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The longtime John Hersey High newspaper adviser was honored Friday, May 1, at the IHSA state final in Charleston, and she had some insights and advice for her peers.
May 4, 2015
CHARLESTON — The most effective way to advise a student publication is to ask questions rather than issue commands. And after you’ve empowered your students to do good journalism, never expect to win a popularity contest at your school.
Those were some of the insights Janet Levin offered to her fellow journalism teachers and advisers Friday when she received the 2015 James A. Tidwell Award for Excellence in Scholastic Media Education. The award is sponsored by the Illinois Journalism Education Association and Eastern Illinois University.
Levin made her remarks at IJEA’s adviser breakfast held in conjunction with the IHSA journalism state final.
INFLUENCE AND LEGACY
As testament to the role Levin has played in the lives of her students, Prospect High School teacher and newspaper adviser Jason Block, a former student of Levin’s, introduced her at the podium.
“No one has had a bigger influence on my life as a journalist, an adviser or as a person than Janet Levin,” said Block in his introduction.
“In addition to teaching us journalism at the highest level possible, Janet teaches her students even more valuable skills than that — first and foremost, how doing the right thing isn’t always the same thing as doing the easy or the popular thing. There is no greater friend of the First Amendment than Janet Levin.”
After graduating from Indiana University, Levin began her teaching career in her hometown of Gary, Ind. Undeterred by the fact that her school didn’t have a journalism program, the young teacher started one herself.
Four years later she left for Hersey High, located in Arlington Heights, where she has taught and advised for the past three decades.
“My job at Hersey has been mostly wonderful, although I certainly have not won one popularity contest at my school,” Levin said in her acceptance speech.
“My 30 staffs have covered some very controversial topics and caused a little bit of trouble along the way. And this is appropriate for a school named for a journalist and an author who often wrote about controversial topics and made no apology for doing so.”
ADVICE FOR ADVISERS
Drawing on her experience with multiple generations of student journalists, Levin imparted two pieces of advice to her peers:
1. Take your students to national conventions.
“Go with them, learn with them, bond with them and wear yourself out,” said Levin, who estimated she’s been to 36 conventions. “Every time I prepare myself to go, I keep thinking, why am I doing this? But my staff comes home so much better than when we left, and it is so worth all the energy.”
2. Remember that you are an adviser, so give advice — not commands.
“Walk that ever-so-thin line of being aware of where your publication is going but get out of the way and let your students lead,” Levin said.
How to accomplish this? By asking questions that force students to think through their decisions as journalists — questions such as, “Who decided this story is going in instead of this one, and how was that decision made?”
As she concluded her speech, Levin posed a question of a different kind to her audience: “Why do we do this crazy work with so little thanks in return?”
Her answer: “Because we get to watch some silly, crazy 14-year-olds grow into some amazing people through their storytelling and their amazing journalism, and then we get to become lifelong friends with them.”
Levin’s speech (beginning at 4:14) and Block’s introduction (0:50 to 3:12) can be viewed in their entirety in the video above.
BACKGROUND OF THE AWARD
Until 2014, IJEA’s highest honor for journalism teachers and advisers was known as the Illinois Scholastic Journalism Educator of the Year Award. It was renamed in memory of James A. Tidwell, longtime Eastern Illinois University journalism professor and IJEA co-founder, who died April 12, 2014, at age 65 after battling pancreatic cancer.
Tidwell was a friend and adviser to IJEA members for more than a quarter century. An Oklahoma native, he joined the journalism faculty at Eastern Illinois University in 1987 and helped found IJEA in 1988. He served as IJEA’s executive director until 2005, when he became chair of the EIU journalism department.
During his varied and accomplished career, Tidwell was a newspaper reporter and editor, a licensed attorney, an expert in media law and the First Amendment, a book author, a professor, and a tireless advocate for student press freedom and excellence in scholastic journalism.
The first winner of the renamed award was Mike Doyle, now retired, who received the honor in May 2014 as he concluded a distinguished career as newspaper and yearbook adviser at Belvidere North High School and, before that, Belvidere High School.