When Anthony Whitten was 11, he moved from a majority black school in New Jersey to a primarily white school in Virginia. In high school, he struggled with feeling like he belonged in a community where few of his fellow students looked like him.
That all changed when he found journalism. “It was the one place I felt really connected to school and myself,” he said.
After joining the yearbook staff his junior year, Whitten realized two things: The world is full of possibilities — and stories — just waiting to be discovered. And he wanted to be a teacher who could support other minority students through the types of challenges he had faced.
Whitten, who has been a high school instructor in northern Virginia for the last 12 years, has made it his life’s mission to support young people and show them paths they might never have considered. In his role as adviser for Westfield High School’s yearbook and newspaper, he has guided student journalists to several honors, including this year’s elite Pacemaker Award. For the past two years, he has also served as a facilitator for the Journalism Education Association’s Outreach Academy, where he trains other journalism advisers how to teach their subject to diverse populations. The JEA awarded Whitten its Rising Star award in 2013.
Whitten’s latest adventure as the School of Journalism and Communication’s scholastic journalism outreach coordinator will allow him to connect even more high school students with life-changing opportunities. In the new role, Whitten will visit Oregon high schools to recruit students to the SOJC and teach other educators what he has learned about keeping journalism engaging and relevant to digital natives. He will also act as executive director of the Northwest Scholastic Press, a regional organization based in the SOJC that organizes the annual Fall Press Day and the Student Media Olympics.
“Scholastic journalism serves an essential role for the SOJC as the leading school of journalism on the West Coast,” said Regina Lawrence, executive director of the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center and the George S. Turnbull Portland Center, where Whitten’s position is based. “It’s part of our mission to show young people the importance of journalism to communities and to democracy. And it’s a crucial pipeline to excite young people — especially those in underrepresented communities — about journalism, pursuing college and attending the University of Oregon.”
We sat down with Whitten as he prepared to begin his new position to find out what brought him to the SOJC and where he hopes to take its scholastic journalism program in the near future.
What attracted you to journalism education?
The ability to tell great stories. My sophomore yearbook in high school showed me the possibilities. I wanted to be a part of what that staff created, so I started yearbook in my junior year and continued through college. What’s kept me in it is the creation of family and products I can be proud of.
When I started teaching, I wanted to be a yearbook adviser. But I picked the one school where multiple people wanted the yearbook, and I wasn’t an English teacher. I had two solutions: I got my endorsement to teach journalism, and I went in search of an advising job.
Why did you want to be the SOJC’s scholastic journalism outreach coordinator?
I thought it was a job that really fit my skill set while also providing a challenge. I’ve always approached my teaching career as an agent of change. This position allows me to not only do that, but also remain in scholastic journalism and have an even greater reach.
Why do you think it’s important for the SOJC to reach out to local high schools?
As an adviser, I know how easy it is to be super-focused on what you do in your high school program. But I’ve found that just introducing a new possibility can change how a student thinks about the entire world. Our outreach is important because students in the SOJC show high school students one possibility, and SOJC graduates in the field show so much more.
Why do you feel scholastic journalism is important, both to high school education and to the journalism and communication field?
Journalism is all around us. Whether it is a snap story, tweet or status update, journalism is a constant part of our day. For that reason, I think the field of journalism is suffering what teachers have been battling the last decade or so: the prevalence of the idea that anyone can do it. While technology has enabled everyone to become more prolific storytellers, it’s still important to “do journalism” correctly. Journalism education at both the high school and college levels enables students to be responsible, thorough and critical thinkers.
How has high school journalism changed over the past decade, and how did you adapt your classes and publications for the digital age?
Over the last few years, I’ve seen high school journalism mimic more of the 24-hour news cycle. There’s increased pressure on programs to be ahead of news and craft stories that readers can access on many platforms. As an adviser, this has inspired me to try a lot of platforms to figure out what works. I feel like we have done it all.
How can high school journalism educators keep students engaged in their classes and with their publications?
Tell great stories. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter what the platform is. Students react to stories they can connect to.
Another way is to publicize. Meet your population where they are. We have to move past the “Field of Dreams” mentality. Just because we create great content doesn’t mean it will be consumed. A viral story is a real thing, and in most cases it starts with some self-promotion.
Much of your new role will involve training other educators. How has your background prepared you for that?
I worked for two summers with Teach for America as a corps member adviser. I was an “external,” meaning I hadn’t served in the corps. It was one of the best professional experiences I have ever had. Not only did it make me reflect on my practices, but it also taught me how to coach and train.
Working with other teachers will be a highlight of this position. One of the sayings we have in northern Virginia is: “Being a journalism adviser is sometimes tough because your colleagues don’t exactly understand what you do or how much you do.” I understand both of those things. Having advised yearbook, newspaper, online media and an afterschool middle-school newspaper, I think I will be able to relate to and help a lot of teachers.
What do you think are the most important things that high school journalism educators need to know and understand about the field?
It’s important to let the students lead. I’ve discovered that most of the ideas that originate with me ultimately don’t work. The things that work best are the stories and ideas that start and end with my students. I’ve had to get really comfortable with being a background singer or hype man and not the star.
How did your experience as a JEA Outreach Academy facilitator help prepare you for your new position?
Outreach Academy has taught me to appreciate the diversity of teaching experiences. No two advisers have the same issues, and even in the same school district advisers can have drastically different experiences. It’s important to have conversations and figure out what we can learn from each other.
Do you have any new ideas for the SOJC’s outreach to Oregon high school students?
I have tons! I am so ready to start. The first two items on my agenda are developing a residential summer journalism program at the UO campus. I think it is important to have an experience in Eugene so that students can envision themselves at UO.
I also want to develop a study-abroad experience for high school students and advisers. Going abroad can help students see what it’s like to be a working journalist in the world.
One of the responsibilities of this position is building recruitment relationships in Oregon high schools with a special emphasis on increasing the diversity of SOJC students. Why do you think this is an important goal?
Diversity is always important. Interacting with people of different backgrounds helps us develop more empathy. Being thoughtful of diversity also pushes the needs and recognition of others to the forefront.
Part of my mission in becoming a teacher was to be there for minority students living in areas that don’t really match them. But we have to be mindful of all forms of diversity. Looking at race or ethnicity is only one way to develop a school community that reflects the world we live in. In my program, I worked really hard to change the appearance of the students in my room, but I also made sure I had students who were not in all AP or honors classes, or who were in different economic positions, or for whom English wasn’t their first language.
If you don’t open up more seats at the table, you miss out on a lot of possibilities.
Story by Andra Brichacek