Advisers of Note: Meet Ronna Sparks-Woodward
Written by Jim Jordan
Ronna Sparks-Woodward loves yearbooks. She knew while she was still in high school that she wanted to be a teacher, and specifically that she wanted to be a yearbook adviser. She turned her passion for a yearbooks into a career, and clearly loves what she does. In addition to this blog post, you can hear her podcast interview on “Yearbook Chat with Jim,” too.
Ronna Sparks-Woodward, Liberty North High School, Liberty, Missouri
High school attended: Carthage High School, Carthage, Missouri. Graduated in 1992.
College Attended: Undergrad: Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Missouri, Grad: University of Missouri-Columbia
Did you participate in journalism in high school? I was on the yearbook staff my junior and senior years and the Editor-in-chief my senior year.
Did you participate in journalism in college? In college, I was on the magazine for a semester and I wrote for the newspaper, The Chart, for three years. My last year I was the Campus editor. My sophomore year I took a class called Newswriting from Dr. Chad Stebbins at Missouri Southern, and it changed the way I wrote everything I did. In that class, I learned to examine every single paragraph, then every single sentence, then every single word. Then do it over again. Two years later I took Copywriting from Stebbins, and then I learned to edit further, to really delve deeply into editing, punctuation and grammar, to verify every single fact, every single spelling, every single word. Those classes shaped me and took me from a writer to a journalist.
Were you ever a professional journalist? – I was never a professional journalist, and I did photography in my free time but never as a profession. Honestly, our college paper ran like a professional paper, and while I sometimes feel like I should have gone out into the world and written professionally, I haven’t done that yet. But there’s always time!
Interesting fact: The only photography class I could take at Missouri Southern that fit into my schedule was a crime scene photography class, so I learned how to photograph crime scenes, murder investigations, etc.
What were you doing before you became a teacher and a yearbook adviser. I was a college student. I went to college knowing I wanted to teach English and advise journalism, so I got my degree in Secondary Education with an emphasis in teaching English, and I took the extra classes I needed to be certified to teach journalism. They didn’t have a specific degree, so I contacted the Missouri Department of Education and got the list of the specific classes I would need to be certified in journalism and took them. There were several classes that the college didn’t offer, but one of my professors let me work out several independent studies that fulfilled those classes.
I did my junior internship and student teaching at Joplin High School, and they were looking for a journalism teacher, so I basically walked right into the newspaper adviser job, and the women who were advising the yearbook worked with me my first year/their last year, and then I took over advising yearbook. I had a co-adviser at Joplin, Phyllis Dolence, who is a grammar guru, and I learned so much from her.
Size of your book: 8
Number of pages in your book in 2020: 336
Projected number of pages in your book in 2021: 304 with a 20 page supplement
Online or InDesign? InDesign
Delivery: SPRING, YAY!!
Student Population: 2,168
Number sold in 2020: around 1,400; 1,329 were sold in January, then more were sold at distribution
Awards for the 2019 and 2020 book:
2019: All-Missouri from the Missouri Interscholastic Press Association, Pacemaker Finalist from NSPA, and Gold Crown from CSPA
2020: Silver Crown from CSPA
Number of books you have advised at Liberty North including the 2021? 11
Other schools you have taught and/or advised at? What years? Awards at previous school? Joplin High School from 1998-2003; Liberty High School from 2004-2010; almost all were All-Missouri and All-Americans from NSPA and Gold Medals from CSPA, and the last book I advised there, the 2010 edition, received a Pacemaker.
Other classes you teach at Liberty North: Photojournalism and Advanced Publications
How and why did you decide to go into teaching? I knew I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. My grandpa was a teacher turned VoTech Administrator turned High School Principal turned Assistant Superintendent, so I grew up with education in my blood.
I decided on high school English and Journalism because I had some amazing teachers who had a big impact on me.
I knew I wanted to do high school journalism when I was a senior and Editor-in-chief. We’d never gone to any national conventions before but, my senior year, our adviser took us to NSPA in Chicago in 1991. I remember being surrounded by other high school students who were as passionate about yearbook as I was, and I thought, “Wow, there’s a whole life here beyond just yearbook in a tiny town in Southwest Missouri. I can actually do this for a living!” I wanted a job where I could impact people the way my teachers impacted me, and I loved yearbook so much that I wanted to do it forever. So, here I am!
How and why did you first get involved with scholastic journalism?
My freshman year (our freshmen were in the middle school), some yearbook students came to recruit, and I was too terrified to apply. I was a mousy, scared, shy, angry teenager with coke-bottle glasses. In my sophomore year, I got contacts and I grew up a lot, and applied at the end of my sophomore year for yearbook and got on.
What were the circumstances around you becoming an adviser?
I went to college knowing I wanted to be an adviser, so I spent my time there doing everything I could to learn and hone my craft and fell more in love with journalism as I went. I graduated with the journalism certification, which, honestly, isn’t easy to do since it required specialized classes, so I had quite a few districts interested in hiring me, but I loved my student teaching experience at Joplin High School. And I didn’t like change back then, so I just kind of stayed there.
What was the most difficult part of your first year advising?
I was SO young. I was 22, and I had several students who were only three or four years younger than me. And I knew HOW to do journalism, but I didn’t know how to TEACH journalism. I had the writing craft down, but how do you organize a publication? Figuring out how to organize all of the different pieces was the hardest part then, but it’s one of my favorite parts now.
And I really struggled with class management, discipline, etc. I taught basic English and newspaper and yearbook, so I had struggling students in several classes and then the best students in other classes. Going back and forth was difficult the first year. But then I found out that I liked the polarization; I liked working with all types of students.
Like I said, I was so young and, honestly, dumb. I had a lot of enthusiasm and excitement, and I could come up with some really cool lessons, but I struggled with the English content. Yearbook and Newspaper were what kept me motivated because I KNEW I was good at that even though I struggled in my English classes. But my kids struggled, too, so we got through it together.
What made you want to come back for year two?
I didn’t even think about not coming back. I’d always thought this was what I was going to do, so there wasn’t a question of not coming back. I taught summer school in June and July and then did journalism camps in August, so it really all ran together anyway.
My first year was difficult, but I had a great support system, and I knew I could do better, so that was another motivation to continue.
What advice would you give to a first-year adviser?
Oh, man… where to start?
The biggest thing I can say is that you can’t expect students to do what they don’t know and you can’t expect them do to something you haven’t asked them to do.
Teach them the parts of the whole first and then put it together.
Put everything they need to do on a checklist, rubric, or grading form. For the most part, kids will do what you ask them to do if you make sure they know how to do it and that they need to do it. Assign points to every little thing in the beginning. It’s a lot of work, but it’s easier to start that way and then ease off.
Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. You and your students MADE A BOOK. Who else in your building or district can say that? It’s an incredible feat no matter how big or small your school and book are.
Join JEA and use the resources. That’s probably the best advice I can give any adviser. Advising journalism is a lonely game because you’re the only or one of the only teachers in your building who is crazy enough to do this. There are thousands of advisers out there who are in close to the same situation you are, and most of us LOVE to talk about yearbook/journalism and collaborate with others. I’ve gotten the best advice from sending a question out the the JEA-listserv and having other advisers offer help and suggestions. Plus, the resources on the website, lesson plans, curriculum, etc, are wonderful.
Joining JEA is the best money I’ve spent in my entire teaching career.
You switched schools along the way. What were the circumstances and what new challenges did that bring?
My husband got a graduate degree in Defense and Strategic Studies, and there aren’t really counter-terrorism type jobs in southwest Missouri. We should be in the D.C. area, but while we like to visit D.C., the thought of living there was overwhelming. Plus, after September 11th, a lot of the jobs started moving away from that area. So, he found a job in the Kansas City area, which was perfect since it’s only three hours from our families.
Moving to Kansas City did require me to leave my beloved Joplin High School and my family, which was the most difficult thing I’d done to that point. I loved everything about JHS and living close to my family, and I was heartbroken for a few months.
But it was the best thing, in the end, that could have happened to me career-wise. In southwest Missouri, I was pretty alone with what I did and how devoted I was, but in the Kansas City area, there are some of the best yearbook advisers in the nation, and I had access to so many more opportunities.
Liberty Public Schools built a new high school, which opened in 2010, and I went from Liberty High School to Liberty North.
We opened the school with only about 300 students in grades 10 and 11. I’d always advised huge books at huge schools with more than 2,000 students in them, and then I was at Liberty North with a tiny student population with a small book. My son was also born prematurely in March of 2010 and didn’t get out of the NICU until July and we opened the new school in August. And I went part-time since our son had a lot of doctor and specialist appointments, so I was only there every other day.
It was a crazy experience as a parent of a newborn with severe health issues and a yearbook adviser in a new school that was less than a quarter the size of what I was used to.
But we learned so much that year. We had to figure out how to tell the entire story of the year and the school in a limited number of pages, so we took a new approach in our chronological coverage. Each week had a spread, and we covered about seven events on each spread: one in the main package, another in a side bar, and then we had a timeline on each spread for the week with a small amount of information about five events from the week. Sometimes the events were class activities, sometimes they were sports, sometimes they were club activities, others were random things.
Which meant my tried-and-true organization method had to be revisited and rethought.
I’d always wanted to advise at a small school and a small book, and those years that we were small were wonderful. Our staff was small, and the entire school felt like a family. Everyone knew everyone, and everything was new and exciting. Now we’re over 2,000 students again and growing. I’m still part time, but as a yearbook adviser, part time is really full time. I spend at least 40 hours a week working on yearbook and school stuff.
What were some of the factors that have led your success as an adviser over the years?
There are so many factors, it’s difficult to narrow it down.
My love for the content and my students is probably the biggest factor.
I love yearbook. That’s a little bit of an understatement. I’ll admit that I’m obsessed with yearbook and my job. I love what a yearbook does. I love its purpose. I love what it does for the school community. I love working with high school students. I’m meant to be in a classroom with high school students. The last few months of school last year were probably the most difficult of my entire teaching career because I missed seeing my students.
Even when my son was born prematurely in Baltimore, Maryland, (we adopted him at birth) in 2010 and I lived in Baltimore for two and a half months from March to May I cared about yearbook. I was halfway across the continent with a very, very sick 2-pound 2.3 ounce baby boy, and I still talked to my Editor-in-chief almost every day.
There’s nothing better in this job than sitting in my classroom surrounded by students who don’t necessarily have to be there but are there because they love what they do and they’re dedicated to the product and each other.
Sometimes I’ll pretend to be working on something, but actually, I’m sitting and listening to my students work. There are different conversations going all the time. Sure, there may be one about the latest TikTok dance or how to get their mom to bring them Starbucks, but most of the time I hear one student helping another with a headline, and then another conversation about how to cover a specific sport. There’s three staffers looking over a layout and offering suggestions while another is reading names while the people editor is checking the spelling, etc. It’s controlled chaos, and yearbook is at the center of it, and all feels right with the world.
Another factor is that I’ve been surrounded by brilliant people my entire career. I’m lucky to have other area advisers I work closely with that I can depend on. We bounce ideas off of each other, get each others’ opinions, our staffs work together, and they’re just all-around wonderful people who are my cheerleaders and champions. I’ve taught with teachers who were people, not people who just happened to be teachers, and they guided me through so many aspects of the craft. I’ve gone to hundreds of workshops taught by the best in the business, and I continue to find inspiration and motivation from them. I try to be a sponge and just absorb the brilliance all around me, and I know how lucky I am to be able to do that.
I’ve been lucky that I’ve had administrators who trust me and put the entire program in my students’ and my hands. They’ll support me if I ask, but they always leave it to my students and me to make decisions, handle crisis, determine content, etc.
The districts I’ve taught at are strong, especially Liberty, and my staff members come to me with very strong skills, so in most cases, I just have to work with them to hone and develop their craft from a journalistic standpoint.
The high schools I’ve taught at have faculty that continually support our mission and students. I’ve heard horror stories from other advisers of how they and their students are treated by faculty and administration, but at my school, other than a few issues here and there, our teachers, my colleagues, know my students want to do the best job they can and they respect what my staff tries to do. They’re so supportive of our program and are so helpful.
What has been your biggest challenge as an adviser?
I really struggle with work/life balance, and one of my biggest challenges is taking my work home with me. I think most teachers and advisers struggle with this, so it probably isn’t surprising. I don’t know how to turn my mind off when it comes to my job, and I find a lot of the time my family’s lives sort of revolve around yearbook, too. We plan vacations and trips around deadlines and workshops. My boys have grown up in my classrooms. For the first time ever, I actually took a break during our Winter break and did nothing directly yearbook related, and it was so difficult for me to keep from pulling out my laptop.
I learned a lot the spring my oldest son was born prematurely. My 2010 editor-in-chief was one of the first people I called when Isaiah was born weighing 2 pounds 2.3 ounces because I knew that I would be at his bedside in Baltimore, Maryland, and wouldn’t be at school for the rest of the school year starting the day Spring Break ended. I wanted to let her know she would be in charge but I would do as much as I could from halfway across the continent.
I did fly back for two days while my husband stayed with our son and got everything lined out, but other than those days, I was in Baltimore from March 14th until the end of May. The staff that year had to do the last deadline, four sets of proofs, and the entire supplement without me. I tried to work from his bedside, but I ended up frying two Apple laptops. The one I took with me crashed, and our technology department sent me another one, and the new one crashed the day I got it. It’s like God was telling me to let go.
So I let go and let them do it all. And, man, they did it ALL and did it so well.
That was the book that won the first NSPA Pacemaker in our school’s history. It was the proudest moment in my entire time advising. That editor-in-chief came to the NICU when our insurance flew us back to Kansas City and was the first non-family member that held my baby. She graduated 11 years ago, and we still talk. She’s getting married in August of 2022, and we’re traveling to Chicago for her wedding.
I also tend to be a bit of a control freak, so it was hard for me, in the beginning, to know that my success in my job is directly related to my students’ success. I could be the hardest working person in the world, but in the end, my students have to do the work and make it their book. I still find it so challenging to not try to take over, but my editorial board and I sit down every year and discuss what my role is. Some years they want me to be more hands on, others they want me to stand down, but every year, no matter how hands-on or -off my role is, they still run the show, make the decisions, determine coverage, etc. It’s very important to the program that it’s student ran. I like to think of us like a tree. I’m the trunk that gives them what they need to grow and mature as far as stability, structure, curriculum content, etc., and they just branch out and test themselves as they grow.
What has your 20-21 school schedule been? Did you start online or in person or a hybrid?
We’ve been very lucky. They let us meet for workshops over the summer as long as we were all masked and maintained six feet distance and any food I provided had to be individually packaged. We did the Gloria Shields Workshop, and in all the Zooms, we were all together in groups watching and conversing, which seemed to surprise a lot of people.
The district gave families the option to go all-virtual, and approximately 20 percent of our population chose to go virtual, so they enrolled in virtual-only classes, which specific teachers applied to teach. Students had to choose to go virtual or stay face-to-face, and once school started, they weren’t allowed to change, which made it very streamlined for all of us.
We started hybrid. A-K students were in school on Monday and Thursday, L-Z students were in school Tuesday and Friday. Wednesdays everyone is virtual. April 5, everyone came back every day except for Wednesdays, which remained virtual.
School districts around us went virtual after Thanksgiving through Christmas, etc., but we stayed face-to-face. We’ve had relatively low cases, and pretty much everyone was committed to staying as safe as possible. There haven’t really been any issues with kids not wearing masks, etc. It’s almost a non-issue because everyone accepts that if we want to have school, we have to wear masks, and we want to have school.
Have there been any changes as the year progressed?
To keep contact tracings easy and low, admin restricted our face-to-face interviews, which makes it really difficult. We interviewed by email and Zoom for a long time, but then kids just stopped emailing us back and not showing up to Zooms, so we resorted to sending out paper questionnaires. They actually worked better than I thought they would because students have more time to think about their answers, but we miss the spontaneity that face-to-face interviews provide and how you can delve deeper into topics. Administration assures us that the restrictions are temporary, though, and we’re hoping to be able to go back to face-to-face interviews for the most part next year.
How has your yearbook year gone so far?
Well, we’ve pretty much made every deadline, so from that standpoint, it’s gone well. Our theme isn’t as developed as usual, but I don’t think our student population will notice.
How has Covid-19 directly affected you and your staff?
I made the decision to not have any virtual students on the yearbook staff, and nine of the new staff members had decided to go fully virtual, so what should have been a 34 member staff ended up with 25 members. Then at second semester, three yearbook staff members went virtual, so we’re down to 22 staff members.
It’s been a lot more work for each student, and the returning staff members have had a lot of responsibility, but they’ve worked diligently and pretty consistently.
What have been your biggest challenges and how are you solving them?
The biggest challenge has been communication between staff members. We work in teams on spreads, and we’ve had to keep the teams pretty limited to groups on A-days and groups on B-days. I have one class called Advanced Pub that includes my section editors and a few returning staff members who couldn’t make the yearbook class work in their, so there’s a little overlap there. My EIC is an A-day student, so she Zoomed all the time, and we started second semester Zooming every day for our staff meeting, but that got old fast.
What new coverage ideas have you included in the book?
We did a spread about masks and another on gaming. We did one about making connections and used a Zoom screen as inspiration. We’ve had a relatively normal experience considering, so our yearbook still looks pretty traditional.
What words of encouragement can you offer to advisers around the country at this point in the year?
My words of encouragement will be the same as they always are because, as yearbook advisers, we still all do the job regardless of the circumstances. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Even if your publication is smaller than usual and different from what it usually is, this year is different from the usual. Even if you’ve missed deadlines or haven’t been able to include what you usually do, you’ve documented a year in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and your students have learned more skills this year than they ever have before.
Honestly, this whole experience has provided us with an opportunity to examine what we do and how we do it. Granted, almost everything has been reactionary, and we’re still in the middle of it, but once we look back and evaluate what we did, I think there will be some positive changes, at least in the way I run yearbook in the future.
Tell me about something in your life as an adviser that has made you proud. Or something that keeps you going when things get tough and frustrating.
SO many things have made me proud. One of my proudest moments was when my 2010 staff received a Pacemaker. That was the year my son was born prematurely, so I was gone from March through the end of the school year, and they did everything at the end of the year without me. I was available if they needed me, but I somehow crashed two Apple laptops in the span of a week due to a faulty power cord, so I wasn’t available to help much. The entire staff, led by my EIC, did the last deadline, proofed half of the book, and created the supplement all by themselves because the person they found to be my sub was basically just a warm body. I actually felt like I had done my job because they functioned without me, and they not only functioned, they won a Pacemaker!
I’m so fortunate that I have proud moments almost every day. My heart swells every day when I hear students talking about their writing, discussing the best picture to fit in the best space, offer help with layouts, get excited about coverage, and all the things that go into yearbook.
The other day I had a yearbook student burst into my room and say, “Good news! One of the women’s soccer players broke her collar bone at the first game, so we’ve got some great sidebar coverage! I mean, that’s horrible for her, and I feel bad for her, but it’s good news for us!” I LOVE it when my staffers and photojournalists think about yearbook outside of yearbook.
The best times are when we’re working at workshops, or Elite Weekends or getting critiques and my students are so excited to talk about what they’re doing that they just take over and run with it and talk over each other because they’re so proud of their own work and are so excited to get constructive criticism and improve. It means so much to me when other adults see my students’ gifts, talents and excitement and acknowledge it to them.
Pride = the smell of new yearbooks and seeing my students breathe in and sigh and say, “I love the smell of yearbooks.”
Things that keep me going when times get tough and frustrating is my students, past and present. I also have a folder that’s labeled “Need a boost?” which is full of letters, notes, personal invitations, etc., from past students, colleagues and administrators. Actually, after 25 years of advising, it’s practically taken over my bottom desk drawer. When times get tough, I reach in there and pull out a random letter or note and read it.
Tell a story that is indicative of your life as an adviser.
I’ve visited Disney World with high school journalism students but not my own children. I’ve been on more trips with the newspaper and broadcast adviser at my school than I have with my husband and family. I have a “cry closet” in my classroom, and I have students use it quite often for things that happen outside of yearbook. When they opened a new wing of our school, admin moved classes around, and I got the room that was supposed to be the preschool, so I have my own bathroom, a little kitchenette-type area and an outside door because the principal knows my students and I are at school all the time at odd hours.