September 29, 2004 / Fall 2004 / Staff Management

Aiming for the Middle Ground

Written by DeDe Dryer

So, you’re the adviser for a middle school yearbook. The hardware and the software may be identical to what your compatriots are using at the home town high school, but you know the students enrolled in that high school program down the street or across town are dramatically different from the 11- to 15-year olds populating your middle or junior high school class.

We all want a quality book that the student body will enjoy and the yearbook class will show off with pride. But how do we do that and come in under budget, ensure the book is truly the kids’ work, and not tear out all of our quickly graying hair by the roots? The key is to keep in mind the unique characteristics of the middle school student – and to design your program with these in mind.

Students in your program may or may not already know each other and may or may not span multiple grade levels. But in any case, you want your group to feel they are part of a team that is working together toward a common goal. Games that allow students to introduce themselves to each other and find common ground are fun and will help you get to know your students quickly as well.

Once your team is established, use the entire team to make the most important decisions, such as theme, cover layout, fonts, and colors. Smaller groups or individuals may present the ideas, but let everyone have a say on the final decisions. Brainstorming works great initially. If students are allowed to make negative or positive comments during this stage, everyone will feel his or her ideas have been considered. Pare down these ideas by various voting processes, including each student voting five times or, as the list whittles down, giving students two votes – two hands up for their first choice and one vote for their second choice. Once you have the list down to a few, open the discussion and make sure students get an opportunity to hear all the pros and cons. Wait a day to take final votes. This will take some of the emotion out of it. Even though this kind of decision-making is time-consuming, it will pay off in the end when everyone is fully committed to the final outcome.

Ultimately you are still the boss. And you can do this without alienating the kids. Be very clear right from the start about what students are allowed to do during their down time. The rhythm of the yearbook class will match that of a real newsroom – times of great intensity juxtaposed with times when there is “nothing to do.” Whether students use this time as a study hall or whether you allow them to play games and just hang out – set the standards clearly for issues like noise and activity level and under what circumstances students can leave the room. When it comes to budget concerns, limit students’ choices up front. If you cannot afford foil, do not give it to them as a choice. If you are not going to deal with personal ads at the middle school level, tell the kids that it is reserved for high schoolers. When it comes to censorship/good taste issues, blame it on the administration or, even more vaguely, on the district. This takes you out of the bad-guy role and allows you to continue to be part of the team.

Whether or not you have a journalism background, you can still teach your students newsroom skills. Familiarize them with correct terminology such as copy, cropping, feature story,editorializing, and censorship. At the same time, introduce them to a yearbook style sheet of your own making. This can include information such as how teachers should be named (with or without a title; with or without their first names), what kinds of photos require a caption and which do not, and whether copy in the yearbook will be limited to third person. Consistency will be less of a problem in the book if everyone understands what is expected from the beginning. Subscribe to the local newspaper and/or a teen news publication so students can see what professional publications look like and sound like. During “down times,” you can read and discuss these as a class.

Middle schoolers do best when working in small groups of two or three. Allow students to select their own group members and to have a say in what page or section they are assigned. At the middle school level, most students will self-select same-gender groups, and these will be the most productive. Allow them to divvy up the work on their own. But make them responsible for all the elements of their particular assignment – photos, layout, cropping, and copy. Be flexible enough to allow the occasional student who can only work alone to have that opportunity.

You probably have already figured this one out. Whatever the real deadline is, give your students a shorter deadline. This gives you time to extend their deadline when necessary and to do the clean up work that is part of the job when your yearbook staff is made up of adolescents. If you do some of the tweaking the first time around, everyone will feel less pressure when the proof pages come back.

At the middle school level, providing students with opportunities to feel connected is of great importance. For some students, being part of the yearbook program may be the main reason they come to school. Making a close connection with an adult (you!) can also be highly meaningful to a middle schooler. Provide students with press passes, yearbook staff pins and the like. Deadline parties are always great fun. Start out with a small reward and increase the party elements as the deadlines pass. Attending an off -campus end-of-the-year banquet always makes the kids feel special and grown-up. And the payoff will be a fun year for you, too.

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DeDe Dryer