may not remember these individual tips. But hopefully, you’ll remember this…
Bonus tip: Believe in yourself
…Believe in yourself. You are amazing at what you do. You, all of you, are artists. Each of you is honing your craft. Each of you is contributing to the larger journalistic community. You do important work. You do valuable work.
But just remember, your products are not made of paper and ink or of HTML code. Rather, your products are made of flesh and blood, of ideas and personalities and hopes and dreams. You get the opportunity to work with those raw materials every day. It’s a privilege and an honor.
This job isn’t easy. But it has the potential to be amazing. You’ve got the opportunity. You’ve got back stage passes to the most awesome job on the planet. So go. Spread your music. I want to hear it played loud and clear until my ears bleed. So go. Go be a rock star. I believe in you. You should, too.