Tag Archives: Paradise Valley Unified School District

An extraordinary grasp of geography

Luke Hellum, who advanced to the top 10 in National Geographic's National Geography Bee in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Erica Bailin.

This is a story about an extraordinary student. But it’s also a story about an extraordinary teacher, and that teacher’s extraordinarily supportive sister.

I came across it because the sister sent me an email. Alison Bailin, who is a senior account executive at HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, frequently sends me tips on stories. She’s one of my trusted “go to” people, who understands our publication and doesn’t waste my time with story ideas that aren’t a  good fit. She also apparently understands my crazy work schedule (and shares it, I think, because we are often communicating at very odd times of the day or night).

Alison first contacted me on Monday at about 6:30pm.  She was facilitating an email introduction to her sister, Erica Bailin, who was at that very moment on her way to Washington, D.C. with one of her students.

“He is the statewide winner of the Geography Bee and will represent Arizona this week at the national contest!” she wrote. “To me, it is a great story.”

About 24 hours later, I got an email from Erica. “My student, Luke Hellum, is in the top 10 finalists for National Geographic’s National Geography Bee,” she wrote. “We have been documenting it. How would you like the photos and explanations shared with you?”

I told her what Alison already knows — that she could reach me virtually 24/7 on my email.

I asked Erica for some background on Luke and learned that he is 13 and an eighth grader who attends the Digital Learning Center for the Gifted at Sunrise Middle School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Erica told me that she was in Washington, D.C. to support Luke along with Luke’s father (Eric), mother (Jen) and brother (Noah).

Finalists board. Photo courtesy of Erica Bailin.

“After winning at the school level, Luke went on to the state competition, and won,” Erica wrote. “This qualified him for nationals. Today, in Washington D.C., the preliminary rounds took place. The competition started this morning with 54 contestants, and ended with the top 10 finalists, with Luke Hellum among the victors of the day. He now moves on to the championship round hosted by Alec Trebek. There was a media storm here today that he went through that is really quite impressive.”

At about 7pm Wednesday, I got another message from Erica:

“Here is Luke’s interview by National Geographic. His ‘If I ruled world for a day…’ response is pretty incredible and will give you a better look into the mind of this brilliant young man.”

And more from Erica’s message today:

“Alex Trebek called Luke ‘Mr. Congeniality.’ The former first lady and current Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, read questions to the contestants via a live feed. After the second round, Alex Trebek introduced the contestants and spoke with each one. Luke referred to the Nat Geo bee staff as ‘classy’ and NatGeoLive tweeted, ‘Luke Hellum from Arizona just called Nat Geo staff  classy. Thank you, sir!’

At 8:25pm Wednesday (11:25pm in Washington, D.C.!) I got one more message from Erica.

“Luke finished seventh out of 5.3 million students and 54 that came to nationals,” she said. “We appreciate your interest in this AMAZING child.”

I look forward to learning more about the whole experience from Luke and his AMAZING teacher.

Luke Hellum as he appeared on the big screen monitor during the competition Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Erica Bailin.

Here’s another video. This one was made by Luke’s teacher, Erica Bailin:

Working with interns: A chance to get back into my 22-year-old head

When we first started accepting interns more than 15 years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. I’m someone who is better at doing what I do than explaining how to do it. And I’m not very good at asking for help.

So I found myself apologizing for assignments I considered “grunt” work — even though I knew the tasks were vital. Or worse, I’d smile and say “thanks” for work that I knew I would (resentfully) spend hours redoing myself.

I had the wrong attitude. I was looking at interns as extensions of myself and expecting them to know what I wanted. I didn’t understand when they “didn’t get” something that I thought was perfectly obvious.

Older now, and wiser, I wish I could go back and redo the mistakes I made supervising some of our earliest interns. But I can’t. What I can do is learn, try again and move forward. And with each intern we bring in, I get a little better at it.

Part of the challenge for me has been learning to accept that I do have something to teach these young people. They are all extremely bright, capable, high-achievers. They are comfortable in this fast-paced, high-tech world and they seem more confident and self-assured than I was at their age. Sometimes I feel I have more to learn from them than they have to learn from me!

A December 1978 graduate of the University of Guam.

When I was a college student eager to launch a freelance career, I didn’t have a laptop, a flip cam, a digital camera or an iPhone. I couldn’t do my research on the Internet. I had a pen, a notepad and a tiny, portable typewriter I carried around in a small wicker suitcase.

Today’s tools make it easier to present a story but the basics of telling a story will never change. Some lessons resonate within any technological context.

I thought about that recently, while reviewing the first draft of a story editorial intern Brooke Mortensen submitted for our August magazine.

I’d sent her to a school in the Paradise Valley Unified School District to research a story about a unique partnership the school had formed with Arizona State University.

When she returned, she submitted a perfectly fine accounting of what she’d learned, in basic “he said, she said” journalism-school, news-reporting style.

As I read her piece I was transported back into my own 22-year-old head, remembering a similar experience submitting a story to an editor for the Pacific Daily News, a Gannett newspaper on Guam. I remembered his wise advice. And suddenly I knew what I had to do for Brooke.

Though it was a Saturday, and she was visiting family in central Washington state, I sat down to write her an email.

I told her about a time when I was her age, trying desperately to make some money as a freelance writer as I finished my college degree at the University of Guam.

I submitted a story to the newspaper’s Islander magazine — one of three interviews I’d conducted with former Guamanian governors. My editor, Floyd Takeuchi, read the piece and told me it was solid. But then he threw it back to me and said, “Where were you? I can’t even tell you were in the room!”

My “he said/she said” style was “by the book,” according to my journalism news reporting training. But I was writing for a magazine, he said, which is very different.

“What did you see?” Floyd demanded. “How did it feel to be in the room? How did he look while you were talking with him? What were his mannerisms? What was on his desk? Give me some ‘color’ — some details that will help me get a better feel for who this man is and what he’s all about.”

I searched my mind for details and added descriptions about the man’s brusque confidence, the guarded way he answered some of my questions, the “hop to it” deference I saw in members of his staff. Floyd published the story.

The experience taught me something I really needed to learn: There are reporters and there are writers. I wanted to be a writer.

I shared my story with Brooke because I think that’s what she wants, too.

A yellowing copy of the July 1978 article I wrote for Islander magazine about three of Guam's former governors.