How to make a deadline

“Early is on-time,” they tell me. “On-time is late.”

I have a lot of band students on my yearbook and news staffs, and I think it’s time to take a page from the band director’s doctrine.

The band students know his theory is, “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

True to form, band, as a class, starts 30 minutes before first hour for the rest of the school. As teachers and students pull into the parking lot to begin the day, band is already practicing their marching program, and they’ve been doing so since 7:15 a.m. They didn’t arrive at 7:15. They started marching at 7:15.

I tell you that to tell you this:

We need to be early to be on-time with our yearbook and news deadlines. The simple reason is that there are always unexpected obstacles – always.

Always.

This year, we are switching from a fall delivery yearbook to a spring delivery yearbook. Previous staffs have all preferred to have the entire year in the book so we’ve worked two or three (or more) weeks into the summer to create one complete book delivered in the fall. This year, we’re trying a spring book, but the last deadline is just before spring activities. We’ll create a summer supplement to cover those.

Spring books mean earlier deadlines with more pages, and they have to be met or we won’t get the book in time to deliver before graduation.

Yesterday was the first day of our Fall Break, which extends through Tuesday. Our first deadline is Monday. That meant we showed up yesterday to finish pages for the first submission. I was thinking this qualified for “early”.

Granted, this first few weeks has been full of learning how to yearbook. And there have been dozens of decisions to make – big and small – regarding design. Deciding the theme itself was a big one, but few realize the number of tiny decisions that have to be made and then implemented throughout for consistency. Will the number for the caption AND the lead-in be demi-bold? Will we use a period after the photo credit? Are non-staff members “Photo by …” or “Courtesy of …” and how do we credit news staff when it’s their photo? So. Many. Decisions.

So a little more than half the staff was able to make it to workday yesterday, and while many were finishing spreads, many were editing for all that tiny stuff.

One obstacle after another got in our way.

The morning started right off with a corrupted InDesign spread that wouldn’t open.

We spent half an hour or so trying to troubleshoot that one. I used Mac’s Time Machine option, going back to an earlier, saved version, but it still wouldn’t open. I called Herff Jones’s tech support, and the specialist had me email the file to her. She couldn’t open it either. Just when it looked like the staffer was going to have to design from scratch (I actually felt tears welling up behind my eyes), I tried Time Machine again, going back an hour earlier in the previous day’s files, and we got a version that would open – minus a couple of steps that hadn’t saved.

That was the big one, but we had photos that wouldn’t place for mysterious reasons, links that went missing for mysterious reasons, and the regular stuff that comes by learning. Photos needed lightening because they print darker than the screen shows. Stories had been placed without being edited because it was someone’s first time. Captions needed more information. Name spellings hadn’t been double-checked. We had to make a decision to add periods after photo credits that didn’t have them or remove the ones that did have them.

You just have to plan to need more time.

You have to plan for the people you need to interview to be unavailable.

You have to plan for photos to need to be retaken sometimes.

You have to plan for InDesign to crash.

You have to plan for a photo to not be where you thought it was.

You have to plan for links to be broken.

You have to plan for people in photos to defy being identified.

You have to plan for a power outage and the fact that you hadn’t saved since you created that last mod.

You have to plan to finish early or you’ll be late.

We’re meeting again Sunday afternoon to finish, and we’ll meet that Monday deadline. Then we’ll celebrate being awesome.

Deadlines

Deadlines. Getting to work on time is my first deadline of the day; being prepared for each class and wrapping up the lesson before the bell are two more. I have bills to pay, taxes to file – more deadlines. I used to shoot for preparing dinner at a reasonable hour, but have tossed that one out as unreasonable these days. I definitely have a deadline for getting to bed if I want to be worth anything the next day, and the alarm seven hours later denotes the deadline for what might have been a pretty good night’s sleep – maybe.

I pose deadlines with my assignments, whether they are for news stories, edited photos, completed spreads or final corrected proofs. I and teachers like me have other classes, so there are deadlines to set for essays, research note cards, and various projects. We have our own deadlines to meet in the meantime, for posting lesson plans, getting grades in and, well, you know what I’m talking about.

Since we know students’ lives are going to continue to demand they conform to deadlines, it makes sense to teach them the value of meeting them now – but how?

I have no magic answers, but I do have some advice, none of it original.

  • Set mini deadlines. Sounds easy enough, but set them EARLY. Post or publish them where students will be expected to access them. I set newspaper publication deadlines and yearbook publisher deadlines before school starts. Mini deadlines are easily set from that point. I print out monthly calendars for each staff so they know the deadlines, but each has access to master calendars or deadlines in the server or in staff manual.
  • Make ‘em count. For news staff, missing deadlines is worth up to 20 percent of each assignment’s grade built into the rubric. Missing a mini deadline by a couple days isn’t as harmful to the grade as missing the RTG deadline – that’s Ready to Go, the Friday before we build pages on Tuesday night. Missing that one is a bad deal.
  • I also set up a three-strikes policy, but with small staffs, it’s hard to implement.  Ideally, when a staffer misses RTG deadline three times (counting assignments, not issues), she’s no longer on staff. If changing classes is not possible, I’ll find busy work that may include bookwork. I’ve only used this once, though I could have way more often.
  • Another stolen idea for motivating my newsies to finish up page building on late night at a decent hour is the promise of breakfast. If they finish by 8 p.m. on late night, I’ll bring them breakfast on “dead day,” the day after press deadline, but before delivery. In my first year or two, I was foolish enough to stay until 1 or 2 a.m. letting them finish building pages. No more. But we still stay until 10 or 11 p.m. so that after edits the next day, we can make press deadline. Usually at least a couple times a year I bring fresh fruit, Carl’s Jr. biscuits, milk and juice.
  • Stole a great idea for my yearbook staff in the book “Play that works” that you can find at the JEA bookstore. We now have presentation days in every deadline – one Friday for copy, the next for design and the next for photos. The idea is that after hitting the mini deadlines and edits, the story should be ready to present to the staff for feedback. Writers open their story from server, project it on screen and read it to other staff members for feedback. This is a deadline grade for which I use a rubric. They don’t like admitting to everyone they don’t have their work. Same thing for design. Students present their spreads. Now when it comes to photo presentations, everyone presents three photos taken during that deadline time, whether they had any due in that deadline or not, because, frankly, everyone should be helping gather photographic content, both in and out of classrooms. The photos include well-written captions with lead-in and quotes and/or background information to add depth. This activity steals away time from production, yes, but it gives me something solid to grade, and it motivates staffers to meet deadlines. It is also VERY valuable for feedback. We never accidently use the same photo on two spreads, nor do we seem to overuse the same people in stories. This has helped us catch these things because everybody sees what everybody else is doing. It’s not full proof, but we like it.

These are a few ideas that have helped our staffs, and though we’ll likely always deal with missed deadlines, at least we have a few methods in place for countering the damage.

Striking that Balance

One of my brighter ideas this year was scheduled workdays – Saturdays that yearbook staffers come in from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, about one per deadline, to try and get a ton of work finished without having to rush off to the next class. The other obvious advantage is that most everyone else is here too, so if a staffer is having trouble with transitions in a story, or writing captions on a page or finding more class dance photos, having the others here provides extra help. I figure if the newspaper staff has “late nights,” then yearbook should have “work Saturdays.”

Works pretty well, except that it’s difficult to make Saturday mandatory, when families have other ideas about how weekends should be spent. I try to stress to those who cannot be here on a workday, though, that the time needs to be made up, especially if they are behind on anything. Face it – this is yearbook – everyone is behind on something.

We had limited success with yesterday’s workday. Got our first page submission in – 27 pages, which should have been 37, and should have been a month ago. We are fall delivery, so I’m not in the same panic some of my peers would be in under these circumstances. And we’re in better shape than last year, but that was such a mess that it’s not much of a standard to measure against.

As I think on where we are now and how at this point in the year things really begin to move at a higher rate of speed, I begin to get that uneasy feeling. My three editors know it well too. The only three returners, besides a photographer who isn’t with us this block because of scheduling issues, remember what it was like to worry over staffers not doing their jobs second semester last year, and they remember working through summer with last year’s editor to complete unfinished work.

This is where it gets sticky for them as leaders and for me as adviser. I really need to have an uncomfortable staff meeting Monday. I need to hold those who are behind accountable and make them come in during Encore until their work is caught up. But a couple of issues complicate things. Some of the work that is behind is the fault of staffers who left us at the semester. Who do I hold accountable for those spreads? And here’s the clincher for me – if I get too cranky NO ONE WILL WANT TO BE ON YEARBOOK STAFF.  It’s so hard to strike that balance. Yearbook is supposed to be fun, but it’s hard work. When the kids get behind, because they have some fun in class or because it’s uncomfortable to talk to people they don’t know, or someone else was supposed to get the pictures, write the story, talk to someone, I have to hold them accountable, and it ceases to be fun. Then they just have to go talk to a counselor and get their schedule changed. Or they simply don’t come back next year and yearbook gets a reputation for being hard and run by a demanding crankster.

The best I can do, for the book, for me, and ultimately for them, is to calmly hold them accountable. We’ll have that meeting. I’ll show them where we stand and tell them what I expect:

“We got 75 percent of our deadline met one month late. That’s not acceptable. We have new deadlines in addition to completing old deadlines. That requires extra time.  When you signed on, I told you this was hard, but fun. You signed a contract, an agreement to finish on time. Things get much busier from this point on. While you are working on these late assignments, you will also be covering the current assignments, keeping them from getting behind. Once we have finished these delayed assignments and met our next deadline, we will celebrate.”

It’s all about striking a balance.