Tattooed Fingers and Focus Adjustments

This is another reflection on the recent ASB Workshop from one of our attendees. Time to meet our guest blogger: Kate Plows is an art teacher by certificate and employment and a journalism teacher at heart. Based in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she currently teaches high school drawing, painting, graphic design, photography, and—now with a few new skills in her toolbox—video production. A former nationally-recognized journalism adviser, she now coaches and tutors student journalists, serves as vice president of thePennsylvania School Press Association, and works behind the scenes on New Voices legislation. She fails and bounces back constantly, and laughs about all of it with her one-eyed horse, Nelson.

How I overcame imposter syndrome and discovered a new culture

Three weeks ago, I stowed my SD cards and drove away from the summer workshop at the Academy of Scholastic Broadcasting, and I haven’t been able to look at my hands the same way since.

The first session on the first evening of the program felt like indoctrination into a cult. “Hold your hands up and look at your palms,” Jan said. “Now— see my awesome graphic design? It’s great, right?” She gestures to a graphic of two hands on-screen in Dave Davis’s broadcast classroom at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, MO. 

“Read after me.” 

A roomful of 30-odd teachers from around the country followed the lead of a teacher who is experienced enough to know that memorization works best for content that matters most. 

“[left hand] Action… reaction… wide… medium… tight… [right hand] eyes… nose… sound… lighting… background.”

We must have looked odd: a roomful of adults holding our hands in front of our noses, counting off fingers out loud to the principles we’d be practicing all week. We were hesitant at first. But Jan spoke with authority, humor, and the clear ease of an experienced classroom teacher, and she quickly normalized our participation. After a few repetitions— and, let’s face it, practicing over and over again in my dorm room that night because I was convinced this stuff was going to be important for the rest of my week in Springfield—I felt like my fingers had been tattooed. 

And we were off, diving hands-on into the twentieth summer of ASB. 

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These days, I blink in astonishment when I remember that I’ve been teaching for fifteen years. It’s been three schools, two states, and I’ve lost count of the different content areas I’ve managed to squeeze into an art certification. Every school year brings enough new challenges that I feel like I’m starting fresh, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve accumulated the expertise you’d expect from a fifteen-year veteran. 

The latest peak to climb is figuring out how to coach the video and multimedia content built into course descriptions I’ve inherited at my new school. Before I’d even reviewed these courses, I knew that this was the content area of journalism education where I had the least experience. (I definitely winged this part of my CJE exam— still not sure how I passed.) 

When I reached out to the JEA listserv to inquire about the best way I could learn something about video and broadcast journalism, the responses came in fast and furious, nearly all recommending this program in Missouri. “You will leave with curriculum, knowledge and lifelong friends who will help you in your journey,” one responder wrote. 

I was sold. And now, on the flipside of ASB, I can confirm that my JEA friends were correct as usual: This program is a game-changer. In a week, I moved from complete novice video and broadcast educator, to… well, actually, still a complete novice, but one who knows exactly where to start and who feels confident and excited to jump off the cliff. 

When I look back through my half-a-notebook-full of notes from my seven days in Springfield, I notice that I made a lot of numbered lists. Lists of equipment to put on a wishlist. Lists of infinitely wise tips from Dave Davis, who has been figuring this out since I was in middle school. Lists of focus statements and branding ideas and step-by-step software shortcuts. 

So, in the spirit of list-making, here are five major takeaways and tips from my experience at ASB this summer.

1. Suck up your imposter syndrome and focus on learning. As I got to know the other teachers participating in this summer’s workshop, feelings of imposter syndrome were a daily struggle for me. There were a few utter novices like me. But there were also a few who had both extensive industry experience and classroom experience. Some teachers brought fabulous video cameras and Osmo gimbals to the workshop. I’d brought a DSLR camera and a photography tripod.

Fortunately, ASB is designed to have entry points for teachers with all levels of experience. I rarely felt completely lost—but when I did, staff members and other participants coached me up individually. (I am grateful!)  I won’t say that the imposter syndrome fully subsided—but it was amazing to learn from the experience and expertise of everyone who was along for the ride. 

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2. Write everything down. Dave’s staff will tell you that all materials from the workshop will be shared on Google Drive. They will likely roll their eyes and sigh at you when you ask, “Will this be in the drive?” because the answer is always, “yes.” (We are grateful!)

Still—write it all down anyhow. Jot down the anecdotes, the books, websites, and tools others casually recommend, the questions you have as you go along, the quotes and funny parts. The process of reading back through my notes is helping me to find the confidence and motivation I felt at ASB.  PowerPoints, Mudhouse footage, and assignment templates? Sure, those will be in the drive, thanks to Mehl’s organization skills. But there’s no way you could file the intangibles of this workshop on Google. Be prepared for your wrist to hurt. It’s worth it. 

3. Find a character. This advice is part of Storytelling 101, but it’s also part of what made the experience at ASB so worthwhile. Dave Davis is a character. He may be the character for those of us figuring out how to build something worthwhile at our schools to emulate.

From my notebook on the first night of ASB: “To still have so much energy and motivation, twenty years in….” One of my biggest takeaways from ASB has to do with a sense of mission. Dave and his staff are on a mission to make sure that schools and teachers have the tools to do great work. A week wasn’t long enough for me to fully understand that motivation—but it was definitely long enough to get inspired by it. 

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4. Ask yourself: What is my focus statement right now? Hearing the stories of other workshop participants was a smack-in-the-face reminder of just how much we are asked to do as teachers. So many jugglers attended ASB—teachers who struggle to maintain the precarious balance of curriculum, extracurriculars, expectations, family, and life, in whatever order these come. There wasn’t a single teacher at the workshop whose story could be compressed to one focus statement. We’re all carrying heavy loads.

“Before you start your program, decide what you can commit,” Dave advised us. It’s wise advice. Since ASB, I’ve been trying to narrow my focus statement to one or two manageable goals for the next year. I doubt that my students or I will be producing anything the quality of HTV for quite some time. But maybe— just maybe— we’ll learn how to shoot a sequence this year. 

5. Build a culture and they will come. It’s telling that Dave’s former students comprise a big chunk of his staff, with others dropping in during the workshop to lead sessions or just check in. HTV program is less a class, and more a culture. As they led the ASB workshop, his former students-turned-staffers modeled the sort of teamwork, ownership, and pride in this culture that all of us want to build.

“It’s not just another class,” Dave said, and Jan echoed, and others repeated as they described best practices for a film or broadcast program. Similarly, ASB is not just another workshop. It’s a culture that supports teachers as they jump off cliffs. We took a lot of risks at ASB (big shoot, anyone?), but these were all risks that were supported by a culture of support, teamwork, and mission. The structure of the ASB program is a roadmap of how to build this culture in our programs and schools. 

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“Do not try to fool kids into thinking you know more than you do about the subject,” Dave told us on that same first night. “Convince them that you are in this together.” 

Headed into this school year with what feels like an infinite number of directions I could go with some newly-ordered cameras and mics, I’m not fooling anyone. I’ve never been less veteran as a video educator. Y et after ASB, I feel like I’m “in it together” with a broad and deep network of experience. 

We’ve all got the same almost-tattooed fingers. It’s a culture that I’m now proud to call my own.