The Weekly Wednesday: An Unexpected Passion

Originally published Sept. 16, 2015 on

I was unsure if I should be eager or anxious, but I definitely knew I was overwhelmed by his words and intimidated by the passion coming from the journalism adviser at Decatur High School.

It was in the lobby of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis during the NSPA/JEA 2004 Fall Convention where Jon Reese introduced himself to me. “We could be doing so much more with GSPA,” he told me, then listed off numerous things that would make GSPA more beneficial to students and advisers. “GSPA can be a premier organization for the high school press.”

I had been in my position for barely a month, already having been thrust into “hosting” NSPA, a national convention with roughly 5,000 high school journalists and teachers in attendance. I knew GSPA had already been through numerous directors in its recent history — I was the fourth in six years. Admittedly, I anticipated my tenure to be short as well — get my master’s degree within three years, then get back in the professional world writing for a publication somewhere in the Midwest. At 28 and with a newly born baby, GSPA was the de facto “reset” button for my professional career.

But then I kept talking to Jon Reese. And then to Debbie Smelley of Starr’s Mill High School. And Coni Grebel of Lee County High School. And Kristy Cates of Lowndes High School. And Brian Holt of Effingham High School. And Sonya Boyd of Shaw High School. And David Ragsdale of Clarke Central High School. And Cal Powell of First Presbyterian School. And Elisha Boggs of Chestatee High School. And these people — who at one point were on or are still on the GSPA Advisory Board — changed my career.

The passion each of them had for high school journalism and more importantly, journalism students is contagious. I caught the disease. They came to me with idea after idea on things GSPA could be doing better, and for the most part we implemented them. Because after multiple conversations with members of the board, I recognized that not only were they full of good ideas, but they were willing to step up and help institute the ideas they espoused. From hosting student workshops, creating and developing an adviser training seminar, teaching multiple sessions at conferences, and mentoring new teachers, these individuals served as the core of GSPA over the past decade … without getting any of the credit (or pay).

Almost immediately, I embodied their passion for high school journalism. My 3-year plan became a 5-year plan, then 10-year plan, and then a life plan. While knowing I had a tremendous backbone of support at the state level, I merged my academic goals with my new professional passion and began to conduct statewide and national research on scholastic journalism, presenting my results at national academic conferences. I began to critique papers for publications in various states around the country. I became involved in SIPA to reach young journalists in the Southeast. And back home, we continuously reshaped GSPA’s offerings, continuously taking feedback from not just the board, but all advisers who offered input.

After 11 years, I figured this was my lot in life. And I was OK with that. Family-wise we are settled in Athens. And professionally, as my passion for fostering journalism among high school students continued, I developed another passion — teaching college students. As my position evolved at Grady to a faculty role, I had the best of both worlds. But then an opportunity came to me that I just couldn’t turn down — the chance to teach at the collegiate level full time. Starting Jan. 1, 2016, I will be an assistant professor of mass communications at Piedmont College, splitting my time on both their Demorest and Athens campuses while advising the college newspaper.

It’s a new chapter in my life, as well as for GSPA. It’s a chance for the organization to get a new perspective, and continue to grow the organization into one of the most respected scholastic press associations in the country. And I’m confident that whoever takes over GSPA — despite his or her initial motives — will develop the same passion and care for high school journalism that I did. Jon Reese — and every other teacher who is part of GSPA — will make sure of it.

The Weekly Wednesday: Do as I say … AND as I do

Originally published on on Aug. 26, 2015.

An odd number of students in my editing class forced me into action for the first in-class writing exercise: write a short profile of a classmate following my “Anatomy of a Journalism Story” format.

The “Anatomy” format is formulaic:

  • Open story with a one-sentence lead, focusing on the who and what.
  • The second paragraph is a quote from your main source, reinforcing the lead.
  • The third paragraph is the nut graf, filling in the essential details not covered in the lead.
  • The rest of the story comprises transition/new information, quote. Transition/new information, quote.
  • The story always ends with a quote, ideally tying the back to the lead.

The idea is to introduce students to a journalistic format that is simple to follow and flows well for the reader. It is the only time I confine students to a specific format. Admittedly, this was the first time I subjected myself to simultaneously work on the same exercise I gave my students. The pressure was on: if I couldn’t pull this off, how could I expect my students to do the same? After interviewing my subject for 10 minutes, I started writing. It was a flashback to being a student in school, complicated by the inevitable self-evaluating of my teaching methods. I told students I wouldn’t even read their stories if the lead didn’t capture my attention, so I spent most of my time — definitely too much — trying to get my lead perfect. Did I overemphasize the lead to students? As caught myself straying from my format, I wondered why in the world am I so stringent on following this format for this exercise? I had the perfect ending to my story, but it wasn’t a quote as I required. So I was forced to change my ending. Was I stifling my students’ creativity?

As I put the finishing touches on my story, the student in me was very proud, and the teacher in me was relieved. I pulled it off (story below).

It was truly educational for me, as a teacher, to force myself to do what I was asking my students to do. In this particular case, it reinforced in me the benefits of this exercise. But would that be the case if I forced myself to do everything I asked of my students?

It’s tails: VanMeter flips to journalism

A flip of the coin led Chenault VanMeter to journalism.

“I was torn between advertising and journalism,” said VanMeter, a Grady College senior. “So I flipped a coin. And that was it.”

Her unconventional decision-making methods matches her unique first name, Chenault. Named after her grandmother, VanMeter was raised on a 120-acre horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky. With four brothers, including her twin, carving out her own identity has always been a challenge.

“It was always really hectic, really loud,” VanMeter said. “It helped me become an outgoing person.”

Standing in the shadows of her brothers is difficult enough, but she also has lived under a strong VanMeter family legacy in her hometown, where the VanMeter name is plastered on roads, buildings and professional practices across town.

“Our family stretches back 12 generations (in Lexington),” VanMeter said. “I’m constantly learning new things about my family.”

With an entrenched family legacy in the land of Wildcats, it’s no surprise VanMeter — fueled by her desire to be adventurous — moved to the Bulldog nation to pursue her education. Although her family is extremely important to her, VanMeter is eager to gain new experiences on her own.

“It’s really important for people to get away,” she said. “There’s so much to see and do. If you don’t leave home, you can easily get stuck.”

With her heart set on Nashville, Tennessee, or Washington, D.C., VanMeter aims to tell people’s stories while building her own life story — with the chapter on her career opening with that fateful coin flip.

“It was tails,” she said. “So I picked journalism.”