Preaching to the (yearbook) choir

No photo No excuses

In my time as a yearbook and newspaper adviser, I’ve met many other advisers, and though there are many ways they can be divided up, I’ve come to the conclusion there are two types: those who grow and learn by connecting with others and those who live in a vacuum.

I just returned from Herff Jones’s Adviser Essentials workshop in Kansas City, Kansas, where I met dozens (OK, I never really counted, but seemed like about 40) other yearbook advisers, and each of them seemed enthusiastic about their jobs, even though the majority were just beginning their journeys as advisers. Even if they were a little nervous about the relatively huge task ahead of them, I believe they left feeling better about things. In my seven years as an adviser, I’ve attended two other similar workshops in summer, five student summer workshops (I DIY’d last summer because we missed the company-sponsored one) and fall and spring conventions with breakout sessions. I also connect with advisers nation-wide through a special Twitter chat I helped develop, #jerdchat (currently alternating Saturdays at 10 am CT).

The leadership at this workshop was fantastic. Besides the Herff Jones execs and reps in charge of facilitating, three very experienced advisers shared the wisdom they’d gained in their collective years of teaching and guiding. They weren’t the only leaders, however. The rest of us, though technically we were students, I suppose, offered up our own suggestions, what has worked for us, what kinds of situations we’d found ourselves in over the years, and added to the overall sharing. It was the best kind of learning atmosphere, where the leaders know they don’t know everything and encourage participation from those they are leading – just like our classrooms should be.

This is in contrast to a few other advisers I’ve run across, not many because that is their trademark: they don’t join; they don’t connect. The reasons for their non-connectiveness, I would have to guess, include that they figure they have it down, what they do is working so why change anything? Or, perhaps they are uncomfortable letting anyone else see that what they are doing might NOT really be working well, so they hide away from anyone who might tell them there is a better way. Or maybe they just don’t know all the support that is out there for them. From national and state organizations to advisers in nearby communities, publications advisers have been some of the most helpful and supportive people I’ve ever met. But you don’t know that until you discover that.

Unfortunately, those anti-connect advisers (like the ones who don’t join our state scholastic media association) probably aren’t the ones reading this. So if you are an adviser who knows the joys of connecting with other brilliant minds like your own, try to make contact with advisers who might be unaware of the value that’s right there waiting for them to connect. Make it your mission to adopt an adviser and share some knowledge and support.

The Good, the Bad and the Overwhelming

When I meet with my English department counterparts, I think about their lives, the fact that they have six – SIX  – English classes to prep, teach and grade for, and I am so happy that I do not.

I am a journalism adviser, who happens to teach a couple of English classes.

Something will come up in our meeting about my newspaper or yearbook responsibilities, and I inevitably hear, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to be you,” or something of the sort. So I guess the feeling is mutual – sort of.

I look at their days and see hour after hour of students mostly sitting in rows, putting up with my going on about participial phrases or topic sentences or some piece of literature that I and maybe four of them find fascinating. I think about the mountain of formal paragraphs, essays or research papers that they have to grade, and I count my blessings.

To be fair, they know that I put in a lot of extra hours.

Advising is not for everyone, but it’s the only kind of teaching I really want to do. When I begin to think it’s more than I want to handle, I hear from a former student that he’s going to be managing editor of his university newspaper next year or another who has realized that she wants to teach journalism and English – like I do. There are plenty of good reasons to do what I do. But when it all gets frustrating, I cannot help but break it down into the Good, the Bad, and what’s currently eating at me: the Overwhelming.

The Good

1.  I get to connect with kids on staffs in a way that I do not in a regular class. We spend a lot of time together as they produce content, come to me for advice on how to get sources to talk to them, how to get a parent to understand why they need to be able to stay a little later, or how to handle an issue with an other staffer. Conversations about their lives, both present and future is better than any shiny apple, even if I am supposed to be posting my lesson plans. How can I tell them I don’t have time for that?

2.  We bond over crises. Over the years, it’s not farfetched to say that some of our content has not been received well. Sometimes we’ve messed up, and we have a staff meeting – which sounds way more formal than what it is – and figure out where we went wrong and how to resolve it. I mostly guide, play devil’s advocate, try to get them to see different perspectives. Sometimes the staff and I have done our jobs, but the readers don’t appreciate a viewpoint that differs from the mainstream. Empowering students to use their voices, to be responsible, to understand their freedoms and their limitations is exhilarating.

3.  Students do work in here that they are proud of. Watching new staffers beam over their first bylines and photo credits is pretty priceless. The kids love to hear from fellow students about something that was in the paper or yearbook. It gets even better when a faculty or community member takes the time to write or email to commend something we have done. And, of course, in the fall both staffs trek to conference for yearbook awards, and in the spring, the same happens for newspaper awards. Both staffs always do well, and they support each other. It’s validation that they are doing something worthwhile, and they are doing it well.

4.  At the end of the year, along with whatever I’ve conceived for a final, I have staffers write a reflection of the year. What are you most proud of? What do you still need to work on? How will the skills you have developed in this class help you? I get some of the best responses. Truth be told, I do these reflections for me. It’s purely selfish. After the long year of ups and downs, I need a mood-lifter, and I always get it. One of my favorites this year: “This is the only class I actually work in.”

The Bad

1. I put in A LOT of time. I stay at school daily until 5 p.m. or so, then stay with newspaper for late night each cycle and a work Saturday for each deadline for yearbook. Every year I think that if I could only get more organized in the summer, things would go more smoothly and require less time. I work all summer long looking for new ideas to make things run more smoothly or just make them better. While my teacher counterparts are spending time at the lake, or Schlitterbaun or wherever else real people go when they don’t have to be at work, I am opening the lab for yearbookers to come in to complete spreads. My teacher counterparts rib me about spending so much time at school. This usually hits me the wrong way.

2.  Advising is kind of a dangerous job. My students’ work is published. It’s out there for criticism. It is the nature of the journalism beast to be a watchdog. If real-world journalists are to keep government and other officials in line, reporting wrong doing as well as successes, shouldn’t student journalists be doing the same in their world, the school? Shouldn’t they get to cover issues that affect them, issues that are important to them? Yes, they should, and without censorship, which my students are lucky enough to get to do, but there is still a background of self-censoring. I’ve been called to the office a couple of times in the past six years, and these were not comfortable situations. To keep their right to publish without prior review, they have to be careful about what they choose to write about and how they go about it. See No. 2 above. These can make for some scary times. Advisers are fired or moved to other positions quite commonly, and quite, quite often for questionable reasons. I advise a student-run newspaper. Content decisions are theirs, but I have to advise, get them to see all possible outcomes of what they decide to cover.

3.  Grading and expectations are tough teaching issues with publications classes. In these project-based labs, every student has different aptitudes, different levels of ability in different areas. And they all have a variety of assignments. Make that fit a gradebook. I’ve found ways over the years. But it’s never as truly even and fair as I’d like. What do you do about a student you’ve had for four years, who is capable, but has suffered progressive senioritis since the end of his freshman year? He’s there and his stuff is complete when you need it to be, but no earlier. And if you only kind of need him, he’s only kind of there. How do you grade that? It’s tricky. What about the super editor who is so busy helping everyone make their stories and pages better that her own assignments are almost always late? Doesn’t set a good example of meeting deadlines for the staff, and it always makes me nervous. But she always comes through. Always.

4.  Some students just never find their niche. For some student staffers, the production class simply isn’t what they’d bargained for and they continually hold things up. Maybe their writing requires so much editing that it’s no longer their story by the time it’s FINALLY finished, and that process never seems to improve. Or maybe editors have to give them photo assignments, but always feel they must send backup. Or maybe that student just never seems to have the sense of urgency required to get things done. Student staffers who hold up the entire process are probably what irritate me the most, as I can never seem to find a way to “fix” the problem. They usually know this isn’t their thing and don’t return the following year, but once in a while, it’s clear to everyone but them. That’s a tough situation.

The Overwhelming

1.  Grading can get overwhelming. When English essays have been in my grading folder for over a week, but newspaper drafts have stacked up near the RTG (Ready to Go) deadline and the yearbook spread proofs are over a week late being edited and returned, I get overwhelmed. I’ll spend a weekend drowning myself in grading, give only deadline grades on newspaper stories, cursory glances over yearbook spreads, having faith that editors have caught name misspellings and apostrophe catastrophes, and I move on.

2.  Yearbook staffers who don’t stay caught up on their work during the year and don’t come in on summer lab days prolong the task for me and for the dedicated editors who are there cleaning up everyone else’s messes. And that really ticks me off. And it makes me feel like a bad teacher. Even though I have tried to get those slackers to get caught up in those last few weeks, the fact remains that by the end of the year (some years have been worse than others), there are spreads that should have been finished that are not. Yes, their grades reflected their unfinished work. But now the person in charge of that spread has a new summer job or church camp (how can I say anything bad about church camp?) or they don’t have a way to get to the school. They knew this was coming. Did they think it would magically get done? Did they think the editors would just finish it on up? Did they think I would do it (maniacal laughter here). It breaks my heart to see the dedicated ones paying for their good work by having to work more, having to lose a part of their summer just because they care.

3.  The yearbook index almost kills me every year. And this year is no different. It’s a position that doesn’t really need anyone until second semester at which time everyone is neck deep in their own assignments. I’m with a new company this year, so I had hoped the index might be easier, better. It’s not. I put myself in charge, so I could see it done thoroughly, correctly. Seems this system only indexes by portraits. That means only students who had yearbook photos taken will be automoatically indexed, and only by the name on that portrait. So anyone who moved in after school pics, but was photographed and captioned has to be added in. Also any Christopher who also goes by Chris will not be complete. After placing and formatting my index (before I discovered how limited it was), I printed it and proceeded to CHECK EVERY SPREAD for names and pages that may not show up on the index. We’re talking hours of pouring over pages and cross checking with index content. I hate indexing. And, yes, if I had realized what I was getting into, there was a better way, but by the time I figured it out, I was too far in. Fortunately, I have a good teacher friend who came in and helped me out the past couple days. Before me, she advised the book for two years. She gets it, she really does.

Once I get past the Overwhelming, read over and smile at the Good, make a respectful nod toward the Bad, I can keep going. Without the Bad, I might not fully appreciate the Good. Without surviving the Overwhelming, I might not realize how strong and determined I am.

New milestones

That attitude thing worked out well for me. The first week back was a good one in spite of a few things. The news staff is running on its remaining cylinders plus one volunteer this month. I’m seeing some renewed vigor.

My new English class seems to be filled with likable kids. I think we’ll have a good run, and I feel like my performances are good  and well received (who says these are not performances?).

The yearbookers came back knowing they were behind on the first deadline, but had the next one coming up nonetheless. They’re working it, and I’m proud of them.

The really interesting thing this week is a phenomenon similar to what I experienced last year – my fourth year. The students who were freshmen when I began teaching  were seniors last year and I knew they’d be graduating and leaving. I spent a good part of last year living in the moment because I had grown so attached to so many of those kids, and they were going on – without me.

So I should have been prepared for something similar, but it took me a bit by surprise. In the space of a week, I heard from three different former students who were juniors or seniors when I started five years ago. Let’s see . . . that would make them about, yes, grown up now.

They’re getting married.

One posted on facebook that she was engaged. She was a junior when I became adviser in 2007.  She began as a contributing writer, which we really needed because the former adviser of one year had run off most of the staff, and I began with only four members. The next year she joined officially. Her younger brother is our web editor now and a good writer/editor in his own right.

Then, in the mail early in the week, I received a Save the Date card from an ’09 senior who, though she wasn’t on staff, she had been in the very bad previous year, and she came in and helped us out some. She was friends with those still in the newsroom, and what’s more, she and her fiancé know my own sons. Loved the card they had made as well. We’re all baseball fanatics. My boys have always played. My oldest is coaching now, as is this young lady’s beau. They wore MLB jerseys, held bats, and in their gloves were baseballs with the date of their wedding marked on them. Cute idea. The date is etched in my mind.

Both bad and good things come in threes – if you look hard enough. I didn’t have to look hard for this one, though. There was certainly an element of irony. That first year, when I began with a staff of four, we had a most awesome leader. He was the best kind: well-liked, respected, had a sense of humor, could break out in song when necessary (“Renegade,” anyone?), but knew how to get people to work, too. “Think independently, Chris.” Anyway (easy to digress when I think of good times, good kids), this week we’d pulled out some older papers to see how we’d done some things, and the issue with a photo of Jason’s car on the front was sitting on my desk. One of my staffers who knew him recognized the car and a conversation about Jason ensued.  Then I heard my phone. It was a text. From Jason. Who I haven’t heard from in over a year. He wanted my address for a wedding invitation.

My babies are growing up.


I must be honest: the main reason I started this blog is so that I would have a way of keeping track of the time and energy I put toward teaching classes and advising my publications staffs. I love that I’m also learning some new (to me) technology that I will be passing on to my journalism students and that I have a justifiable creative outlet as well – although, I have to question why I have to justify a creative outlet for myself. Oh, yeah, because I have too much to do as a teacher and adviser to spend time selfishly being creative.

Now that my secret is out, I have to confess and apologize for what is now obvious: it’s been two weeks since my last post. I am sorry. But to address my initial need to document time put toward, I must bog us down with information. I’ll try to do this quickly and painlessly (which should be easy, since I’m old and forgetful).

The week of September 12 was memorable for several things. I spent Monday and Tuesday after school following the new protocol before referring students to the office by calling multiple parents about such infractions as disturbing other students, not focusing on work, not turning in work, truancy for Encore. So far this year I have had more of those conversations with parents than I have had in my previous four years of teaching combined.

Tuesday was remarkable for the promise that it held and the disappointment that was revealed at the end of the day. For months, citizens have worked to create an acceptable compromise to the bond issue that was voted down last April. This one, it seemed, was what the people wanted and would agree to. The result would have been vast improvements to our 50-year-old campus, making it much more suitable on a basic, day-to-day basis as well upgrading the technological possibilities to help our students be more competitive technologically both as students now and as productive citizens later. The bond, however, did not carry a large enough majority, so it’s back to the drawing board again.

Wednesday wasn’t any longer than usual, but I had less time when I donated my plan period to cover a math class for a teacher gone to a workshop. Took some work with me, but when I realized his kids wouldn’t work unless I was strolling among them, I put my work away.

Thursday afternoon and Friday morning were open for Parent/Teacher conferences. I think I had seven parents or sets of parents come by. Guess I could add in all the phone conversations I had earlier in the week.

I did Friday on very little sleep. Dog barked at 1:24 a.m. I never went back to sleep. Did those few Friday morning conferences, a lot of grading, and some yearbook work. Dashed home for a late lunch then caught a ride with my teacher friend the webmaster, and, cameras in the trunk, we headed to the evening’s football game destination an hour and a half away. Of course, we built in time for a brief shopping trip and dining before the game.

My sophomore-in-college son and is girlfriend met us there (a halfway point for all of us), so we had some visiting in between photographing the game, pom, cheer and the band. And I actually stayed awake all the way home – midnight. Long day.

Saturday morning came early as I rose, grabbed the camera again, met a yearbooker at the classroom for more photographic equipment, and we headed for the park to catch some cross country pics. Those turned out much better than the football pics. I have so much to learn about photography. Daylight is my friend, and I am lost without my friend.

Last week I pushed hard to get the grading caught up.  This was aided by the fact that I stayed home sick on Monday. It was one of those illnesses that largely requires that you simply have a bathroom very close by. Other than that, you can actually get some work done.

Good thing I felt better on Tuesday. It was my turn to play freshman sponsor and watch dance practice from 7 to 8:30 p.m. I always get a kick out of the class dance pep rally. The students who are involved work hard to get their choreography just right and throw in enough originality to be competitive – although everyone knows that the seniors always win, even if they suck. It’s interesting, though, to watch some of the freshmen, who don’t really know what they’re up against, fool around and not take it seriously enough. Kudos to the choreographers, the leaders, who put up with a lot to try and pull off a good performance from a cross section of their entire class. My kid’s a senior, but I secretly root for the freshmen to impress the masses.

Finally heard from my yearbook rep on Wednesday, nearly a week after he said he’d figured out the index bug in the program and managed to get my index finished. Since attempts to email the file to me had failed, he was going to up load it to Dropbox and send me instructions, but I hadn’t heard from him in a week. Got the file, but the PDF plug-in wouldn’t work. Waiting game again while he works with tech support to try to figure out this new problem. Kids will be lucky to have the 2011 book for Christmas. They may be lucky to have the 2011 book before the 2012 book. I stayed late editing the file that wouldn’t go, because eventually it will.

The rest of the week went smoothly enough, though when I think of all I need to do to get this 2012 book off the ground, while still worrying about the old one, and production week is coming up for the first real issue of the paper, and, oh, there’s that English class to teach . . . it worries me, and I’m blogging.

Teacher Moment

This one should have gone up over a week ago, when, in the space of a few days, I had three former students inform me that they will be writing for their respective college newspapers.

An ’09 grad, a former entertainment editor, will be writing for the Cameron Collegian, with the very real possibility of an editorship next semester. That’s my alma mater – and the very newsroom in which I fell in love with this gig – so it’s very special to me.

My ’10 yearbook editor will be writing for, and being paid by, Oklahoma State’s O’Colly, a daily paper. She’ll do great, and I’m looking forward to reading her stuff.

The buck-stops-here yearbook editor of 2011 has gigs going for the University of Oklahoma Daily as well as a spot on the yearbook staff. She’s already sent links for her first two Daily stories and dropped by with a print version of one.

I am so proud of these kids, as well as those who have taken the skills they gained in my classes and used them in other pursuits. This is the best job in the world.

Practical uses for flaming cowboy hats

I worked until 7 p.m. tonight. It was a good thing. I FINALLY uploaded the edited proof pages that were completed the day before faculty reported back to school this year. Yes, the pages are for LAST YEAR’S book.

A delay, which I mentioned in an earlier post, caused the editor to work throughout the summer to finish the book, with some, but very little help. The delay was caused by incomplete work. There are a couple different ways to look at the situation: 1. Some staff members let the staff and adviser down by not doing their work, even after continually being warned and even helped. Or, 2. The adviser failed to hold the students’ feet to the fire and demand that the work be completed. You can lead a horse to water…

Anyway, the final content pages are final. That feels pretty good. Wish I felt as good about the index. There’s always the weekend. And I managed to get this done after hours, without the need for the flaming cowboy hat mentioned in the post title.

Flaming cowboy hat, you ask?

Let me explain. When I took this position four years ago, the room came equipped with six molded, felt cowboy hats printed with, yes, flames. Don’t know what they were originally purchased for, but I’ve found a good uses for them.

In fact, the top 4 uses for flaming cowboy hats are:

4. They are fun for group pictures.

3. Entertainment editors who are also show choir members use them in solo performances for Mr. Irresistible pageants.

2. They’re great to draw parts from when you make your freshman English class perform “Romeo & Juliet.”

And the No. 1 use for flaming cowboy hats in a newsroom is … They act as an invisibility hat so that the wearer can edit or write with no one allowed to distract them short of a fire in the room or cessation of breathing.

My newspaper kids have known this for a couple years, but somehow, that knowledge had escaped the yearbook staff. Could be that most of them graduated last year, leaving only four returners.

Anyway, as the yearbookers came into class this afternoon, they found me furiously typing away at my keyboard, which, of course, didn’t stop them from trying to hand me ad sales contracts, ask for change for a dollar, share a moment or ask other questions. Needing to concentrate on the email reply I was typing, I hollered across the way to bring me a flaming cowboy hat. The newbies were stunned to, if not silence, then at least a lower volume as I placed the hat on my head, made the ‘shush’ sign and continued typing.

When I finished, I called class to order, slapped an agenda on the board, beginning with 1. Flaming cowboy hats, and explained the No. 1 use for them.

Now we’re all on the same page.

Piles, ad sales and the heat … oh, the heat

Well, seven – no, eight, school days have gone by with no time for blogging. Not that I haven’t been writing in my head. During the first few days, I saw only miniscule reductions in the do-this-first pile, from getting the sub folder ready to setting up the gradebook in the system and pestering my students to get forms completed correctly, signed by parents and turned in. That, of course, was secondary to preparing for class.

I’m still staring down a do-this-next pile, while the shoulda-done-this-over-the-summer piles haunt me, but I’m doing the best I can and working hard every day. This led to some serious exhaustion at first, but that’s getting better too.

Both staffs began their ad sales campaigns Friday and did more of the same today. This provided Snidey with some much-needed quiet time to accomplish little tasks. The worst any have encountered so far was the downtown retailer who refused to sign the call sheet indicating the student had actually called on the business.

They’re having generally good luck, but would do better if they could spread thinner. We just don’t have many drivers on either staff this year, so they can’t get much done before they have to return to school. They’ll just have to do some selling on their own time or we’ll never get anything done in class.

In the meantime, I had the best of intentions of getting closer to finalizing the 2011 book. Got more of the final deadline of corrected proofs PDF’d, but the printer guy came in to work on my printer issues, which took about an hour, so my productivity decreased and I didn’t reach my goal of completion – but I am closer. End page proofs are final, and I made corrections to the cover proof, sealed it in a FedEx envelope, grabbed up a stack of English I knew I wouldn’t grade and headed for the car. As I drove to the FedEx drop box, 108 degree air circulated through my vents and blew into my face. All the way home, it was the same thing; windows up, windows down, I couldn’t decide what was worse. My 10-year-old car’s air conditioning has finally failed … in the hottest summer on record.