Journalism Conference Part 1 – The Pepper Box hits the Windy City

Hello friends. It’s been a while; again. My grand plan of posting once a week was clearly a fool’s errand, but I’m not quite ready to give up yet. I thought by readjusting my extra-curriculars this year it would leave me with a lot of extra time for a weekly post, but I am the extra teacher and I can’t just do things half-way, so some things get left by the wayside some weeks.  As a result, since I finally had a minute over the weekend, I wrote out my next three posts so that there will be a little bit of consistency for the end of the year.

Last blog I promised an update on a journalism convention. Another teacher and I took 13 kids (6 were from my newspaper staff, the Pepper Box) on a four day, three night trip to Chicago for the JEA (Journalism Education Association) national convention. Just like the trip I took with the Game Changers this summer, I knew this could be a great learning experience, and an awesome opportunity for my students.  It was amazing, enlightening, disheartening, anxiety-inducing, and exhausting. You know, like any good school trip should be! Since it was so long, I’ll be separating the posts so that you don’t get thousands of words to intimidate you from finishing, but also so that you get the whole story, because it is really a doozy.

We left on a Thursday at 9 am. After some technical difficulties with all of my staff showing up for the drive (I won’t call out the one who had issues, I know she reads these), we headed out on the road for a 5 hour drive. I was promised (threatened?) before we left for the trip that I would be serenaded with Hamilton songs on the entire drive. I guess they took pity on me on the way there; there was serenading, but no Hamilton. It was a long, boring drive, fairly uneventful, but a great experience for my newspaper editors to continue their bonding with each other.

The school had procured two large cars for both me and the other teacher to drive, so after caravanning up to Chicago, we got checked into the hotel. Our group opted for some sightseeing before getting to the business of the conference. We went to Navy Pier and then found the Bean, although it took us a long time to do both. We were planning on taking the “L” as part of our journey, but it wasn’t really on our path, so we walked. I saw my teacher life flash before my eyes as one of my students started to walk into traffic. She did not see the don’t walk sign clearly illuminated because her hood was pulled so tight around her head, but luckily we were able to get her back on the sidewalk and see the Chicago driver emphatically yelling at her through the front window.

After sightseeing, we went to the keynote address, which was led by Pete Souza, who was the official White House photographer during the Barack Obama administration. Souza spoke about his experiences, showed his photos, and our school was selected to win a chance for him to sign a copy of his book after his presentation. My staff was pumped after the first day. They loved the speech, were excited about the upcoming few days, and seemed prime for a life changing trip. We had no idea what we would ultimately be in for.

On Friday morning , I had to wake up earlier than most of the rest of our crew on the trip. After we had registered for the conference, we noticed that there was a Quiz Bowl competition that would be held. I’m a trivia geek and it sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t sure my students would be on board. However, when I presented it to them in the months leading up to the trip, they were excited and we signed up. We started the morning with me dropping them off in a room at the largest ever quiz bowl in JEA conference history. I sat “patiently” outside their room.  While I was waiting, I got the schedule typed up and sent to the other staff members until the group emerged. The students felt pretty good about it, even though we ultimately didn’t make it into the buzzer rounds. To be fair, we probably wouldn’t have really belonged if we had made it to that round. We spent about a month in class talking about how we needed to start getting prepared, but we really just went in cold. I was just proud of them for taking the chance.

After the Quiz Bowl, we all separated and went to different sessions held throughout the convention. I am never sure what to expect at conferences because sessions can be hit or miss. Too many times I take my kids to local conventions and they tell me that they already knew everything that was presented in their sessions. I guess I can take that as a compliment about what we learn in class, but my goal is always to get something from sessions that will help us improve our newspaper. We had decided to meet for lunch as a whole group (my newspaper staff, the radio staff and tv news staff) at Portillos for some local Chicago food. I held my breath when I found my staff, but they were bustling with energy and ideas from everything they learned. They had pages of notes, and the trip was already worthwhile after just a few morning sessions. It was a fantastic feeling.

My group had to do lunch fairly quickly because we had signed up for a critique of our newspaper. We had missed the official convention critique, but we were thrilled to see that the Ball State journalism program was offering them for all schools in the same boat as us. We heard some things that we were expecting, but a lot of things that were just minor changes that could really enhance our final product. What was more impressive to me was not how much the critic liked our newspaper, but the conversation that our staff had afterwards. We sat in that room for at least an hour, if not more, discussing all of the things we had heard, and all of the ways that we thought we could make our newspaper and class better. The best part was, I was not leading the discussion. The editors were taking charge and coming up with some amazing ideas.

I decided I needed to reward my crew, so I proposed something. Again, it was something that my nerdy self really thought would be great, and something I wasn’t sure my students would embrace, but they took the leap with me. I found an escape room that was about a 5 minute walk from our hotel and booked a room. We refreshed after the critique and headed over to find out that the room we had booked because of the time frame was the hardest one they offered. It was an escape from jail themed room, and to start they separated our group into two and put us each into jail cells. We made it out of both cells, through what turned out to be 4 separate rooms and were about 5 minutes from getting out of the room when our time expired. We were upset, and I was probably more upset than the kids (photo evidence can back that up in our “fake sad” picture after we lost). We came out of the whole experience as a cohesive team who learned to use each other’s strengths to life everyone up. The first two days were everything I had hoped for, and we were just at the midway point of the conference, so I imagined that the sky was the limit from there on out.

Amazing, enlightening, and exhausting during the first two days? Check. Disheartening and anxiety-inducing? Wait for part 2.

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