October 14, 2009 / Staff Management

Conventions are wonderful experiences for many yearbook staffs

Written by Becka Cremer

In 1991, Ronna Sparks-Woodward attended a journalism convention in Chicago as a senior in high school. Thirteen years later, she returned to Chicago for another convention, but with her own students in tow.

“They stayed in the exact hotel and felt the exact same way I felt,” Sparks-Woodward, the yearbook adviser at Liberty High School in Liberty, Mo., said. “It was amazing to see: I was there, and look where I am. They are here and look where they’re going.”

High school yearbook staff members get so caught up in finishing a page, writing a caption or finding a photo for a spread that they have a hard time taking in the bigger picture of journalism as a whole, Sparks-Woodward said. National scholastic journalism conventions, such as the one in Washington, D.C., this November, allow them to see what they do in a much larger perspective.

“It’s not one little niche in one little room in one little high school. They see that they can do this in college, that this is a profession,” Sparks-Woodward said. “They’re around people who love what they love. It drives home the fact that they’re a part of something big and that more people value what they do than just them.”

Tim Spitsberg, the yearbook adviser at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Ill., takes his students to national conventions for much the same reason.

“My kids are at a humongous high school. On distribution day, if they hear anything about the book, they hear complaints. No one really understands what they do,” Spitsberg said. “They go to this conference with thousands and thousands of kids. They come back knowing they’re not strange. They’re not fumbling in anonymity. They’re not alone. They get inspired and they come back feeling more normal, more connected.”

As beneficial as national conventions can be for your students and your school’s journalism program, taking students across the country can be stressful.

“The first couple of times are difficult,” Sparks-Woodward said. “But it gets easier. You work out a pattern.”

conventionsYou do not have to figure out that pattern on your own. Sparks-Woodward, Spitsberg and other advisers who have taken students to national conventions offer several tips:

1. Communicate with parents

“First and foremost needs to be communication with parents,” Sparks-Woodward said. “You’re taking their kid halfway across the continent most of the time.”

Sparks-Woodward relays information about conventions to parents as soon as she has it. For example, her students’ parents knew about this fall’s Washington, D.C., trip about a year and a half ago. This helps students and parents prepare for the trip and, most importantly, include the trip in the family’s financial plans.

2. Take students you trust

You do not have to take every student who wants to attend each convention.

“It’s really important to take kids who are really into yearbook and will be back the next year,” Melissa Falkowski, the yearbook adviser at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., said. She cautions against taking students who look at the trip as just a vacation.

Falkowski limits herself to 10 students per chaperone (JEA/NSPA convention rules require a sponsor for every 12 students). If too many students want to attend a convention, Falkowski usually gives priority to students she expects will be editors the following year. Taking students who are interested in becoming editors serves two purposes. First, Falkowski knows these students will have a chance to use the information they gather at the convention. Secondly, these students are more likely to behave appropriately on the trip.

“If you take good kids, you won’t have to constantly worry about where they are,” Falkowski said. “If you do have to worry about where they are, they probably weren’t the right kids to take with you.”

3. Make reservations early

Whether it is for flights or hotels, tours or restaurants, once you know how many students you are taking, decide what you want to do and make reservations.

“Don’t wait for the deadline. Everything fills up fast,” Sparks-Woodward said.

Consider booking flights through a travel agent to reduce stress. Sparks-Woodward said she used a travel agent the first few times she traveled with students. This was an added expense, but it was worth it to know she had her bases covered, she said.

4. Have a firm itinerary

Once you know when you will arrive and depart, figure out what you will do in between. Mike Tyler, the yearbook adviser at Saratoga High School in Saratoga, Calif., suggests having a full agenda and keeping students busy.

“I think I’ve learned that it has to be planned to the nth degree. I keep a notebook with everything in it, contact information, schedule, stuff like that,” Tyler said. “The area where I’ve had trouble is arranging enough activities. How much of the conference do you do? How much do you see the things the particular city has to offer? It’s a fine balance.”

Tyler said he thinks it is important to spend some time sightseeing, and that planning that time well is key in having a successful trip. Falkowski agreed.

The first few times she took kids on a trip, Falkowski said, they’d be sightseeing and she’d ask her students where they wanted to go. They frequently had a hard time agreeing on what to do. Now, Falkowski takes suggestions from students before she plans the trip, then sets a non-negotiable itinerary.

Falkowski builds homework time into her schedule. Students who do not have homework to complete can use this time to rest.

In setting the itinerary, be clear about when students are expected to be in their hotel rooms and have the lights out. According to its website, JEA/NSPA sets the curfew for students in the convention hotels in Washington, D.C., at midnight, but many advisers expect their students to be in for the night earlier than that. Be sure to communicate expectations clearly and to enforce the curfew you set.

5. Schedule an all-staff meeting

Include an all-staff meeting in your agenda. Many advisers choose to meet with their staff the evening before the convention begins to brief students on what to expect and to help students figure out what sessions to attend.

When your school checks in with the convention staff, each student receives a booklet that describes the sessions available during each time slot.

“Make sure the kids are spreading themselves out and not going to the same types of classes or all going to the same class,” Falkowski said. “Send kids to different classes so your staff gets the most out of the convention.”

When he meets with his staff, Spitsberg encourages his students to visit the “trade show” area.

“The room where the schools and publishers set up is an amazing resource,” Spitsberg said. “It’s a way to get kids excited about what they do.”

Spitsberg calls the room the “carnival,” and suggests that students check out the booths early. “Don’t miss that before it’s gone,” he said.

6. Use what your students learn

Tim Spitsberg approaches scheduling during the convention loosely. He allows his students to set their own schedules, but requires they attend a certain number of sessions each day.

“If you don’t give your kids specific assignments, you can expect that they won’t be getting as much out of it,” Spitsberg said. “Given the choice between classes and the pool, a lot of kids will choose the pool.”

To keep tabs on her students and make sure they are attending convention sessions, Sparks-Woodward has her students fill out assignment sheets or take notes during each session they attend. She asks for information about what they learned in the session and requires her students to reflect on how they can use it in the yearbook.

“They have to turn something in that proves they were where they said they’d be,” Sparks-Woodward said.

Spitsberg sets aside three or four days of class time after the trip for his students to reflect on what they learned at the convention and how they can use that information. Spitsberg finds that this time helps reenergize his staff.

7. Remember to relax

“You can’t control it all,” Spitsberg said. “You probably shouldn’t even try. Plan in your fun, but expect a little chaos.”

Sparks-Woodward agreed with Spitsberg and said that the chaos encountered on trips to national high school journalism conventions is worth it.

“It’s worth the stress and the pressure and everything you go through to go on these trips,” Sparks-Woodward said. “I’ve been on so many trips and never have I thought ‘I wish we hadn’t gone.’ But the ones we missed I’ve thought, ‘Man, why didn’t we go?’”

Becka Cremer

Becka Cremer is a former yearbook adviser from Lawrence, Kansas. She now lives in Sacramento, California, where she works as a para educator and still rips pages out of magazines and collects advertisements because someday she'll need them for inspiration for some design or another.