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The Mission: Find a Voice and Give Them a Reason to Read

Excerpts of a Speech by Linda Ballew, 2005 National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year
Nov. 12, 2005 in Chicago at JEA/NSPA convention
Mrs. Ballew at JEA

In 2001, I received a Distinguished Advisers Award from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund. I was thrilled. But, I am very sorry to say that I did not get to hear Mr. Don Bott speak. Instead, I had scrambled to pick up my plaque and then hurriedly scampered down a long, long hallway to a small meeting room to present a workshop on the power of words. I thought I could have done a much better job, and I felt awful about missing Don�s address. But, at the end of the workshop, a young girl who had listened to my presentation came up to me, and with tears in her eyes, said, �I think you were born to tell stories.� The sincerity of the compliment moved me so much that each time I begin a presentation, I think of her and center on the power of words.

So I want to tell you a story.

As a child I loved listening to my mom read aloud. The sound of her voice energized the characters� exploits in nursery rhymes, and as I grew older, Nancy Drew mysteries. I loved the sound of her voice. I learned to express myself at an early age, as we took turns reading to each other and talking about the stories.

I fell in love with the cadence of words. Reading gave me permission to enter into amazing worlds and cultures foreign to a small town Montana girl. I gained access to unique perspectives as reading educated me in marvelous ways, and I always knew�I wanted to help others discover and acquire the joy found in the voice of a story.

I am an educator. I have loved teaching literature. Every once in awhile my journalism students will break down and ask if I know anything about poetry. Trouble... I break into a memorized line or two from �Hamlet� or Wordsworth as they stand stunned that the journalism adviser, a woman entrenched in phone calls, contracts, finances, meetings, sources and resources, picas and grids, punctuation and technology has a clue about romanticism or Shakespeare. But you see it all falls into place. It finally dawns on them why I am so ecstatic when a student reporter understands allusion in a lead or headline. They begin to accept the fact that syntax is more than a pretty word that I like throwing around. And, they finally realize that I don�t read aloud to them because I think they can�t understand the material. I am fascinated with the interpretation of the piece that can only arrive when it is delivered for discussion.

No Child Left Behind hit a nerve. Education needs to be accountable. And interestingly, officials seemed to have missed the fact, that few appreciate specific details and data more than educators do. None the less, an immensely significant element is missing in the acronyms of objective testing. This data method tells a tale�a tale in a cold and realistic way, but regrettably, it loses the human voice that explains that reading and writing are subjective activities. Data rarely reveals this point. It rarely gives educators and even more critically, it rarely provides students with that aha moment when we realize that an epiphany has taken place. It is the moment through art, design, photography and various modes of expression when someone�s voice is immediately heard and an intellectual awareness occurs. It is the readability that in our journalism classroom is the key to making or breaking the credibility of our publications� purpose.

After many tried and revised curriculums, I have found the journalism workshop to be one of the most interactive classroom environments for applying the practical and aesthetic approaches to communication. Journalism brings us face to face with real world issues forcing students to apply problem-solving skills and deal with real life events and people. We come to an understanding of how to use the skills learned in English, math, history and science. We learn to work together to accomplish a goal of providing a forum for ideas.

I knew I was on to something about 15 years ago. It was in the fall of 1989 and the school district entered into a five-week teacher strike�the longest in Montana history. I had been teaching two classes of journalism per day, when I met the three senior editors who would change the direction of my career and point our high school newspaper on a path of remarkable scholastic journalism. These young men decided that students deserved not only information about what was happening with the strike, but they decided those students� voices deserved to be heard in the fray of contracts and negotiations and picketing. On their own, they gathered the staff together, wrote, published and distributed a smaller daily version of the high school newspaper. Entitled, �The Access,� it provided a forum for information and comment. When the strike ended, tensions remained. However, these students pulled together to write our first newspaper policy, job descriptions and ethical standards. That shortened year, they published 10 24-page issues of the newspaper each containing a four page �Access,� along with the school�s first literary arts magazine.

I took this same group of editors to our first fall JEA convention in St. Louis. Walking back to the hotel from dinner on a brisk Missouri evening, I turned around and noticed one of the editors, Bill, was not with us. I asked where he had gone, and the other kids pointed back from where we had come. Sure enough, two blocks back, I could see a small group of people.

I walked back to find Bill warming his hands around a lit garbage barrel with a group of transients. When I whispered to him that I wanted him to come with me, he waved at me and said, �In just a minute. I asked why he needed a minute and he responded that he just needed to ask these guys a few questions. So, we did.

On the walk back, I asked Bill what he had been doing, and he responded, �I just needed to try and understand why they live their lives the way they do.�

�Did you find the answer?� I inquired.

�Not really, but it is something to think about,� he said.

That was when I knew. We had started something that was worthy of long-term exploration. Bill never wrote about the rail transients in the Iniwa, but I am sure that somewhere, sometime in his life, Bill will find a way to give these people voice. I know this because this is what he does, and what he has always done. He speaks for those who would otherwise not be able to find their voice. Today, Bill is an investigative reporter specializing in health and welfare issues for The Orange County Register. His work has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice in the past two years. His stories have led to federal investigations, changes in state law and new industry standards.

After he had won a Hugh Scripps award he said that my by-line is on every article he writes.� I cried. I have been forever grateful for this compliment and very humbled. I know that Bill�s ability to tell a story, and even more, his ability to give his subject�s voice, is derived from his immense talent and his personality traits that all journalists, whether scholastic or professional should work to develop: curiosity, compassion and character.

Principal Bill Salonen first hired me to advise publications, and he set the standard of trust between the journalism and administrative offices. When the Supreme Court in 1988 allowed the Hazelwood decision to come into play, the conversation in the hallway played out this way. Mr. Salonen said, �I don�t know that this case changes anything. I wouldn�t tell my coaches what plays to call, why would I tell you what articles to print?

Six principals later, this is still the standard. Please don�t ever think that there haven�t been trials and concerns. The reason for our program�s ability to stretch for excellence arrives with teamwork, communication, cooperative learning, respect and leadership. With these strategies, we build strong working relationships that bridge the needs of the school community. Administrators and advisers share common goals that can be reached by working together. Together, we personalize education and give those once invisible students, voice. I have especially honored to work for the man who has shared this vision. I am pleased for you to meet Dr. Fred Anderson, principal of Great Falls High School, who is in Chicago attending and participating in his third JEA convention.

We as educators play an important role. We may not always immediately comprehend the influence we exert, but we have a large responsibility to not only teach the mechanics of how to read, write and speak, but also, to help mold values and character in our students. This is a tough task no matter the culture of our current or past environments. The principles of ethics and a democratic society must be taught and demonstrated. This happens daily in the scholastic journalism room. And how can this happen without voice? It can�t. It happens in a classroom free from censorship. It happens where freedom comes at the price of responsible and courageous people taking the risk to have voice.

A reporter asked me why I had stayed the course as a journalism adviser for so long. I just grinned at her. Educators know the answer before anyone else. It has always been about the kids. There has always been one more�one more time and one more staff who catch us in the web of their story. Journalism students and the dynamic aha moments that we share, keep us vitally intrigued and motivated to continue this time-consuming, stressful and absolutely captivating endeavor. It is never dull. It is the real reason we advise. It is intense learning at its best.

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