12 November 2013

Hi-Spot Revamp

Over the past six years, Waverly’s student-run newspaper, the Hi-Spot, has had four different advisers. The high turnover of advisers has nothing to do with faculty incompetency, nor does it have to do with poor quality of student staffers.

Simply put, Hi-Spot has been caught in the middle of a perfect storm that has perpetuated the unfortunate rotation of leadership.

While the Hi-Spot has been--and still is--a quality student-run publication, the fact remains that the overall quality of the publication hasn’t reached its zenith; as its adviser, I knew that the staff was capable of the highest-caliber publication, but for some reason, we were unable to consistently achieve at the level I knew they were capable of.

The culprit for our staff’s inability to achieve greatness: a broken system that was focused on outmoded goals and outdated platforms.

Granted, I’m not an old timer (yet), but even a 27 year old is old enough to fall behind the whirlwind pace of media. The physical, ink-on-paper publications that I grew up reading and writing for are nearing extinction. Yet here I was, adviser to a staff filled with digital natives, and I was trying to push them to publishing a printed issue every two weeks instead of monthly. What a goose am I?!

It took over a year for me to develop the courage and conviction to look the staff in the eye and tell them: “You can be better, but I’m holding you back”.

Some of last year’s staffers that graduated are currently pursuing journalism degrees, and they are doing quite well for themselves. However, as I communicated with these alums about their college journalism experience, and after conversations with my college journalism professor, I was hit with the realization that I was, at best, doing a mediocre job of preparing Waverly’s journalism students for the professional world of media.

This painful--yet necessary--wake-up call was enough to prompt major changes. After a few weeks of discussions with Hi-Spot alums, the current staff, high school journalism advisers across the state and other trusted colleagues, the Waverly Hi-Spot was scrapped and the entire class and started from scratch.

Hi-Spot is a student-run publication. In order to honor this, the staff was asked to help recreate the newspaper from the ground up. After a few days of reviewing the very basic principles of journalism, the staff was challenged to come up with a mission statement that would fulfill these principles in a 21st century classroom, for a 21st century audience.

After much guidance and a great deal of teamwork, the staff and I were able to create an entirely new system that focuses on getting daily news out to our readership--which focuses primarily on the students of Waverly High School, followed closely by the faculty, parents, family and community members of District 145--via the platforms they are most accustomed to: digital, online media.

This week marks the rollout of our new system, which includes new writing requirements, grading, staff infrastructure, a focus on utilizing dominate art and inforgraphics as well as other digital tools such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, podcasts, Vine and Instagram, to name a few.

The Hi-Spot has launched a brand-new, user-friendly, visually-engaging website that we will use as our primary means of reporting the newsworthy events at District 145 for the remainder of the quarter.

While the changes occurring are stressful, painful and angst-inducing for all staff members, they have plodded forward, trusting that the changes will not only better serve the readership for which they write, but also challenge them in ways that will promote significant growth that will better prepare them for a career in journalism.

And if one were to stop and think about it, isn’t that the whole reason high school journalism exists?

Q2 & Beyond

The first semester of Intro to Journalism dealt a lot with the theory and concept of journalism. Why is journalism a necessity to a healthy, functioning democratic society? What makes a story truly newsworthy? What impact does journalism have on a society?

While these concepts are vital to any good journalist, they are not easy, nor are the most exciting ideas to grapple with.

The second semester of Intro to Journalism is focused on equipping students with the basic skills they need to successfully navigate the day-to-day life of a staffer for either the Hi-Spot newspaper staff or Viking Annual. Students are interviewing sources, writing news stories, features, sports stories, movie reviews and will soon start learning about and practicing photography, page design and publication.

For most students, these concepts are why they signed up for Intro to Journalism in the first place.

The last two weeks, students have worked on writing feature stories--a longer, more creative version of news writing. Hi-Spot writes several features a semester, and Viking Annual only writes feature stories, so this particular style is very important for each student.

The two sections have come up with great feature story ideas, ranging from background stories on local youth group events, to observing teachers, to visiting other schools for special events, to researching historical events. The junior staffers have gone above and beyond to get great story ideas, and they are working very hard to write quality stories.

As the class progresses through the last quarter of Intro, we are really focusing on getting students prepared for the next step. Intro JOU is a feeder class into Waverly’s two publication classes, Hi-Spot and Annual. The stories students write, the pictures they take and the pages they design will all go into a portfolio they create for their application to one of the two publication classes. Students have less than two months to create a professional, compelling and competitive portfolio of work to help them stand out from their peers.

Some Intro JOU students are getting the opportunity to get their work published on the Hi-Spot’s online publication. While this counts as extra credit for class, it is an invaluable asset to the students seeking admittance to Waverly’s journalism programs.

With less than two months to go, Intro students are racing to beat an impending deadline to get the best work out there, which is fitting, considering both Hi-Spot and Viking Annual spend all year racing against the very same deadlines.

Both programs are set to grow and become even more successful with these up-and-coming journalists.

Demystifying Poetry

Sometimes, against all reason and justification, humans find themselves moved by some "higher power". We tag this unknown, ethereal "higher power" with all sorts of labels: having an epiphany; being moved by the spirit; following a hunch; going with a gut feeling; trusting our intuition.

Whatever it's called, I had one of those. I had one of those spirit-moving, gut-rending epiphanies about switching gears about our next unit.

And, to be frank, it's quite fitting.

Originally, English 10A was going to start its practice NeSA unit; students are reintroduced to the NeSA writing exam--they take them in eighth grade--and practice dissecting prompts, reflecting, organizing, and writing responses. It's an excellent way to prepare sophomores for this test that faces them their junior year.

However, something led me away from the plans laid out for my students. Afterall, we just completed a literary analysis, which includes some of the same basic organization and writing skills as the NeSA requires.

Instead, I decided to jump to our final unit of the year a little early: poetry.

At the beginning of each class, I took a quick survey of the students to find out what they thought of poetry. The answers were widely varied. Some students said poetry was inspirational, expressive, creative, and advanced, while other students believed poetry to be difficult, dumb, stupid, pointless, needlessly vague, and even a "waste of paper".

Strong words.

But who can blame them? A majority of people hate poetry, right? That's a well-known fact. It's a "duh" statement to say most people hate poetry. Talk about pointing out the obvious, right? Just like saying a majority of teenagers enjoy listening to music; DUH!

Except music IS poetry; music is poetry set to a tune.

That slightly blew their minds. They love music--they ask to listen to it every day--and they hate poetry, but it's really the same thing. Just like a movie is nothing more than a book-turned-performance, music is nothing more than poetry-turned-performance.

The problem lies in the fact students simply don't understand poetry.

I attempted to clarify this concept for students. I asked students what they loved to do. Each period, I focused on a student that loves sports. To one student, I asked "how do you feel when someone says baseball is a stupid sport--it's a pointless game that lasts way too long...anyone can hit or throw a ball!"

His response: "People that think that obviously don't understand baseball."

And he was right. I, for one, understand next to nothing about baseball. In fact, if it's sports-related, a person might as well be speaking to me in Greek, because the concept and techniques are lost on me. I am ignorant in the ways of sports. I went so far as to admit that were I to sit and watch a baseball game, a wrestling match, or a track meet with the student athletes that participated in those events, they would have a much deeper appreciation for the sport than I would. The technique, beauty, nuances, and greatness of those sporting events would be evident to them, but the concept blows clean over my head.

But, this is how I drove it home for them. I showed them a poem by William Carlos Willams; most students agreed it was a stupid, pointless poem, but they were willing to trust me that there was greatness about it that they weren't able to see because they were ignorant in the ways of poetry. However, once we dissected the poem and looked at it through the eyes of a poet, they began to see something bigger beneath the seemingly simple, pointless poem.

During this unit, it's not my goal to get students to love poetry, or for them to go out to Barnes & Nobel and buy themselves the complete work of e.e. Cummings (though, they could do worse things...), but to be able to appreciate the inherint beauty, technique, purpose, and nuance behind poetry. In doing so, they will be able to not only read and better appreciate quality poetry, but also recognize and appreciate quality music*, too.

Over the next few weeks, students will learn poetic devices, read and write in various poetic styles, and hopefully, develop an appreciation for one of the oldest art forms known to mankind.

In the end, students should see that poetry does indeed have a point.

*We compared two lines of contemporary songs to illustrate how some songs have more inherint quality based on the poetic devices they use. Compare--

"Happiness" by The Fray:
"Happiness is just outside my window/
I thought it'd crash blowing 80-miles an hour/
But happiness is a little more like knocking/
On your door; you just let it in"

to Justin Beiber's "Baby":
"Baby, baby, baby, ooh,
Like baby, baby, baby, ooh,
Like baby, baby, baby, ooh,
I thought you'd always be mine (mine)"

Obviously, there's something to be said about utilizing poetic elements and the impact lyrics have.

17 October 2013

LOTF Writer's Workshop

18 October 2013

The English 10A class is in the thick of writing the literary analysis papers over The Lord of the Flies. Students have selected a major theme from the text that they feel passionately about, and will prove through their writing how author William Golding displayed that theme throughout the text.

The Writer’s Workshop process is a relatively new addition to the WHS English Department. The whole point of the Workshop is to help students strengthen their writing skills by critically and purposefully dissecting their own writing, as well as others. Each Workshop we complete focuses on a specific skill. For example, the English 10A just completed the first Workshop, which was focused on critiquing the strength of the writer’s thesis statement, main ideas, and supporting details.

Prior to the Workshop, students reviewed and practiced the traits of strong thesis statements, main ideas, and supporting details. Then, students break off into small groups to critique each other’s papers.

The process is a great way to help students identify their writing weaknesses, and give them immediate feedback to help them improve.

After each Workshop, students get the opportunity to make corrections to their drafts, and the process starts all over focusing on a new concept. By the end, if students put forth effort in the process and ask questions, they are very likely to have a near-perfect paper!

The Workshop process has many versions. Sometimes, students work in small groups and discuss their papers with each other. Other times, the whole class sits in a big circle and passes the papers around for timed edits.

This is the second time this English 10A class has gone through the Writer’s Workshop process, and hopefully, they are feeling more confident as they get more comfortable with the process.

I greatly look forward to the polished, poised writing these students have to offer!

Period 5 Students Workshopping
Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey
Period 5 Students
Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey 
The full class spread out in small groups
Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey

Period 4 workshop groups working on their first drafts
Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey

Period 7 workshop group
Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey

Period 7 workshop group discussing thesis
Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey

11 October 2013

Intro JOU Update

The Introduction to Journalism classes have really grown this quarter. Back in August, several students were more than a little surprised by the work load before them, but they have met the challenge head on. Now, they are not only very aware and actively observant about the world around them, they are also stronger writers than when they came in.

One of the hardest aspects of Intro is the weekly Current Events Quiz (CEQ). Every Friday, students are asked ten questions about the most newsworthy events locally, across the state, nationally and internationally. At first, this quiz was probably the most dreaded part of their Friday. However, now that they know the difference between a newsworthy story--something that actually impacts citizens' lives--and a story newspapers report just to get readers (i.e. "shock" news and "infotainment"), these students are now savvy consumers of news. In fact, the 30+ students in Intro are more diligent and critical news readers than many adults I know!

The students have also grown as writers. With weekly AP style notes and quizzes, students are slowly-yet-surely gaining ground on some of the most common writing mistakes as well as the key differences between AP Style and MLA Style.

Two of the Intro students, junior Arick Ames and freshman Ashley Turner, have been featured in the Hi-Spot for their incredible review stories. This is a great achievement for a novice reporter!

I look forward to the second semester as we focus entirely on writing, photography and page design. The Intro students will submit their stories and photography to both Viking Annual and Hi-Spot, and if their material is quality, they may get published!

Journalism is a very difficult field of study. However, I have great hope for these up-and-coming journalists; someday, we may see their articles in the New York Times like Hi-Spot Alum Zachary Tegler ('10).

Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey
Students reading current events, online and in print.

Photo Courtesy: Blake Tobey
Students Arick & Samantha editing their stories.

10 October 2013

Lord of the Flies Review

This marks the fourth year I have taught Lord of the Flies to sophomores, and it has been the best experience I've had by far. They have noticed insights in the text, came up with possible motivations for characters, brought in powerful examples, and have asked the most thought-provoking questions. What a joy it has been to have such deep, poignant conversations with the future of our community!

The whole purpose of Golding's novel is to explore the duality of human nature -- the dark and light in us all. Students engaged in group discussions about topics ranging from leadership versus power, fear, hope, social conditioning, mob mentality, bullying, human instinct verses civility, order, control, revenge, innocence, among many, many others.

Photo Courtesy: Le Cineclub | The Film Society

I think what impresses me the most about this group is that they were able to see past the writing style. Past years, students were so caught up in their dislike for the older, more descriptive form of writing and use of figurative language that they were unable to get the point of the text. It shows a great depth of maturity, as well as the students' desire to tackle complex, philosophical discussions.

We are about to start the literary analysis paper for this unit, and students are very passionate about their potential topics. I am very excited to see what this group comes up with. Here are a few shots of the students at work on their projects.

Photos Courtesy: Blake Tobey
Period 7 working hard

Period 5 at work
Sophomores Mark & Nick taking two approaches:
digital and pen & paper

AJ taking notes online
Period 7 works at their own pace

Period 5 tackling their assignments they way the want

28 February 2013

Conflict with the Middle East

Few regions of the world have greater internal turmoil than the Middle East. The area has been at war with itself and others virtually since mankind started keeping records of such things.

As comedian Eddie Izzard once philosophically waxed, "It's a holy city for the Christians, it's a holy city for the Muslims, and a holy city for the Islams...it's a bit of a [expletive] mess!"

Honestly, hasn't anyone taught them how to share?

This inability for the various tribes and religious groups in the area to coexist has not only perpetuated fear, violence, misunderstanding, and terror among the people who live here, but across the world, as well.

Some of this muddled view comes from singular events. The term "9/11" stokes a patriotic fire in nearly every red-blooded American. This frenzied patriostism is fueled by hatred for the Taliban and, in some instances, anyone who physically resembles someone from the Middle East.

This singular event spread misinformation across our country at an alarming rate, and sadly, many Americans seemed to buy into it. We saw all Muslims as war-mongering terrorists that act on a religion that preaches jihad and annihilation of non-Muslim infidels. Our media were inundated with images like--

But for those who have studied Islam or knows practicing Muslims knows this culture as a beautiful, historically-relevant religion that is based on love and peace.

So which is it? Is the Koran a book of war or peace?

What if we were to look at America from an outside perspective? Are we, a self-proclaimed Christian Nation, all that different from the various groups in the Middle East?

America views itself as a patriotic, God-fearing nation of good and decent people.

But can we blame Arab cultures for not seeing us a loving, God-fearing mecca of good when we have Christians doing this:

"OK, you can't base your opinion about our country based on one extremist group that even Americans can't stand!"

This is a wonderful point some of my ultra-conservative, hyper-religious acquaintances like to say. They don't care much when I respond with "So why are we doing that to Islams? Why is it appropriate for us to judge an entire nation or religion based on the actions of an extreme few?"

Sometimes, I fear the world will never come to a full understanding of the true followers of Islam, or Christianity, for that matter. Depending upon whom you ask, these lands of religion either have followers that are peace-loving, devout, and accepting of all cultures, or filled with hate-mongers bent on purging the world of non-believers.

With the entrenched dogmas about religion, will any of us be able to understand, appreciate, or accept others?

27 February 2013

The Strangers Next Door

The Universe is a cruel and fickle mistress. Some days she just lets humanity alone, lets us go about the task of living...then out of the blue, here comes the Universe, screaming in from left field, reigning down terrors of Biblical proportions.

What a shrew.

And like the vile, odious, repugnant hell-cat she is, she usually rears her ugly face when it's the least convenient for the victim.

Case in point:

I'm a closet-introvert. Surprising, no? The average schmo wouldn't think it from looking at my lifestyle; as a teacher and director, I'm surrounded by teenagers for a vast majority of my day. During productions, I usually work with students for over 12 hours per day, plus another six hours of contact on Saturday.

I'm suffocating in seniors and sophomores, drowning in juniors, and flooded with freshman (but in a good way).

So is it any surprise that I like to spend my personal time away from the huddled masses of humanity? Is it shocking that, when given the chance, I go to afternoon matinees by myself, and hole up as far away from the early-birders as possible? Would anyone blame me for wanting to curl up on my couch during a snow day and read a book for my own personal pleasure? No, I'd say not.

Imagine my reaction, then, when I heard somebody on my front step the morning of our latest snow day. 

Surely it's just the paper delivery, I rationalized. No need to get off my butt. Read on, Tobey-san, read on!

*scrape scrape scrape*

Well, that sounds like the paperboy is scooping the snow off my porch; that's odd. Let's see what's going on here...

It was a boy, but instead of a paper, he was holding a shovel.

It was a neighborhood kid who lived across the street. His dad was in the driveway with a shovel, and his little girl was down by the garage with a very large spoon (a shovel was much too big for her; the spoon was an elegant, albeit inefficient, solution).

...OK, they haven't seen me; they can't prove I know they're here. If I'm really quiet, and I can keep the dog from barking, I could sneak downstairs and keep reading, then act all shocked when I come out in another hour to scoop the walk...

It was the perfect plan. I had excellent cover, and the only witness to my dastardliness was the dog, and she loves me too much to give me away (plus, if she barked and blew my covert-operation, she knew she'd get a bath every day for the next week).

And wouldn't you know it? As I belly-crawled my way down to the basement, the Hag of the Cosmos swooped in and yelled "You are an AWFUL human being! There are elderly neighbors all around you who actually need help. What on earth is wrong with you?"

See what I mean? The ol' Battle-Ax is always showing up at the worst time, making poor, innocent schmucks like me feel guilty about things we should feel guilty about. Who does she think she is?

The bawdy, swag-bellied strumpet!

What was I to do?

The harpy-of-the-heavens was right.

I pulled on my big-boy pants, jumped into some boots, pulled out my snow shovel, and went out for the awkward confrontation.

All-in-all, however, I suppose the Universe wasn't all that wrong this time. While it was an uncomfortable situation, I'm glad I manned up and went out there. I've lived by these exceptionally nice people for almost an entire year, and this was the most conversation I've had with them. We found connections I never knew we had, and I was lucky enough to join in the excitement of their new-baby announcement (I am, after all, suffering from baby-fever). Now, I'm looking forward to seeing them again.

Of course, I won't admit this to the Universe, the old crone; her head is big enough as it is.

18 February 2013

Two Years

For those of us in the prime of life, death is naught but a frightening idea; it's something ominous and dark, but intangible and incomprehensible. With the likelihood of decades left to be lived, the end of the mortal coil is something that can we can push off to the end of our "To Do" lists. Life has far too many deadlines to fret over.

Then again, young people die all the time.

Car crashes.
Poor choices.

Death is ever-present, yet we can never really be sure if we have decades or days.

But what if we did know?

What if life came installed with a personal countdown that ticked away our remaining moments here on earth? What if our every action or inaction affected the rate of that countdown? I pick up the habit of running every day, my clock slows down. I start smoking, the clock speeds up.

What to do then?

What if we were in the same position Morrie Swartz was in? The countdown to death is set for two years, and it starts right now.

* * * * *
Spring 2013
  • Finalize my life insurance plan (let's face it: it's best to have your ducks in a row for things like this).
  • Finish my last semester of teaching. 
  • See every concert, show, and awards ceremony and cheer on the excellence at WHS.
  • Finish all home projects.
Summer 2013
  • Travel cross-country with my wife, Ashley.
  • Visit family across the state.
  • Indulge in every summer activity under the sun.
Fall/Winter 2013
Sping 2014
  • Start writing a book.
  • Enjoy the little things.
  • Start a vegetable garden.
  • Learn to play the cello.
Summer 2014
  • Expose the little Tobey to Nebraska's famous Summer Thunderstorms and Sunsets.
  • Listen to music.
  • Drink lemonade and tea every night.
Fall & Winter 2014
* * * * *

When Death Comes – A Poem by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

14 February 2013

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Let's face it: everyone wants to know what the answer to life, the universe, and everything is. It's the ultimate question! Therefore, it must have an ultimate answer, right?


I mean, shoot! People go on epic journeys across frozen tundras, blistering deserts, and climb the tallest mountain to find the wise guru at the top who has that ever-elusive answer.

Courtesy of Ziggy

Well, I have a little secret.

The meaning of life isn't complex. It isn't secretive. And it isn't privy to the hyper-enlightened mind, either.

It's so simple, it's almost stupid.

Kind of like this:
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Bwahahaha! Oh, how droll. How satirical! What social commentary! To think that the meaning of life could be so simple as 42!"

While the answer certainly isn't 42, it is rather simple.

The meaning of life is the person nearest you.

Disappointed? Feel swindled? Ready to make like the crowd in the Hitchhiker's clip and toss your popcorn to the ground and storm off?

Bear with me.

The meaning of life, the whole purpose we're here, can't be about money. That's easy enough to make and even easier to lose.

It's not about having awesome stuff, either. Fancy boats rust, technology makes itself obsolete every three weeks, and fashion trends are never as hip or trendy as we think they are (think those shoes or hairstyle is hip? Go look at your parents' high school yearbook. You're going to look like that someday).

It's not about beauty. No matter how many procedures plastic surgeons come up with, they will never outwit the Newtonian force of gravity.

It's not about power, status, or clout. There are always more powerful, better connected, and couthy people out there that will always leave you wanting.

That just leaves people.

"But Blake, Google tells me the world has over seven BILLION people living right this very second. How can other people be the meaning of life? There are so many freakin' people!"

How very right and resourceful you are, dear blog reader. Allow me to elaborate.

First, look at your thumbprint. Notice the swirls and loops. Look even more closely, and you'll start to see the ridges between the lines. In the entirety of human existence, there has never been a thumbprint exactly like yours. It means you're unique. It means you're special.

Face it, you're "thumb"body!

And yes, there are +7 billion people right now, but every single person out there is just as unique and special. 

There will never be another you, just like there will never be another him, or her.

Now, look at a clock with a second hand. I'll give you a few moments to find one (or, you can look at one here).

Got one? Good.

Watch that second hand tick by for five uninterrupted seconds. Go ahead, I can wait...

Those five seconds that ticked by will never, ever, EVER come again. Time keeps going, but those individual moments only come once.

Put those two qualities together: there will never be another you, him, or her. And the brief moments you spend with those unique, one-of-a-kind people only last so long.

If the meaning of life is other people, and we only have so many ticks of the clock to be around them, what do we do about it?

That, dear blog reader, is an excellent question. 

In fact, it might be the ultimate question Deep Thought was referring to...