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Celebrate and reflect: getting the most
out of conventions with your students

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by Kristin Taylor
It’s April! For student journalists and their advisers, that means it’s time for another JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention. As many of us head to San Francisco Thursday, it’s a good time to think about why we attend conventions and how to get the most out of our attendance.

First and foremost, I remind myself every year that these conventions are about student voice. We come together to learn from the experts, but the moments I always find most inspiring are centered around students.

Whether listening to Meghan Bobrowsky — last year’s National High School Journalist of the Year — speak during the Opening Ceremony, attending workshops led by students or judging write-off submissions from talented reporters, I know this convention will leave me feeling great about dedicating so many hours to the world of student journalism.

If you are a new adviser or have never attended a large journalism convention with students before, you might be wondering how best to make sure you and your students have a great experience. It wasn’t that long ago I was in your shoes, and I remember how overwhelming the convention felt at first.

For this blog, I’ve put together five tips gathered from my own experiences and the wisdom of my colleagues. I hope they will prove useful to a few of you out there planning to bring students for the first time.

  1. Make a plan. At least a day or two before we leave, I bring my students together to look through the convention program, download the EventMobi app and talk about how to make the most of our time. Students are often reluctant to go off on their own, but if they all go to the same workshops, we’ve missed an opportunity to learn as a staff. We talk about what our publications most need and make a plan to spread students out to attend a wide variety of workshops. We also talk through some of the other logistics of the trip, such as how travel will work, how we will communicate as a group (we use GroupMe), when we will be meeting up (we always sit together for ceremonies and awards as well as gathering to reflect each day) and what they can expect to do each night.
  2. Articulate a purpose. One of the best things I’ve started to do with my own students is to find a time to discuss why we are going and what we hope to learn. You can do this before you leave, but I think it’s most valuable to do as close to the start of the convention as possible. I’ve had these conversations at school, at the airport gate waiting for our plane, and even on the hotel lobby floor before giving them their room keys. My goal is to have them articulate their purpose before setting them loose so we can come back to that purpose throughout the trip. If they are stumped, I suggest this question: What can I learn about the power of student voice from this trip?
  3. Hold them accountable. Some students will dutifully attend every workshop and speaker without any prompting, but others need a bit more structure. I require them to select four workshops Friday and Saturday (unless they are participating in a write-off contest Friday, in which case they only required to attend two). I’ve experimented with a variety of accountability methods over the years, but the one that seems to work the best is also the most old-fashioned: a notebook. I discourage students who have laptops from bringing them. They are bulky and distracting. Instead, I ask everyone to practice their note-taking skills during the workshops they attend, recording questions, ideas and takeaways with paper and pen. This leads me to the next tip, which is…
  4. Reflect each day. Thursday’s reflection is usually a quick discussion of the keynote speakers and opening ceremony. Friday is our first rich discussion of their learning. We sit in a circle, and the students reflect on their experiences that day, using those handy notebooks to connect their learning to practical application on our publications. Since Saturday is so hectic and the awards ceremony even longer this year, I plan to have them journal their reflection in their notebooks after their last workshop so we can come back to them on Sunday. I like to reserve Saturday night for a celebratory group dinner. Our final reflection happens before we leave, which is usually Sunday morning. This circle allows them to share final thoughts and ideas and come back to the purpose they articulated before they left. It’s also important to reflect with the rest of your staff when you return from a trip like this, and those notebooks will be handy yet again.
  5. Celebrate as a group. Depending on your plans and budget, you may have shared time seeing the city or attending an event together. If this isn’t possible, however, I think it’s crucial to set aside at least one meal to enjoy as a group. We usually do this Saturday night. Restaurants near the convention that can accommodate large groups tend to book up fast, but if you haven’t made a reservation or want to keep the meal more affordable, you can order in and have a pizza party in a common area of your hotel. Many of my favorite memories from past conventions have come from these meals as students share funny stories, tell jokes and bond. And you never know what may happen — I took a group to Indianapolis right after the 2016 election, and as we were walking back from the restaurant, we realized we just a block ahead of a protest march. My students still call that trip “The Time We Led a Protest by Accident.” 

On a final note, I want to encourage new advisers to attend advisee events (don’t miss the Thursday orientation in the afternoon and reception in the evening) and introduce yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek advice from your colleagues, especially if something goes wrong. I cannot say enough about the wonderful people in our community who have steered me through a variety of issues — you are never far from someone who has been there and can help you solve any problem than arises.

I hope to see many of you in San Francisco as we celebrate the power of student voice.

 

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