September 28, 2008 / Fall 2008 / Staff Management

How to teach yearbook

Written by Christina Vettraino

Learn how to acquire yearbook expertise and teach yearbook as an academic subject.

You are probably thinking this right now: You want me to actually teach yearbook? As if I didn’t have enough going on already — surly parents calling to complain, administrators wanting to “check” the yearbook spreads, computers that constantly crash, and a digital camera that now gives an error message whenever we need it most. The handouts from the last adviser seem to work just fine. Besides, I barely have time to get the yearbook done, let alone update the materials and try to teach the kids anything about yearbook or journalism.

However, consider the following: how much time do you waste writing the same corrections on every spread? How many deadlines do you find yourself doing the work for the kids, because you do not trust them or because they have not learned how to properly use the software?

By neglecting to set standards or teach your yearbook students what they are expected to do, you simply create more work and anxiety for yourself. If you were a math teacher, you would not expect the kids to read the textbook and teach themselves about algorithms, right? Or, if you taught history, you would not stop at the Vietnam War, just because you did not have time to update your lesson plans. The same principles should apply to teaching yearbook.

With yearbook production, there is never a quick fix: the solution I recommend means more work for you at the start, but as time goes on, you will undoubtedly reap the benefits. Make time to teach your new staffers about design, writing and photography, as well as how to use the computer programs and cameras.

For the past five years, I have spent a month teaching my new staffers the yearbook basics; as a result, my workload has gradually decreased to the point where I barely find any corrections on my students’ final layouts, because the editors, knowing my expectations, have done all the editing themselves.

For this to happen at your school, you must educate yourself about yearbook and then devote time at the beginning of the year to thoroughly train your staff — it will make your job much easier in the long run, and it will transform your yearbook into a professional, eye-catching publication.

Where can I learn what to include in a yearbook curriculum?
You might be surprised to learn that there are specific, regimented rules for yearbook design, writing and photography that you need to be acquainted with and follow. At the same time, you must know that the award-winning yearbooks emulate magazines, which means that yearbook design, writing, and photography trends evolve with the changes seen in periodicals. In other words, a yearbook curriculum should not only teach the concrete rules of journalism and yearbook production, but also should challenge students to break the rules and innovate.

Whether you are a new teacher with no journalism background or a veteran teacher looking to augment your yearbook knowledge, your best bet is to first contact your local scholastic journalism association. The Journalism Education Association (JEA) offers a list of associations by state on its website at Often, a college of journalism runs your state association; look to see if it offers week-long summer courses for yearbook advisers. Taking a course is the absolute best way to boost your yearbook knowledge and learn new yearbook teaching methods.

The next step would be to attend local and national journalism conferences. Statewide associations normally set up conferences where advisers and students attend seminars with topics ranging from the basics of yearbook production to improving photography to yearbook trend reports. Similarly, national conventions, sponsored by JEA and the National Scholastic Press Association, at, or by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, at, bring together thousands of students and advisers from across the country to learn from the talented, award-winning yearbook advisers who present there.

If you cannot take a course or get to a conference, the easiest way to teach yourself would be to study The Yearbook Suite, which is the yearbook curriculum guide offered by Walsworth Publishing Company. The Yearbook Suite is an invaluable resource that covers everything you need to know about yearbooks and even offers CDs with handouts, activities and assessments.

Take some time on deadline nights when you are waiting for the kids to finish their spreads to peruse this resource and the others on the recommended reading list.

What materials do I need?
Unfortunately, there are no yearbook textbooks. In place of a textbook, I give my new students a binder of handouts that I have either created or copied from another source, and I update this binder yearly with new handouts and better resources. Here are some places to find material for your binder:

* Conference handouts
* Anything from The Yearbook Suite
* Articles from Communication: Journalism Education Today (published by JEA) and Idea File magazine, published by Walsworth
* Pages from books on photography, writing, or design
* Award-winning yearbooks (photocopy their layouts and body copy to use as examples)

If you plan on teaching your students graphic design, you will also need to order paste-up layout sheets and pica rulers from your Walsworth yearbook sales representative.

What should I teach my staff?
At the minimum, new students need to learn how to use your desktop publishing program or online program and the cameras. If you have two weeks, devote one week to teaching photography and another to writing copy. With even more time available, add in lessons on creating yearbook designs by hand using the pasteup layouts, and then have them make the same layouts using your computer software. Determine what you think is important to cover, and find or make handouts to fill the binder and use in your lesson plans.

No idea how to start? I have a 30-day unit plan that I use to teach my staff the yearbook basics. Alter the plan as necessary to fit your beginning-of-the-year schedule and the needs of your staff!

During this unit, students are working on homework or a project every night, and they even take a test at the end. Each project has a specific rubric that I use for assessment of student progress. It is a whirlwind month for them, and also for me, but by setting high expectations at the beginning, I effectively prove to my staffers that yearbook is not a “blow-off” class as they assumed.

Why should I do all of this? It is a lot of work!
When you treat yearbook as an academic subject, students will take it seriously. Yes, it is a lot of work at the beginning, and yes, it will take up much of your time, but when you start winning awards and when students and parents praise the yearbook instead of criticize, you will know that it was worth it.

Do not expect to become a yearbook expert at once; by continually challenging yourself to take classes, read the journalism magazines, and attend conferences, you will gradually build up your yearbook knowledge and confidence.

30-day Unit Plan

Week 1: Introductions and basic design

  • Day 1: Icebreakers
  • Day 2: Notes on basic yearbook terminology
  • Day 3: Examine popular magazines to determine what is “good” graphic design; Homework: Find a double-page spread from a magazine and write a paragraph describing why it is good design.
  • Day 4: Share homework; learn four-column design; Homework: Create pencil 4-column design

Week 2-3: Designing layouts

  • Day 5: Learn grid design; Homework: Create pencil grid design
  • Day 6: Learn modular design; Homework: Create pencil modular design
  • Day 7: Learn about fonts; start paste-up project (students find pictures and text from magazines to create dummy layouts)
  • Day 8: Work on paste-up in class
  • Day 9: Paste-up due; share designs with class for critiques
  • Day 10: Learn how to use InDesign
  • Day 11-13: Work on InDesign project (students recreate their paste-up using InDesign, placing dummy copy and photos)
  • Day 14: InDesign project due; share layout with class for critique

Week 4: Copy and photography

  • Day 15: Examine sample body copy from award-winning yearbooks and discuss; take notes on writing body copy; Homework: Read the yearbook chapter from Bobby Hawthorne’s The Radical Write and brainstorm angle for body copy on summer vacation.
  • Day 16: Discuss chapter and angles; work on writing copy
  • Day 17: Peer revision of body copy
  • Day 18: Body copy due; notes on headlines and captions; Homework: Write captions
  • Day 19: Learn the photography basics and rules of photo composition

Week 5-6: Photography and wrap-up

  • Day 20: Editors teach staff how to use cameras; students take cameras in groups to practice photography in different locations in the school
  • Day 21: Learn how to load digital pictures onto the network and to use Photoshop
  • Day 22: Photography assignment: determine an angle and create a spread complete with copy and photos
  • Day 23-26: Work on project
  • Day 27: Yearbook unit test
  • Day 28-30: New staffers brainstorm an angle and create a sidebar for the People section as their first real assignment.

These last days are flexible, because I usually end up spending more time on a topic if students need more guidance.

  • Jim Brzez

    My daughter just finished her Freshman year in high school on her Yearbook Team. 2 years in Middle School prepped her well for high school. So much so her high school is sending her (only freshamn) to a Yearbook Camp at MSU this summer (and paying for the whole thing). The Yearbook Publisher couldn’t believe her mods and keeps asking if she is only a freshman. She really loves doing layout & mods. What type of academic direction (what major) should we be looking for regarding her future? Journalism (any particular minor)? Marketing?

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  • Teresa O’Shea

    Thank you for posting this info! It will be very helpful with my planning for my new elective course: yearbook (which I’ve never taught before).

Christina Vettraino
Christina Vettraino

Christina is the former adviser of the Gladiator yearbook at Troy High School in Troy, Michigan. During her time as adviser, the yearbook was honored with the Spartan Award from the Michigan Scholastic Press Association, a Gold Medalist ranking from CSPA and an All-American ranking from NSPA.